Call for city governments to make data the new public good of the 21st century before it’s too late
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A new report by Nesta, the innovation foundation, argues that city governments should be key players in making data a new form of infrastructure to improve the lives of citizens. Data, the new donation currency, has huge potential to transform public services, from healthcare to transport. Nesta argues that in future, data will be as important in creating successful cities as roads, clean water or energy grids were in the early 20th century, but there is a need to build more transparency, accountability and trust for data-driven initiatives.

Following a number of high profile personal data violations, most notably the Cambridge Analytica scandal, along with the introduction of GDPR, the public has become increasingly wary of how personal data is being used. A recent Nesta poll found that 75 per cent of people are concerned about the privacy of their personal data on the internet. Without efforts now to take a more responsible approach to data collection and use, city governments risk a collapse in citizen trust.

The report identifies city governments around the world that are developing privacy-preserving ways to encourage data to be more easily shared, established as a ‘data commons’ and lifted out of organisational silos, so increasing its value. The projects identified demonstrate how cities can be used as test-beds for new tools and services that give individuals more control and empower them to decide how personal data is collected and used.

Nesta has published the report as a partner in the DECODE project; a major EU Horizon 2020 project with 14 European partners developing technologies, such as distributed computing and advanced cryptography tools (1), designed with user-friendliness in mind, to give people better control of their data.

Tom Symons, Acting Head of Government Innovation Research at Nesta and co-author of the report says, “Data should be the fundamental public infrastructure of the 21st century, as were roads, street lights and clean drinking water in the past. As a partner on the DECODE project, we want city governments to start reconceiving data as new type of common good. Data has huge potential to deliver significant personal and public benefits, but we need to start planning for this now. The world is waking up to both the possibility, and misuse of data and we have a responsibility to develop technology that will protect citizens, but also ensure the true public value of data is unlocked.”

Francesca Bria, DECODE Coordinator, Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer, Barcelona City Hall says “It’s crucial that we establish a new social pact on data that will make the most of our data, whilst guaranteeing data sovereignty, collective rights to data and democratic control of digital platforms. By helping citizens regain control of their data, we aspire to generate public value rather than private profit. Our goal is to create “data commons” from data produced by people, sensors and devices. A data commons is a shared resource that enables citizens to contribute, access and use the data – for instance about air quality, mobility or health – as a common good. This is why, through DECODE, we’re running experiments to give people control over their data, generated both in their homes and the city at large, so they can set the rules on who can access it, for what purpose and on what terms. Citizens should keep control and ownership over data once they share it for the common good. Cities have key role to create a more democratic and inclusive digital economy.​ Barcelona is happy to show the way”

The report highlights the cities around the world which are blazing a trail in responsibly mining the worlds’ biggest growing resource for public good.


Barcelona has a new digital transformation agenda which conceives of ‘data as a commons’ and attempts to enforce appropriate data privacy protections for citizens. Trials include the iDigital/BCNow platform pilot, being run as part of the DECODE project. This is a partnership with Barcelona City Council and the city’s digital democracy platform Decidim Barcelona. The pilot aims to allow citizen-generated data to be aggregated and blended from a range of different sources, including noise levels from individual sensors, healthcare data, and administrative open data. This will be displayed in a BCNow dashboard, and will give citizens the option to control the use of that information for specific purposes, including to inform policy proposals. It will also provide anonymous verification capabilities (such as when creating and signing local petitions) to minimise the sharing of sensitive or personally identifiable data with the city council.

The city has also launched a new procurement process designed to incentivise responsible innovation with data and respect for privacy, and has adopted a focus on open source technologies.


Amsterdam is home to several projects which promote more responsible use of data across the city. For example, DECODE’s holiday rental register pilot will allow landlords to register their holiday rentals with the council whilst sharing only essential information about their property and the number of days rented.

The TADA manifesto, developed by independent Amsterdam Economic Board, outlines a set of six principles designed to help organisations use citizens’ data in a more responsible way. The Chief Technology Officer’s Innovation Team is compiling a registry of all public installed sensors across the city. They are also running pilots that will allow people to access local e-government services in an anonymous way, while minimising unnecessary collection of personal data.

New York

New York City is pursuing a range of initiatives which promote the responsible use and handling of citizens’ data. One such initiative is the creation of a set of Internet of Things Guidelines which establish privacy standards for the deployment of IoT devices in public spaces throughout the city. As algorithms are now increasingly used to reach a range of decisions, from school allocations to eligibility for bank loans, the city government has also introduced legislation mandating the creation of a task force to monitor the use of algorithmic decision-making systems in the city.


As part of their ‘City of People’ strategy, the Belgian city of Ghent wants to empower its ‘smart citizens’ by giving them access to ‘technology that they ‘own and control.’ Residents are provided with a simple web-portal called ‘Mijn Gent’ which gives them access to a range of local services, such as library services or registration for sports camps, while giving them full control over the management and sharing of their personal data. The city is also collaborating with a non-profit called Indie on an initiative which will give residents their own personal website, on top of which applications can be built that let them manage and control how local services access and use personal data.

Other case studies featured in the report include Seattle, San Francisco, Zug (Switzerland) and Sydney.

Eight key lessons for city governments drawn from case study analysis:-

1)Build consensus around clear ethical principles, and translate them into practical policies.

2)Train public sector staff in how to assess the benefits and risks of smart technologies.

3)Look outside the council for expertise and partnerships, including with other city governments.

4)Find and articulate the benefits of privacy and digital ethics to multiple stakeholders.

5)Become a testbed for new tools and approaches.

6)Make time and resources available for genuine public engagement on the use of surveillance technologies.

7)Make complex or opaque systems more understandable and accountable

8)Find opportunities to involve citizens in the process of data collection and analysis from start to finish.

For more information please contact Juliet Grant in the Nesta media team: [email protected] / 07866 949047


  1. DECODE uses a distributed ledger platform called Chainspace, which ensures that all interactions remain auditable and transparent, while no single authority can control or tamper with them. It also uses a technology called Attributed Based Credentials, which allows people to be "authenticated" on various e-government services without revealing unnecessary information about their identity.

Notes to editor


DECODE (DEcentralised Citizen Owned Data Ecosystems) is a European Commission funded project to explore and pilot new technologies that give people more control over how they store, manage and use personal data generated online. DECODE is led by the Technology and Innovation Office at the city of Barcelona and delivered by a consortium of multidisciplinary partners - including, the Institut Municipal d'Informatica de Barcelona, Eurecat and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunta from Spain, Amsterdam City Council, Dyne, Stichting Katholieke Universiteit and Waag in the Netherlands, Politecnico di Torino from Italy, CNRS from France, Arduino from Sweden, and innovation foundation Nesta, Thingful, ThoughtWorks and UCL from the UK.

DECODE is part of Horizon 2020, the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020), it is a flagship initiative aimed at securing Europe's global competitiveness.

About Nesta:

Nesta is a global innovation foundation. We back new ideas to tackle the big challenges of our time, making use of our knowledge, networks, funding and skills. We work in partnership with others, including governments, businesses and charities. We are a UK charity that works all over the world, supported by a financial endowment. Find out more about Nesta.

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