On the 18th of April, Livia Schaeffer Nonose and Sophie Naue from UNITAC, the United Nations Innovation Technology Accelerator for Cities, conducted an exciting presentation on Digital Human Rights and AI in People. 

Based in Hamburg, UNITAC is a partnership between the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the United Nations Office for Information and Communication Technology (OICT), and HafenCity University. Sophie Naue elaborated on its mission to create an open, transparent, and participatory approach toward reducing the digital divide. This is done through mapping, spatial analysis, and data visualization to support evidence-based planning and decision-making and the development of tools, systems, and approaches that use data to aid in the progress of integrated urban planning and basic service delivery. Its main aim is to support people-centered smart cities through strategy, tools, and capacity integrated through a participatory multi-stakeholder approach. 

Livia Schaeffer Nonose then defined the idea of smart cities, which is providing cities with vital infrastructure that would provide proper quality of life to its citizens while pushing for more clean and sustainable solutions. This being said, it is also essential to consider the ethical challenges behind its implementation, as it can exacerbate the digital divide, as the areas in most needs of these technologies are either underrepresented or are not provided with the proper technological solutions. The ethical dilemmas such as surveillance, the conflict between public and private decision-making, and discrimination due to lack of citizen participation all point towards the need for a multi-stakeholder approach.

For this reason, UNITAC created their People-Centered Smart Cities Flagship Programme, which provides strategic and technical support on digital transformation to national, regional, and local governments through the provision of normative products, capacity building,  funding support to incubation projects and the fostering of partnership development. UN-Habitat has compiled best practices from the government, the private sector, and civil society into five pillars of people-centered smart cities: the community, digital equality, infrastructure, security, and capacity.

Furthermore, Livia highlighted the importance of mainstreaming human rights into the digital transformation of cities by emphasizing transparency, freedom of autonomy, privacy, community participation, equality, open infrastructures, and local public service provision.

Sophie then closed the presentation with an example of the use of AI in Smart city solutions through the BEAM tool, a building and establishment open mapper used in eThekwini, South Africa. This AI software uses satellite and areal imagery to provide relevant and accurate data and automation of land mapping processes, which would then offer evidence-based information which aids in developing a pipeline of urban upgrading and basic service delivery projects. This offers up-to-date data with a recorded 94% accuracy and delivers it in a much shorter time frame. Stakeholders within cities would receive training in this tool and work closely with UNITAC to create tailored solutions to the demands of the area. 

This presentation then concluded with an interesting discussion between the speakers and participants on the progress of this innovation and the protection against potential misuse of such tools through setting clear objectives, conceptualization, the signing of a letter of intent, and creation of a committee of stakeholders to mitigate potential ethical dilemmas. The IEAI would like to thank Livia Schaeffer Nonose and Sophie Naue for their insightful talk and for discussing this important and highly relevant issue with the IEAI community.

You can also either watch or read their “Reflections on AI”.