By Gefion Thuermer – King’s College London

Researchers in MediaFutures at King’s College London have conducted a study on the ways in which citizens are engaged with or affected by the use of data in innovation programmes for public good. Based on an extended case study, we examined two solutions to air quality challenges and citizens’ role in them, from development through implementation to practice. We assessed the impact of research and innovation funding policies on citizen engagement, and make practical recommendations for funders and policy-makers to establish ways to ensure the desired citizen engagement is achieved.

Cities and urban areas have become avid sources and users of data, monitoring many aspects of life, such as traffic, air quality, weather, parking, or building repair. This data can be used to create new, more efficient and effective public services. However, the exploitation of this data is not an appropriate role for government, as it would deter competition and weaken innovation[1]. Instead, cities seek to engage the private sector in reusability and innovation with their data[2]. Following the helices framework theory, central to the EU’s research and innovation strategy, civic society is part of the quadruple helix, alongside industry, academia and government[3]. It can not only engage with the governance of science and technology but also has the possibility of exerting some measure of reflexive control over it.  Although often citizens are solely informants about their needs and experiences, their position as both users driving innovation and participants in the creative process, enables a more open innovation: Involving citizens in innovation processes helps to ensure that those innovations actually meet their needs, increases diversity and legitimacy, and supports ‘buy in’ from citizens for the results[4]– all of which should be high on the agenda for policymakers.

The focus of our study is a comparison of two publicly funded data-driven innovation programmes: Data Pitch (Horizon 2020) and Smart City Innovation Framework Implementation (‘SCIFI’, Interreg 2Seas). Both programmes aimed to catalyse innovation by bringing together organisations with data and business needs, and technically skilled organisations, to create market-oriented solutions to those needs. Both programmes functioned in different ways and were distinctly motivated: Data Pitch focused on enabling data sharing between corporates or public organisations and SMEs; SCIFI focused on technology transfer between cities and SMEs. Both programmes addressed air quality challenges as part of a range of innovative solutions. Air quality is a particularly illuminating focus, as it passively impacts all citizens, while also highlighting societal inequalities[5]. Spanish start up HOP Ubiquitous participated in both programmes, addressing the air quality challenges in different ways. This enables a useful comparison regarding how citizens were engaged in, and are affected by, the decisions about the goals and implementation of their product under different circumstances. 

We conducted a thematic analysis of documents from both projects, including the funding calls, grant agreements, and meeting minutes, as well as transcripts of interviews with key stakeholders. Based on this data, we show that the differences in the funders’ policies had a clear influence on the participatory process elements in both programmes. While in SCIFI, citizen engagement was built into the development of smart city solutions, the focus of Data Pitch was on innovation and triple bottom line impact. In Data Pitch, HOP’s primary and planned audience were local governments and civil servants, whose work affects citizens, but there was no plan for direct engagement of citizens themselves. In SCIFI, citizens were involved in the local government decision to focus on the air quality project before the funding call launched, but additional engagement plans (and subsequent potential air quality improvements) were not implemented due to technical issues with the product.

We found that, regardless of motivations and plans, there are a number of (sometimes accidental) mechanisms by which the desired citizen engagement has become diluted, including misalignment of incentives and focus, the potential for a lack of prioritisation and ownership at the end of the project, and power imbalances between citizens and the other actors in the quadruple helix. We argue that funding policies could be improved by making expected citizen engagement and benefits both more specific and a more explicit requirement in innovation programmes, especially where citizen generated data is leveraged. Citizen benefit and fair use of data need to be a focus of funders not only at call stage, but also throughout the lifetime of these projects, in order to prevent diminishment of the planned advantage for or impact on citizens. We propose the use of Data Justice Plans as a mechanism to create and maintain awareness for the use of data and its effect on citizens in future programmes.

[1] Gurin, J. (2018). Big Data and Open Data: How Open Will the Future Be? 10, 14.
[2] Smith, G., & Sandberg, J. (2018). Barriers to innovating with open government data: Exploring experiences across service phases and user types. Information Polity, 23(3), 249–265.
[3] Deakin, M., Mora, L., & Reid, A. (2018). The research and innovation of smart specialisation strategies: The transition from the triple to the quadruple helix. 10.
[4] Simon, J., & Davies, A. (2013). People Powered Social Innovation: The Need for Citizen Engagement. Social Space, 38–43.
[5] Pye, S., King, K., & Sturman, J. (2006). Air Quality and Social Deprivation in the UK:  an environmental inequalities analysis [Final Report to Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).