Smart Cities Giving People The Power To Own Data

How Data Control In Citizen’s Hand Make The Digital Environment Secure?

Trust is the cornerstone of every relationship! This is true even when it comes to the relationship between a city government and its citizens. It is a proven fact that smart cities that share a strong bond with its people – or people who have full trust in their government – are advancing at a faster rate compared to the ones that are still trying to bridge the gap.

Here we share stories of two nations – one that has already bestowed the people with the power to have control over their personal data – and the other which is in the process of establishing a similar kind of atmosphere. These initiatives show a forward-thinking of how smart cities can make the digital environment secure by giving the reigns of data control in citizen’s hands.

Brainport Smart District – The Smartest Neighbourhood In The World

Helmond’s Brandevoort area in the Netherlands is going to have ‘the smartest neighbourhood in the world’ as claimed by UNStudio. The plan known as The Brainport Smart District (BSD) is being transformed into reality by UNSense, the sister company of UNStudio.

One of the two intriguing elements of this initiative is that it will explore innovative ways for citizens to control and trade their data. And the second is that instead of having pre-determined design and plan for BSD, the planners will work on their vision to develop as per the people’s demand. In other words, the process of learning and developing will go hand in hand.

The BSD is a huge project that is estimated to be completed in the next ten years. The smart neighbourhood will have over 1500 homes and 12 hectares of the business arena built around a natural park. All this will be developed inside a ‘living lab’.

According to UNStudio, their ambition is to construct a “sustainable, circular and socially cohesive neighbourhood”. This will include food production, water management, digital data management, joint energy generation and unprecedented transport systems. The aim is to develop a unique living concept which revolves around “learning by doing”.

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A unique data-sharing atmosphere

UNStudio envisions to explore possibilities of data-sharing that requires citizens to be compensated and rewarded for their data. They aim to develop an economic model which receive benefits and allows data control by its citizens. As a result, data becomes a tool which is controlled by their owners – the residents. In addition, it will provide a wide range of services that people can benefit from. This will include joint energy generation, retail and food (production and distribution), and mobility.

Currently, the company is working with Tilburg University to find out possibilities of data exchange. A Board of Ethics has been established by UNSense, which will work as an advisory group on privacy, regulations, data control, and any commercial benefit for the end user.

Furthermore, UNSense plans to execute a feasibility analysis of the BSD experiment. UNStudio is partnering with a number of companies from different domains to work on the plan. These include UNSense (data and technology strategy), Felixx Landscape Architects & Planner (ecology and landscape), Habidatum (data analysis), and Metabolic (Circularity and climate adaptation).

The data-sharing model of the new district comes as a promising factor when data ownership and concerns about how citizen data is used by the government and private corporations is high on agenda. Take for example the smart city at the Toronto Waterfront lead by Sidewalk Labs. The project is being criticised for its lack of clarity around data control and its management.  

Everybody Knows Where Their Data Goes – In Estonia

With the help of blockchain technology, Estonia has become the first country to provide complete data control to its citizens. After regaining independence from the Soviet Union, instincts and a common sense led Estonia to develop a smart government in the 1990s. They thought it would be better to employ their limited resources on servers and networks instead of spending on government castles and grand buildings.

Moving ahead, Estonia launched X-Road which is today the spine of the smart government. X-Road is a homegrown data exchange system that travels information back and forth – instantly between thousands of databases. From the security perspective, it fulfils the requirement by providing access only to authorised users and entities, maintaining integrity by preventing third parties from making changes to data, and maintaining confidentiality during the transit by protecting it from the eyes of unauthorised parties.

As per estimates made by the country, X-Road saves more than 820 years of working time for the state and its people, each year. Over 900 organisations and businesses in Estonia use X-Road on a daily basis.

Estonia also has a powerful national identity system that supports its e-government infrastructure. Every Estonian has a secure digital ID which is used for numerous kinds of transactions, be it riding public transport or signing official documents.

Data and citizens

How Blockchain System Supports Smart Government of Estonia?

The smart government of Estonia does not have a central database system. Instead, each agency or organisation which is part of the system have the freedom to store and administer their own data.

Citizen data related to taxes, traffic tickets, education, healthcare, finances, land transfers and voter, among others are stored in separate databases. As the information is encrypted it cannot be accessed without the knowledge and permission of the citizen whom the data belongs to.

Now the deployment of blockchain has made this concept of smart government even stronger. The blockchain is used throughout the system. Hence, it is impossible to modify or move data once registered. To protect its integrity all information is signed, time-stamped and bound together.

All transactions are strictly tracked and recorded, preventing manipulation and fraudulence. When an individual or an entity looks into the citizen data, the citizen is instantly notified. If data is not accessed properly, the person or entity accessing information is penalised.

For instance, if a driver is stopped by the police and they check the status of the driver’s licence and car insurance, he is immediately notified along with the name of the policeman who stopped him.

In case the driver feels the police has misused his data, he can request for support from an independent investigator who will help in finding out why and how the data was used.

The building of trust

The citizens of Estonia have full trust in their smart government system, this trust wasn’t earned automatically though.

The trust was built through practice and execution. And to maintain it is important to deliver value each day, which is taken care of by the smart government.

In Estonia, the trust-building process began with data ownership. Citizens were given the power to own their data – not the government. People don’t worry about the misuse of their data in any manner. This was one of the main factors that led to a strong government-citizen relationship in the country.

The next factor in the trust-building process is total transparency. People know what data the government has about them. In case they see the data is incorrect, they can ask for a correction.

Since the launch of e-government, Estonia has not experienced a big-scale data breach.

Today, many private corporations are monetising over people’s data. A huge part of the urban population is unaware of how their data is used by tech giants to make profits instead of stimulating benefits for citizens.

The data model established by Estonia could be the best ways to tackle such issues in smart cities. What do you think?

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