Written by Marc Aguilar Santiago
Putting their money where their mouth is?
19th February 2019
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Are cities putting their money where their mouth is? City councils are banding together to safeguard digital rights and tech sovereignty
In an age of fake news, online harassment and widespread privacy rights violations, what it is exactly that cities can do to protect their citizens?
To discuss these issues, the office of the Commissioner for Technology and Digital Innovation of the City of Barcelona organised a public conference on Ethical Digital Cities at the Ca l’Alier urban innovation hub on Wednesday 23 January, in collaboration with DSI4EU and the Eurocities network. The event included two round tables, 'Public Money = Public Code' and 'Cities Coalition for Digital Rights', with the goal of engaging local and international stakeholders in an open dialogue on the actions that European city councils can take to promote digital rights and tech sovereignty. In her opening speech, Gala Pin, the councillor for Participation and Districts, remarked on the importance of 'managing public money well and continuing to invest in open source code, not just for economic reasons, but also for governance models that ensure the digital rights of citizens'.
The first round table discussed how we can foster digital services based on open source code and standards and involve the local ecosystem in their development. The moderator of this round table was Esteve Almirall, a lecturer at ESADE. During this discussion, Xavier Roca, the director of the Barcelona City Council’s software development department, stressed his 'firm belief in open code'. Alexander Sander, from Free Software Foundation Europe, presented the successful case of the 'Public Money, Public Code' campaign, mainly focused on collaborating with other cities, authorities and communities, making software paid for with public money available to the public, boosting innovation and reducing public expenditure. Boris van Hoytema, from the Foundation for Public Code, explained the Foundation’s role in offering tools and resources so that open-source software developed by public administrations can be used by others. And Eduardo Romero, head of open-source software at Zaragoza city council, reminded everyone that there is a Spanish directive that requires open-source formats to be used, and stressed the importance of not only the political leadership being convinced of the value of open source, but also the technical staff in charge of implementing the software.
The role of cities and organisations in protecting digital rights
The 'Cities Coalition for Digital Rights' round table (which gathered representatives from the three cities behind the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights: Amsterdam, New York and Barcelona) reflected on the steps cities can take to protect the digital rights of their citizens and how the coalition can become a European and global benchmark.
Aik van Eemeren, from Amsterdam City Council’s Innovation Office, pointed out that each city in the coalition has taken steps to develop these principles and serve as a model for others. Alby Bocanegra, New York’s acting CTO, talked about the digital literacy programme the city is implementing in its libraries, aimed at tackling digital capability gaps and reducing inequality. Francesca Bria, Barcelona City Council’s CTIO, commented on the role of cities in promoting digital rights from below and ensuring they are adopted by European institutions and at a global scale.
The second phase of the round table, moderated by Gemma Galdon, of Ethics Research & Consulting focused on exploring how these organisations can provide vital support to this initiative.
Emilia Sáiz, the Director General of United Cities and Local Governments, stressed the need to 'think locally to give global shape to the world'. The UCLG currently supports other local initiatives driven by the City Council, such as citiesforhousing.org. Pontus Westerberg, director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-Habitat, already supports the Coalition and committed to making it easier to reach every city in the world. Rodolfo Tesone, lawyer/member of the Barcelona Bar Association (ICAB) executive board and an expert on digital rights, explained how the ICAB is promoting an initiative for improving digital rights legislation on a Spanish and European level with the Barcelona Charter for Citizen Rights, which they will present in Barcelona on 21 and 22 February. Finally, Dorthe Nielsen, Eurocities policy director, stressed the synergies between Eurocities’ network of over 140 city governments from Europe’s main cities and its Knowledge Society Forum, which is already committed to adopting the principles of the declaration and sending them to the network’s members.
An agora for open debate - but what next?
The event fostered a positive atmosphere of open debate and interaction between researchers, practitioners and public officers committed to a future of ethical, citizen-centric digital technologies. Each session was followed by a lively debate between the expert speakers and the audience, with many points and counterpoints which enriched the discussion. A number of insights were particularly relevant:
Less talking, more doing: “I’m surprised to hear some cities are still taken by surprise by technological shifts which have been in the making for the last ten years”, pointed out an audience member. “We all know what needs to be done, it’s time of action, not for more empty speeches”. The taunt prompted a few public officers to reaffirm their commitment to taking effective steps to guarantee the digital rights of their cities’ inhabitants.
Evidence-based policymaking: What have we learned over these last years of academic research and public debate, which can help us design and implement more effective public policies? Although great strides have been made to capitalise scientific knowledge and evaluation insights into urban programmes and regulations, these best practices still need to be diffused beyond a few large trailblazers to all mediums and small public administrations throughout Europe.
The importance of concerted European action. A point which pervaded most speeches was the need to band together to make our voices heard where it matters and push effectively for changes in EU-level legislation which would enshrine respect for digital rights. The recent enactment of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was cited as a success story, with the next priority being placing respect for privacy rights and open source as EU positions in trade agreement negotiations such as the (now frozen) Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) process.
Using the power of public procurement to effect a paradigm change. A final issue, very present in the first round table, was the leverage public administrations can have to promote ethical and open technology if they use their market power to favor digital products and services with social and democratic returns. In this sense, many cities have already started to introduce social and environmental clauses in their public procurement contracts or implementing innovative public procurement programmes, with the next step being factoring in the positive externalities and societal benefits of digital social innovation as point-earning criteria in public procurement processes.