LDW DataThinks: Rethinking data: a future vision for how cities could use commercial data in the public interest

Throughout this month, to celebrate London Data Week, LOTI will be publishing a series of think-pieces, ‘DataThinks’, written by experts working with data and artificial intelligence (AI), challenging data practitioners in London local government and beyond to think about data in new ways. The views expressed within each article are solely those of the authors.

Valentina Pavel is a Legal Researcher at the Ada Lovelace Institute and leads their Rethinking Data project, which you can find out more about here.

The frontpage of The Ada Lovelace Institute's 'Rethinking Data and Rebalancing Digital Power' Report - featuring two people painting a route into, or out of, a maze.

Read more about the ideas in this post by accessing The Ada Lovelace Institute’s full report, at https://www.adalovelaceinstitute.org/project/rethinking-data/

The big day is here! It’s January 2030 and today is the launch of a brand-new, public platform for city councils, researchers and citizen scientists, allowing them run data queries on issues that bring value to communities, such as public health, climate, pollution, traffic management, urban planning and other aspects of public policy.

A range of different companies are mandated to develop interfaces for making different datasets of public interest available. This requirement applies to large technology companies, transportation services, energy utilities and credit-rating agencies. Through a user friendly, intuitive and accessible dashboard, local authorities and the public can interrogate datasets and use insights to inform and support socially beneficial initiatives.

For example, anonymous and aggregated fitness and activity tracking data is released. This informs urban planning by local authorities (such as landscaping and green spaces), helps companies identify business opportunities and customise their services (such as identifying the most profitable areas for sports related services like sports massage, protein bars, physiotherapy), and helps people use the data to understand and improve their own health.

Public bodies can use datasets to shape policy and undertake research into social inequalities. People can interrogate the datasets to understand factors relevant to quality of life, such as which areas are greener, less polluted and more accessible.

The specifications and criteria for the platform (which companies are selected, which datasets are included, under which privacy and security rules and for what purpose) were all established through continuous public deliberation exercises. These were primarily driven and informed by representative and extensive People’s Panels in constant dialogue with authorities, policymakers and industry.

Important limitations have been agreed, such as not to use population-level insights for political or electoral campaigning. Clear controls for people to opt out from their data being included for certain purposes exist at every step of the way. Researchers and regulators have access to the platform, but also to what’s ‘under the hood’, so they can independently audit the datasets and the algorithmic parameters involved.

A set of predetermined privacy measures were embedded from the very start (as agreed by the People’s Panel) which established an important layer of protection. On top of this, the interface design that determines the interactions between people, companies and institutions was explicitly designed to allow secure, rapid, reliable and transparent data exchanges. For example, users have full oversight over how data about them contributes to certain datasets.

Throughout the project, determining what constitutes ‘societal benefit’ and ‘public interest’ was a priority. Access to the interface is accompanied by strict regulatory oversight and community engagement to ensure the delivery of actual benefit to individuals impacted, and annual evaluation assessments are conducted.

This initiative started as a pilot project back in 2024 and since then it has been thoughtfully scoped, iterated and tested by local authorities. This vast exercise is now leading up to the launch of a new tried-and-tested platform for cities, but it also importantly contributed to our understanding of the legal and institutional changes needed to reclaim control over data, and the ways data can be used for societal benefit.

Overall, the project challenged public bodies, regulators, policy makers, companies and individuals to think about fundamental issues of the digital commons, such as who gets to determine how data is made, what it means, and why it is used.

Returning the present day, this speculative scenario is one vision for the future of data and AI, in the context of cities. The Ada Lovelace Institute’s report Rethinking data and rebalancing power discusses four crosscutting areas for change in our digital ecosystems.

The scenario described above is rooted in one of the four pillars for transformative change discussed in the report: reclaiming control over data from dominant companies and rebalancing the power to make decisions about data to public institutions with civic engagement at a local and national level.

The infrastructures and policies imagined in this future vision for cities represent one way this could be achieved. Opening up access to data and digital resources held by companies and repurposing them for public interest goals, such as developing policies that consider insights and patterns from large-scale datasets, could be extremely beneficial for society. There are benefits in terms of the vast opportunities for innovative applications, but also for increasing scrutiny, accountability and oversight over how proprietary algorithms function, leading to a better understanding of their impact at the individual, collective and societal level.

Read more about the Ada Lovelace Institute’s proposed pathway to change in digital systems in our Rethinking data and rebalancing power report: https://www.adalovelaceinstitute.org/report/rethinking-data/

London Data Week

Valentina Pavel
13 July 2023 ·
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