Big data: threat or public good?
Responsible Innovation. Societal challenges and solutions
ICT is being used to facilitate urbanisation and enhance urban life. The City of Amsterdam is one of the Dutch cities experimenting with 'smart' streetlamps: these will have cameras, microphones, and sensors that can 'follow' citizens in the street and also perform a range of measurements (air quality, traffic congestion). Cities can also develop other ways to collect data from the behaviour of citizens. A city 'on remote control'?
Privacy and other issues around Big Data are urgent issues that politicians and policy makers are confronted by. It is also an extremely important topic for the public sector and the private as well. Professor Dirk Helbing, a very well known and imaginative expert in the field from Zürich, is warning about this trend. 'We really should be very critical when the public sector and the government are getting more control over citizens without them being in control themselves as well. Citizens give away their data and their control over it far too easily.'
Open and participatory
'What is wrong with trying to prevent unsafe, unhealthy or uncomfortable situations in the city? Nothing, but ethical questions arise when governments are trying to 'steer' or even manipulate citizens' behaviour – almost unnoticed. To avoid any risks it would be best if the systems that governments use are privacy-preserving but open: open source and democratically – bottom up – controlled. Such an approach will allow society to benefit from the use of big data instead of feeling threatened by it.' He contributes to this more responsible way of dealing with big data through the open platform Nervousnet. Helbing: 'It is a large-scale distributed research platform that will provide real-time social mining services as a public good. It is an open and participatory platform that will protect personal privacy and is designed to be collectively built by citizens for citizens. Users are provided with the freedom and incentives to share, collect and, at the same time, protect data in their digital environment in real-time. With this approach, social mining becomes a knowledge extraction service for the public good.'
Mutual trust in digital networks
Professor Tsjalling Swierstra, working at Maastricht University, has a background in philosophy as well as political science. He is leading a NWO-MVI project on smart cities. Swierstra: 'The warning Helbing issues is urgent. The promises of the smart cities concept are only true when government, businesses and citizens can trust each other. But that path is proving to be difficult. Abuse or commercial appropriation of the collected information is lurking. Our research will help to create the conditions under which parties can work together for an extended period of time. It is part of the NWO-MVI agenda for the top sector High Tech Systems and Materials (HTSM).'
Smart City. Image: Flickr Commons, Worklife Siemens
Public private partnership
As in all NWO-MVI projects public private partnership is also at the heart of Swierstra's project: societal stakeholders are deeply involved. Swierstra: 'We are very happy to collaborate in this project with Alliander. This is a large energy network company that not only has a huge knowledge about digital networks but is also motivated by an inspiring vision on how to reorganise the distribution of energy in a near future where citizens themselves will increasingly become co-producers of energy. As part of the smart solutions needed for this transition, they are working on a solution to the problem of how to design digital environments that can be trusted by citizens, in the sense that the platform allows them to keep control over their personal data. In close cooperation with their engineers and other stakeholders, we try to ensure that important values such as privacy, participation and ownership rights become part of the design of technology systems. We hope to help develop a certification tool, in the form of an app, that allows citizens to see on what ethical considerations these systems are based and how to participate in further development processes. An important socio-technical challenge here is to ensure that the tool remains up to date and follows the changes in the technological system over a longer period of time. Indeed, only by allowing citizens some degree of control over their data, over these platforms, and over the technologies behind them, will the smart city be able to live up to its promise of citizen empowerment, rather than the reverse situation becoming true. The results will also contribute to the shaping of conditions in other high-tech systems such as the Internet of Things and open data platforms.'
At the conference on 10 June in the morning Dirk Helbing will give an in-depth presentation about the 'dark side' of big data; Ger Baron, chief technology officer of the City of Amsterdam, will reflect upon his presentation and will elaborate on Amsterdam's policy. The two speakers will debate with each other and with the audience.