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Rethinking Data Ownership and Control: The role of Cities

Notes from the discussion evening and DCWG event in Berlin,
28 & 29 June 2023 

[Video/Photo material available at end of page]

Data is a key element to creating more democratic and sustainable futures. To this end though, there needs to be a better understanding and most of all a better framework to ensure a governance and sharing of data in the public interest – and blueprints for how to share data between the private and the public sector.

These were some of the main take-aways from the event that THE NEW INSTITUTE organized together with the city of Hamburg in the context of The New Hanse project on data sharing in the public interest, led by digital policy and innovation expert Francesca Bria. The event at the Landesvertretung Hamburg in Berlin drew a diverse audience, ranging from the federal German ministries of Interior, Justice and Work and Social Affairs to KfW bank, from NGOs like the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Open Knowledge Foundation to start-ups, from academics and technologists to journalists.

One aim of the event was to introduce the work the team of The New Hanse has done on data sharing in a city context with a practical Data Challenge in the field of micromobility. In his opening remarks, Jan Pörksen, head of the Senate Chancellery of Hamburg, introduced the Hamburg specific use case while also pointing out that it touches on issues that go far beyond the local scale: “the regulatory and the questions we have to deal with, are huge: data protection, compliance questions.” These and questions around ownership models, infrastructure and scalability are the structural issues discussed in the Data Commons Working Group.

Francesca Bria reminded us about the main task of the New Hanse’s Data Commons Working Group that is “to advance the understanding of how urban data sharing from private providers to government should happen, with a fair and sustainable data governance, including the role of data intermediaries to help solve some of the technical and regulatory issues connected to data sharing”. The project, learning from the Hamburg experiment, aims to develop legal, regulatory and technical blueprints which can be used by other cities within the EU and beyond.

“Would a universal data sharing law solve the value of data and the risk dilemma? And could this bring forward the concept of data commons and its immense value for society?”, asked Max von Grafenstein of the Einstein Center Digital Future and the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in his provocative presentation, focusing on current challenges in both voluntary and mandatory data sharing.

Javier Orozco-Messana of the European Commission’s DG CNECT unit Technology for Smart Communities agreed: “We have to break data market control by Big Tech companies”, he said in his remarks, “we want to avoid big American companies locking in not only the power of our data but also our services.” Instead, he emphasized, very much in line with The New Hanse philosophy, “we want to make the EU the next power in the market.”

The panel discussion among Jan Pörksen, Francesca Bria, Sille Sepp, director of operations at MyData Global in Tallinn, Ana Dujic, Director General at Digital, Work, Society, Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and Eileen Fuchs, Head of Unit Data Policy at Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community, explored questions of the legal, technical and technological infrastructure necessary for next-generation data policies – trust, Sille Sepp emphasized, is central to enable this on a practical level.

“We need more data, we need better data, but we also need more trust in data sharing”, Ana Dujic seconded. “If we want to maintain the competitiveness as global leading economies, it comes down to the labor force: How open is it for digital transformation, how able are companies to use data and AI. There is a long way to go and little time.” In the words of Eileen Fuchs: “The goal must be: Public money, public data”

The Data Commons Working Group met on the next day to continue the work on the Data Sharing for the Public Interest blueprints to be presented in the fall. Francesca Bria summed up the task ahead:

“The key challenge is to show that data is not just a smart, radical bureaucracy, but can really make the life of people better!”

On the next day the Data Commons Working Group convened at the CityLAB Berlin’s Sommerfest, which brought together tech experts, innovators, policy makers and civil society organisations to discuss the city’s digital transformation at an industrial creative hub in Prenzlauer Berg. For the working group, the day at the Sommerfest started with a semi-closed session, where the group’s experts, along with invited guests, delved deep into the blueprints and discussed the crux of data sharing for the public interest.

Inspired by Francesca Bria’s opening statement and invitation to focus not only on theoretical approaches, but also on pragmatic and scalable policy outcomes and technical implementations, the members of the extended working group swiftly raised vital questions around legal competencies at municipal level, data-and privacy protection, and the potential implications of the recently agreed-upon EU Data Act. From the discussion that followed it was clear, that concrete urgent action is needed to make progress on data sharing for the public interest. Or in the words of Francesca: “It is time to get it done in Europe and not just talk about it!”

The leads of the DCWG’s three streams (legal, technical and governance) put forward an initial proposal of recommentations based on previous working sessions and research over the last months. Aline Blankertz from Wikimedia, who leads the overall consolidation of the blueptrint along the streams, presented the recommendations, of which the first set evolves around:

Making data accessible:

1. At a legal level, a General Data Sharing law as a policy provocation should mandate the sharing of information of interest for the public given that conflicting laws are respected, esp. business secret and data protection laws.

