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Setting Governance Standards for Data as Personal Property (Contributed)

If we are going to solve modern urban problems, we need to push the conversation on data ownership and work with local, state and federal policymakers as well as tech companies to incite change.

Urban technology touches almost every aspect of our daily lives: real estate, infrastructure, transportation, waste, water and more. From larger corporations, like Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and Lendlease to new entrants like Via and Airbnb, to emerging startups like RoadBotics and Versatile Natures, companies around the world are working to solve some of our cities’ most pressing issues. 

With all this innovation and unexplored terrain, however, comes new challenges. To create responsive homes, deploy autonomous vehicles or build shared communities that serve everyone, cities will need to upgrade age-old infrastructure and urban planning practices, not just add more concrete and steel. Successful deployment of urban technology requires collecting and processing huge amounts of data. Big tech companies with checkered records on privacy are particularly adept at that skill and are investing huge amounts to grow their capacity and protect their incumbency. Facebook now has more than 700 people working on policy and communications. Compare that to the FTC which had a budget of $306 million in 2018 and only 40 staffers working on data security and privacy.

What Are People and Cities to Do?

Thanks to a rising number of privacy breaches, “data” has become a four-letter word for a new evil, viewed skeptically by consumers across the globe. The problem we’re facing, however, isn’t that data is inherently bad. In fact, it’s a necessary ingredient for improving our cities. For instance, imagine a traffic intersection without data. There would be no order to traffic flow, causing not just congestion but a high likelihood of accidents for anyone on the road — drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike. The real issue is that we are living in a new data-driven society largely controlled by a small group of companies, ineffectively regulated by a public sector that has yet to figure out how to manage the mounds of data that come with the convenience of modern life. 

Without a clear standard on how data should be collected and used — in the public realm or otherwise — we’ve succumbed to data breaches time and time again. And even with the most progressive public leaders, like Seleta Reynolds’ Mobility Data Specification (MDS) initiative at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and the Open Mobility Foundation that now includes 16 cities across the U.S., the issues are messy and the general public has not engaged in a debate that will affect our kids and grandkids. 

So, it’s time to be proactive about the issue. No matter how you slice it, the amount of data in our world continues to grow exponentially. By 2020, the entire digital universe is expected to reach 44 zettabytes, according to Raconteur, a business media firm. That’s equivalent to 40 times more bytes than there are stars in the observable universe. Plus, as a few major players increase their “lock in,” it’s clear that private companies need oversight when it comes to personal data.

As citizens, we need to push the conversation on data ownership and work with local, state and federal policymakers as well as tech companies to incite change. We need to ask important questions: what is our data worth? What do cities look like when tech is designed to serve the needs of citizens? How do we want data to benefit society? What should data governance look like? What can we do today to control the data we produce? 

Two models hold promise for a path forward to better data governance. At the local level, the Urban Data Trust that Sidewalk Labs has proposed for their Sidewalk Toronto project is a worthwhile endeavor and sets a course for shared data stewardship. Rather than maintaining control of the data themselves, Sidewalk Labs has proposed putting it under the control of an independent body which would be guided by a charter to make sure data in the public space is collected and used in ways that benefit people. The trust has also helped to ignite an important discussion on how to protect privacy in cities. 

At the national level, the EU and Australia have embraced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standard which puts citizens at the center of the privacy equation and curbs the worst excesses of companies whose business models are based on “surveillance capitalism.” The federal government needs to set a clear policy for incumbent and emerging companies to follow — and do so quickly. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang is on to something when he suggests, “Data generated by each individual needs to be owned by them, with certain rights conveyed that will allow them to know how it’s used and protect it.” 

Positioning data as personal property — something universally known and well understood — helps to set clearer standards on how this ubiquitous information should be perceived and handled. At minimum, any privacy policy should include the right for individuals to be informed what data will be collected and how it will be used; the right to opt out of data collection or sharing; and the right to have all data related to you deleted upon request.

In the absence of national leadership, local leaders should be advancing new models. As we’re seeing in the net neutrality fight, the FCC gave up its Title II powers and does not have the authority to overrule states. Consumers in states like Illinois and California are already subject to different rules of the road when it comes to facial recognition and broadband access.

Data for Meaningful and Lasting Change

Data holds the promise to help governments better serve their citizens through increased efficiency, effectiveness and accountability. So, when data is used correctly, fairly and transparently, it can inspire new solutions for equity and inclusion and improve quality of life. 

Luckily, there are countless examples today of companies using data to make the cities we call home better. From making construction processes more seamless, safe and cost effective, to local governments using data to increase accessibility and efficiency of their transportation systems, or utilities using data to develop more resilient power systems that include distributed sources of clean energy. We’re seeing use cases that benefit real citizens on a daily basis.  

When the public and private sectors work together and actively engage with tech while respecting the privacy of citizens, we can create meaningful and lasting change in our cities and a society worthy of our investments.

Micah Kotch serves as the managing director of URBAN-X by MINI and Urban Us. URBAN-X is the accelerator for startups reimagining city life. Before joining URBAN-X, Micah served as the director of NY Prize and Strategic Advisor for Innovation at NYSERDA. At the NYU Tandon School of Engineering Micah served as director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, where he launched NYC’s first sponsored tech incubator and the Urban Future Lab - helping emerging companies address climate, energy and resiliency opportunities. Micah has a track record of delivering results for utilities, government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, educational institutions and startups.