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Data needs accountability: Here’s how it could happen

Fake news, “alternative facts” and filter bubbles – the data we consume and what we read and experience online shapes the way we view the world and the everyday decisions we make, big and small.

Leading Cities, a non-profit organization working for cohesion in smart cities, is advocating for more accountability around the veracity and integrity of data that appears online.

Renato De Castro, Ambassador for TM Forum’s Smart City Forum, recently talked to Professor Joaquin Rodriguez of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Leading Cities Co-ordinator, Barcelona about this idea.

“[Data] has two faces”, says Professor Rodriguez. “It’s a huge opportunity but it also represents huge risk – risks around social cohesion, democracy and more.”

He explains, “Through Leading Cities and in collaboration with other institutions we have been developing an idea about a public bank of data or a data broker. The idea is to imitate the idea of public banks. One of the biggest issues we are facing is about the quality of data. We have been working in order to guarantee fair access, quality and real data.”

The idea is to create a public agency that makes people and businesses — companies, city administration, universities, etc. — accountable for the information and data they put online.

Who protects us from our protector?

Rodriguez says, “Then the real challenge is…the idea of who protects us from our protector? This is a huge topic — when you create this kind of agency or public data bank you are giving the public administration huge power….Our idea is to create an independent institution through a public-private partnership with a totally independent board of directors.” He likens it to the way the BBC is run.

The idea draws in some ways on an existing initiative in Barcelona – the Anti Rumours project, which has been running since 2010. The campaign was designed by the City of Barcelona with the goal of combatting negative and unfounded rumors that have an adverse effect. The team works to identify negative and false rumors in the city and then share rigorous data and information to disprove them.

They might tackle something such as the idea that immigration is swamping the welfare or healthcare system, for example. This initiative has been interesting and successful, says Rodriguez but it can’t scale to match the “huge wave of data” we are now dealing with globally.

Keeping data honest

There are more questions than answers right now in this emerging area but it will be fascinating to see how the idea he puts forward develops.

Rodriguez didn’t specify yet exactly what might underpin the work such a body would do and at the scale required but it’s clear technology will have a large role to play. A number of debates and initiatives are underway about how we might keep data honest – from the use of public blockchains to data analytics and artificial intelligence.

Carl Piva, Head of the Smart City Forum at TM Forum, outlines some of the work we are doing that could help move this significant issue along. He says, “Data offers huge opportunities to cities and citizens. Over the last decade, the concept of platform business models has been extremely successful in the private sector and cities are platforms that power the greatest marketplaces on earth. Leading cities are now coming to terms with how to create, curate and use data to the advantage of their citizens and businesses. Developments in technology and society mean the time is right for data to become another utility in the city.”

TM Forum is running collaborative work around enabling the economy of data in cities and making the idea of city as a platform a reality. A key part of this will be tackling challenges such as trust, data sovereignty and more.

“In our City as a Platform and Data Economy work-stream, we are trying to solve the problem of how open data can be used by the broader ecosystem,” adds Piva. “The challenges raised by Professor Rodriguez are important to solve.”

Sign up to get involved in this collaborative work with global city leaders and technology companies or to keep up to date with the best practices and tools coming out of it.



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    Sarah is a freelance writer and editor with an interest in new technologies and how they impact our everyday lives.

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