2 August 2019 Open and Transparent

Amsterdam’s City Director: Explicitly state what you’re doing with data and why

Tessel Renzenbrink
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“Tada has brought together two different worlds within the municipality,” says Mark Crooymans. The Director of Urban Services and Information for Amsterdam accepted the first copy of the Tada report during the We Make The City festival. The report describes six months of close collaboration between Bureau Tada and the municipality of Amsterdam, working towards building a responsible digital city. We sat down with Mark Crooymans to discuss the results and talk about the future of Tada.

What is it that you consider important in Tada?
It is the combination of principles and a concrete way of working that I find appealing. The principles clearly state what we consider important. The associated methodology gives organizations a way to put those principles in practice. That approach is very inviting, making it easy to transpose it into your own day-to-day operations. It’s allowed to be a process that you’re figuring out as you go along, not something that’s either right or wrong.

The Tada principles are abstract; how are they implemented in the organization?
Using the methodology that has been applied over the past six months. Although the principles are abstract, they’re not so vague that they make you wonder: ‘hmm, what on Earth do they mean by that?’. There’s something there that you can connect to. It appeals to your sense of empathy. And the methodology is actually really practical. You break it down into a concrete issue for a specific case in a specific domain.

What kind of effect did Tada have on the municipal organization?
Tada has brought two different worlds closer together. It sometimes felt as if there were two schools of thought within our organization, and they had very different perspectives on data applications. On the one hand, we had a group of people who basically believed anything could and should be possible. That’s not where I think we should be heading. And on the other hand we had people who see a lot of obstacles: the legal framework says no, so the answer is no. That’s not where it should stop either.

Any attempt to have these two worlds meet in the middle isn’t guaranteed to succeed. But with Tada, with the principles and the methodology, you can see that it is possible. It is not judgmental; it is inviting. In that sense, Tada brings those worlds together. It should be noted that I do not claim that this dichotomy is completely off the table now. That will take a while.

Why is responsible digitalization so high on the political agenda?
You’ll see interest in this subject continuing to increase everywhere. People are becoming more and more aware of it. They realize: hey, wait a minute, there are also some aspects of digital technology that we really should not want to include. It started in Amsterdam under the previous College of Mayor and Alderpersons. The D66 political party was especially active on this topic. Their perspective was mostly based on rights: the right not to be spied on, for example. In Amsterdam, that resulted in the policy framework for personal data processing. The preparation of that framework was also an exploratory study of the interaction between the administrative organization and the executive council: what is ideal and what is feasible, and how do you make decisions about that in a large municipal organization?

That’s wasn’t easy at all. Part of the administrative organization considered it unworkable, even wondering why it was necessary at all. This sentiment was noticable in the security domain, for instance, which sometimes works with sensitive personal data. The underlying issue was a fear that they would be unable to do their primary task any more if discussions about whether or not it was advisable got in the way. But the aim was to create political legitimacy for the use of data.

Abdeluheb Choho, who was an alderman for D66 at the time, was very astute there, and his insights led to greater awareness in the organization. It is not that you’re no longer allowed to use any data at all. You just need to explicitly state what you are doing and why. Then it can be authorized by the people’s representatives. In case of some uses of data, it might then be concluded that it’s a contentious issue, that it feels like it’s right on the edge of what’s acceptable. But that is exactly what political debate is for. The way I’m explaining it now, it sounds logical. But in the organization, many people felt threatened that they were no longer able to do their work properly.

Eventually, we did manage to get people on board. During that process, the topic received considerable attention, and a great deal of prep work was done in advance. And then Tada arrived on the scene, as well as the new College of Mayor and Alderpersons who embraced it. It aligned with the ambitions of the current municipal government: the notion that a political administrator has to take a stand on these types of subjects. Digitalization is a fairly abstract topic, but it will have a major effect on society, that much is clear. The current politicians have shown they’re really engaging with it.

The Tada report describes a case study from the Housing domain. The case study was addressed in a workshop with people from the Housing domain. One of the conclusions reached by the workshop participants was: “the fundamental consideration between the right to housing and the right to privacy is ultimately a political decision that needs to be made by the council”. Laurens Ivens, Amsterdam’s Deputy Mayor and the Alderperson for Housing, Construction and Public Space, has just announced a pilot project to share data with housing associations, police and the national government to investigate housing fraud. Can we conclude that Mr. Ivens has made this fundamental consideration?

What you see is that people are actively thinking about the possibilities that data offers to tackle issues that are currently relevant in society, such as housing fraud. I believe that is a good development. What I think is important is that the choices we make in using data are political in nature, and not just an assessment made by the administrative organization. As I said before: it was not even that long ago that some believed that you should not burden the municipal authorities with this. The fact that it has now become a political issue is a big plus, in my opinion.

This marks the end of a process that took six months. What will Amsterdam do now with Tada?
One of the questions I would like to address is: how do you bring all these different disciplines together? Different perspectives are needed to assess an issue. An ethical perspective, a legal perspective, someone who looks at what is technically feasible, an organizational perspective (how do you configure the processes?), etc. If you only ask someone from IT or from Legal, you will only get part of the solution. Sometimes that is enough, but issues usually require contributions from multiple fields of expertise. We will have to continue developing that interdisciplinary aspect. Someone from IT won’t automatically think: I need to consult a legal expert.

For that reason, we will make sure that if a manager or employee encounters a dilemma, that they will have some place where they can address it and get feedback from several different people. We have not implemented that yet. When I look at the method for putting the Tada principles into practice, it raises a question: How do you ensure that you get input from multiple disciplines to solve an issue? I would love to see more of that in the Tada approach. Actually in the entire organization. But if I can ‘use’ Tada for that purpose: yes, please!

On the 19th of June, the Tada report ‘A digital city for everyone, from everyone’ was presented to Mark Crooymans during the We Make The City festival in the Zuiderkerk in Amsterdam. You can download a copy of the report here.

Author: Tessel Renzenbrink

Translator: Joy Philips

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