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Civic data trusts — what are they and why do they matter?

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What makes a smart city, smart? Technology and data may be the enablers, but how to best balance the use of these enablers with the interests of individuals, communities and society at large, is still a work in progress.

As governments look to smart city solutions to improve liveability, promote economic growth and fuel innovation, they’re faced with increasing complexities and rising concerns from citizens — where do we draw the line between protection and privacy? Between convenience and control?

While cities have long grappled with such questions, initiatives like Sidewalk Toronto — the brainchild of Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs — have reignited and heightened debate around what constitutes responsible data use in cities (thanks to the unprecedented level of ‘tracking’ it proposes).

Civic data trusts have emerged as the way forward. But will they become an innovative model of data management and governance, or a buzzword that fails to deliver?

Civic data what?

While exciting, civic data trusts are, at present, an ill-defined concept not widely understood. 

A civic data trust is a collection of data about a city; each trust is a formalised agreement that gives a trustee or a group of trustees the authority to make decisions about how a data asset can be used on behalf of a group of people within a community.

Simply put, it’s a new approach to the old trust model; the key difference being its focus on place, people and enabling public participation, meaning it should:

  1. keep data for and from public services in the public domain
  2. be transparent about data collection, ownership and use
  3. enable place-based interventions
  4. provide a model to ‘do less harm’.

What a civic data trust can’t do

In its infancy, perhaps the most effective way to understand the benefits of civic data trusts is to explore the limitations. While civic data trusts provide cities with a tool to better use data in a transparent and equitable way, it’s important to remember they are not:

  1. a panacea or replacement for laws and regulations
  2. a guaranteed, solve-all solution
  3. a magical pathway to create good governance or solve data stewardship issues.

Know the problem, realise the rewards

So, for cities looking to build a civic data trust or assess their merit, where to start? As with any smart solution, people must come first.

Understand the problem to define the opportunity — What problem must we solve? Why is that important? How does this meet the needs of our community? And what matters most to the people who matter most — our citizens?

Define a shared vision for change — A shared vision is critical to building shared understanding. Cities must be clear on what the civic data trust will do and who is needed to champion the change.

Deal with data –What data will the trust manage? Where will it come from? How will different data sets combine and interact? And importantly, what measures and controls (or governance) are needed to support the trust?

Engage the community — How can we engage with our community and leverage data in a way that builds confidence and improves outcomes for our city?

Civic data trusts undoubtedly fill a gap in existing governance practices, proving a new model for the use of collective data. In protecting both public and private interests, their promise is one of value and fairness for all. From driving more participatory digital transformation to empowering local communities in ways not experienced before, the potential is huge. But as cities look to civic data trusts to forge their future, they must continue to tread carefully, keeping both the opportunities and risks firmly in sight.

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