Photo: Henk Rougoor
The first Amsterdam Agenda for the Digital City was launched on 1 March. Entitled ‘A digital city for everyone, from everyone’, the agenda aims to achieve a free, inclusive and creative digital city. Responsible use of data is part of that. One of the action points to achieve that is implementation of the Tada manifesto.
Deputy Mayor Touria Meliani, Alderperson for the Digital City, presented the Agenda in the cheerful-looking building of The Beach/Garage Notweg, a lab for social and sustainable innovation in Amsterdam’s Nieuw-West district. She immediately drew the attention of the 150 attendees by sharing personal data. On the big screen, she showed a WhatsApp chat with her mother. “My mother would prefer that I visit her every week, but that is not possible, since she lives far away. That is why we share lots of things through WhatsApp. She does not read or write very well, so we mainly communicate through photos and voice recordings. We have personal conversations through this system, but we have no clue what happens to those messages. People pour their heart and soul into their telephones, but the companies behind that technology have different intentions. You can see the risk of digitalization on a very ordinary level here. The digital city is about the people who are dealing with that – which basically means all of us.”
Amsterdam implements Tada manifesto
Deputy Mayor Meliani’s example exposed one of the challenges mentioned in the Digital Agenda. The urge to continue collecting data may lead some parties to acquire more and more power. The data can be used to influence behaviour and manipulate people… and that infringes on the freedom of Amsterdam’s inhabitants. The city wants to provide a counterbalance for this. Amsterdam is committed to providing better rules that will safeguard the privacy and autonomy of its citizens. They are not alone in this endeavour; instead, they are participating in collaborations at a national and international level. At a local level, the municipality put those principles into practice by handling data responsibly. In the next year, they will start implementing the Tada principles in their own organization.
In discussion about technology
Douwe Schmidt of Bureau Tada was given the opportunity to tell the public more about Tada. “Tada was created from a wide-ranging coalition of citizens and organizations. They engaged in dialogue about the digital city and how we want to put it into practice. That resulted in the ‘Tada – data disclosed’ manifesto. It provides six principles that should apply in the digital city.” One of those principles is ‘inclusive’: like the physical city, the digital city must be accessible for everyone. Schmidt: “The next step is to put those Tada principles into practice. How do you translate those abstract values into tangible terms? Bureau Tada works in close collaboration with the municipality to put that into practice. We have developed workshops where we start working with Tada in practical ways. One of the methods we use is the spectogram, which is used to start a discussion by looking at concrete case studies.”
To get a better idea of how that works, Schmidt invited the 150 attendees to participate in a discussion about the principles behind technology. He presented a statement to the audience. Anyone in favour was asked to stand up; those opposed to it would remain seated. When presented with the statement ‘Amsterdam will never use facial recognition’, a significant number of people stood up. “Data is already stored in so many places,” one of the voters supporting the statement said, “and we have no clue what happens to it. So let’s hold off a bit on building even more places to store data.” An opposing voter argued: “The objections you might have against facial recognition can be offset with technological solutions and good rules.” There was also someone who could not agree with either side of the argument: “You should not make these bold ‘all or nothing’ statements. Maybe you believe that there should not be any cameras with facial recognition placed in the public space. You could have a debate about that. But to exclude technologies in advance without even discussing it? That is not the way to go.”
Schmidt: “As you can see, once you start talking about cases, discussions will follow. People want to exchange opinions about this. Tada started by stating the principles that we want to base our digital city on. Now we go more in-depth by talking about it with each other and applying these principles in tangible terms.”
Privacy in the digital city
After Tada’s presentation, Deputy Mayor Meliani invited various people up on stage. For the development of the Digital Agenda, she visited lots of people in the course of her work. She met many people who inspired her. During the launch, she talked to a few of them. She spoke with Marleen Stikker from Waag about privacy. Stikker: “The word privacy is subject to erosion, which is why I prefer the term self-determination. If you mention privacy, people often say: ‘I have nothing to hide’. But it is not whether or not you are guilty of something. That is easily demonstrated by the chat between Deputy Mayor Meliani and her mother. It is about the preference to keep such chats private. Self-determination is about the question: are we still making our own choice? We are being nudged and manipulated. Self-determination is a cornerstone of the constitutional state. But in the digital arena, a great deal is taken out of our hands.”
Mark Wiebes of the Dutch National Police said this about privacy: “During the Tada discussion, the dilemma of facial recognition came up. It is very tempting to use techniques like these for police investigations. But everyone who joins the police force has to swear an oath to protect civilians and civil liberties. Privacy is one of those liberties. However, it is also not smart to just disregard technology altogether. Not using technology also comes at a price. That means you have to consider various options, such as embedding privacy rules in the technology.”
The Deputy Mayor told about two concrete action points from the Digital Agenda that will increase the privacy of Amsterdam residents: “All civilians will get a My Amsterdam, a personal digital environment where you can see the information that the municipality has saved about you.” In addition, a digital map will be launched in mid-March on which smart devices have been marked. Citizens can see on this map where the municipality has placed cameras and other measuring instruments. People can also see what types of data the sensors collect.
An inclusive digital city
About the inclusive city, the Deputy Mayor spoke with Fatimzahra Baba of the Saaam foundation. Saaam helps illiterate and semi-literate mothers in understanding social media. Their children use social media, giving them a door into a world that their parents cannot access. They discuss such topics as exposing (sharing photos or stories without consent on social media). A daughter who had fallen victim to exposing became depressed afterwards. They talk to each other about how to increase the digital resilience of their children. Baba: “People often say about illiterate and semi-literate mothers: ‘They can’t and they won’t’. But that’s not true. They are very eager to participate!”
“Inclusive also means that it should be possible for everyone to participate,” said the Deputy Mayor. “We have also taken steps towards that as municipality. We have met with various people to discuss this. Someone with physical disabilities, someone with visual impairments. They pointed out possible shortcomings. Someone with impaired hearing indicated that some municipal information can only be requested by phone. These people need to help us design the digital city. We are still not capable enough of looking at people from a different perspective. But if we want an inclusive city, that will be sorely needed.”
The meeting was concluded with the official launch of the first Amsterdam Agenda for the Digital City. In the opening remarks, Deputy Mayor Meliani stated: “The city belongs to us all, and so does the digital city.”
Photo, from left to right: Gülden Ilmaz (moderator), Deputy Mayor Touria Meliani, Fatimzahra Baba of the Saaam Foundation, Sander Klous – Professor of Big Data Ecosystems at the University of Amsterdam.