A woman in a bus shelter in Barcelona, Spain, reads a video screen for information.
A woman in a bus shelter in Barcelona, Spain, reads a video screen for information.
A traveler checks information on a interactive digital screen at a smart bus stop in Barcelona, back in 2014. (David Ramos/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

How Barcelona is leading a new era of digital democracy

The city has launched several initiatives designed to leverage technology for the greater good—and set an example for others.

Sidewalk Talk Features
Nov 13 · 10 min read

By Philip Preville

One day back in March 2016, a Barcelona resident went online and — using the anonymous handle “Eiyeitis” — voiced an opinion about the city’s 010 telephone information service. In Spain, dialing 010 is like dialing 311 in North America: it’s a one-stop hotline for municipal information and service requests, everything from upcoming council meetings to uncollected curbside waste. The difference is that Spanish cities charge a fee to dial 010. In Barcelona’s case, it cost €0.37 to place the call and €0.09 per minute thereafter — and more if the call originated from outside the metropolitan area.

The 010 service fielded some 600,000 calls per year despite the cost, but the fee still perturbed Eiyeitis on equity grounds. “Many people want to follow city council’s activities,” said the online post (roughly translated from Catalan). “We call the operator but they don’t know anything and tell us to call 010, even though they know that call costs money. It is incomprehensible that citizens are being charged for wanting to know what city council is doing. This needs to be FIXED.”

If Eiyeitis’ post had appeared on Twitter or Facebook or Reddit, it likely would have been buried by the constant churn of commentary on countless other topics. But this particular thread took place on Decidim, Barcelona’s digital-democracy platform, and it was part of the city’s online consultations for its 2016–2019 Municipal Action Plan. In the eyes of Barcelona’s administration, Eiyeitis’ post wasn’t just a blip on the radar of public discourse — it was a proposal from a resident, and it had garnered more than 600 “likes.” That critical mass of support meant the proposal for a free 010 service was forwarded to council for consideration.

As it turned out, Eiyeitis’ proposal dovetailed nicely with a key priority of the Action Plan: “promote and improve communication channels with citizens.” It was approved and adopted as part of the plan, and one year later, on April 1, 2017, Barcelona’s 010 hotline became free of charge.

Decidim, which is Catalan for “we decide,” is just one of the ways that Barcelona has become a global leader of the smart city movement. The city has also built its own internet-of-things sensor network, called Sentilo, and is experimenting with a distributed-ledger technology known as DECODE to give residents greater control over their own data. These initiatives reflect a deliberate push by the city dating back to 2015, when Ada Colau was elected mayor, to harness the power of technology as a tool to improve democracy. At a time when cities and societies are increasingly wary about technology’s consequences, Barcelona is carefully leveraging it for the greater good — and setting an example for other cities to follow.

“Barcelona had already started down the smart-city path, and the new administration’s perspective was, we don’t want to stop it,” says Pau Balcells, Barcelona’s Program Manager for Technology and Digital Innovation. “We want to lead it.”

Decidim: Empowering local decisions

Colau became mayor as part of a new political movement called Barcelona en Comú, whose platform emphasized social justice, corruption-free government, and participatory democracy. When Colau took office, one of her top priorities was to reform the city’s digital and data-driven initiatives. In Barcelona, as elsewhere, there was a great deal of debate about the collection of personal data in the city and its potential impact on privacy and security.

Barcelona en Comú developed a code of ethics emphasizing the use of online forums and open data. Colau’s administration allocated €75 million annually to the city’s Digital Transformation Plan. It quickly created the position of Chief Technology and Innovation Officer and hired the academic and researcher Francesca Bria to the post. Balcells, an economist and project manager, joined shortly thereafter. (Bria stepped down this past June after four years on the job.)

“What we wanted was to use data to facilitate the services that city council provides, to make them better,” says Balcells. “And we wanted to change the relationship between technology and citizens, to ensure that democratic principles are part of that relationship.”

Decidim was the first concrete expression of those principles. Developed in concert with a number of public and private-sector partners, including the Open University of Catalonia and the Barcelona-based developers Codegram and aLabs, the Decidim platform made its debut for the 2016–2019 Municipal Action Plan. Roughly 40,000 residents participated in those consultations, generating a whopping 10,860 proposals from residents, of which 8,142 were approved and incorporated into the Action Plan.

