‘Inclusive, digital city with equal rights for all’

Alderwoman Digital City Touria Meliani presented Amsterdam's first Data Strategy this year. In this interview she explains why Amsterdam is committed to an inclusive digital city in which everyone has equal rights and opportunities. Striving for a society based on ethical values is a task that concerns everyone. She therefore invites Amsterdammers to monitor the impact of the Data Strategy and to sound the alarm if certain groups of citizens are disadvantaged by new ways of working digitally. She also calls on everyone to take part in this process.

You are the first alderwoman for the Digital City of the Netherlands, the council has included the Tada values in the Coalition Agreement, a Digital Agenda and now a Data Strategy that puts Tada values and digital rights first. Why is this such an important topic in Amsterdam?

Meliani : It is an important subject because digitization, or rather the use of ICT and the increasing use of data, is changing our way of working and living together. We can no longer imagine the computers, smartphones and apps in our lives without it. We can do more with technology and ICT. The downside of using it is that everything we do with it is also recorded with data. We leave digital traces everywhere and we don’t really know who knows what about us and how those digital traces are used – and sometimes abused – to influence our thinking and acting. As a citizen, you want to know whether the information about you is being used in the right way by governments and companies. If this is not the case, then you also want to make use of your fundamental right to assert your rights. For example, if you believe that information about you is incorrect or is used without your permission. But, how can you obtain your rights if we cannot make clear what exactly your rights are in a digital world and if we do not agree with governments, companies and citizens which values and standards are important to us. After all, you have to make clear agreements before you can be held accountable for your actions. These agreements are extremely important for Amsterdam. We want to be an inclusive city where everyone is treated equally and has equal rights and opportunities. Unfortunately, that is not yet self-evident. Tada taught the city that openness and transparency are a good start, but that only by working together can trust be built. Maintaining the human dimension in the midst of a digitizing world does not happen by itself, we all have to commit ourselves to that.

The Data Strategy is based on two objectives: citizens have a say over their data and data about the city belongs to the city. With this, the city wants to counterbalance what is called the ‘unsustainable data economy’ in the Data Strategy. That is indeed sorely needed. But Amsterdam cannot do this alone. What can Amsterdam do to stimulate the digital society based on ethical values at national and European level?

We will first have to ensure that we all put ethical values first. I mean politicians, business and citizens. We must ensure that we all have and pursue a common interest, an interest in which the citizen is central and not the government or economic interests. We do this by keeping it on the different political agendas, locally, nationally and internationally, by discussing this with each other, but also by sharing scientific knowledge with each other. The aim is that a society based on ethical values is self-evident. That business models are not based on collecting and trading data. For example, we are now thinking about sustainability. That was a left-wing hobby 25 years ago and now sustainability is featured in the annual reports of, for example, Shell and Tata Steel.

What can Amsterdam citizens, companies and science do to give force to such a change?

We must keep the subject on the agendas and continue to discuss it. If we don’t think it’s important enough, the other interests will take over. And it certainly manages to find a good balance between all political and economic interests. Take an example like child labour. Public outcry is now widespread when companies are associated with child labour. You can’t imagine that 120 years ago it wasn’t an issue at all to let children work. I do hope it won’t be another 100 years before we realize that digitization is important and that we have to put people first. We as a society and as a politician have an important role to play in this. We must and can focus on these kinds of ethical values and we are also much more powerful than we think. If no one uses a certain platform anymore because, for example, privacy is not guaranteed, then such a platform no longer has a right to exist. Public opinion is a powerful weapon.

Collaboration can also take place at a different administrative level. Mayor Halsema emphasizes the importance of the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area (MRA). Does a responsible digital city also require regional cooperation, and on which points specifically?

I support all forms of cooperation. The existing administrative partnerships can certainly be used. But they are geographically limited and have as priority the administrative task for which they were engaged at the time. The digital world is separate from these boundaries. That is why we are also working on a European level and we are looking for cooperation on a global scale. A good example is the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights. Where we, together with several world cities, make a case for human rights in a digital world. I am very satisfied with the efforts of the world cities that are taking the lead in this, apart from the national governments.

The digital city theme is currently not part of the MRA agenda. How would you like to organize the collaboration? And do you see a leading role in this for Amsterdam?

Yes, I think Amsterdam should play a pioneering role. By sharing information and best practices, stimulating initiatives and participating in new collaborations. We have a tradition to uphold as a liberal guide city.

Amsterdam has already introduced a number of concrete things, such as an algorithm register. Is there an (expected) outcome that you are proud of and would recommend to any congregation in the MRA?

We have elaborated the Tada principles, expressed in the Tada manifesto, in our Data Strategy and I am very pleased that the province of Noord-Holland has also endorsed the same principles in the recently published Data Strategy 2021-2023. Internally, the principles are being applied more widely. Municipalities such as Utrecht and Eindhoven have now also drawn up their own values framework. I would like to advise every municipality to endorse shared digitization values and to elaborate them in a data strategy. What will you do to be able to account for the use of data in your organization according to these principles? Within Amsterdam it has become a matter of course to reflect on the six Tada values in data and digitization projects, it is increasingly intertwined in the culture. I am proud of this. This means that we can immediately discuss the effect of digitization on residents and the city. This is necessary to justify the explainability and legality of digitization. It also makes implicit considerations explicit. We will continue to strengthen these kinds of things in the coming period. You see that the subject moves from incidental to structural.

