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Clarify your doubts with the orientation of experts. Participate in our mentoring space and go over this section where we will periodically be adding questions, answers, and ideas for your proposals and projects, based on our conversations.

Questions from the Community

We believe in collaboration and trust in the power of connections to drive innovative projects. Join us for mentoring, where we will discuss questions from our community and then add them to this section with answers.

Questions on digital transformation with a rights-based approach

The following questions were submitted by public servants from Latin American countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. This first selection was answered by Héctor Domínguez Aguirre, digital transformation expert and current Open Data, Privacy and Smart City Coordinator in Portland, USA.

The City of Portland has created a list of privacy and data protection principles to guide how we interact with personal or sensitive data.

These principles are underpinned by digital rights and fairness.

Transparency of data, operations, and decision-making have been key themes in building public trust.

Some strategies we have pursued are:

  • Creating trusted spaces for public discussion.
  • Creating institutions that ensure proper handling of sensitive data.
  • Public participation in decision-making.
  • Communicating internally with different groups within the city, elected officials, and key partners such as lawyers, the information security team, and the equity and human rights team.
  • Ongoing communications and digital education with the community including not only stakeholders such as marginalised communities and social organisations, but also the private sector and universities.

With a lot of patience. These relationships are based on mutual benefit and are based on mutual trust. Mutual trust is tested and when it is broken, work must be done to restore it. It takes time, effort and resources. Governments often do not see short-term benefits and accountability can be premature.

Community champions and sponsors must be sought from within and outside the city. Sponsors within the city can range from the project or programme manager to a publicly elected official. Community champions or sponsors can be local organisations that are already working with communities or individuals on the issue being addressed. In these linkages, trust must be mutual and can be formalised through covenants or agreements that clearly define boundaries of action.

Effective public participation also requires preparation and education on the issue. This digital education allows for better alignment and agreements. We recommend investing resources so that the community has access to events that enable people to participate. For example, offering incentives for time spent, paying for transportation and food, childcare, using simple and accessible language, providing interpretation or translated materials, etc.

We at Portland use different strategies:

  • We start with small projects that can scale, where the investment is not so large and the benefits are tangible.
  • We invite colleagues from other cities who have developed successful projects and have experience in the field. For example, our privacy programme has been advised by the Seattle team, and the surveillance technologies project has been supported by the Oakland privacy committee.
  • We also invite experts, most often academics or non-governmental organisations working on digital transformation or impacts. Sometimes we have also invited groups within companies, although we ask them not to market or promote their products.
  • We offer ongoing collaboration to groups within the city that want to test information technologies or new technologies. We do this on a consultancy basis or as an ongoing collaboration, depending on the project.
  • We offer lectures and trainings to public leaders, elected officials or general administrators.
  • We have worked with human resources to prepare digital education materials for all city employees. More recently, we have supported memos on artificial intelligence.

When capacity is scarce, you have to be strategic.

  • On the one hand, you can start by identifying the critical aspects of technology implementation. For example, in public safety or transport.
  • Look for projects that have a positive impact and require few resources. For example, review technologies in current use and transform them into a digital rights framework.
  • Find partners or collaborators within these organisations.
  • Secure a minimum budget or perhaps staff hours for digital rights operations or tasks.
  • Use some of those hours for education, within the group and in those strategic relationships.
  • You can also look for regional partnerships and seek support from cities or networks with more resources.
  • Spend some time informing the community, for example by organising face-to-face or online events. Collaborate with other programmes that already have these community relationships.
  • Internet access programmes are a good place to start.

Different organisations, non-profit and academic, have public participation frameworks in general (such as the OECD). I think that, in reality, local communities already have their own history of how they relate to local government.

Often you have scenarios where only a small group is always involved and this can generate echo chambers and self-validation. It is always good to look for alternatives and ask who is not part of this conversation.
Use multiple means of communication. For example, online forms, face-to-face events, digital documents where people can add comments (which can be anonymous or not), emails, using communication campaigns.

We also see public outreach as a way to generate value and ownership of people within communities. This can be complicated because people’s lives are complicated and there is always history involved.

