Re-use of smart city data: The need to acquire a social license through data assemblies

Written Testimony by Stefaan G. Verhulst before the New York City Council Committee on Technology: “…In crises such as these, calls for the city to harness technology and data to help policy-makers find solutions grow louder and stronger. Many have spoken about accelerating already ongoing work to turn New York into “a smart city” — using digital technology to connect, protect, and improve the lives of its residents. Some of this proposed work could involve the use of sensors to collect data on how people live and work across New York City. Other work could involve expanding the city’s relationships with private organizations through data collaboratives. Data collaboratives, which are central to our work at the GovLab, are a new form of collaboration that extends beyond the conventional public-private partnership model, in which participants from different sectors exchange their data to create public value. The city already operates one such data collaborative in the form of the NYC Recovery Data Partnership, a partnership that allows New York-based private and civic organizations to provide their data to analysts at city agencies to inform the COVID-19 pandemic response. I have the privilege of serving as an advisor to that initiative.

Data collaboration takes place widely through a variety of institutional, contractual and technical structures and instruments. Borrowing in language and inspiration from the open data movement, the emerging data collaborative movement has proven its value and possible positive impact. Data reuse has the potential to improve disease treatment, identify better ways to source supplies, monitor adherence to non-pharmaceutical restrictions, and provide a range of other public benefits. Whether it is informing decision-making or shaping the development of new tools and techniques, it is clear that data has tremendous potential to mitigate the worst effects of this pandemic.

However, as promising and attractive as reusing data might seem, it is important to keep in mind that there also exist widespread concerns and challenges….

My colleagues and I at The GovLab believe the Data Assembly methodology offers the city a new way forward on the issues under discussion today, as they relate to smart cities. In our view, oversight cannot just be a reactive process of responding to complaints but a proactive one, inviting city residents, data holders, and advocacy groups to the table to determine what is and is not acceptable. Amid rapidly changing circumstances, the city needs ways to collect and synthesize actionable and diverse public input to identify concerns, expectations, and opportunities. We encourage the city to explore assembling mini-publics of its own or, failing that, commission legitimate partners to lead such efforts.

New York faces many challenges in 2021 but I do not doubt the capacity of its people to overcome these struggles. Through people-led innovation and processes, the city can ensure that data re-use conducted as part of the smart city is deemed legitimate and more effective and targeted. It can also support the city in ensuring work across the city is more open, collaborative, and legitimate…(More)”.