Citizen’s Engagement in Urban Data Initiatives: A typology outlining citizens’ engagement in local data initiatives


As part of the Digital Helpdesk for Cities and the recent launch of the Cities and Digital Human Rights platform, a second mentoring session was held with two policy experts in urban data governance. Simon Chignard and Paul Boettcher, both deeply engaged in exploring how city governments involve citizens in data initiatives and governance practices, shared valuable insights on current approaches to residents’ roles in data initiatives, governance practices, and strategies to build a smarter and more sustainable urban future.

The webinar served as an invaluable opportunity to comprehend challenges and strive for positive outcomes, including the development of a typology outlining citizens’ engagement in local data initiatives. This enlightening 60-minute session took place on February 13, 2024, attracting a diverse audience of over 40 participants from across the globe.

Participating experts

Paul Boettcher is a public policy advisor specialising in urban data governance and emerging technologies. He currently works for Germany’s state-owned in-house consultancy that advises national, regional, and local governments on issues around the role of data and its governance.

Simon Chignard is a freelance consultant and policy advisor. As an advisor to the French Prime Minister from 2014 to 2021, he contributed to designing and implementing a legal and technical framework on data and artificial intelligence. He works for different organisations at the national and international levels, including the Open Data Institute and Luminate. Additionally, he holds a teaching position at SciencesPo (Paris).

Both experts actively collaborate with UN-Habitat and the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, where they serve as technical experts in the field of urban data. Their collaboration involves working closely with cities and colleagues across Europe, contributing valuable insights to advance the responsible and effective use of data in urban contexts.

Typology and outcomes from the pilot

In the context of cities generating substantial volumes of data and their citizens assuming an active role rather than remaining passive contributors, Paul Boettcher and Simon Chignard presented the outcomes of a pilot study conducted across 11 European cities (Bratislava, Dublin, Den Haag, Sofia, Helsinki, Rennes, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Berlin, Hamburg, and Ghent).

The study aimed to illustrate how citizens engage and are aware of their ability to influence the collection, management, and use of urban data governance.

The research started from two broad assumptions: (1) citizens’ engagement and participation in data governance can mean very different things, and (2) citizens’ engagement in data governance is currently not widespread and little is known about the topic.

The exploration delved into a ‘Typology’, an analysis and identification of seven types or roles of citizens engaging with data at the local level:

  1. Recipients of information: Citizens that act more passively in the data collection and use processes, such as participating in city dashboards, maps and transparency initiatives (11 out of 11 cities).
  2. Participants in data collection initiatives: Citizens that are part of the data process, including its collection, generation, use and share. A mix of citizen science and crowdsourcing to collect data (8 out of 11 cities).
  3. Skilled data reusers: Citizens who participate and contribute to open data initiatives and data challenges such as hackathons (5 out of 11 cities).
  4. Participants in data literacy initiatives: Citizens with data awareness and literacy participating in digital literacy programmes and workshops (4 out of 11 cities).
  5. Participants in public consultations: Citizens who are part of developing smart city strategies, platforms, and ad-hoc consultations (4 out of 11 cities).
  6. Data controllers: Citizens that actively take control of their data and can decide to share data for public interest (4 out of 11 cities).
  7. Producers of digital footprint: Data is shared by 3rd parties with or without knowledge or consent from users (3 out of 11 cities).

After the experts shared these seven types of citizens identified in the research, they presented the four main outcomes of this pilot of data initiatives at the local level.

  1. Lack of strategy: Most of the initiatives were opportunistic initiatives based on pilots without long-term strategies, lacking a global vision of the role of citizens and having limited participants.
  2. Lack of assessment: The impacts of citizens’ engagement in data initiatives are rarely assessed.
  3. Low involvement of citizens: There is a limited influence on local decision-making in the cities researched since citizens are rarely involved in political decision-making and it rarely relies on data collected from citizens.
  4. Need for more participation: Data collection initiatives have a participation effect, and they are often very welcome.

Experts’ recommendations

Before concluding the experts’ presentation, they listed five recommendations (which they are still working on) but summarised their suggestions for data collection initiatives.

  1. Start small: The learning process should start with pilots to develop more ambitious projects.
  2. Relevance: Explain the relevance, benefits, and reasons behind the participation process to incentivise citizens and municipal staff motivation and engagement.
  3. Internal structures: Observe the internal structures of the organizations to understand the responsibilities and consequences of holding, processing, and controlling the data of citizens. Also, study alternative models and experiences that could fit the organization.
  4. Strategic involvement: Focus on the strategic involvement and engagement of stakeholders across ecosystems (political, administrative, and civil society) to ensure continuity and trust.
  5. Holistic approach: Cities should take a holistic approach and consider the 7 citizens’ roles.

Interactive questions and Q&A

After the experts’ presentation, three interactive questions were asked to understand the participants’ views and needs of their cities.

  • What approaches are taking place in your community?: Most of the participants answered that citizens are acting as recipients of information, followed by participants in data collection initiatives and public consultations, which is also consistent with the results of the research presented.
  • What of these approaches would you like to strengthen in the near future?: Participants prioritised citizens as skilled data reusers, followed by participants in public consultations and data literacy initiatives, which acts as a call for action for more participation from citizens.
  • What is needed to engage citizens in local data governance?: The majority replied that is necessary to increase training and capacity building, followed by increasing data literacy within the community.

In the Q&A section, attendees and experts delved into the underutilization of data collected by citizens by policymakers, either for reasons related to privacy, trust, validity, or representation. The experts noted that citizens, too, are not strategically leveraging the collected data to hold decision-makers accountable. A question arose concerning incentives and engaging the youth community in the data collection process. To answer, the experts highlighted the Dublin pilot project, where the engagement was achieved through school programmes, aligning with the overall strategy of the city.

The experts also addressed the issue of projects not progressing beyond the pilot phase, attributing this to factors such as insufficient public funds or key personnel within the municipality project leadership resigning from their positions. This occurred despite the valuable experience gained from the pilot projects.

Regarding the government’s role in urban data, the experts emphasized its leadership function, positioning it not only as a regulator but also as a facilitator of citizens’ engagement. Additionally, they emphasized the government’s role as a user of this data. Concerning this dimension, the experts highlighted the significance of public-private partnerships for the accurate collection and procurement of data.

Finally, they noted that despite the project’s focus on European cities, there are parallel and transferable aspects applicable to other cities and continents, particularly concerning the training of public servants and data management. As a further call to action, the session highlighted the potential expansion of the project to other regions across the globe.

Material and upcoming events

To review the mentoring material, you can access the recording of the session, the experts’ presentation and the guide that summarises the research.

Also, to explore more about how cities around the world are championing Digital Rights transformations and establishing frameworks to enhance their collective understanding and commitment, we invite you to check our resources available here and to participate in future mentorship sessions or opportunities to apply these learnings in your context.

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