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Who owns all the data collected by ‘smart cities’?

The Toronto Star  by Teresa Scassa 23 November 2017

Behind the fanfare surrounding the “smart city” development proposed by Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs lie some crucially important questions that have the potential to shape the extent to which this project will serve the public interest.

One of these questions relates to who will own the data that will be collected and generated. This is a major issue, since smart cities are all about the collection and processing of huge volumes and varieties of data. The answer to the data ownership question will go a long way to determining who will benefit from the project and in what ways.

Key data stakeholders include the citizens whose activities will generate so much of this data, the cities who rely on data for planning and development, and the private sector companies that increasingly build entire business models on extracting value from data.

Smart cities necessarily involve partnerships between the private and public sector. Cities, after all, provide access to their urban spaces and enter into contracts for data-related infrastructure closely tied to the provision of municipal services. Private sector companies supply physical and digital infrastructure as well as the algorithms that process the data collected. And citizens, going about their daily activities and using a wide range of services, including transportation, roads, utilities, and recreation, provide a steady stream of data.

Data ownership is about control. That control can be exercised for public good or for private gain.

Traditionally, governments have owned the data generated by their activities and services. In the last few years, municipal governments in Canada have embraced the open data movement. This means that they have engaged in programs to make non-personal government data available to the public in reusable formats and with few, if any, restrictions. They still “own” the data, but they choose to share it in the public interest.

Open data is meant to contribute to innovation by providing local, regional and national businesses with access to useful data; these data can also be used by civil society organizations and researchers for transparency, accountability and research purposes.

A shift from public to private sector ownership of the data collected and generated in smart cities will place restrictions on governments’ abilities to use and reuse urban data, and to share it with others. Put another way, governments become data tenants rather than data landlords. The implications, from the point of view of control and sovereignty alone, make it imperative for governments to take a close look at the location of data ownership in smart cities contracts.

Governments have not always been adept at understanding the value of the data they possess or at managing it in the public interest. The fact that land titles registry data is now in private sector hands in Ontario is a prime example of a major miscalculation, at the time of the sell-off, of the potential value of such data.

There are other, more recent examples of instances where governments have contracted for data, or for data collection and processing, without securing ownership of the data.

As we race towards sensor-laden smart cities, we need to demand that our governments pay close attention to who will own and control the data generated in these cities. If the answer is the private sector, we need also to be skeptical of claims by private sector actors that the data will nevertheless be shared with the public and with other developers.

The devil is, as always, in the details. Which data will be shared? With whom? At what cost? And for how long?

While many large data companies offer APIs that allow access to their data, this is often part of a scheme that allows for a basic level of free access but charges increasingly higher prices for more complete or expansive data. We need also be concerned about what happens to privatized data if the public-private partnership breaks down or if the private sector company sells its assets or goes bankrupt.

Issues of ownership and control are, of course, also closely tied to privacy concerns. Individuals may well believe that they have rights to control their personal information, but these rights are often in conflict with the interests of corporations and governments.

In Canada, different data protection regimes apply to personal information depending on whether its collection, use or disclosure is carried out by public or private sector actors.

In contexts in which merely living in an urban space implicitly amounts to consent to the massive and widespread collection of data, we need to know who the custodian of such data is, what rules will apply, and how we can hold them to account.

Teresa Scassa is the Canada Research chair in Information Law and Policy at the University of Ottawa.