Interview with Eelco Thiellier, strategic advisor at Royal HaskoningDHV
For years, Eelco Thiellier has been using data to map how crowds move through the city. But how do we ensure that all that data is managed responsibly? He recently signed the Tada manifesto, which describes the principles that apply in a responsible digital city.
Since the start of the corona crisis, his work may well be more important than ever: Which streets are crowded? Is it quieter at location X or Y? And how do you prevent a location from becoming too busy? All valuable insights for a society where staying 1.5 metres apart has become the rule. “This makes it possible to respond effectively what’s happening at that specific moment,” Thiellier says. “By informing people and, if it really gets too busy, by reducing the flow, for example by partially closing off Vondelpark. We analyze data and identify trends so measures can be taken. In doing so, we avoid the need for police intervention.”
At the same time, all those people are being monitored.
“That is why we work as anonymously as possible, for instance by using infrared cameras. Royal HaskoningDHV develops sensors that are as public-friendly as possible. All data from these sensors are completely anonymized. We inform the public by using QR codes on the sensors, which provide information about the intended purpose of that sensor. When collecting data on pedestrians, we obviously want to comply with regulations and ensure safety, but at the same time we also want the end user to feel comfortable and at ease.”
Is that also one of the reasons you signed the Tada manifesto last autumn?
“Absolutely. The Tada manifesto defines exactly these types of principles. Is the use of data sustainable and inclusive: does everyone experience the same advantages and disadvantages? You need a platform like Tada to jointly consider which principles are important. In the end, data must be transparent: for everyone and from everyone. So it’s not just about safety. The principles as presented by Tada offer guidelines, but are not prescriptive; they are a source of inspiration to encourage reflective contemplation.”
What does a fair and honest digital society look like?
“Ultimately, data must be used to improve society. It is about us. Here in the Netherlands, we want to feel that it will contribute to a better society. That there is a form of reciprocity: that we are in control and can make choices. With COVID-19, you can see that the government is taking the lead, but ethics and privacy are still major considerations in developing a Corona app. Society has to feel comfortable with it.”
You also map all that data for Royal HaskoningDHV.
“Yes, as an engineering firm, our work automatically involves a lot of data: for example, we use data to optimize intersections by applying smart algorithms to various data sources, so we can calculate extremely accurate, real-time models of traffic flows. As a result, we can increase flow, accessibility and quality of life, while reducing CO2 emissions. If you link this to the traffic coordination center, then the city gets the opportunity to make adjustments and prioritize to certain traffic flows, such as cyclists braving the rain, or emergency services.”
What practical problems do you face?
“Every time, you have to make choices and considerations: who is the owner of the data? Clients want to be in control of their own data. That’s also to avoid becoming too dependent on a commercial party. This can be achieved, for example, by building up a certain data position, with the benefit of being able to combine data. That’s something that needs to be assessed jointly. It is important to make clear agreements about this early on in the process. You have to work carefully and make sure you’re always in compliance with the GDPR – privacy protection legislation.”
That can also be an obstacle.
“In the case of the GDPR, that might be true. On the other hand, you also do not want want to nip innovations in the bud either. Which brings me back to Tada: they can help find the sweet spot, that optimal place where many interests come together, both from a societal and a regulatory perspective. By seeing what can and cannot be done. By bringing knowledge together. If all of us understand what we are doing, then we can take sensible steps.”
How can data help us?
“If you look at recent developments, it can help governments to get society back on track. By looking more specifically at data from hotspots as we’re doing in Amsterdam and more effectively managing efforts to reopen those hotspots. “Data can help us return to normal as much as possible.”
That does call for a certain responsibility.
“We’re trying to improve things in the Netherlands together, but that does mean we have to actually work together. Data are often not available to everyone, so it’s important to look at what you can share and what you cannot. A platform such as Tada helps: to understand each other, by organizing ecosystems in which we conduct those dialogues. Purely on the basis of principles that we consider important, as a society.”