A Right to the Digital City

A response to the Smart London ‘new deal for city data’ — Andrew Eland & Richard Pope

Summary

How to make London a smart city is, perhaps, the wrong question. A better question might be: how can London use digital tools to improve the lives of people who live, visit or work here?

1. Open standards, data and APIs

London depends on its infrastructure. The Tube supports up to 5 million journeys per day. The Thames Water Ring Main carries 0.3 gigalitres of drinking water a day. In the words of the Open Data Institute: data is as important as our road, railway and energy networks and should be treated as such.

Definitive data registries

The open data movement has begun to demonstrate the power of data, though has been hampered and shaped by the difficulty of liberating data from existing systems. Historically, open data efforts have taken the approach of publishing snapshots of data, generally in non-standard formats and to an ad-hoc schedule. There has been little coordination between boroughs. It is now time to move beyond this initial approach, which while necessary to gain traction initially, now hinders progress.

Evolving standards for open data

The nature of London local government means that any attempt to agree standards, from the aggregation of pollution sensor data to planning applications, will require the GLA and boroughs to work together.

From open data to open APIs

Definitive data registries are not enough on their own. Both data and shared services need to be made available through open APIs for others to build upon. This is common practice in the private sector and increasingly in government.

Improving public services using performance data

There is an opportunity to improve the performance of public services through near real-time analytics. This helps policy makers make better decisions, but also allows the public to participate in conversations about those decisions in new ways. Being clear and open about what data is collected and what purpose it is put to, will be critical for public trust. As such, data used for policy development and implementation should, whenever possible, be publicly available under an open license.

Recommendations

  • Create a cross discipline group, with representation from within local government and outside, to prioritise and develop the definition of open standards and APIs between London boroughs.
  • Run an ongoing open standards challenge to allow the public and technology companies to suggest open standards for adoption.
  • Build the processes, standards and tools to maintain critical, London wide, datasets as definitive registers.
  • Kickstart the move from open data to open APIs with a significant, impactful platform project on the scale of Ride Austin.

2. Designing for rights, accountability and trust

In their recent report, Doteveryone found people feel disempowered by a lack of transparency in how digital services operate and many people were unable to find out how their data is used.

Thinking beyond anonymity

Common sense suggests that once data has been aggregated (for example, the individual speeds of vehicles using a particular street turned into an average speed), or stripped of identifiable data (license plate numbers removed or obscured from a table of measured vehicle speeds), it may be considered anonymous; it can no longer be attributed to the behaviour of an individual.

Transparency and accountability

It is a requirement of a healthy society that people are able to trust the services they rely on, and that they have agency to fix things when they go wrong. It follows that any organisation seeking to make use of data needs to build and maintain the trust the of individuals represented by that data, and the society it serves.

Sensor technology

Modern communication standards, such as LoRa, provide a means of remotely collecting sensor data that’s economical in power and cost, aiding widespread deployment of long-lived devices. Advances in sensing techniques are also reducing cost in many domains allowing, for example, the cheap measurement of important air quality characteristics, such as particulate matter. Improvements in batteries and solar power increase sensor placement flexibility and longevity. Developments in the field of machine learning allow the estimation of human interaction metrics, such as pedestrian footfall and dwell time, from video recorded on low cost cameras.

Recommendations

  • Develop simple tools for Londoners to request the data held about them, and understand what data is used to make decisions that affect them.
  • Develop a governance process and supporting tools to allow Londoners to engage with and influence consent decisions for data use, with an emphasis on understandability through user research.
  • Develop legislation requiring transparency measures for sensors deployed in the public realm, including an open register of deployed sensors, and investment in privacy & ethics training for the officers involved.
  • Support the development by research institutions of differential privacy based techniques to protect London’s most sensitive and valuable data, reducing the barriers to use.
  • Embed the concept of algorithmic accountability into London’s regulations and procurement processes, following New York’s example.

3. Better services

The real opportunity of a digital city is better services that positively impact the lives of millions of Londoners — addressing the real issues facing London, from housing to air pollution.

Using service design to design London’s services

The principles of service design should be used to determine where improved use of data would have the most impact on the lives of Londoners. Building modern, theoretically generalisable, data infrastructure without the messiness of concrete, real world, use cases is unlikely to result in improved services or positive outcomes for Londoners. A service design led approach was pioneered in local government by the likes of FutureGov, Snook and DXW, is now the standard in the UK government sector and, increasingly being adopted worldwide from San Francisco to Ontario.

Building capability

To deliver on the potential of a truly digital city — to actually deploy better services — London will need to invest in the digital capability of the GLA, London Boroughs and the private sector.

Recommendations

Conclusion

Responding to emerging urban issues from gentrification to forced evictions & the privatisation of public space, the United Nations 2016 New Urban Agenda historically incorporated the concept of a “right to the city”: We share a vision of cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities.

About the authors

Andrew Eland is Director of Engineering for health at DeepMind, a London based artificial intelligence company. Richard Pope is COO at IF, a London based digital rights consultancy, and a fellow of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. This response was written in our capacity as Londoners. We’d like to thank Sarah Drinkwater and Sarah Gold for their extensive input.

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