The consultation paper on the National Urban Innovation Stack by the MoUA states that Urban Stack aims to bridge the digital gap between cities and alleviate poverty, but it conveniently ignores the effects of data marginalization.
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MOST governments, in collaboration with private companies have been hurriedly attempting to create “smart cities”, in order to, apparently, enable sustainability, mobility and create economic opportunities, particularly for citizens residing in destitute areas and slums. In India, the “smart cities” initiative began to take shape in 2015 with the motive of bridging the digital divide between the urban and rural cities, and to enable development and quality of life through “smart solutions”. Though “smart solutions” might seem tantalizing, and might also end up enabling sustainability and creating opportunities, one must contemplate the costs that arise with them as well.
As a part of the “smart cities” initiative, which has not necessarily seen the light of day for the most part, the National Urban Innovation Stack has been proposed by the Union Ministry of Urban Affairs (‘MoUA’). Much like India Stack, this initiative has been constructed to utilize already existing data and technology to “bridge the gap”, and connect governments and citizens. However, inevitably, this ‘gap’ has been bridged through private players acting as intermediaries, and constructing the software. One of the components of Urban Stack is the India Urban Data Exchange, which is an open-source access to cities’ data created in the form of an Application Programming Interface (‘API’), hence enabling the identification of stagnant and unused data, and the exchange and interface of it through data platforms, ideally resulting in innovation and community benefit while reducing costs.
The APIs and the entity designing them are essentially left ungoverned, as there is neither a categorized and specific data protection law in place for the citizens, nor is there a non-ambiguous explication of how the data usage by the entities can be restricted, and how privacy will be maintained.
An interesting factor that weighs in, is the fact that while open APIs ideally indicate that the software is available to all consumers unreservedly, it is not as equitable as it seems. The entity with the ultimate control over who can access the software would essentially be the private party that designs it, or possibly the MoUA, which initiated the plan. The entity that designs the software, given how it is a private entity, would attempt to monetize the opportunity, and possibly give itself or its ancillaries preferential treatment over others without hindrances.
Most importantly, the usage of API would imply that all private data, including location data, property records, and license plates, among others, will be in the hands of the private entity and the government, in the name of public safety and development. This implies that the collection of personal data, which in itself is questionable and would, if actually allowable, be a public function, is being performed by a private entity.
This is an insurmountable and arbitrary level of power granted to them, which can indubitably be exploited. The APIs and the entity designing them are essentially left ungoverned, as there is neither a categorized and specific data protection law in place for the citizens, nor is there a non-ambiguous explication of how the data usage by the entities can be restricted, and how privacy will be maintained. This is possibly the most appalling bet that the government can make in the name of development, especially given how the process of data exchange and the powers of the designer of the API are rather ambiguous, leaving the scope of exploitation of personal data by the software designers to be incalculable.
The consultation paper on the National Urban Innovation Stack by the MoUA states that Urban Stack aims to bridge the digital gap between cities and alleviate poverty.
The health and sanitation initiatives that are apparently performed primarily for the impoverished section of the society will seemingly not benefit them at all in actuality, and would mostly benefit the relatively wealthier neighbourhoods whose demands can actually be tracked due to the existence of trackable data.
While the intention is rather optimistic, one must acknowledge that most urban local bodies do not recognize slums at all in the first place, which already creates massive inequalities. The number of slums in India have been greatly underreported, which implies that any budgetary allocations done in order to “alleviate poverty”, would have inevitably resulted in inequitable distribution of benefits.
The consultation paper, while it primarily focuses on utilizing cities’ urban data to bridge gaps and enable counter benefits, conveniently ignores the effects of data marginalization. Urban Stack plans to facilitate health and sanitation-based initiatives through the data of the people that will be collected and recycled. Though the question regarding whether the government, especially when a private party is privy to its activities, can actually gather such data with an incoherent explanation of how consent will be obtained is one to be asked, one must also acknowledge that a significant portion of the Indian population have not been granted the privilege to be able to ask the very question, due to the non-existence of data regarding them.
The health and sanitation initiatives that are apparently performed primarily for the impoverished section of the society will seemingly not benefit them at all in actuality, and would mostly benefit the relatively wealthier neighbourhoods whose demands can actually be tracked due to the existence of trackable data. This is clearly counter-productive as the initiatives would apply where the demand is trackable, that is, in the wealthier neighbourhoods, rather than applying where it ideally must apply and is most needed.
While the consultation paper emphasises that innovation shall be facilitated, the process of implementation, the role of private players, the extent of the private players’ power while constructing ‘smart cities’, and several other aspects remain undiscussed and ambiguous. Not only does this imply that there would be a cause for concern regarding how the public’s data will be utilized, but also that the initiative could potentially be additive. The developers, due to the convenient ambiguity of the consultation paper, could potentially add onto their existing functions and perform tasks that were not prescribed or anticipated at all. This would actually be rather simple, given how regulations regarding the utilization of data are non-existent, and how the consultation paper does not limit the scope of their powers coherently.
The content of the agreements between the private players and the government have also not been disclosed, which creates further apprehension regarding the extent of power that has been granted to them while collecting personal data.
This could also indubitably result in the commodification of people’s data, where private parties can use the information that they obtain to further their own commercial interests unboundedly. One can also not rule out the possibility of a personal data leak when APIs are concerned, given how there have been several such instances already seen in the past.
The content of the agreements between the private players and the government have also not been disclosed, which creates further apprehension regarding the extent of power that has been granted to them while collecting personal data. The consultation paper too remains rather vague regarding how consent can and should be obtained from the people while collecting their personal data, which too, is a cause for concern.
Even placing Urban Stack under scrutiny or expressing dissent towards it by the public is difficult, since access to intricate and significant information regarding the utilization of data, the agreement between the parties, and expression of consent have not been publicly disclosed.
Another issue that arises, is the fact that software developers and the controllers of the API could potentially be given the power to determine how urban governance will be performed. For example, Urban India Connect, one of the components of Urban Stack, basically attempts to integrate stakeholders with common concerns and bring them within a common ecosystem where the data requirements of one another can be fulfilled through sharing and exchange. This essentially implies that the government will be involving private parties in the decision-making process regarding matters of urban governance. If a tender for a certain government project has been initiated, the government authority may essentially consult or collaborate with a private entity to determine the entire process of it, which will inevitably result in a lack of accountability, and the transfer of the role of governance to firms and investors.
Private data would get exposed, tracked and marketized by private players and the government, through sensors, cameras and other software whose potential remains untested as of now.
Even if the consultation paper elucidated thoroughly how consent shall be obtained, one simply cannot estimate and easily comprehend the impact of their consent. Moreover, given how the data being collected is seemingly for “public interest”, the public is not essentially spoilt for choice regarding consent. Further, due to there being no specified limit to the extent of data that can be collected, the private players, and resultantly the government, will have access to intricate private data that grants them an insurmountable amount of power, paired with a lack of accountability, which is evidently not an ideal combination. Through Urban Stack, private data would get exposed, tracked and marketized by private players and the government, through sensors, cameras and other software whose potential remains untested as of now.
To conclude, the implementation of Urban Stack would require appropriate and thorough provisions regarding data protection, which do not exist at present. The lack of transparency, accountability and protection of the public’s data is rather appalling, and the implementation of Urban Stack could truly wreak havoc on the citizens, while serving the commercial interests of private companies and the government.