From a Data-Driven to a Data-Enabled Right to the City

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Michiel de Lange:

"It has been argued that smart technologies tend to promote technocratic rule and a “new managerialism” (Kitchin et al., 2015, p. 14), instead of a true politics of the city. Data, so we are constantly told, pervade every aspect of our lives and direct us to work out solutions to every kind of problem. Thanks to our big data-driven knowledge of the world, the map can indeed become the territory. This contribution has attempted to explore another narrative about data and collective urban issues, one that is not data-driven but data-enabled. We have looked not at the collective management of “utilitarian” infrastructures (e.g., water, waste, energy management; cooperative projects around food production, housing, or insurance), but at frictional socio-cultural issues that have to do with “the right to the city”: having a space for a shared hobby and lifestyle, living quality and environmental justice, or making issues like loneliness public. In these cases, I argued, the gaps between the issue, the data, and the affective experiences of the people involved have been interfaced by the commons, understood as a good, a system, and a practice. Data in these cases are neither very big, nor leading, nor very spectacular or sexy. Rather, they were unassuming supporting “actants” in larger “assemblages” that involved networks of people, issues, and data negotiating their right to the city (Latour, 1990, 2005). This exploration leaves open many questions about, for instance, the governance of/by the data commons; about biases in urban data, social sorting, and “splintering publics”; about diversity and giving voice to the powerless; and about the limitations of the commons frame and possible conflicts between communal goals and general public values. I will limit myself here to one suggestive point. Engagement with the smart city through data is frequently cast in a series of opposing terms: top-down versus bottom-up, passive versus active participation, corporate versus civic, closed versus open and accessible, and expertproducer versus amateur-user (see Tenney & Sieber, 2016). Underneath such framing, I observe a more fundamental split of discourses about the role of data in the smart city: a cybernetic view versus a humanist view. On the one hand, data are considered as the building blocks for the automation and management of cybernetic smart cities. Data in this view serve posthumanist arguments about, for instance, algorithmic democracy as a fairer and more just type of governance (e.g., Hughes, 2018). On the other hand, data are considered as the foundation underneath humanist ideals of the well-informed citizen located in the deliberative and rational subject. “True participation” in this second view involves individuals having unfettered access to data, actively and voluntarily contributing data for civic purposes, and using data for democratic decisionmaking and action. Ironically, what binds these views together is a shared epistemic glorification of data as the precursors to transparent information (be it systems or people) and the latest incarnation of old ideals about an omniscient future perfect. In both of these data-driven discourses, the mediating interface disappears. In our cases above, however, we saw that data are not just informational objects but equally performative objects with the power to enact new realities (see also Kitchin & Perng, 2016; Verhoeff & Wilmott, 2016). I suggest that future research develops perspectives on data-enabled citizen participation that are more agnostic about machine versus human agency or top-down versus bottom-up and instead investigates how data, human actors, and urban issues come together in networks that interface and constitute “the political” in the sense of serving to align common interests and/or to articulate controversies.

The commons can serve as a heuristic for such processes of interfacing. The right to the datafied city, then, is less about abundance and transparency and more about intensity: the degree to which data affect people to feel and act on a shared sense of ownership of their city."


  • The Right to the Datafied City: Interfacing the Urban Data Commons. By Michiel de Lange. Chapter 5 of: The Right to the Smart City. Emerald Pubn, pp. 71-83, 2019

More information

  • Ramos, J. M. (2016). The city as commons: A policy reader. Retrieved from https://

Books and articles:

  • Flowers, M. (2013). Beyond open data: The data-driven city. In B. Goldstein &

L. Dyson (Eds.), Beyond transparency: Open data and the future of civic innovation (pp. 185-198). San Francisco, CA: Code for America Press

  • Goldsmith, S., & Crawford, S. (2014). The responsive city: Engaging communities

through data-smart governance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

  • Gordon, E., & Mihailidis, P. (Eds.). (2016). Civic media: Technology, design, practice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
  • Huron, A. (2017). Theorising the urban commons: New thoughts, tensions and paths

forward. Urban Studies, 54(4), 1062-1069

Shaw, J., & Graham, M. (2017). An informational right to the city? Code, content, control, and the urbanization of information. Antipode, 49(4), 907-927.

  • Stavrides, S. (2016). Common space: The city as commons. London: Zed Books.
  • Teli, M., Bordin, S., Menéndez Blanco, M., Orabona, G., & De Angeli, A. (2015).

Public design of digital commons in urban places: A case study. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 81, 17-30.

  • Tenney, M., & Sieber, R. (2016). Data-driven participation: Algorithms, cities, citizens, and corporate control. Urban Planning, 1(2), 101-113.
  • Townsend, A. M. (2013). Smart cities: Big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a

new utopia (First ed.). New York, NY: Norton

Cases studies: