Smart Cities & Big Data: Where’s the Ethical Framework?

Last week, half a world away, Secretary of State John Kerry and Commerce Secretary Pritzker were engaged in high-level dialogue with political leaders in India.  On the agenda: “smart cities.”

All around the world, cities are often on the forefront of cutting edge policy debates.  While in the U.S., the “laboratories of democracy” are thought of traditionally as states, in fact cities often take the lead.  And in few areas will this be more true than in the civic use of “big data.”  Recently, I (with an assist from my friends at Best, Best & Krieger) published an article looking at the need for a more sustained effort to assist cities with the ethical use of big data.  Here’s a quick overview.

In the last few years the acceleration toward more widespread use of complex data analytic techniques has been dizzying, with new programs and futuristic analyses seemingly appearing daily around the country. From local government experiments to university-based centers and book-length treatments, public entities everywhere are thinking about how to better obtain and use data.

From using big data to identify potholes to augmenting historic preservation to utilizing technologies, like Uber or Lyft, to augment public transportation, cities are diving into this new frontier.

We need, pretty quickly, a new initiative to bring cities together to develop principles and best practices for this use of big data.  As I explained in the article, “Right now some of the most important questions about this technology’s use in the public sector has not even been identified, let alone answered.”  For each positive use of big data, it seems there is often an equal and countervailing dilemma to overcome.  A city can adopt proactive open source data to facilitate private apps to aid trip planning on public transit, but open data can also lead to unexpected mash-ups, such as when a map of homes holding gun permits was published online after the horrific Newtown CT shootings.  Similarly, whether through error or reverse engineering, supposedly anonymous data released by cities can often lead back to particular individuals with surprising ease.

The most urgent question right now, for me, is how the use of big data could negatively impact communities that already face significant challenges because of long-standing racial, economic and other disparities.  Poor communities sometimes suffer in “data deserts” where their needs are not taken into account by data systems because low-income people lack of access to technology means they don’t produce digital data at the same rates as higher income people.  At the same time, in other cases, communities of color are over-analyzed by biased policing systems or data coming from government programs intended to assist those communities.

Cities could potentially use big data to fight inequality — to track how well their services meet the needs of all residents, no matter their neighborhood or tax bracket.  Cities could identify the most effective ways to help kids learn.  But there are also potential downsides.

As the article concludes:

An innovative use of big data to identify better ways to serve citizens could exacerbate existing class inequalities. Data that can be used proactively to protect historically disadvantaged groups could also be used to pinpoint when the city itself may be violating constitutional rights. The legal and policy implications of these programs are just beginning to be understood. Cities require a more systematic approach to these issues, complete with the hard work of identifying principles, best practices and legal analysis.

I am by no means the only one looking at these issues. Blair Levin at Brookings has been laying out his thoughts on cities and new technology — with a series touching on big data and focusing on broadband.  A couple of his proposals are good starts at helping cities to grapple with these issues in a way that respects their leadership.  For example, he recommends an MCAST, a Mayors’ Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to “identify trends, risks, and opportunities for cities to deliver its services faster, better and cheaper.”  Such as council, if well-resourced, could delve into the countervailing legal and ethical opportunities and obligations of cities using big data.  Mr. Levin also highlighted the care with which governments should undertake partnerships with private sector companies seeking to mine city data–these are potentially fantastic opportunities, if they are done right.

In the last few years, a constellation of privacy advocates and civil rights organizations have been looking carefully at civil rights in the era of big data, and in particular at its application in criminal justice.  They released a new set of principles this week addressing the dangers of predictive policing, and body cameras last year.

The power of the criminal justice system to take away life and freedom justifies the close focus on data and technology in policing, but the current focus on the most urgent arena should not eclipse the broader need to identify best practices in so many other areas where cities play a predominant role — from transportation, to job creation, to education, to basic quality of life.  Others, who are looking at a wider application of big data technology to local government, including Bloomberg’s What Works Cities, and the White House’s Smart Cities Initiative should take a close look at the ethical quandaries that will arise as cities plunge into the future.