Travellers in Amsterdam’s Central Station are watched closely. Every time they pass an advertising screen, a hidden camera scans them to see how long they look at it, their age and gender, and whether they are happy or sad.
This makes for more tailored ads. But passengers are not aware that they are being scanned and their reactions monitored, says Willem Koeman, challenge coordinator at the Amsterdam Economic Board. “This led to a big discussion: if you as a traveller want to catch a train, should you be agreeing to being scanned for advertising purposes?,” he says.
Amsterdam plans to use similar technology on a city level, and is grappling with the debate around trust. “We really need to think about what we’re willing to allow or not allow with all these kinds of technologies,” Koeman notes.
GovInsider caught up with Koemen to find out how Amsterdam is building a more “digitally responsible” city.
Right to transparency
The biggest problem is how the technology can make decisions, and the data it uses to do so.
For instance, predictive policing uses data and machine learning to determine future crime trends. Research shows that such algorithms can take on the software developer’s own biases, Koeman says. And if the data being used is wrongly or not updated, how can citizens correct that? “There’s a lot of discussion in the Netherlands on what data are these decisions being made on and the algorithms making these decisions”.
Companies making this software do not disclose how it works. “They’re just offering it as a product to predict crime, but they’re not open to discuss how this software works,” says Koeman.
In some cases, even the police departments using these products know little about how it works, he says. “If you can no longer explain your policies, decisions that were made, that’s going to be pretty hard – your entire democratic system of transparency is gone,” he notes.
Koeman’s team is developing a manifesto with six principles to gather citizens’ views on the smart city technology. The city invited over 70 citizens, government agencies, scientists, philosophers, corporations and NGOs to create a “moral framework” which will help build and design better use of technologies. “We have to take care of public values in new smart city technologies,” Koeman says.
The first principle is that smart cities are inclusive of everyone. Many new technologies are catered to a small section of the population, who have the resources to pay for it or know how to use it, Koeman explains. But “new smart city services should be available to everyone”.
Second, people must stay in control of their own data. “We’re saying the actual data ownership is with people,” Koeman says. The technology should exist to serve people, rather than citizens becoming the product.
Third, technology should be tailored to the people. Technologies don’t have the final say, and there should be room for unpredictability and mistakes. People should have the right to be “digitally forgotten”, so they can have a fresh start, Koeman continues.
Fourth, smart city initiatives should be transparent in how they are using data. “Any new tech should be able to explain the assumptions it is based on and the design principles being used,” Koeman explains. Citizens should be able to determine how certain conclusions are made.
Fifth, citizens have control over the design of their city. “A smart city is not just being built by companies implementing new products, but it’s a continued discussion with the people living in the city,” he says. Companies and governments have an obligation to facilitate this discussion, and monitor the public impact, he adds.
Finally, data generated from the city is a common good. “This data is being made by citizens; if you use this data, if you collect it, it should also be available for citizens to use,” says Koeman.
These principles are still abstract for most people, and the city felt the need to create something that can be understood by everyone: a language that is separate from the jargon of technology, business and government.
Amsterdam Economic Board last month launched a campaign called ‘Tada!’ to make this happen. Tada! is a label or sign that shows that something – a technology, a product, an event, or even a community – incorporates the six principles of the manifesto. “It’s a wordplay on ‘data’,” Koeman explains. “We did it on purpose, in the sense that ‘tada’ sounds optimistic, but it also lures you in to find out what’s happening.”
Technology can be really hard to understand because the digital domain is invisible to most of us. But this label – that something has been “Tada-approved” – makes it more tangible, he adds.
There’s still a long way to go for Amsterdam to become a more responsible city, including how the government itself builds technology. “We should also think about how to change software development by city governments or governments in general”, Koeman adds. There has been a lot of focus on agile development and building products around what users ask for. This makes for a “very good product, but no one takes responsibility for the ethical discussion”, he says.
The city also needs to consider how it can “start nudging platform companies like Uber and food delivery services” to make their services more inclusive, Koeman believes.
Ultimately, these public values will also result in much better products for technology companies. “Technology will probably be much better accepted by society, be used in much better ways, and the impact will be much better.”