smart city

Scientists on big data and ethics: 'Design systems that meet our values'.

Working with large data sets means thinking about the ethics of this data. The recent scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica once again underlines the necessity for a critical, ethical approach, especially in the academic and public domains. The fact that data sets can be utilised for numerous issues does not mean they may be and the fact that data may be utilised does not necessarily mean it should be. And when the decision is finally taken to utilise data to resolve issues or improve services, fundamental questions will remain on the subject of ethics and privacy. Who actually owns the data? How can we ensure that security and privacy are safeguarded? How can we involve the people whose data is used?


These key questions were discussed during the ‘Ethics of Big Data’ symposium organised by the Centre for BOLD Cities and the Rotterdam Knowledge Lab for Urban Big Data. Academics from Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam and municipal officials came together during the symposium to address major ethical issues relating to the use of data. The tone was immediately set by Prof. Jeroen van den Hoven, Professor of Ethics and Technology at Delft University of Technology, who pointed out that discussion alone is not enough.

Jeroen van de Hoven
Prof. dr. Jeroen van den Hoven

The theory is interesting, said Van den Hoven, but the main ethical values will need to be anchored in the design of the systems that use data. ‘If we do not design systems that meet our values,’ he said, ‘we can expect commercial parties to design these systems themselves. Their main objectives focus on completely different issues than public values.’

Involving citizens in the development of the smart city

Consequently, ethics is much more than just determining which values we find important. But taking action goes beyond the distinction between public and commercial interests. Media expert Dr Jiska Engelbert (Erasmus University Rotterdam), who among other things is carrying out research into the way in which the urban environment and the smart city are being defined, focused her presentation on what municipalities can do. ‘Cities,’ said Engelbert, ‘can in fact do a lot more to involve their citizens in the development of the smart city and policy that utilises big data.

j engelbert
Dr. Jiska Engelbert

Among other things, she pointed out the SHARED method developed by the Centre for BOLD Cities in recent years. The SHARED principles identify six important conditions that citizen participation must satisfy: it must be Sustainable, Harmonious, Affective, Relevant, Empowering and Diverse. In this way cities and researchers can ensure that more people are involved in the development of the smart city than the usual first adopters of digital urban developments and that citizen participation is not simply in name only.

Basic principle: the amount of data must be limited

Dr Jason Pridmore (Erasmus University Rotterdam), the third speaker at the ‘Ethics of Big Data’ symposium, talked about the security issues of urban big data. He was able to keep participants on their toes with a number of stimulating propositions, before turning to a question closely related to the ethics of data research and application: how do we ensure that data security can be safeguarded and that the privacy of citizens is not compromised? Although citizens can greatly benefit from the smart technology and data analysis implemented by municipalities, the amount of data must be limited. Pridmore stated that this should remain a basic principle. ‘The way in which a problem is defined already assumes a certain answer to the question,’ he added.

The ethics of data, and big data in particular, is a subject that raises as many questions as it does answers and remains an area in which a lot of needs to be done. The main speakers during the symposium organised by the Centre for BOLD Cities and the Knowledge Lab for Urban Big Data underlined the importance of this.

More information:
Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for BOLD Cities
Werkplaats Urban Big Data

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