Giving data back to the public
What if data were treated as a common good, like water, energy and roads? Data wouldn’t exclusively belong to the party collecting these, but would become part of the public domain. The immense economic and social value that citizen-produced data represent could be given back to those that generate that value in the first place: the citizens.
In Barcelona, this idea has been taken beyond the level of a philosophical discussion. Since 2015, it has been the main premise underpinning the city council’s approach of data governance. This is reflected in several policy actions throughout the public data life cycle.
Managing data as a common good throughout the Barcelona data life cycle
At the stage of data collection, a notable initiative is the development of data sovereignty clauses into public procurement contracts. Such clauses mandate city providers, such as the garbage bin collector and the public biking provider, to give the data they gather during service delivery back to the city hall in machine readable format and with proper anonymization.
Data commons in data processing is supported by the creation of a municipal data lake, the CityOs following a model of grouped data derived from numerous sources and in heterogeneous formats in order to create common repositories for management, analysis and secure storage.
Data use for the common good is made concrete in several city council projects involving predictive analytics and business intelligence solutions. For example, predictive modelling involving mobile phone data has been used to estimate the occupancy of the city beaches.
A new municipal data website is underway to facilitate data sharing, both within the city council and with the wider public. It will give access to three levels of data: raw data, treated data and data-based knowledge through visualisations and reports putting the data into context.
A key success factor in managing data as a common good in Barcelona has been the creation of the Municipal Data Office, led by the Chief Data Officer and empowered by its positioning at the top executive level in the office of the city’s CEO.
A future for data commons in Europe
The Barcelona case shows us that treating data as a common good is not like a light switch that can be turned on or off. It is an incremental process of exploring which modality works in a given context and where concrete chances lie in regulation, organisational culture and technical infrastructure to make it work. As argued by David Osimo, this might not be a sexy, but a necessary process. While it might be too early to say that data now can be generally considered a common good in Barcelona, it has become clear that this is not just an abstract idea, but something which can be made concrete and is worthwhile to do so.
At the international level, the open data movement provides a great push towards giving data back to the public, but it doesn’t stop there. Data commons is also about shifting agency and control to citizens themselves to have the right to decide what data they want to share, with whom and on what terms. Establishing such a right might put governments in an uncomfortable position if citizens aren’t sure they trust them to properly handle their data. Governments will be under additional pressure to prove themselves as data partners of high capability and integrity.
Is the idea of data commons worth pursuing in Europe? If so, how can we make this work? Data can only become a common good if government organisations are capable and ethical data processors, the competitive advantage of data ownership is addressed and citizens have data literacy. Creating the enabling conditions is the challenge that decision-makers stand for.
Please share your thoughts on the idea of data commons. If you want to know more on the actions taken by the Barcelona City Council, you can consult the complete case study ‘Barcelona Data Commons’.