The hashtag #deletefacebook began trending earlier this year, following revelations that millions of individuals’ data may have been improperly shared with the election consultancy Cambridge Analytica. It became a rallying cry for people dissatisfied with the way their personal information is used for financial gain.
Now, Amsterdam and Barcelona are trialling an alternative model. Dubbed DECODE (DEcentralised Citizen-owned Data Ecosystems), it will allow people to decide which applications, platforms and tools can access their information, and allow governments and the private sector to use it for the common good.
An alternative model
Tom Symons, a principal researcher at the UK innovation foundation Nesta, which is helping to develop the policy around DECODE, said that the dominant online business model engenders a passive relationship between users and companies. Users receive a free service in return for access to their personal data. Websites and platforms are then able to analyse this to extract value, most commonly through targeted advertisements. Individuals are largely kept ignorant of the value that’s extracted.
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DECODE, which is funded by the European Commission, is an attempt to reconfigure this relationship. Over the next two years, Amsterdam and Barcelona will build technology to grant citizens more active involvement in the way their data is used. Via four pilot projects, run by the cities in collaboration with selected private organisations, individuals will be able to decide what projects they want to contribute their personal data to.
“Data could be enormously valuable in so many more ways than it currently is”
Each of the pilots aims to extract public utility from the data they access by building a “data commons”, sourcing information from the public and using it to improve lives. In Barcelona, participants will be able to send their healthcare data and other personal information to the city to be aggregated and used to inform policy. With “Making Sense”, the city will distribute sensors for citizens to measure noise levels in their areas.
In Amsterdam, the chosen projects are a neighbourhood-level social network, designed to empower and draw local people into policy formation and decision making, and a system to provide data to help govern the city’s alternative home renting platform: Fairbnb.
A core part of the project is a secure “digital wallet” being created for each participant, said Symons, from which they manage different elements of their personal data. Developed by a team at the Netherlands’ Radboud University, this online platform will contain each participating individual’s attributes and credentials — sensor data collected by smart devices, for instance — and allow them to share information with the projects which they hope to contribute to.
Unlike a conventional social network or internet platform, where all of an individual’s data is up for grabs, the wallet will ensure that only what was required for a specific project will be shared. Using distributed ledger technology, each participant will be able to set rules, which define how their data is to be used, and what is to be kept private or shared.
The technology allows users to change permissions easily and redefine the conditions of access. In the future, it could let individuals manage who gains access to what data, and for what purpose, whether for a city-led project or a private service.
Currently, cities find it difficult to improve and refine services through experimentation in the way that, for example, Facebook and Google are able to. Knowing how often individual citizens used a service, and what for, could rectify that.
“Data could be enormously valuable in so many more ways than it currently is,” said Symons. “All of the latent social value is currently not being realised because people are not empowered to control and share their personal data as they want.”
But for the pilot projects to succeed they need a community of users, which is what DECODE’s architects see as the biggest challenge.
Despite hashtags such as #deletefacebook, it is unclear how aware or concerned the public are about the way their data is used. As the hashtag reached its trending peak in April, time spent by Facebook users on the platform actually increased, and downloads of the Facebook app continued to grow in the following weeks. Recent research by the UK think tank doteveryone found that 45% of Britons were unaware that information they entered on websites and social media can help target advertisements.
“We need to have some community leaders who share our vision”
Because of this, DECODE is initially targeting a community of the committed, including people already concerned about online privacy, said Gijs Boerwinkel, community manager of the projects in Amsterdam and at Waag, a technology research foundation. But, he added, “while we need to use this group to do this first test, I think that there are a growing number of [other] people who are aware of those issues and are willing to try alternatives.”
The pilot projects can also provide use cases, to give each city’s residents a clear sense of the value of sharing their data. Research has shown that when people understand the benefit of a project, they are more willing to give up their information. Research by the UK’s Open Data Institute released last year found that 47% of respondents would share medical data about themselves if it helped to develop new medicines and treatments.
Boerwinkel cited a Dutch example. As calls to #deletefacebook reached their peak, Dutch television host Arjen Lubach invited his viewers to join him at a “Bye-Bye Facebook party”. Knowing the addictive power of Facebook would make leaving difficult, he set up the party to give people a firm time and date to jump ship. He even created an event page to promote the party within Facebook itself.
The 11,000 who said they would join Lubach in deleting their accounts is a tiny fraction of the two billion users who use Facebook every month. Nevertheless, for Boerwinkel, it’s a first and necessary step. “We need to have some community leaders who share our vision and who are willing to try something new,” he said. “After that we have to come up with a clear story of why everyone should do that.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Matthew Peoples)