29 Sep 2021

To be truly smart, our cities must also be trusted digital landscapes

Guest Blog: Dr Sue Chadwick, a strategic planning advisor at Pinsent Masons LLP, argues that digital ethics help to make sure that smart cities work for all their inhabitants as part if techUK's Data Analytics week #DataWeek

A smart city is a digital environment where buildings, infrastructure, services and people are increasingly connected through a range of sensory technologies and infrastructure, and where data helps to monitor, manage and improve that environment.  In the ideal smart city everyone in the physical city benefits: services improve, individuals and communities are better informed, and the data generated is used for the good of all.  In its dystopian counterpart the citizens are simply sources of data, which is used only for commercial gain.   

Dr Sue Chadwick, a strategic planning advisor at Pinsent Masons LLP, argues that digital ethics help to make sure that smart cities work for all their inhabitants.  Sue has recently completed a year as a Research Fellow with the Open Data Institute and this piece draws on her work with the ODI on digital planning.   

What do we mean by digital ethics? 

There is no formal definition of data or digital ethics, but there is a wide range of guidance that encourage ethical approaches to data: for example the national Data Ethics Framework identifies three overarching principles: transparency, accountability, and fairness and the Open Data Institute has a Data Ethics Canvas that identifies key ethical concerns including the need to take existing legislation and policy into account, the importance of keeping personal and sensitive information secure; the need for transparency, and the availability of appeal mechanisms. 

There are also data ethics principles emerging that are specific to property. The RED Foundation has proposed six principles to be applied to all data used in real estate transactions throughout the supply chain: accountable, transparent, proportionate, confidential and private, lawful, secure and ethical. Finally, for anyone working with local or central government, it’s important to remember the ‘Nolan’ principles of conduct in public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.  

Why should we be ethical? 

Just over a year ago the Court of Appeal ruled that the use of live facial recognition technology by South Wales Police was not only in breach of the Public Sector Equality Duty but was also capable of engaging and infringing Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has also  advised that public bodies ‘should not implement AI without understanding the legal framework’.  These concerns will become increasingly important to local planning authorities as technology is embedded in the physical fabric of our cities:  establishing good ethical standards for smart cities is a good way to mitigate these risks.   

It is also increasingly clear that when an algorithm has been trained on inadequate data or programmed badly its outputs can embed and amplify social inequities, and this is just what happened when the Government used predictive analytics to help with exam grading last year. While not illegal, the decision led to public protests against “mutant algorithms”.  The loss of public trust, not just in the government, but in technology generally, was significant and has not been helped by subsequent issues about sharing of individual’s health records.  As the Alan Turing Institute noted recently, “every data point is also a person”. Avoiding reputational damage is another reason to embed digital ethics into smart city governance. 

The final, and most optimistic, reason for having good digital ethics is to set a firm foundation for public-private data sharing. In the 1850s John Snow, a London Doctor, connected data about the people who suffered from a cholera epidemic with the location of a water pump on what is now Broadwick Street Soho, and used the combined data to prove that the disease was waterborne.  In 2021, the London Office of Technology and Innovation is carrying on this work by combining data sets to map digital exclusion.  Ethical digital practices ensure that the data generated by smart cities can continue to be used for everyone’s benefit. 

Where should we start? 

At a strategic level creating a trusted digital environment means new policies such as the emerging tech charter.  For individual organisations it could mean carrying out data audits, data privacy impact assessments or adding algorithmic bias to the existing risk assessment process.   Within London, whether you are a public or private sector company, the process can start very simply by signing up to the London Data Charter recently launched by London First.   The key thing to remember is that everyone connected with creating and maintaining smart cities has a responsibility for digital ethics too.   



Dr Sue Chadwick, a strategic planning advisor at Pinsent Masons LLP


Katherine Holden

Katherine Holden

Head of Data Analytics, AI and Digital ID, techUK

Katherine joined techUK in May 2018 and currently leads the Data Analytics, AI and Digital ID programme. 

Prior to techUK, Katherine worked as a Policy Advisor at the Government Digital Service (GDS) supporting the digital transformation of UK Government.

Whilst working at the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) Katherine led AMRC’s policy work on patient data, consent and opt-out.    

Katherine has a BSc degree in Biology from the University of Nottingham.

[email protected]
020 7331 2019

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