Attendees of the October 2019 DecidimFest conference gather in seats.
Attendees of the October 2019 DecidimFest conference gather in seats.
People gather at the October 2019 DecidimFest, a conference to discuss the ongoing development of Decidim — and the future of digital democracy. (Ajuntament Barcelona / Flickr)

If those figures appear inflated — what kind of action plan includes more than 8,000 proposals? — it’s because they are, at least to a degree. The proposals have lots of overlap between them: many people suggested bike lane expansions, for example, or better tram connections. Decidim treats them independently, and each one that garners sufficient support (a threshold that changes depending upon the nature of the project and proposal in question) is forwarded to council for adoption.

This approach is arguably a feature of Decidim, not a bug: the fact that many individuals can propose similar initiatives, and each one of them can see “their” idea adopted, can only be good for civic engagement. So while the raw proposal numbers may not accurately reflect the contents of the Action Plan, they are an accurate indicator of democratic participation.

It helps that the decidim.barcelona website is simple to use: it provides a list of consultation topics, links to relevant reports from city staff, minutes from relevant council and committee meetings, and a searchable list of proposals. It’s a remarkable platform that takes the byzantine workings of any civic administration, sorts and collates them on an issue-by-issue basis, and provides instant and comprehensive online briefings on any civic initiative that has been funnelled through its processes.

Since Decidim’s original Action Plan consultations of 2016, the platform has hosted 39 more consultations, each on a matter before council, from the narrow fate of a neighborhood theatre to a broader heritage architecture strategy. While Decidim is not yet able to operate as a real-time complement alongside the city’s in-person council or committee meetings, the software is heading in that direction. The Decidim development team, in an emailed response to questions, wrote that “we hope Decidim Barcelona becomes a backbone for city council or committee meetings, extending them in time, space, and the types of actors and actions involved.”

In keeping with Barcelona’s desire to lead the smart cities movement, the Decidim software platform was developed as an open-source tool available free of charge (at decidim.org) to any city or organization that wants to use it. Dozens of cities around the world, including Helsinki and Mexico City, are among its early adopters.

Sentilo: A real-time sensor platform

While Decidim has thus far been the jewel of Barcelona’s digital innovation efforts, it is not the city’s sole focus. In addition to collecting ideas for the future of the city, Barcelona has also pushed to collect data that its municipal agencies can use to better address urban problems. Its approach has already paid substantial dividends. To name just a few:

  • The city has installed more than 1,100 LED street lights activated by motion sensors. The system allows the city to track which lights get turned on and for how long, and has reduced energy consumption for street lighting by 30 percent.
  • In city parks, Barcelona uses sensors to track rainfall, humidity, sunlight, wind velocity, and barometric pressure. The sensors are, in turn, linked to park irrigation valves, limiting their operation to need. The net result: a 25 percent increase in water conservation and cost savings of roughly €500,000 per year.
  • The city also monitors energy usage in public buildings and is able to use that data to conserve energy.

Much of that sensor data is handled by another of the city’s homemade, open-source software tools: an internet-of-things platform known as Sentilo, first developed back in 2011 when IoT was still in its infancy. As sensor systems began to proliferate for a variety of uses, they typically resulted in data “silos” tied to specific applications. Sentilo was developed to break down those barriers: it collects and manages all the sensor data, making it accessible across systems and more usable for apps.

“My boss called me in one day and said, ‘We need a sensor platform,’” recalls Jordi Cirera, a longtime civic employee who is now the director of Barcelona’s Knowledge Society Office. “I asked him what kind of sensor and he said, ‘All of them.’ I asked what protocol and he said, ‘All of them.’ I asked him how many sensors and he said, ‘Lots.’ ”

Cirera led the development of Sentilo with private-sector partners, including the Barcelona-based developer Opentrends. Sentilo can process up to 8,000 bits of sensor data per second, and the publicly available data from its sensor readings — from air quality to noise to energy consumption and beyond — can be accessed in real time via an interactive online map.

The primary use for Sentilo data is to improve municipal operations. For example, Barcelona plans to use Sentilo to monitor all the city’s waste management and cleaning services. The city’s vast network of public trash, recycling, and compost bins features QR codes that will be read every time waste is collected. Waste collection and cleaning happens to be the city’s largest tender, involving multiple contractors with their own vehicle fleets, and a total workforce of more than 4,000 people. Cirera estimates that the project will involve between 12 and 15 million sensor readings per day.

