My current thinking about what to bring to my open data and data governance work, as well as to technology development, especially in the context of networked agency, can be summarised under the moniker ‘ethics by design’. In a practical sense this means setting non-functional requirements at the start of a design or development process, or when tweaking or altering existing systems and processes. Non-functional requirements that reflect the values you want to safeguard or ensure, or potential negative consequences you want to mitigate. Privacy, power asymmetries, individual autonomy, equality, and democratic control are examples of this.

Today I attended the ‘Big Data Festival’ in The Hague, organised by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. Here several government organisations presented themselves and the work they do using data as an intensive resource. Stuff that speaks to the technologist in me. In parallel there were various presentations and workshops, and there I was most interested in what was said about ethical issues around data.

Author and interviewer Bas Heijne set the scene at the start by pointing to the contrast between the technology optimism concerning digitisation of years back and the more dystopian discussion (triggered by things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and cyberwars), and sought the balance in the middle. I think that contrast is largely due to the difference in assumptions underneath the utopian and dystopian views. The techno-optimist perspective, at least in the webscene I frequented in the late 90’s and early 00’s assumed the tools would be in the hands of individuals, who would independently weave the world wide web, smart at the edges and dumb at the center. The dystopian views, including those of early criticaster like Aron Lanier, assumed, and were proven at least partly right, a centralisation into walled gardens where individuals are mere passive users or an object, and no longer a subject with autonomy. This introduces wildly different development paths concerning power distribution, equality and agency.

In the afternoon a session with professor Jeroen van den Hoven, of Delft University, focused on making the ethical challenges more tangible as well as pointed to the beginnings of practical ways to address them. It was the second time I heard him present in a month. A few weeks ago I attended an Ethics and Internet of Things workshop at University of Twente, organised by UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology (COMEST). There he gave a very worthwile presentation as well.


Van den Hoven “if we don’t design for our values…”

What I call ethics by design, a term I first heard from prof Valerie Frissen, Van den Hoven calls value sensitive design. That term sounds more pragmatic but I feel conveys the point less strongly. This time he also incorporated the geopolitical aspects of data governance, which echoed what Rob van Kranenburg (IoT Council, Next Generation Internet) presented at that workshop last month (and which I really should write down separately). It was good to hear it reinforced for today’s audience of mainly civil servants, as currently there is a certain level of naivety involved in how (mainly local governments) collaborate with commercial partners around data collection and e.g. sensors in the public space.

(Malfunctioning) billboard at Utrecht Central Station a few days ago, with not thought through camera in a public space (to measure engagement with adverts). Civic resistance taped over the camera.

Value sensitive design, said Van den Hoven, should seek to combine the power of technology with the ethical values, into services and products. Instead of treating it as a dilemma with an either/or choice, which is the usual way it is framed: Social networking OR privacy, security OR privacy, surveillance capitalism OR personal autonomy, smart cities OR human messiness and serendipity. In value sensitive design it is about ensuring the individual is still a subject in the philosophical sense, and not merely the object on which data based services feed. By addressing both values and technological benefits as the same design challenge (security AND privacy, etc.), one creates a path for responsible innovation.

The audience saw both responsibilities for individual citizens as well as governments in building that path, and none thought turning one’s back on technology to fictitious simpler times would work, although some were doubtful if there was still room to stem the tide.

A new government has formed in the Netherlands, after a record 7 months of negotiations following elections last spring. I read the coalition agreement (pdf in Dutch) between the four parties involved to see what, if any, it means for digitisation, transparency, and the use and availability of data in the coming years.

Starting from the principle that openness and transparency in the public sector are important, the agreement states that digitisation is more than a necessity for that, and an opportunity for better public services as well. (p9 Public governance) This translates into plans to further digitise public services, an ‘ambitious’ national digital agenda also for lower level public entities, more findable and accessible open data, and a new look at the stalled Open Government Law with the aim to balance mandatory openness against implementation costs. In addition the agreement calls for more digital access to the collections of museums and archives (p21, Culture), and promises to publish all transport and mobility related government data so it can be reused by vehicles, apps and planners (p41 Transport and Mobility).

It’s good to see that data governance is getting attention, and that it seems to look at data governance from a holistic perspective, taking into account openness, privacy and information security together.
Citizens will have more control over their own personal data that government holds. (p9, Public governance)
The usage and ownership of travel data (think of GPS trackers, RFID travel cards, (autonomous) car sensor data) will be regulated to maintain privacy while also allowing (general) re-use of that data (p41 Transport and Mobility)
Internet of Things is getting attention in terms of aiming for standards, as part of an ‘ambitious’ national cyber-security agenda (p5 Justice and security)

This means a first few steps towards PDM will be taken, and that the ethics of Internet of Things and the role of regulation in acquiring and using sensor data in the public space are on the radar of this government both in maintaining safeguards and enabling new socio-economic value. That is a welcome development.

That socio-economic value however only becomes reality if citizens and companies are able to use the opportunities that open data and digital infrastructure provide. The government agreement promises money in this regard to enable a conducive investment climate as well as a European digital market (p4, p35 Economy). It also allocates funding to increase digital literacy (p11, Education), including for cyber-security awareness (p5 Justice and security), and to stimulate more investigative journalism (p22, Media). The agreement also proposes a new task for the Competition Authority in digital markets, to prevent dominant internet companies blocking new entrants.

Interestingly the agreement makes several references to competition law, or more precisely to strengthening the regulation against government activities competing with private enterprise in areas that are not deemed ‘public interest’. (p9. Public Governance and p36, Economy). This may have consequences for data holding agencies like the Cadastral Office (real estate ownership and transaction data) and Chamber of Commerce (companies register, beneficial ownership data) that currently provide paid for services on top of data they have free access to themselves but charge others for. For a long time already there’s been debate on opening that data up, but maintaining revenue streams for these public bodies has proven more important until now. Should competition law change, that may indeed tip the balance. Until now political will was lacking here.

In summary it looks like this government agreement will result in more open data, and more pressure on local and regional government entities to play their part. It also seems that openness, privacy and security are more seen as one issue of data governance, not as separate or mutually exclusive issues. Thirdly the agreement shows will to also help create the conditions in which that can result in societal value.

Binnenhof
The prime minister’s office, called ‘the little tower’, by Inyucho