However, we try to lead with human rights (digital rights) and equity, particularly gender, racial and ability equity. Many communities or groups come to these conversations from a situation of trauma or antagonism to government. Knowing how to deal with empathy and conflict is a very useful tool in working with the general public.

You have to be prepared to deal with conflicts or complex situations that seem unresolvable. This is a process where mutual trust depends on transparency and responsiveness to requests.

Another tool that has been useful to us is the documentation of public comments. Over time, this gives us the ability to tell our story and make it part of our digital rights outreach work as well.

I think transparency and public accountability are key. Having the ability to quantify the benefits from a community perspective, which is very different from a government perspective, and telling that story is important.

Projects can fail and that is why it is good not to start with high-risk, high-budget projects. Many companies try to sell products that are not yet ready or have not been properly tested for public use.

This product evaluation may include the regular aspects of any modern technology such as secure data handling, compatibility with the use of public digital infrastructure, or adequate support requirements.

In addition to these aspects, digital rights include assessment of impacts and risks due to privacy of personal or sensitive data, on civil rights, and even on environmental impacts or intangible cultural aspects of public government activity.

Having the ability to assess and quantify these impacts and risks and analyse ways to mitigate or make decisions is a big step forward. At the moment, there are no standards for this, but on the West Coast of the United States, several cities, including Portland, are working to coordinate efforts.

Of course there are other challenges such as finding ways to fund these activities or the lack of policy infrastructure, administrative rules, digital education materials, or adequate staffing. All of these aspects are part of the digital transformation that is made with the promise of using information technologies to support more effective and participatory solutions to the services and social challenges that cities face today.

At Portland we have identified the purchase and management of technology solutions by government as the most strategic point of intervention within existing processes.

Sometimes this includes working collaboratively with lawyers who write contracts or data sharing agreements with other organisations. A privacy risk and impact assessment is required when these contracts or agreements include personal data or surveillance technologies.

For the collection of personal data, the City of Portland also has a privacy policy, which is very old and difficult to read. Our team, in collaboration with the city’s lawyers, has developed different privacy notices for various cases. For example, when it is just the simple collection of personal contact data, we add a notice acknowledging minimal risks and informing about basic data protection.

When the data collection includes more personal data, such as address, date of birth, or identity number, we try to inform the team that is in charge of this data collection and make sure that the data is really necessary for the process. If that is the case, we inform the individual that their data may be made public in the case of a public records request.

When the data really includes very sensitive information such as in cases of family violence, public health, financial information, criminal history, etc. We ask you to work with us on a voluntary basis to identify the specific risks of collecting this data. The privacy notice may contain more specific information about the most sensitive types of data identifying how it will be used and protected.

The handling of sensitive data may already be protected by local laws and privacy notices can be written in a clear manner for those cases that warrant it. The important point is to inform and communicate clearly.

In Portland we start with a common understanding of what it means to have equitable access to public services. We understand that equal access is different from equitable access, so those groups or communities that have been historically marginalised will have preferential service when designing digital services.

This means that if someone needs translation of materials, accessible websites and services, the ability to access information in an open way, alternatives to digital access, etc., they will have a preferential service when designing digital services.

Conflict exists when the status quo demands equal service by losing certain established privileges.

One of the strategies we use is the application of ‘Targeted Universalism’. This design framework has helped us find solutions that work for everyone efficiently and effectively.

For example, we keep digital education materials or public communications simple, using simple sentences that are easy to read and translate online. Materials that contain images we add alternative texts with more detailed descriptions that not only help screen readers but also people navigating with the pointer, providing more information to the document.

It is much more complicated with marginalised communities. We try to go where the communities are and try to compensate community organisers appropriately. It’s not a perfect process and we constantly have barriers of different kinds, from the way we can use public resources, the requirements for renting community space, or having the ability to offer food or other services like childcare. But where we can, we try to find solutions with the help of the community itself.

In terms of digital access itself, for example, internet access and the digital divide. This is its own area of work. Although in urban areas most people have access to a mobile or smart phone, some neighbourhoods still have problems with internet access or cellular network coverage.

