I moved to Newcastle in the North East of England last year. It’s a great place, but one of the things that first struck me about the town was the roads. There’s a motorway right through the town centre. It makes me think of tech and data, and the need to broaden the debate.

Roads for prosperity

Aerial view of the construction of the Central Motorway and Swan House roundabout, estimated to be in 1971. Image via The Evening Chronicle

When we were looking for a place to live we stopped in a few hotels near the town centre. They were on both sides of the motorway.

One side is full of shops, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and bars. The other is full of newly built university accomodation. There’s some rather strange, and a bit scary when it’s late and you’re tipsy…, skywalks connecting the two.

The motorway was opened in 1973 and was controversial at the time. Unsurprising when, as Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones of Newcastle University says, “school playing fields and houses were…demolished”.

Glasgow motorways, courtesy of Google Maps and their various data suppliers

It was built following the Traffic in Towns report by Professor Sir Colin Douglas Buchanan. The report focussed on the growth in road traffic by cars, and the potential economic benefits that could be gained by supporting it.

Traffic in Towns was later followed by a 1989 government white paper, called The Roads for Prosperity, that followed the same tracks. Both reports gave a higher emphasis to inreasing road use and cars than to reducing environmental impact or other transport options, such as mass public transit or walking. They were design standards for urban transport. Their priority was economic growth.

Urban planners in other UK cities, like Birmingham and Glasgow, followed the same reports and the standards they set. Existing communities were again displaced or affected by roads that were built. A similar story happened in countries and cities across the world. Sometimes earlier, sometimes later.

New York City in the 1920s, Beijing in the 2000s

From the 1920s Robert Moses rebuilt New York City to favour car users as part of larger urban transformation plans. He constructed highways, bridges and parkways that cut through the city and surrounding regions to get cars to where they wanted to be. Debate over the impact of these decisions on communities, and whether Robert Moses’ politics and racism played a part in his decisions and the type of road uses he favoured, continues to this day.

Robert Moses had set the standard, other people followed his lead. Urban planners across the USA built roads that favoured road users and impacted on existing communities living in or near their path.

Beijing smog via a post by Marco Rinaldi

Many decades after Robert Moses, and as part of its preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing refurbished 200 miles of roads and built two additional ring roads.

I was there in 2003 and remember standing in a hutong neighbourhood due for demolition. A resident showed me the straight lines on the map indicating where new roads were being built, and the lanes, streets and houses underneath that were either being demolished or left with greater air and noise population.

The potential benefits to be gained from the new roads had been decided to be greater than the current needs of the people who lived in Beijing. This wasn’t just about the Olympics. As part of the transition from the communist system under Mao Zedong to the market socialist / state capitalist society of current China there were similar infrastructure changes happening elsewhere across the country.

People push back

In each of these cases central authorities had decided that the potential economic gains outweighed the negative impact on people and communities without involving them in the process. People protested at the time but over the years the push back became more effective. It ended up changing the way we plan.

Anyone who followed the environmental protests in the UK in the 1990s will remember Swampy. (image copyright Reuters, I think).

In the UK there were growing protests against road developments during the 1980s and 1990s with calls for integrated transport solutions that considered different types of users like car, bus, rail, freight, bicycles and pedestrians and a reduced impact on the environment.

Gradually UK urban and road planning guidelines were changed to include the need for public consultation and the consideration of societal impacts like air quality, noise or other environmental issues. We now consider more viewpoints and needs before a decision is a made.

In parts of the USA change happened earlier. Jane Jacobs was one of the most famous figures amongst the groups in New York City arguing against Robert Moses’ plan to redevelop Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s. She was part of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the ‘slum’ clearances it proposed and the decrease in air quality that it was forecast to generate. The Committee eventually won. Jane Jacobs started to formalise her thinking on urban planning in the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It argued for a new standard for urban design which shifted the emphasis towards the people who lived in the city.

A nail house in Hongkou, picture by Drew Bates. CC-BY-2.0.

In China, the most visible protests against the new roads and urban transformationm were ‘nail houses’, stubborn holdouts against the change. This became possible due to the strengthening of private ownership rights in the post-Communist era. In some cases the holdouts are people who don’t believe the public interest in this development outweighs their own interests, in others it will be speculative investors looking to profit from the public investment.

The parallels to tech and data

I work in the world of data policy at the Open Data Institute. We’re based in the UK but work globally.

I believe data, and large parts of what we call the technology or digital sector, are becoming infrastructure, just like roads became infrastructure in the past. This means that we need to think strategically and for the long-term. The effects of the decisions that we make today will persist.

A clip from one of the boss’s talks on the challenges of strengthening data infrastructure.

One of the things I’ve been doing over the last few years is reading about the history of technology-driven change. Things like the wireless, telephone, radio and roads. The web and internet have helped us communicate over a larger scale and at much faster speeds than previously, but we are still humans. We can learn from our history and the stages technology goes through as, or if…, it gets adopted. Perhaps by learning more historical lessons we can go through those stages faster and make better decisions than before.

An important of this process is how we moved from infrastructure decisions made solely by technocrats, whether in companies or in governments, to decisions being made with society and through our democratic processes. Unfortunately technology and data is currently stuck in the world of the technocrats with very little public involvement. We have more progress to make, otherwise the protests and bumps on the roads will get bigger.

We need to broaden the conversation, and open things up

We need to have broader conversations about technology.

This will be particularly important with data. Most data is about people, and multiple people at that. Our DNA reveals information about our parents, family and even our distant relatives. Utility bills reveal who we live with. Health records contain information about medical professionals as well as ourselves. Data is about us, our families, communities and society.

When we learn how to design services for multiple people then we will have to think about their different interests and rights & how they might compete with each other.

Yet, most internet services, and much current data regulation, are designed for individuals, particularly those who are currently online. That’s part of why technology can feel uncomfortable for many. It doesn’t match much of our societies. Rather than reflecting the richness and variety of communities and societies around the world tech is bringing in the political beliefs and cultural values of the people who built it.

As the French government showed with the Digital Republic Bill, and UK organisations like DotEveryone and the Carnegie Trust are exploring, engaging the public in decisions about technology is complicated but possible. We need more politicians and large technology companies around the world to embrace this approach.

We need to have broader and more open conversations that allow the public to both take part in and influence the outcomes of the current debates about technology. We need to go beyond technology experts to include a range of other experts and the people, businesses and communities who could be beneficially or negatively impacted by a decision. They will have different opinions, and different societies will choose to give those opinions different weights, but learning from the range of views and how they develop during a debate will help us make better decisions.

As societies learnt when we were building roads the debate can’t be left to technocrats solely focussed on economic gains, it needs to be opened up to the public so that we can also debate societal values.