City data commons for the climate crisis

Excellent article at Branch magazine by Renata Avila and Guy Weress, proposing a bold vision for city data commons against the enclosure of citizen data.

Enclosure or Inclosure[a] is a term, used in English landownership, that refers to the appropriation of “waste[b]” or “common land[c]” enclosing it and by doing so depriving commoners of their ancient rights of access and privilege. [Wikipedia]

Although most definitions focus on agricultural land, the term is now more broadly used for the closing off of any common or public assets, in this case data generated by citizens in cities. The vast majority of so-called smart city projects are pushed by large corporations with goals of automation and data collection for profit, purposefully or unwittingly (if we’re being generous) grabbing data which should, in the authors’ view and mine, be a public good.

Smart-city data, as we define it, is that which is emitted as a result of digital interactions between a city and its citizens.

The interesting and useful twist here is in first noticing that most data is currently not ‘seen’ by civic authorities, they don’t track them, don’t legislate around them, and don’t pay attention to their citizens’ data whether it relates to the city directly or not. While cities don’t see that data, corporations do and position themselves to capture it.

The central point of the article however is not just this enclosure, but the global value of all that city-level data as a resource which could be shared between cities to better understand, prepare for, and act when confronting the climate crisis.

Cities are the platforms to save the planet, and a data commons is the best tool they have.

As the places with the highest concentration of people, knowledge, and expertise, cities are uniquely placed to tackle climate challenges, especially because they are also able to move much quicker than larger states and countries.

Cities are where we live, and as procurers of the tech that surrounds us, city governments find themselves in a unique position. They are the custodians of personal and aggregate data from the largest human concentrations of more than half of the world, and this is especially critical in the context of the climate crisis. […]​

Limiting the “solutions” to a privacy-focused approach will not unlock much power to the people, in a moment of converging global crises where better informed policies—powered by data—might be at the core of solving the world’s most complex global problems.

Imagine cities asserting control on all the data created within their limits, building resources locally to leverage that data for the good of their citizens, and then collaborating globally, pooling their learnings for the benefit of their collective populations.

[The City Data Commons vision] aspires to define city data as commons, instead of property, and enable a space—a data commons space as opposed to a “data marketplace” where collectives can access and get the benefits from high-quality datasets collected with public funds, including data about water quality, the environment, public transport and energy systems, all the data collected by privately-managed bike sharing systems, water sensors, and taxi platforms.

The authors define three building blocks (knowledge, sovereignty and innovation) and believe that such a strategic networks of cities combining these blocks could “create the largest, real-time, federated climate crisis data commons in the world.”