Smart cities for the many

The founder and director of Worker Info Exchange looks at how big datat can be used in the service of workers and citizens, not just large multinational corporations

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How can a smart city work for the benefit of the many when only a few get to command the data it generates? This is a question looming large for local authorities everywhere, especially in the area of public transport systems. Certainly, tech-enabled optimisation holds the promise of reduced environmental impact and speedier journey times. But, of course, this depends on who holds the data and whether optimisation is carried out in the interests of profit or people.

Increasingly, gig economy transport operators such as Uber and ViaVan are seeking to integrate seamlessly with our public transport system if not eclipse it. Exploitative business models in this sector profit from an asymmetry in power over data between the employer and its workers. They offer the impossible dream of unlimited flexibility to work when and where you want and to be your own boss, but in reality it’s a digital delusion. The flexibility is made possible by chronic oversupply of the platform leading to wasteful underutilisation of worker time and vehicle assets, not to mention the knock-on effect on the environment. Platform operators have been set back by a run of successful challenges against them in employment tribunals, but they are quickly adapting. New evidence of management control, crucial to any employment rights claim, is increasingly hard to pin down when so much of management practice is buried in the algorithm. Electronic tags are secretly used to classify worker behaviour and performance before being used in decision making about the future quality and quantity of work offered.

The number of licensed private hire vehicles in the capital has doubled in recent years to 90,000 today and keeps on growing despite the mayor’s decision to stem growth by removing the congestion charge exemption from minicabs in April this year. The decision is being challenged in the courts by the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union, of which I am a member and the founder of the drivers division, who say it indirectly discriminates against a 94 per cent Black and Minority Ethnic workforce whilst the 85 per cent white British taxi driver workforce continues to remain exempt. The IWGB say the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, should instead follow the lead of the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio who tackled the congestion problem by restricting the number of licenses issued and ensuring minimum wage protection.

One key difference between the approaches taken in the two cities to regulate ride share firms is public access to data, with the New York City authorities having full access  while Transport for London is forced to fly blind. After crunching huge volumes of data, New York authorities found that 85 per cent of drivers were earning below minimum wage and as much as 42 per cent of time on the road was spent idle, waiting for work. While that idle time is costly to the driver and to communities suffering the attendant congestion and reduced air quality, it is hugely valuable to Uber to have plenty of drivers on standby as it strengthens the reach and responsiveness of its network.

San Francisco recently successfully sued to secure its right to access transport data locked up on private app platforms. But here in the United Kingdom, although the government is in the process of overhauling legislation for the taxi and private hire industry, there is no plan to secure the right of cities to access data from apps, or to limit licensing, or even to protect the rights of precarious workers publicly licensed in the industry. This lack of ambition to collect data is a cause for worry even at the highest levels of the Department for Transport, as minutes from a meeting between then minister Chris Grayling and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi last autumn show.

In Barcelona however, we see a glimpse of what is possible where chief technology officer Francesca Bria is turning the concept of the smart city on its head and making data work for the citizens who generate it. The price of a public contract with the city is a commitment to share data for the common good and recently Barcelona reached agreement with Vodafone that data associated with its public contracts should be returned to the city. Using a platform called Decidim, citizens gain more sovereignty over their data and get to participate in decision making about how the smart city should work for its citizens rather than the other way around.

Gaining access to the data they generate is vital too for gig workers, particularly those in the transport sector, not only so they can effectively assert their employment rights but also so they can lobby against having to carry an unfair share of the regulatory burden while app companies escape completely free.

In the UK, the Worker Info Exchange (WIE) is a non-profit aiming to help gig workers fill a gap left by the failure of government to protect the data and employment rights of their citizens. Taking advantage of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), app drivers have the right to request their data and port a copy of it to organisations like WIE where it can be analysed individually and collectively. Drivers can at last level the playing field with operators like Uber to learn how much they’ve really earned, how long they’ve worked and how much they may be owed in back pay and holiday pay. Working with their union they can gather evidence of management control to assert employment rights and challenge unfair dismissals. They can use the data to show local authorities that the real cause of congestion is the app business model oversupplying the market because it carries absolutely no responsibility for the costs to do so. However, asserting data rights can be as maddeningly slow and as deliberately obstructed as asserting employment rights. Firms like Uber will thrash about and resist but the law is on the workers’ and citizens’ side and will ultimately prevail. For the dream of a smart city to truly come alive, we need our municipal leaders to start doing the right thing to help citizens reclaim sovereignty over their data, just as they have in New York and Barcelona. It’s time to reclaim data for the many, not the few.

Worker Info Exchange is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.