We are also recently promoting the idea that the digital divide is becoming narrower and narrower, but at the same time it is becoming deeper and more complex. What we mean is that people can connect, but the impacts are more complex in situations of privacy, disinformation, digital attacks, cyber bullying, unauthorised monitoring, etc. All this creates the need for more digital education and community collaborations.

It is also possible to develop public policies that promote digital equity. These policies depend on the type of local government jurisdiction and the existence or not of technology protection or regulation laws.

This is also a universal challenge that connects to national policies on education and economic development. I believe that locally cities have the ability to work on making sure that communities can connect in a safe and informed way to digital services.

Governments can promote digital infrastructure as a factor in economic development and combating social inequality when they focus on people’s needs, promote public participation and debate, and invest in internal government capacity and infrastructure.

Innovation without connection to real problems risks losing investment by not finding the value within people. Targeted and shared innovation has a better chance.

One of the problems we have identified is the low percentage of innovative projects (within government) that are successful after their trial period. As a strategy, we have started to work internally with the technology department. Although there are different dynamics, in the end it is important to take into account what is required for a technology to be implemented in the city.

Finally, I would like to highlight the value of collaborating with academic institutions either by sending students to support projects or by doing collaborative projects with researchers on particular data needs or technology assessment.

We try to go where the communities are. It’s a complicated process and it’s based on mutual trust. In Portland, we have been implementing a programme we call “Community Leaders” where we hire people who represent certain communities to guide us in the work of connecting with their environments.

In community meetings with vulnerable groups we also try to create safe spaces with specific rules of interaction because of the potential for social trauma or distrust of government. In certain cases, we have left the leadership to organisations that already have that community trust and we work with them in preparing strategies.

The compensation is fair as if they were consultants and they also have a budget at their disposal to organise one or two in-person public events. The budget request process has been complicated, especially when there is a budget deficit in the city. Fortunately our current mayor has been one of the best sponsors of this work and we have had access to this extra budget.

In the absence of this budget, we have focused on the generation of online digital education materials, online community events, and internal policy and process development work. The budget required for these activities is relatively minimal and has only required one or two people to carry them out.

Even with all the effort, our programme is far from having widespread coverage. It has been difficult to connect with certain communities or groups. But this is a long road and we do not lose hope that we can find that common ground where we can discuss these issues.

Indeed, many aspects of the discussion on digital topics tend to be very technical. Facilitating these issues in simpler language is high on our agenda. For example, we have made available a digital magazine on surveillance technologies, digital rights and digital justice. We tried to make this magazine much more visual, although in some cases it was difficult to simplify the text. The involvement of communication experts can help in this goal.

Questions about the platform

This section groups together questions on the operation of the Platform. These questions will be answered by the team managing the site.

  1. Profile directory
    By creating a user profile on the Cities and Digital Rights platform, members will be able to contact you and share information about digital transformation in their local governments and municipalities.

    In the case of experts, they will be able to make their knowledge available for projects in their areas of interest and receive feedback or questions on ongoing public policies.

  2. Mentoring
    We will hold mentorships with experts who participate in the platform and who will be able to provide advice to projects submitted by public servants in Latin America.

    This mentoring will be carried out digitally and the selected projects will be chosen by a strategic committee.

  3. Questions from the community (mentoring))
    Based on the questions asked by the teams of public servants to the mentoring experts, we will create a section where people will be able to see specific questions that can solve bottlenecks or common problems in different parts of Latin America.
  4. Q&A
    We will periodically set up a form for people to ask questions on specific topics that will be answered by a specialist in the area.
  5. Content production
    We will publish our own content related to digital transformation with a rights-based approach, such as research, reports and other documents that can provide input to the platform’s community of practice.
  6. Columns or interviews with experts and public servants with inspiring cases
    In the interaction with community members, we will recognise key issues and key people. Sharing these experiences, through columns or interviews, will allow to highlight the experience of the community members themselves, promoting interaction between people by sharing inspiring stories.

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