“Software is eating the world”, said Marc Andreessen (the inventor of the first web browser Netscape and an influential Silicon Valley investor) almost ten years ago. He stressed the fact that software companies were about to disrupt large parts of the economy. The last decade proved that he was totally right: from music to the hotel industry, software companies delivering online services have indeed taken a central role in everyday life (think of Spotify, Airbnb or Booking.com).
For a long time, municipalities and local authorities thought that they could somehow escape this trend. After all, delivering public services at local-level implies a direct interaction with citizens, which could only happen in the physical world. Local authorities are supposed to be much more trustable than big companies, right? Think again. Software is also eating up urban and rural areas. Take Airbnb: its online platform has a significant impact on major touristic cities such as Barcelona, Lisbon or Paris. It has even forced them to design new regulations. Take Doctolib: it’s so easy to take a medical appointment using that platform that it sets a precedent for interacting with any service provider (including a public service one).
These new actors, coming from digital and software industries, have a real impact on cities and their capacity to deliver local public services. They set new quality standards (instant access, ease of use, a strong focus on user experience, customisation) that most public services struggle to reach. Furthermore, there’s a big difference between a private company and a public authority; the latter is supposed to apply the criteria inherent to public service: fair treatment, neutrality, continuity of service. Last but not least, citizens are not customers; they have their say on the local public policies and city officials are held accountable for their choices and actions. That’s what democracy is about.
One key element is how data is collected and used in a way that is both efficient and respectful of privacy and public interest. Most online services business models are based on an extensive collection of personal data to push targeted ads. The level of distrust is relatively high among Europe, and a majority of citizens are concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability on the collection and use of their data. A survey, conducted in 2018 on behalf of the Open Data Institute (“Attitudes towards data sharing in Europe”) revealed that only 5% of French citizens trust social networks about the use of their data. More interestingly, compared to other European countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, France’s population appears a lot more sceptical about sharing personal data with private, and even public, institutions. Only 19% of the respondents said they trust their local government authorities with personal data about themselves.
Enabling trust is precisely where local authorities have a role to play. Central and local administrations collect a lot of personal data to offer citizens a range of public services. This data collection happens at every stage of an individual life, “from the cradle to the grave”. Registering the birth of a newborn is mandatory in France, so families can apply for child benefits or a nursing place. At 3, any child has to go to school, and the city then collects more data about its family, its parents’ occupation and their address. Income and revenues data are also used to calculate benefits and allow a fair price for the canteen, for instance. It is essential to understand a significant difference here between the public and private sectors: if you are not confident about the use of your data by YouTube, you are still free not to use this platform. But giving personal data is mandatory to apply for child benefits, for instance.
Cities need to collaborate with citizens by ensuring them a fair and trustworthy data sharing system.
“What if cities took a central role in returning citizens’ data to them, so their citizens can use personal data to make their lives easier, get to know each other better, contribute to territorial decision making or participate in public interest projects?” (FING Self Data program)
Moving in that direction implies to radically transform the way we look at personal data. We need to create a more distributed, multi-purpose, value-enabling ecosystem that gets data holders, citizens, social enterprises, researchers and entrepreneurs (public, private and general interests) involved in the dynamic. This is precisely the path that the twelve partners of the Rudi project are exploring.
Rudi stands for Rennes Urban Data Interface. To explain what Rudi is, we could start by looking at each of these four words.
Let’s start with Rennes: capital of Brittany, north-west of France. With nearly 700,000 inhabitants under its urban umbrella, the city has the second-largest population growth in France. Rennes is one of France’s most dynamic metropolises and hosts a series of universities and higher education institutions - almost 70,000 students currently live and study in the metropolitan area.
Now, head to “Urban”: the perimeter of the project is the city itself and the metropolitan area. Some of the thematics explored in the project (mobility, energy) are directly connected to the essential functions of a town. As such, the data-sharing approach of Rudi is part of Rennes Metropole’s smart city strategy.
“Data”: one of the main challenges of Rudi is to integrate several different types of data on the same platform. Data from public administrations (“open data”) but also data from the private or non-profit sectors and personal data - under the control of individuals.
“Interface”: Rudi is a platform that will facilitate data-sharing among different partners and citizens in the Metropolitan Region of Rennes. This platform will allow citizens to take back control over their data and enable local companies to improve the production of services that are efficient, cost-effective and respectful of public interest. But Rudi is more than a tool; it’s also a program aimed at fostering collaboration on data and its fair usage, at local-level.
Rudi identifies a series of challenges that should be overcome in the next months, summarised by three questions:
- How to put citizens at the core of the project?
- What is the best governance model to effectively share data among stakeholders?
- How to support, guide and incentivise local actors to design new services and applications using the platform?
Social acceptance is usually a classic challenge from most transformational projects. We can’t design a system against or even without its users. Still, the challenge of citizens’ participation is even more significant for Rudi, as citizens are also seen as data subjects. That is why the question of consent and trust are central to Rudi’s future. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has defined a legal framework to protect the privacy of 450 millions of people living in Europe. Rudi is exploring new ways towards a more active and dynamic consent. There are inspiring projects in the healthcare domain, where users are offered to share their medical data to research teams, for a very precisely defined aim and duration. Users should have the possibility to agree for their data to be used for a specific objective and similarly to stop sharing them at any time.
About this resource
The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.