Das demokratische Potenzial der Digitalisierung c Heinrich Holtgreve Ostkreuz

The Democratic Potential of Digitalisation

by Arne Semsrott

The world’s knowledge is harboured in PDFs that no one reads. Knowledge of our environment is there but the data generated by researchers and consultants cannot be found as it is held captive in state-owned file cabinets or decaying behind the paywalls of private publishing houses.

But actually, the Aarhus Convention, which Germany ratified in 2007, offers a solid framework for creating transparency in the ecological realm. This international treaty, valid at EU level and in all EU member states, gives every individual the right to receive environmental information from the state. For the protection of the environment politics and the state are required to be transparent. In Germany the convention was enshrined in law as the Umweltinformationsgesetz (Environment Data Law). The law clarifies what here is by no means taken for granted: that hegemonic knowledge belongs to yesterday. The state’s knowledge is also the citizen’s. Strictly speaking, ecological data gathered by public sector bodies must be made available on demand. If such data needs to be kept secret the grounds must be substantively stated. Since the notion of environmental data is very broadly defined – in principle encompassing whatever concerns air, earth and water, anything that stinks, is noisy or has a harmful effect ovn something – in recent years the Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution) in North Rhine Westphalia, for instance, had to comply with
the request from the transparency platform to reveal which public sourcesit was using to observe activities by the environmental activist movement Ende Gelände.

In the Ruhr Area, too, increasing volumes of data are being made public. On the Ruhr Area’s official open data platform, participating local authorities want to centrally publish data records – such as tree cadastres, climate data and specialist reports – and release them for public re-use. The Regionalverband Ruhr (Regional Association Ruhr) has published a comprehensive overview of all the climate analysis reports compiled since 1974. Activists from the campaign group Open Ruhr, for instance, meet regularly to process and make usable publicly available data from the region by means, say, of outline maps and visualisations. Branches of the citizens’ clean air campaign group are also located in the Ruhr Area. They endeavour to fill the gaps in the data reported by public authorities by providing their own data. With low-cost home-made apparatus project participants can build air sensors and from their own balconies measure fine particle pollution in their vicinity, data that is then automatically published online for free further use. Thus over the years thousands of air sensors have generated a remarkable image of the development in fine dust in German and other cities throughout the world. In combination with projects such as Open Street Map this data can then be used freely in a variety of contexts.

Yet this transparency guideline has yet by no means been adopted by all German public bodies. These frequently exploit legal loopholes to evade meeting their obligations. For example, by charging fees for providing information they can in effect impede transparency. In general, up to 500 Euros can be charged for complex information requests; in Bavaria this can be as high as 2,500 Euros. And the law also says nothing about the form in which citizens are to be given their requested data. Thus, the Federal Ministry of Transport has now begun responding to data requests by first printing the data records in part as Excel charts, scanning them, then printing them off again on paper and sending them to petitioners by mail. Clearly, they are formally fulfilling their obligation to provide data but such askew photocopies of data charts are obviously of no further use to anyone.

A free system of ecological data, however, is a precondition for democratic emancipation. Working with official data, the vast pool of expert knowledge in the population, frequently ignored by politics, would find a broad audience.
Were citizens able to inform themselves in advance about political developments they could exert influence earlier on. Logically, open-resource information from public administration is used with particular intensity above all in contexts that offer opportunities for civic participation. For example, the city of Madrid has for several years now linked its administrative data with the autonomously programmed online platform Consul through which city citizens can participate in decisions about part of the municipal budget. Consul is free and open-access software that can also be used by other municipalities – by now with users in 33 countries. Free software is considerably better value than their commercial equivalents, and an important factor in making municipalities independent of major corporations such as Microsoft. These in turn have already started to avidly sell commercial software solutions to local authorities for measuring flows of traffic, energy and people – and, quite incidentally, to use this data for their own business models. For instance, Deutsche Telekom and the IT company Cisco have been collaborating to sell “intelligent parking guidance systems” and street lighting systems to cities from Hamburg to Pisa that simultaneously collect data on temperature and light conditions. In future, one component of such packages will be the inclusion of increasingly automated decision-making processes in which the measurement of certain data will have real impact – from policing operations based on “predictive policing” to performance tests of city staff.

The question of technological sovereignty is particularly relevant for “smart cities”. As part of its Smart Cities Mission India will be investing some 15 billion US$ in the period up to 2022 to make one hundred municipalities “smart”. In these towns large sections of municipal infrastructure will be connected to the Internet of Things. Sensors installed in cars, video cameras, street lamps, traffic lights, gardens and terraced houses will collect data about urban life.

In Germany, the Federal Ministry of Construction and Urban Development is also investing: for instance, 17 million Euros in a model project involving Soest, Olpe, Menden, Arnsberg and Bad Berleburg. From 2020 onwards, these five towns are intended to research possible avenues to determine the future shape of integrated urban development that will incorporate aspects of digitisation and sustainability – in ecological, economic and social respects. In the long term, isolated solutions for individual municipalities have no future. To an even greater extent than individual “smart cities” it is “smart regions” that offer potential for sustainable solutions. The Ruhr Area is one such region. Shared open software and hardware solutions together with mobility concepts capable of being reutilised not only create synergy effects but also save money. To this end, collaboration between individual municipalities must be deepened. Competition among one another makes no sense when innovation can only succeed in collaboration. For instance, apps based on mobile data function only if data is made available not just by Dortmund but also by Duisburg and Bochum. Since people move around the region in their daily lives rather than keeping within city limits concepts for sustainable urban development need to broaden their focus to include the entire region. Here, the crucial question is whether the town of tomorrow will make municipal data freely accessible just to companies or to everyone. Whether control of the algorithms underlying these processes is in the public domain or they are protected as trade secrets for private enterprise is ultimately of key significance for the legitimacy of democracy.

There are numerous possibilities for making the “smart town” technologically autonomous – with individually developed soft- and hardware that are openly accessible and belong to the public domain. Society’s informationalsovereignty is linked to the technological sovereignty of its infrastructure. Whoever controls the data also controls society.

In September 2019, under the title Digital Change: the Cultural Potential of Technology, the 8th Kulturkonferenz Ruhr was held at the Dortmund U, Center for Arts and Creativity. The programme conceived by, among others, Inke Arns (Hartware Medien-KunstVerein), Stefan Hilterhaus (PACT Zollverein) and Fabian Saavedra-Lara ( addressed, for good reason, the handling of citizens’ digital data. By inviting Francesca Bria, digital innovation officer for the city of Barcelona, to hold the keynote speech the event also pointed to a fundamentally different and democratic path. Following on from the conference, the author Arne Semsrott explores the range of conditions, possibilities and obstacles in the Ruhr Area.

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