Digitization is all around us: we communicate with our family and friends via smartphones, manage our money online, and almost everyone is experiencing increasing levels of digitization in their work. For many people this is a fact of life, and for the vast majority of us it works in our favour. However, after thirty years of the internet, it is high time that we made a number of choices together.

After all, who owns all the collected data? Who decides on what basis computers make decisions: for example in the health care sector, who does or does not get an operation? Who controls the algorithms that account for 80% of stock market trading? How do you know that your bank account is not being monitored without your permission?

The government has a crucial and fundamental role to play when tackling issues like these. It is the government’s job, together with society, to ensure that democratically-determined laws and regulations are in place in the digital domain.

Raising awareness

Technology is not neutral. Technology is a product of people. While we consider it quite normal for the government to legislate and regulate how we organize our physical environment, we are yet to find a good division of roles in the digital world. How can we work together to ensure freedom and inclusivity? And how can we stimulate creativity?

As a local authority, we use algorithms. Algorithms that influence the lives of citizens and that therefore must be carefully and thoroughly assessed. In the City of Amsterdam, you can submit an online report about the public space. A (self-learning) algorithm identifies the type of report, suggests which department should handle it and then forwards it automatically.

That sounds logical and efficient, but it has a downside. Suppose the residents of a certain neighbourhood just complain more. If you are not careful, neighbourhoods whose residents complain a lot will be cleaned more often than those neighbourhoods whose residents do not complain and perhaps clean up more themselves. Is that really what we want? Where should we draw the line?

We see the same questions arise in an example about ambulances and their locations. Suppose we station ambulances in and around the place where they are most likely to be needed, a busy nightlife area for example. That makes sense, doesn't it? However, this means that a large number of people – those who live in quiet neighbourhoods, stay at home, eat healthy food and do sports – have to wait longer for their ambulance if something happens. Is that really what we want? And where should we draw the line?

Fundamental components of a smart city.
Image: Nam and Pardo, Conceptualizing Smart City with Dimensions of Technology, People, and Institutions, 2011.

Establishing rules

In the Netherlands, every last detail of our public space is regulated – from warning signs informing us that a shopping area will use DNA spray in the event of a robbery, to the sewage infrastructure – everything has been taken care of. We leave little room for error.

For instance, the Netherlands is making substantial efforts to reduce the number of road fatalities to zero. To achieve this aim, the government imposes strict regulations on the quality of materials (such as asphalt), as well as rules with which your means of transport must comply (lights, brake discs, airbags); and we don’t bat an eyelid. In fact, it is quite normal for the government to manage the physical living environment and stimulate development.

For the digital environment, however, the situation is currently very different. Digital highways are now all private and algorithms are not assessed based on requirements that we have set. We spend most of our time in digital environments that are entirely commercially owned.

European privacy legislation, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), provides some guidance, but there is precious little by way of enforcement. This has to change rapidly in the coming years. Public space is public space and algorithms (and their programmers) must abide by the law. No discrimination, no exclusion, no data theft, and no lies.

Managing and developing a digital infrastructure for the city is a task that we would expect the government to take care of. It involves establishing a set of requirements, and so that is exactly what we are doing in the City of Amsterdam.

In Amsterdam, companies are prohibited from Wi-Fi tracking, but do we also want to use enforcement officers for that? What if you had to choose: should enforcement officers tackle people texting while cycling, drunken tourists, or companies that track users via Wi-Fi connections? It is a never-ending process of evaluation and reassessment.

Should we change or introduce new laws, regulations and enforcement or maintain the status quo? We will be asking ourselves these questions a lot over the next few years. In the coming period, we will decide as a society what kind of Digital Cities we want.

It's about a human society and government

A free and inclusive digital city is about how we deal with technology. About how we use technology to make our lives more pleasant, and how we limit or prevent the drawbacks of technology. To do this, we will have to look beyond the remit of the City of Amsterdam for ideas, inspiration and impact.

Amsterdam's Deputy Mayor Touria Meliani has launched an 'Agenda for the Digital City’ to ensure that we at the City of Amsterdam increase our awareness, that we carefully consider what is and is not acceptable in our city, that we set an example as an organization, and that the digital city becomes a human digital city. Civil servants have a real task on their hands to keep up with the times. Our mission is clear: we will not allow a handful of large tech companies to become more important than our democracy.