Barcelona, the capital of technological humanism
Barcelona is pursuing a digital policy aimed at reducing social and gender inequalities caused by digitalization, and deploying technology in a way that both respects human rights and fosters innovation. Shifting from the tech-driven approach to the smart city, Barcelona is pushing for a digital transformation that leaves no one behind.
Digital Divide Survey
Barcelona carried out the 2020 Digital Divide Survey. The results light on how the digital divide looks like in Barcelona:
- 1% of inhabitants don’t have access to internet for economic reasons – which means between 6,000 and 10,000 families in absolute terms.
- High income families have more devices available – PCs and laptops, whereas low income tend to only have smartphones and tablets, making remote work or studies more difficult.
- 62% of Barcelona residents have increased the number of activities they do online: remote work, e-admin procedures, online education. However, older populations, less educated groups or unemployed populations use less internet and for a more limited range of usages.
Connectem Barcelona is a pilot project to reduce the digital divide in Barcelona in a multi-dimensional way, addressing connectivity (access to a quality connection); devices (access to suitable devices for specific uses adapted to each reality), and skills acquisition (to gain necessary knowledge for technological use).
In order to assess the differential effects of one intervention or the other (connection and devices vs. connection, devices and skills acquisition) the pilot is being carried out with a methodology of experimental evaluation, which will count on a group of beneficiaries for each modality of intervention. The project will be carried out between September 2021 and June 2022 in the neighborhood of Trinitat Nova (Nou Barris District, Barcelona).
Based on the experience of Barcelona and exchanges with other cities, three main components can be identified for strategies aiming at addressing the digital divide from local governments.
- The understanding of what constitutes the digital divide. Traditional approaches have focused on access to internet only. Although that covers key issues that certainly have socioeconomic implications – affordability and the quality of internet connection – it does not suffice to prevent the effects of digital exclusion. For instance, the possibilities for participating and actively contributing to an online class are radically different depending on whether you join from a laptop or through a smartphone. Even if the connection and the devices are good enough, though, having the ability to use the web and app interfaces in which those activities take place is key to determine the extent to which a user will be able to utilise their digital experience. Digital exclusion is defined by internet connection (or lack thereof), the kind of devices available, and the skills to utilize it.
- Measuring the digital divide. Urban inequalities can only be placed at the heart of the public debate if they are rendered visible. Measuring them will determine the type of policy intervention that is best suited. It will be based on the observed differences among neighbourhoods, genders, age, educational levels, income levels, and other socioeconomic factors that shape people’s access to the benefits of digitalization.
- Implementing a digital inclusion policy. Addressing the digital divide is complex when it comes to the sectors involved. At the neighbourhood level, community organisation, private technology. It can be better addressed in the framework of multi-stakeholder partnerships that bring together the different sectors involved.
Emerging technologies and Artificial Intelligence
Barcelona has so far developed few AI systems, focused on non-risky activities:
- the thematic classification of information requests by citizens;
- recommendation to social workers on how to better support citizens, based on previous similar cases;
- estimation of beaches’ capacity, based on privacy-by-design systems with thermic cameras.
Barcelona presented back in May 2021 its AI municipal strategy, aimed both at regulating the use of AI in municipal services and promoting ethical AI standards to be followed by private companies operating in the city.
This strategy defines the following principles:
- the use of AI for automated recommendation-systems, rather than decision-making systems;
- transparency and auditability, meaning that algorithmic models and the databases they are applied on are accessible, understandable and auditable by the general public.
- the establishment of liability regimes for any harm or loss that may arise from the creation and use of AI-based solutions.
- Private providers need to follow cities’ standards. The strategy includes the creation of strict procurement clauses that allow for municipal governments to keep control of externally provided AI technology.
In addition, Barcelona has teamed up with Amsterdam, London and the whole Cities Coalition for Digital Rights to set up the Global Observatory of Urban AI. This city-led initiative aims to fill the gap that city governments that deploy AI in public services might face.
The project aims to support member’s AI policy work with evidence-based knowledge, and it will monitor AI policy, produce and update policy standards for ethical AI, identify obstacles for the deployment of trustworthy AI and set the contributions of cities against the broader technological trends.
Data as a public good
Barcelona is striving to build public digital infrastructure that allows public administrations and services –including schools– to guarantee citizens’ right to privacy.
A flagship initiative in this context is the Democratic Digitalisation of Schools project –a pilot programme to make secure and auditable free digital technology available in schools in order to ensure that data is managed, controlled and audited by those who generate it.
Five city schools have received infrastructures, teaching resources and tech support to achieve a secure digital transformation through auditable and agile open-source technology. A comprehensive set of tools has been rolled out, including Moodle, Nextcloud, Big Blue Button, Jitsi and Ehterpad.
Gender and technology
Barcelona City Council is currently implementing a policy to feminize the tech sector in the city, which includes four main goals:
- Facilitate women’s access to ICT jobs: this includes the creation of digital training programmes and jobs, such as the BCNFemTech skills-acquisition plan, designed to get fifty women in vulnerable situations into professional positions in programming and web development.
- Support women in the ICT sector: visibility and recognition of women’s contribution to the development of tech industries is needed, along with the promotion of their involvement in public policies in this area. The measure therefore includes the creation of a “BCNFemTech” women’s network and backing for tech projects by women entrepreneurs.
- More women in public procurement: gender clauses are planned for public contracts with providers from the tech sector, along with the creation of an internal women’s technology team to drive digital training among women municipal workers.
- Science and tech girls: the promotion of science and tech careers among young girls is essential for ensuring equality in the digital society of the future. To this end, the roadmap includes a STEAM initiative for girls in primary school with the collaboration of the Mobile World Congress and agreements with universities to increase women’s presence in technological study areas.
A vibrant digital rights ecosystem
The City of Barcelona works closely with the local initiatives and civil society organisations that aim to promote and defend digtal rights. Within this context, the City Council has mapped the Citizens’ digital rights ecosystem of Barcelona – the initiatives from organizations and social movements in Barcelona aimed at defending and promoting digital rights.
Other strategies and resources Barcelona has previously worked on include:
- Barcelona’s Ethical Digital Standards, an open source Policy Toolkit for cities to develop digital policies that put citizens at the center and make Governments more open, transparent, and collaborative.
- Its flagship citizens' participation platform Decidim, which Barcelona has deployed to support direct consultation with its citizens.
- The Barcelona Open Data portal, enabling more transparency regarding city services, and showcasing open data based citizen projects within its "Reuser" area.
- Decode project, a collaborative initiative at European level to strengthen citizens data rights and put them back in control of their data as well as enable them to share this data for the common good.
- Barcelona's Manifesto in favour of technological sovereignty for cities and citizens’ digital rights.