There is a call from society for a minister for Digital Affairs. How do you, as alderwoman for the Digital City, view the idea of a Minister for Digital Country?

In itself a good idea to express the importance and urgency. But every minister has to deal with digitization. You cannot view digitization, the use of ICT and the use of data separately from the service provision or the approach to a social issue. I therefore believe that a minister should be responsible for his portfolio in such a way that he is accountable for goals, results, finances and ICT and the use of data. A Minister of Digital Affairs then has a system responsibility, responsible for the entirety of ICT and data policy and the specific objectives involved. That’s how we organized it in Amsterdam. You can compare it with the duties and responsibilities of the Minister of Finance.

Simon Mulder, one of the interviewees in the Data Strategy, thinks the Amsterdam intentions of the data policy are good. But, he says, we must continue to look at it critically. How can Simon and other citizens verify that the Data Strategy is being implemented?

The Data Strategy contains 18 actions for the next two years. We have included the actions in the Data Strategy to indicate concretely what we will do differently. Of course, as an organization we need to do much more to achieve our ambitions. I recently got the Interim report Digital City Agenda (PDF in Dutch) published. What I want from Simon and all Amsterdammers is not so much to have them watch us as an accountant whether we are carrying out the actions, but more to monitor the impact of the actions in society and to sound the alarm if certain groups of citizens are disadvantaged by new ways of working digitally. And if you have good ideas, think along to make our services even better. This is possible during information meetings and city discussions. At the next city meeting you can have a say in our participation policy. For that, go to: www.amsterdam.nl/bestuur-organisatie/inspraak-beleidskader-participation (in Dutch).

Are there opportunities for citizens to discuss and participate in decisions?

In addition to the existing possibilities for participation in the committee or in the council and being able to follow the policy on the municipality’s website, I want to introduce new working methods to allow citizens to participate in the data debate. I am thinking of community building and the power of commons to make the impact of digitization in the city visible and to learn from local initiatives. Commons is the collective name for cooperative citizens’ initiatives. For example, digital encyclopedia Wikipedia was created as a citizens’ initiative and you see great initiatives in many neighborhoods to support residents and keep the streets clean and safe. I wholeheartedly support new citizens’ initiatives that monitor the consequences of digitization in the city. We now know that we should not focus on the ease of digitization, but that we should be aware of the side effects. I want to be able to act faster and make adjustments when I receive signals from society.

The Tada platform now focuses on ethical entrepreneurs and buyers, among other things. Amsterdam has many ethical entrepreneurs who develop responsible data applications. It is a challenge for entrepreneurs to market their applications. Buyers indicate that they do want to make a responsible choice, but that it is difficult. For example, because responsible applications require different infrastructure and different skills from employees. In what ways does the municipality support ethical entrepreneurs (and thus the development and implementation of responsible applications)? For example with the purchasing policy?

As governments, we must first create a market for ethical solutions. We do this by participating ourselves, such as the Responsible Sensing Lab’s collaboration with AMS Institute, where we research the impact of technology on humans, or by granting subsidies, such as a subsidy to the digital platform Maex (in Dutch). It is also important to make it clear as an organization that we are looking for ethical solutions and that we also include this in our purchasing policy. For example in the field of data and AI.

Do you have a concrete example of that? For example, the municipality that acts as the launching customer of responsible data solutions?

I think Tada is a good example of an initiative from society that we as a council have embraced and included in the council agreement. Although these are six principles, they do provide a clear direction for what we consider important in Amsterdam. The principles express a clear ethical vision on the use of data.

What obstacles does the municipality face? And why is the responsible solution chosen despite the challenges?

There is a great temptation to opt for the quick solution at the lowest cost. With our Data Strategy, we now know what our ambitions are for the longer term and that we must always be able to justify the use of data. We have to take this into account and already factor this into our considerations. We should also not be guided by the standard solutions of the market, but be critical and flexible to find new solutions.

Tada has a wide support in the city. Citizens, organizations and companies have signed it and have started working on it. Citizens feel addressed because it is not a technical discussion but about ethical values. The Tada values are used within the municipal organization. Entrepreneurs develop methods to make their services and products meet the Tada values. Can you give some examples of ways in which Tada and Amsterdam are already working together to involve citizens, companies and the civil service in the theme of a responsible digital city?

We work together with the Amsterdam Economic Board and we want to develop a Tada platform in which we want to connect supply and demand in the field of ethical digital solutions. You have to think of a kind of Tripadvisor, but then for ethical solutions and all possible information to help you in your search. As I said before, we must work together to create a market for people-oriented technology in which our values are safeguarded. I sometimes call it public values by design. And it starts very basic to connect supply and demand on a large scale. We work closely with social institutions such as Waag, Bits of Freedom, Open State Foundation and Code for NL. Together with the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, we have also started the Responsible IT lectorate to strengthen the collaboration between students, teachers, IT professionals, start-ups, and the inhabitants of the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area.

It’s 2025. What is the most important thing for you that Tada and Amsterdam have achieved together?

That digital values are self-evident and that governments, companies and citizens together maintain the values. That we digitize value-driven and put the rights of Amsterdammers first and that everyone can develop freely and equally in the physical and digital city of Amsterdam.

1 July 2021

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