Reframing the interaction between citizens and technology

By Namita Kambli

One of the fundamental problems with reframing the interaction between citizens and technology – in a manner that safeguards our democratic values – is the exclusive control of this sphere by large corporations, most of which are either based in the US or China. This is why it is crucial we develop and support a common infrastructure that supports and works with the variety of civic tech tools in a manner that prevents vendor lock in.

To further avoid global monopolies from framing public debate, it will be imperative that governments at the local, national, and European level become better at working with those on the outside. This includes, but is not limited to, civil society organisations, academia, the private sector – actors who work at the intersection of privacy, technology, and democracy – and are developing tools and approaches to fit societal needs that governments may not be aware of. Based on their respective context, governments should pick up and embed at least some civic tools, whilst being careful not to dismiss others.

With respect to innovation, citizens should direct how smart technologies are integrated into our cities, especially in spaces that appear public but are privately owned, such as malls, thoroughfares, etc. As much as privacy, participation and informed consent should be built into the shaping of smart cities. To this end, governments should explore the setting up of data trusts [1]. Already used to govern and maintain shared resources, such as public land, the idea of a trust is to create legally accountable government structures. Data trusts can be the first step in ensuring that data collected for public services isn’t captured by private interests.

A fundamental part of this process should involve a broad-based public conversation wherein citizens are informed about different types of data collection and its ownership, and in a manner that is accessible to them. This is especially important as a well-functioning democracy depends on well-informed citizens. Embracing a simpler and less jargon-based narrative which speaks to people’s societal and personal concerns around digital technology should also be a priority.

 

[1] Wylie, B. & McDonald, S. (2018). What is a data trust? See Centre for International Governance Innovation: https://www.cigionline.org/articles/what-data-trust

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