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Nothing ‘smart’ about Amman municipality’s digital transformation plans

Ruba Saqr
Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.(Photo: Jordan News)
The “top-down” governance approach is alive and kicking in Amman, and continues to be undeterred by the Kingdom’s unprecedented wave of reforms and the socio-political paradigm shift that has been sweeping the country with great speed and zeal. For the civil servants at the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM), time stands still with its “autocracy as usual” mindset.اضافة اعلان

The prime minister’s newly formed committee to modernize the public sector, and the noteworthy strides made by the Royal Committee to Modernize the Political System in the span of seven months only — mean nothing to the bureaucrats at GAM.

Message after message by His Majesty King Abdullah, the country’s intellectual crust, and opinion writers on every platform, have been pushing for a nationwide transformation toward inclusivity, in a way that guarantees a more robust role for youth and women (and, of course, men) in the process of decision making.

Yet, the GAM is proving to be on a different planet altogether.

The irony is, the capital’s municipality is supposed to be a shining example of “autonomy” and “decentralization” (two principles of good governance), but the truth remains, it behaves with lethargy similar to any services-oriented public sector institution in the country.

On Friday, the former mayor and current chairman of the GAM’s transitory committee found it rather plausible to sing the same tune of citizen exclusion, which brings to mind the GAM’s typical non-participatory attitude, with the announcement: “Amman will be transformed into a smart city.”

As per usual, Ammanis are being given as few details as possible as to the GAM’s definition of a “smart city”, triggering all kinds of speculation in all the wrong directions.

For starters, no one has taken the time to ask the citizens of Jordan’s capital what they want for the future of their city. As a result, Ammanis seldom see themselves as stakeholders in the city’s five-year plans, and they most certainly have no clear understanding of where their city is headed.

Tragically, the people of Amman are denied the tools that would enable them to know what they want. In this case, they have no idea what this “digital transformation” scheme actually entails at any level of detail to have a say in it.

As is the customary, the project is shrouded in the GAM’s classic absence of transparency, scarceness of information, and total opaqueness, in what seems like a deliberate attempt to exclude public opinion from meddling with a predetermined plan.

This constant fog surrounding most of the public sector’s endeavors is one of the prime reasons trust is broken, and on a very deep level, between citizens and their local and national governments. A spectacle of mediocrity, engendered by obsolete models of governance, is the reality that has for so long been a source of demoralization for this country’s citizens.

To circle back, when the GAM says “smart city”, what version is it referring to exactly? Is it looking to adopt a model similar to the privacy-invading hazard of the (now-scrapped) smart city that was supposed to take place in Toronto, Canada?

If so, this will most certainly warrant fierce push back from local privacy advocates, the community of local lawyers who are becoming more and more aware of the need for privacy-protection measures, and everyday citizens who have been abandoning platforms like Facebook’s sister WhatsApp for more privacy-respecting applications like Signal.

Fortunately, Canada’s appalling version of a “smart city” was canceled in May 2020, but the original scheme would have been a true unwelcome precedent for the North American country and humanity at large.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, had lobbied top liberal-party Canadian officials at the World Economic Forum (WEF) by painting the smart city project as a progressive endeavor. As it happens, the WEF is one of Big Tech’s favorite venues for convincing world leaders to adopt under-regulated tech, while distracting them with buzz words like “innovation” to help delay effective tech regulation.

Taking the bait, Canadians gave the greenlight to Sidewalk Labs, an affiliate of Alphabet, to develop “a futuristic, data-driven city development along Toronto’s downtown lakeshore”, according to Reuters.

But the backlash was real. The project faced strong opposition by the local community over issues pertaining to data privacy concerns, especially since the developers were planning to siphon data in every way possible – by equipping public benches, sidewalks, and virtually any and all surfaces with biometric sensors, facial recognition cameras, and artificial intelligence technologies.

This would have enabled Google and its sister companies to make billions more in revenue from harvesting intimate data about the citizens of Toronto, such as their individual habits and preferences in a nuanced level of detail.

Artificial intelligence and Google Analytics, an invasive tool used by advertisers the world over to segment and track audiences, would then offer insight to influence citizens’ choices, without their awareness or consent. This includes influencing their political and religious views toward newer ones predetermined by an adversary, in the likeness of “brainwashing”.

In other words, the plan was to create a nightmarish “social engineering” and surveillance city in the footsteps of China’s “Social Credit System”, which monitors the citizens’ every move with the goal of giving them a “score” in a suffocating Big Brother fashion. Citizens are then rewarded or punished for their daily behavior with things like allowing or banning them from buying plane tickets, in a clear violation of human rights on a very basic level.

Neither “smart city” model should be welcome in Jordan, or anywhere really, as they bring authoritarianism to such inhumane levels that stand in extreme contrast with the sanctity of people’s lives, and souls.

Ironically, the GAM officials have been quoted this month as saying, Jordan ranks 148th on the UN’s E-Participation Index, “measured based on the availability of online information and e-decision making through direct citizen engagement”.

What “availability of online information” and what “direct citizen engagement”? To say it mildly, the GAM is a governance model characterized by its tunnel vision and a top-down approach that dictates decisions to citizens.

Timing-wise, the GAM’s announcement came less than a month from the Prime Ministry’s initial approval of Jordan’s long-overdue privacy bill, the “Personal Data Protection Law of 2021”, currently awaiting the crucial step of being sent to Parliament for ratification.

Also, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship, which is the overall umbrella for Jordan’s “digital transformation” plans, including the GAM’s, has recently started drawing up a national charter for the ethics of artificial intelligence “with stakeholders” (that are yet to be revealed), as inspired by the AI principles outlined by UNESCO.

While passing laws that protect personal data and guide tech ethics is important, governance remains the true test of government. That is where the best laws and regulations may very well lose their value: at the feet of civil servants who choose not to “see” the citizens they serve.

The writer has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

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