When the Amazon Kindle was released, their ebooks didn't work with commonly used screen readers, making accessibility difficult for the blind community. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the United States campaigned to change this for years, in vain. Then Amazon won a $30 million USD contract with the New York City Department of Education in 2015 to create an ebook store for educators in 1,800 schools. City schools delayed a final vote until Amazon and the NFB came to an understanding. Since then, the Kindle now has a built in screen reader and Amazon has improved accessibility across many products.
This is an example of how cities have huge potential power to improve the health of the internet ecosystem. In this case, it was a win for children and educators in New York, but also for people around the world. Where consumers may have a hard time persuading giant corporations to do something that they perceive as going against their business interests, a million dollar procurement contract and a commitment to serving the public interest can help.
More than half of the people in the world now live in cities and by 2050 that number is expected to rise to 68%. Cities are where wealth and power is concentrated in most countries, and also where many technology initiatives are rolled out and tested in communities. What we may think of as local decisions today, may be of global consequence in the future.
When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the United States backed away from protecting net neutrality in 2018, a network of city mayors formed to use their combined purchasing power to support internet providers who continued upholding net neutrality.
“In NYC alone, we spend over $600 million annually to provide internet service to city employees and to offer city services. So, we convened an ad hoc coalition, starting with eight cities committed to only purchasing from broadband providers that honor net neutrality principles. Now, this coalition is over 130 cities,” says Max Sevilia, the Director of External Affairs for the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer.
This story and many others are highlighted in a publication called the New York City Internet Health Report. Its creator, Meghan McDermott, adapted the format of the global Internet Health Report as part of a Mozilla fellowship project to explore among other things how cities can be strong advocates for digital rights by nurturing relationships with civic tech communities.
“The core of the digital rights agenda is to reframe how we think about and deploy technology in cities. The idea is to recapture the dignity and purpose of technology as a public good,” says McDermott, who has worked at the intersection of education and digital rights for years ––formerly as director of strategy for Mozilla’s Hive Learning Networks, a peer community for digital literacy.
When the internet and connected devices are applied to solving problems in cities, it tends to be referred to as a ‘smart city’ initiative. These are often projects to improve the efficiency of energy, transportation or any number of government services. For instance, it could be trash cans with sensors that alert waste management authorities when they need emptying, or parking meters that can help people find free parking spaces in crowded streets.
Such futuristic ideas have excited city officials around the world, and the global market for ‘smart city’ technologies is worth hundreds of billions of dollars and growing. But frankly it’s also an industry where corporate interests and techno-utopianism holds high currency –– where flying taxis and autonomous helicopters end up described as a solution to traffic congestion, even though they most likely won’t solve anything for people who rely on public transport.
The harshest critics say a hype about ‘smart cities’ has led to massive investments in what is essentially surveillance technology under the guise of technological progress. In both resource rich and poor cities, there are cameras, sensors, microphones, and huge multi-year procurement contracts with companies that have questionable data practices. In this way, with scant attention to data privacy, the internet has arrived to cities worldwide, for better or worse.
Where some see an opportunity to entirely rethink how cities collect data about neighborhoods to improve services, others see a lack of transparency and a recipe for a civil rights disaster spurred on by corporate interests. Where some see energy efficient LED streetlights that help gather data about pedestrians with cameras, others see a surveillance dragnet encroaching on freedom in public space and putting vulnerable populations at risk. Time and again, there are design choices that could be made to minimize the risk of abuse. For instance, when could it be preferable for privacy to use a thermal sensor to collect crowd data instead of a camera?
Digital rights advocates are cast as enemies to progress in such conflicts, but it really boils down to a core difference in opinion about whose interests technology should serve, how to seed social innovation, and what data should be used (or not) in the public interest.
Consider the electronic sensors in the garbage cans. To some, that’s a great example of how technology can help cities operate more efficiently. To others, like Tamas Erkelens who is the program manager of data innovation in the mayor’s office of the City of Amsterdam, it’s evidence of a wasteful approach that characterizes many ‘smart city’ innovations.
“We wouldn’t need sensors in every trash can if cities could have Google Map data to see where crowds are,” says Erkelens. “Wherever people are convening is a good enough indicator of where there is likely to be more trash. We can then use sensors just to train the models, rather than to create new data by machines with batteries that need to be changed,” he says.
Many city governments and open data advocates worldwide peer enviously at the wealth of data held by internet companies like Google, Uber, Apple and Airbnb knowing that it could help them understand crucial things about traffic, housing and employment. In 2018, the Open Data Institute in the United Kingdom published a report suggesting that mapping data companies should be compelled to share geospatial data with rival firms and the public sector, to stop “data monopolies” from forming and to create better opportunities for innovation.
Some companies do share aggregated data with city planners, including Uber, but cities are also getting smarter about requesting things like usage data of electric scooters upfront as a condition of doing business. The city of Barcelona is one of very few cities that operates under the principle that all data collected in the duty of local government in public space must be available in a data commons platform. Erkelens says Amsterdam is using its annual procurement budget of €2.1 billion to help guarantee good terms for data privacy too, and that Barcelona and Amsterdam together are experimenting with partners in the European Union to develop new technologies that also give citizens more direct control over their own data.
At the Smart Cities Expo World Congress in Barcelona in November 2018, the chief technology officers of Amsterdam, Barcelona and New York together launched the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights in partnership with UN-Habitat, a United Nations program to support urban development. Cities who join the coalition agree to a declaration of just five principles that center on respect for privacy and human rights in use of the internet. They pledged to see 100 cities join in 100 days (before July) and 35 cities have joined so far. Declarations may come and go, but these cities aim to sow the seeds of a movement whereby cities decisively claim digital rights. By working together and establishing best practices they will attempt to win a race against technological progress that is not centered on principles of human dignity and inclusivity.
Despite the strong stances taken in New York, Barcelona and Amsterdam, people who do digital rights work at the city level describe an uphill battle of culture change within large and in some parts traditional institutions with multiple agencies and divergent interests. Creating the policies and processes by which all agencies can make better decisions about privacy, data and transparency ––and opening up key parts of the work to civil society–– is a key part of the challenge.
This is where the civic tech community has blossomed in countless cities. Diverse groups of public interest startups, technical students, officials, and engaged citizens team up to hack bureaucracy and code in an attempt to make cities more responsive to their residents. They work from the inside with willing partners, and from the outside through advocacy groups, research, and live prototypes that reimagine how more responsive systems could work.
Cities worldwide are on the frontline of decisions that affect the health of the internet for all people. At the local level, whether in rural or urban communities, there are opportunities for civic engagement regarding the internet that can be more direct than at the national level. We should seize opportunities to influence how technology is used (or isn’t) in our own communities, and encourage elected officials to be champions of digital rights. The more engaged we are locally, the more empowered cities will be to cast themselves as opponents to internet policies at the national or international level when they go against the interests of people.
The challenge for cities is to advance the intentional adoption of digital tools that advance values of diversity, inclusion and fairness that they already hold, rather than jumping on the latest ‘smart city’ trend.
When he helped facilitate conversations between Amazon and The National Federation of the Blind over ebooks, Walei Sabry in New York already worked in the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities. Since then he has also become New York City’s first official digital accessibility coordinator. About ‘smart cities’ he says, “These initiatives can go really well or really wrong depending on who’s at the table ––people with disabilities must be involved at all stages of the process… because what works for us makes products better for everyone.”