Enabling citizens to take control of their own data
EU-funded research has helped improve citizens' confidence in big data by creating a decentralised platform that gives people greater control over their personal data and enables them to take part in decision-making.
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Most of us produce huge quantities of data every day. This is even more the case now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as our work and social lives are increasingly happening online. It is true that data provides important insights that benefit society for example, contact tracing to slow the spread of the coronavirus. However, data is often collected, accessed and controlled by only a handful of large companies who mainly use it to increase their profits.
With data controlled by a handful of monopolies, it is inaccessible to people and organisations who want to build solutions and services for public benefit, which creates economic inefficiencies and inequalities. This threatens to undermine trust between citizens, public institutions and companies, which is essential for a stable, sustainable and collaborative economy, says Francesca Bria, President of the Italian National Innovation Fund and coordinator of the EU-funded DECODE project.
Looking to boost citizens involvement in decisions and actions that affect society as a whole, DECODE has developed a decentralised and interoperable data platform based on distributed ledger technology and advanced cryptography. The aim is to give citizens control over their own data.
The DECODE tools allow citizens to choose how they share their own data, with whom and on what terms, paving the way for the creation of a data trust model that gives control of data back to the citizens and can be scaled at the European level.
DECODE is a practical experiment into the concept of data sovereignty for people, which is at the core of a European data agenda, Bria explains.
Participatory digital democracy
DECODE tested its ideas and technologies through four large-scale pilot projects in Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Barcelona in Spain.
In Barcelona, the project built upon a digital democracy and data commons platform called Decidim (which had been developed in a previous EU-funded CAPS project). It allows citizens to suggest ideas on where the city councils budget should be spent and then to vote for the different options. Participants can make suggestions and vote anonymously if they choose. Decidim also enables citizens to track how the selected projects are progressing in real time.
Thousands of citizens in 20 countries in over 80 cities now use the platform. Our digital democracy platform allows citizens to meaningfully participate in policymaking in their cities and at the national level, whilst also ensuring privacy, allowing data sharing and transparency. The combination of Decidim with the DECODE system helps to reduce data manipulation and surveillance, while fostering data empowerment and collective intelligence, says Bria.
Also in Barcelona, DECODEs citizen science data governance pilot platform allowed residents to use environmental sensors to record factors including noise levels and air pollution. They can use the platform to share encrypted Internet of Things data anonymously with their communities, and choose who they share their data with and under what conditions.
This application enables cities to leverage data to tackle big environmental urban challenges such as climate change, pollution, and sustainable mobility while empowering communities through the fair and ethical use of their data.
In Amsterdam, the digital register pilot project was linked to the municipalities database. DECODEs technology allowed citizens to prove their age, by certifying that they are over 16 or 18 years old, without the need to fully share their identity or social security number. This project pioneered a privacy-by-design approach and the use of decentralised identity and attribute-based encryption that is currently also being tested at the national and European level.
A separate pilot project in Amsterdam, called neighbourhood online, created a social network for a local community, encouraging active discussions between citizens about the issues they face, and enabling them to develop ideas and relationships that have a positive social and economic impact.
The platform has added features to enable access using attribute-based credentials rather than an email and password, or Facebook account. Currently, municipal authorities in Amsterdam are considering including DECODEs platform in the city transport pass and within the housing department for example, building on the experience gathered in the pilot projects.