“By tracking fleets, we’ll know which streets have been cleaned and which have not,” he says. “We’ll know how much waste has been collected from each bin, and how much waste they’ll be bringing to the plant.”

Beyond municipal improvements, Sentilo has the potential to help make data a public asset available to anyone, by making some of its data available through the city’s Open Data portal. There, private-sector companies and individual entrepreneurs can access the data and use it to build their own innovations. (Not all of Sentilo’s datasets can be released as open data, due to privacy concerns.) The portal turns Sentilo from a mere sensor-reader to a tool that can empower citizens.

“We believe that city data is a common good and a public infrastructure like water, electricity, roads, and clean air,” wrote Francesca Bria, the city’s former Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer, in the Barcelona Digital City Plan 2015–2019. “Data should be openly accessible, helping the local tech companies and local production networks to build future data-driven and AI fuelled services and solutions that can create public value and social return.”

Three waste bins on the streets of Barcelona. These bins have sensors that alert city officials when they’ve been emptied.
Three waste bins on the streets of Barcelona. These bins have sensors that alert city officials when they’ve been emptied.
As part of the Sentilo system, Barcelona’s vast network of public trash, recycling, and compost bins features QR codes that will be read every time waste is collected. Such data can help the city know how much waste has been collected and will be heading to a processing plant. (Wiki Commons)

Standards: Balancing openness and privacy

If a city is going to treat data as public infrastructure in its own right, just as it does with water, waste, roads and transit, then data needs to have its own fully staffed department within the city’s administration. The European Union’s adoption in 2016 of the General Data Protection Regulation has changed the regulatory landscape in all its member countries, requiring the use of privacy-by-design principles and extending individual rights of data access, portability, and erasure. Accordingly, Barcelona has built a robust civic administration that includes a Municipal Data Office and a Chief Data Officer, whose job is to manage all the city’s urban data and ensure it meets standards of openness, security, and privacy.

Barcelona has also been in negotiations with its service providers to make sure data meets the new standards. The issue is one of data sovereignty: the ability to control and manage the sharing of data in the public interest. For example, Vodafone, which handles telecommunications and data services for Barcelona’s main transport agency, TMB, now provides the city with machine-readable data on mobility patterns every month, data the company previously kept to itself. In partnership with a local startup accelerator, Barcelona now offers prizes to startups and social entrepreneurs who use the data to create applications that solve urban problems.

Of course, making data more widely available increases the need to protect personal information. So the next step in data sovereignty is to give individual residents greater control over what data they share. To do that, Barcelona has turned to an open-source technology architecture called DECODE (short for “DEcentralized Citizen Owned Data Ecosystems”), a blockchain-style distributed-ledger system that records every data transaction using distributed “nodes” instead of a central database. DECODE allows individuals to share only the personal data they need to share, and allows them to see if that data has in turn been passed along to others.

Take Decidim as an example. It hasn’t been collecting any demographic data at all on its participants since it first started, due to concerns that it could lead to invasions of privacy. That’s why Eiyeitis was able to make an anonymous proposal — something that normally wouldn’t be acceptable at a public consultation. But now that it’s using DECODE, Decidim should be able to confirm a person’s existence — and residence in the city — in a way that protects personal privacy.

DECODE also means that the city can use Decidim to gather signatures for petitions, which has opened the door to more participatory democracy. With 3,750 signatures, residents can demand a council debate on a particular topic; with 15,000 signatures, they can demand a referendum. The city eventually envisions the widespread use of the DECODE app, a digital wallet that holds all citizen data — from basic demographic information to health, transport, and employment data — that citizens can release for any transaction that requires it.

That future might be some time away, but it would mark yet another step toward the ultimate goal of giving people the digital tools to create a better city themselves. “What we are really trying to do,” says Balcells, “is move from being a smart city to having smart citizens.”

Philip Preville is a writer based in the Toronto area.

Sidewalk Talk features are reported works focusing on innovations in planning, design, or technology that can help improve urban life. Follow Sidewalk Labs with our weekly newsletter and our podcast, “City of the Future.”

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Where technologists and urbanists discuss the future of cities.

Sidewalk Talk Features

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Reported stories focusing on innovations in technology, design, and planning that can help improve urban life.

Sidewalk Talk

Where technologists and urbanists discuss the future of cities.

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