DataCités: Data as a commons for Smart City

This article was originally published [in French] in La Gazette des Communes by Bruno Marzloff, sociologist and founder of Chronos, and Bertil de Fos, director of Chronos

The increase in data-based urban service today raises crucial questions regarding how this data is used and governed. A closer look at the application Waze may offer some answer to this. Arguably the most successful model of its kind, Waze is an emblematic example of a new generation of urban services.

This article introduces a series as part of DataCity exploration focusing on Data as a commons for the Smart City.

As a subsidiary of Google that produces data services for the smart city, Waze allows us to address crucial questions concerning data control. Fed by the world’s 200 million motorists who in turn benefit from a free, real-time service that predicts traffic flow, the application relies on the sheer number of its contributors to ensure accurate and up-to-date information. Its success nevertheless challenges the evolution of urban services in a digital age, and the fate of data that is meant to serve the public interest.

The mobile app does a lot more than adapting the car to the city. The company also collaborates with cities, helping the City of Boston for example maintain and regulate its traffic in real time, while allowing the City of Rio to use its data to coordinate the routes of garbage vehicles. The “Connected Citizen” program meanwhile lets cities consolidate the entirety of their information on movement and traffic in exchange for specific services to a geographic area. Swallowed up into the galaxy of urban services, the data flows into the larger indexing of the world by Google.

Waze mobile does a lot more than adapting the car to the city

Along with other entities of Google, Waze contributes to a database of urban movement called Flow, which is run by Google’s armed branch in cities, Sidewalk Labs.

Waze will soon by default become integrated into all Renault models, and continues to expand its dominance by promising to equip other manufacturers as well.

Together with a highway company, the firm is also currently equipping French tunnels with so-called beacons (sensors) that are meant to help overcome the limits of GPS. And although Waze asks for little in exchange from its users who can benefit from the many free smartphone services it provides, the application does declare that “users’ benefit may occasionally be sacrificed for monetary reasons”, justifying this as a way to finance the service through advertising. Clauses like this also allow the insurance company Allianz to offer reduced premiums, by simply monitoring the practices of policyholders through the surveillance conducted by Waze.

“Not all the data we collect actually belongs to us of course. It is normal that we share it”

These services seem truly astonishing! However, the hijacking of this mass data challenges the historical legitimacy of public stakeholders in their own space. It also questions the concept of public service, blurs the boundaries of private and public and challenges fundamental rules of economy and governance of the city. And while some speak of “the platform economy”, others prefer the term “invisible economy” to emphasize the hidden price society and individual users must pay for this apparently “free” service. Others like the French jurist and professor at Collège de France Alain Supiot even challenge political and institutional philosophy, by referring to this revolution as a “governance by numbers”.

“Not all the data we collect actually belongs to us of course. It is normal that we share it”, admits Julie Mossler, Brand and Global Marketing Officer of Waze at Autonomy conference (Paris, 2016). Her statement leaves us skeptical, but let us take her word for it. Nevertheless, the question of whether we are facing an issue of “data for the public interest” in light of digital law remains unresolved.

This tension between power and legitimacy is only heightened by the domination of private data services whose value is largely determined by the extent of their data collection

The stance also fails to address the perplexities of the dissemination of the data of 81% of users (in France). And what about the algorithms, which are given an almost sovereign control? No response.

Indeed, Waze’s services are based on public data and benefit from public space but are used for private purposes (both production and diffusion of these services). This tension between power and legitimacy is only heightened by the domination of private data services whose value is largely determined by the extent of their data collection — after all, the higher the number of interactions in a city system, the more encompassing a service can be. The means however that power is measured by the amount of information held by the operator; it’s de facto a power by numbers.

As a result, the public actor has lost control. Civil society, too, is caught between the incontestable benefits of these services and a growing uncertainty about the fate of its data. The power and control of private data services simultaneously reveal questions on several different fronts and offer little consolation. Is the alert being heard? Recent laws and regulations that were passed in reaction to violations caused by Uber or Airbnb in cities like Paris, London, Berlin, New York, and Seoul at least offer hope that municipal governments will step in and be vigilant towards these new types of services.

Data, the object of the digital era, should not be treated as an object of the industrial era, and even less as an object outside of the law.

But above all we should ask ourselves the following: are applications like Waze truly a solution for the struggles cities face? Even though it undeniably offers a comfort to users and also provides services to cities, Waze does not tackle the issue of congestion at its source. The application does nothing to reduce the amount of vehicles — a worsening plague for cities for decades now — but only marginally keeps the urban traffic from overflowing.

Therefore we must stop seeing magic in something that is only a palliative. Digital intelligence is neither inherently virtuous nor corrupt; however, as efficient as these technologies may be, we must continue to critically reflect upon the type of city we want. Nevertheless, the point here is not to criticize, but to use the example of Waze as an opportunity to discuss important questions and seek possible solutions regarding public interest and governance in light of urban digitalization.

Whatever came of our agency, of public service and public interest, or the common good? Have we forgotten about the government by the rule of law? Data, the object of the digital era, should not be treated as an object of the industrial era, and even less as an object outside of the law. It calls for discernment, and its use should not trump its value. On the contrary, it is the multiple historical contexts which lend data the power it has today in the first place. Nevertheless, its ethics, status and business model must align with public authority, and respect users who provide the data while meeting the expected quality of the services.

Digital citizens had introduced the right to Data as a Commons

We thought that open data would be the solution, but openness alone is not enough; it is merely a condition for maintaining the public interest. Hence also the emergence of terms such as “data of public interest” and of “public service of data” that are becoming enshrined in digital law, for instance in France with the “Digital Bill”.

However the rule of these laws does not extend to private data. Of course, that is not enough at all. Axelle Lemaire (then French Minister for Digital) had the audacity to launch an open call for proposition (using a Civic Tech platform) to challenge this “Digital Bill”. As a result digital citizens had introduced the right to Data as a Commons. Though dismissed by lawmakers for being at odds with culturally inherited concepts of property and the French law system, which thwarts the dynamics of reuse and sharing, the idea is still not lost.

These issues are being debated at a time when the smart city is pushing the boundaries of data services in all areas (mobility, energy, health, etc.) and more and more cities are switching from a centralized management to interactive models that involve multiple actors. Chronos and OuiShare aim to explore these topics through the DataCités program, which will bring together relevant stakeholders and publish the results under a Creative Commons license.

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Thanks to Bianca Pick for the translation.