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Digital sovereignty: Power to the people

A team of experts is helping European citizens design their digital future by giving them control over their personal information. This will help guarantee people’s rights to privacy while also enabling them to share their data for the public good.

Digital Economy icon Digital Economy

The dispute over who owns personal digital data and how it’s shared has been grabbing the headlines lately, thanks to recent events centred on social media giant Facebook and political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. This isn’t surprising, given that privacy and security are among the digital economy’s major challenges. Researchers are now addressing this issue under the EU-funded DECODE project which aims to develop practical tools to protect people’s data and digital sovereignty. As they explain in a recent project report, DECODE focuses on a data-centric digital economy. This is where “citizen data, generated by the Internet of Things and sensor networks, is available for broader communal use, with appropriate privacy protections.” The report adds: “As a result, companies, cooperatives, local communities and citizens will be able to use that data to build data-driven services that better respond to individual and community needs. This means rethinking the thorny questions around the ownership, control and management of personal data from an economic, legal, regulatory and technical dimension.” According to the project website, DECODE considers three different use cases: collaborative economy/hospitality; participatory citizen sensing; and open democracy, with a specific focus on how this relates to user communities in Amsterdam and Barcelona. It has selected two pilots in each city to empower “European citizens towards owning their online identity and data sharing in an independent, secure and trusted way.” Pilot applications: Barcelona’s ‘smart city’ strategy Summarising the smart city strategy of Barcelona in a recent magazine article in ‘Cities Today’, DECODE’s project coordinator Francesca Bria said the first pillar is digital transformation: how a city government should work with technology or whether it even should. Bria, who is also chief technology and digital innovation officer at Barcelona City Council, noted that the second pillar is the digital innovation and support for Barcelona’s 13 000 tech companies. “We are creating an open digital marketplace to make procurement more transparent so small companies should be able to come on board and compete in a fair way with the big players.” Digital empowerment of citizens is the third pillar of the strategy. Bria highlighted DECODE and how its collaborators are seeking to take on big tech companies and allow citizens to enjoy services such as peer-to-peer ridesharing or homesharing without the middleman owning their data. She said: “We are developing a distributed blockchain-based architecture on top of which we put a cryptographic layer to guarantee privacy and we are experimenting with the entitlements for citizens so they are the ones who can decide what data they want to share, with whom, on what basis, and for what purpose.” The initiatives of Barcelona reflect the vision of DECODE which envisages data as a common good. The project website explains that this vision implies “a democratisation of data processing and exposure based on transparent algorithms and intuitive interfaces for information visualisation and exploration.” It adds that the pilots in Amsterdam and Barcelona “serve to exemplify how data can be managed in a decentralised way, shared and used following a different paradigm than the current one.” The pilots under the ongoing DECODE (Decentralised Citizens Owned Data Ecosystem) will be run with the active involvement of social entrepreneurs, hackers and makers. For more information, please see: DECODE project website



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