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Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, UN-Habitat, and BetaNYC presented the concept of Digital Rights Helpdesk for cities at MozFest this year. City stakeholders, subject matter experts, and organizations working with cities were invited to participate in a co-creation session to design the Helpdesk and it’s features. We caught up with them afterwards to learn more about the vision of the helpdesk in upholding citizens’ digital rights, what gaps they are aiming to fill through this initiative, and how the MozFest community can get involved.

Here’s what they had to say.

Q: What is the Cities’ Digital Helpdesk? Who are the partners involved in heralding this initiative?

The Digital Rights & Governance Helpdesk is a policy-related support platform being set up by UN-Habitat and the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights which works with local governments, to address the ethical and digital rights’ aspects of cities' local digital strategies, policies, projects, and services. The project aims to contribute to the strengthened capacity building at the local level, to manage the application and implications of digital technologies for sustainable urbanization and to protect human rights in the digital environment. The Helpdesk will be a platform to connect cities with experts and also act as a one-stop virtual shop for all resources related to digital rights, combined in one customizable Digital Rights Policy Framework.

Q: When and where is it going to launch?

The project is currently in the development phase, where a one-year piloting of the Helpdesk and its features is being designed. The Helpdesk will be piloted in several European cities that will be selected through an open call before being launched as a global platform accessible to all cities. We also aim to establish an initial network of local hubs safeguarding the digital rights of their constituents.

Q: What problems is the Digital Helpdesk aiming to solve?

Increased reliance on the internet and digital technologies continue to transform the means through which human rights are both exercised and violated around the globe. Newer technologies have been found to reinforce existing discriminations and increase the risk of tracking, analyzing, predicting, and to some degree manipulating people’s behaviors. Online violations including privacy violations are more likely to lead to offline abuses. Cities need enhanced models of governance to manage these risks and negative trends driven by technology, which affect people and communities worldwide, sometimes in unforeseen or unintended ways, but nonetheless harmful. Cities which are better prepared to manage digital tools can deploy technology to advance people-centered smart cities and optimize planning processes.

Q: How can local governments and cities benefit from the offering of the helpdesk?

The Digital Rights & Governance Helpdesk will support city authorities in different workstreams, based on the cooperation principles, attainment of Sustainable Development Goals and human rights assurance in the virtual environments. So far, the topic of digital rights is handled in a limited and fragmented way. Such rights are not an innovative extra, but rather necessary and essential.

Everyone, especially marginalized communities, women, young people, elderly population, and people with disabilities will benefit from governance that uses data to address societal problems and to understand better the population needs, while it applies technology in a way that respects privacy, non-discrimination, and is transparent in its purpose.

Supporting governments with people-centred governance principles can impact policymakers, and influence the way technology and urban data is used by different stakeholders. The Helpdesk is focused on inclusion and will promote strategies that identify existing gaps and promote initiatives to increase digital literacy programmes, expand infrastructure needed for connectivity and access to devices, and plan public spaces as gateways for access, capacity building, and participation.

Q: How was your MozFest session and how did it contribute to the advancement of the Helpdesk?

MozFest was a great opportunity to present the concept for the first time, in a co-creation session, where the core team organized and gathered input from experts in digital rights, city representatives and other organizations with experience in this field, from different parts of the world. The feedback and insights provided by the participants informed the design of the Helpdesk and are important in ensuring that the Helpdesk responds to existing demands and needs of local governments. Needs from city-governments, local hubs, experts and potential partners were better understood and discussed. Moreover, other successful models, as well as suggestions to improve the concepts, were shared generously.

Q: What are your next steps in the building process and how can the MozFest community get involved?

The next steps include piloting the Helpdesk in a few cities, developing a digital rights governance framework and testing the practical implications for digital governance, as well as setting up a network of local hubs as stewards of the concept. The MozFest community is welcome to continue to engage with the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights via the website, more updates and events about the Helpdesk will be updated as soon as they are available. We will be in search of city-governments to participate, experts to leverage advice, and partners in expanding the concept.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

Our approach to designing the Helpdesk is bottom-up. We want to design and operationalize it together with local governments and then launch it globally for the benefit of everyone. We welcome any city from any region, national governments, subject matter experts, organizations working with cities in the area of digital rights, and others to join us in this exciting journey.

About the Authors

UN-Habitat is the United Nations programme working towards a better urban future. It promotes urbanization as a positive transformative force for people and communities, reducing inequality, discrimination and poverty and provides technical assistance, policy advice, knowledge and capacity building to national and local governments in over 90 countries.

Cities for Digital Rights Coalition, a network of cities advancing digital rights, initiated by Amsterdam, Barcelona and New York and supported by UN-Habitat, Eurocities and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG). It has the vision to advance digital rights in local government contexts and contribute to the realization of the goal of protecting and upholding human rights on the internet at the local and global level.

MozFest is part art, tech and society convening, part maker festival, and the premiere gathering for activists in diverse global movements fighting for a more humane digital world. To learn more, visit www.mozillafestival.org.

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