2. The information to which access is mandated must carry only minimal re-identification risk from personal data, considering information self-determination and privacy protection fundamental rights.

3. The General Data Sharing law and other legal tools must include legal procedures to clarify data access claims and resolve conflicting claims about whether and how conflicting laws are respected in practice.

The way to do this is experimenting with concrete and relevant use cases on the ground in connected cities that emphasise the public value of data and its importance for better decision-making. These cases could then be used to identify concrete legal and technical solutions to make data accessible in respective use cases, but also feed into shaping future legislation regarding data governance and control on a broader scale.

One already experimented concrete solution to require access to private data is data clauses in municipal procurement contracts, meaning that if the city procures services and solutions with public funds, the data that is associated with these services must also be shared with the city. This was implemented by Francesca Bria, during her term as CTO of the City of Barcelona. 

Further, the idea of a general data sharing law, as proposed was heavily discussed: It was doubted, that cities have the legal ground to implement such a law locally, but very much welcomed to be considered at federal level (under the mentioned Data Act), Moritz Hennemann from University of Passau stresses that “law itself is not blocking, but is rather highlighting the necessity to balance different interests” and furthermore points to options on the basis of article 14 (Obligation to make data available based on exceptional need) and 15 (Exceptional need to use data) of the Data Act. 

However, a major problem with the current too complex regulatory framework is that for public bodies “data is too hot to handle and risks to become a liability”, leading to a “hands-off approach that leaves the data to Big Tech companies” and hampers the ability of cities to modernize their services and upgrade their tech skills and capabilities, according to Francesca Bria.

It is precisely this imbalance between the public and the private sectors when it comes to leveraging data that brings us to the next focus of our discussion that day: what would new data management and government models look like that enable cities to govern and use data to create fairer, more democratic and greener cities?

The stream leads proposal continues with a proposal of how to manage data for the public interest:

Managing data for the public interest with an intermediary:

4. City/municipal administrations must set up a non for profit data intermediary with a clear public mission (ranges from a data-sharing contract between the city and other parties to a fully fledged organisation handling data pooling, information exchange, security and other issues).

5. At a policy level, an authority must set the boundaries of form and function of the intermediary, through an entity that does not maximise profit, but serves a clearly defined public-interest mission and shall involve different stakeholders, with a board or decision-making body formed by key stakeholders from the city.

6. At the procedural (technical) level, a general framework shall be agreed and adopted, that puts forward a technical ontology, defining roles, actors, processes, relationships and specifying contracts required.

The context of sharing data for the public interest:

7. The intermediary, while being local, must generate a network of similar and coordinated mechanisms, feeding into a data sharing use case repository for accessibility and to help/ease legal and technical discussions.

8. The competent authorities, at least but not limited to data protection authorities, must build up a common legal use case repository to collect, systematise and publish all data sharing cases that have been pending before them with details on the legal issues and solutions.

9. It is the data intermediary’s responsibility to establish a shared and standardised tracking mechanism to quantify and evaluate the public value generated by data sharing.

Sille Sepp from MyData Global introduced their knowledge and experience with different intermediary operators and emphasizes that sustainability in the long run is key: “Intermediaries need to be interoperable with each other, and serve the real needs of stakeholders including citizens”.

The DCWG session concluded that the identification of relevant use cases for data requirements from the private sector within cities will be essential for the two-fold aim of providing concrete solutions to current hurdles, while also proposing a future set-up for broader data sharing governance with precise recommentations for the characteristics of such “public service data intermediary”.

Over the summer, the working group will focus on discussing and further shaping the recommendations, making them accessible for cities and broader policy stakeholders as well as other interested target groups such as academia and other innovative initatives working on this intersection.

Last, but not least: In the afternoon, after a keynote of Francesca Bria in conversation with Geraldine de Bastion, CEO of Global Innovation Gathering / Konnektiv, at the main stage of the festival, we welcomed the festival visitors from CityLAB Berlin’s Sommerfest in an open session together with ODIS (Open Data Information Point Berlin), who work on opening up data silos for the public interest, focusing on data held in Berlin’s city administration. In an open community format, different thematic tables invited the audience to learn about our project objectives, discuss with the experts and share perspectives. It was certainly great to meet and engage with the community working on (open) data sharing for the public interest and learning more about all the initiatives.

Thanks to all for being a part of it!

Slides presented, 28 June 2023

Slides presented, 29 June 2023

Media Gallery (photos & videos)

Jan Pörksen, Head of the Senate Chancellery Hamburg
Francesca Bria, Director The New Hanse
Javier Orozco-Messana, European Commission
Max von Grafenstein, DCWG lead legal stream
Panel discussion