What is a Civic Digital Trust?

A civic digital trust is a trust that is established to manage the digital layer of a smart city.

A civic digital trust is a trust that is established to manage the digital layer of a smart city. The assets the trustees are responsible for managing may include the physical infrastructure (sensors and data warehouses), code base (database, standards, processing structures and interface) and data that make up the digital layer. The civic digital trust may also manage financial assets to ensure the sustainable operation of the trust.

Why have we chosen to call this model a civic digital trust?

A more common name is a data trust. Following Andrew Clement, we have chosen to call it a digital trust to remind people that the digital layer includes many assets beyond data. Sharing only data significantly restricts the influence and therefore the potential effectiveness of a trust. Furthermore, focusing solely on data is insufficient, since data is not "owned" in the same way as other types of assets. What is being governed is the data flows and uses. Following Sean McDonald, we have chosen to call it a civic trust to emphasize the requirement to build civic participation into the governance of the trust. Civic means relating to a city or a town. The civic tech movement improves the relationship between government and the people through information technology, and is an important inspiration for this work. We think a civic digital trust should be inclusive, participatory and empowering, and that is what this name means to us.

The beneficiaries of a civic digital trust are the residents, visitors, businesses, workers and institutions in a defined urban zone where data is collected. This could be a neighbourhood, a district, or an entire city.

The trustees are a group of people with a fiduciary responsibility to protect the interests of the beneficiaries. A civic digital trust would need to decide if trustees are elected or appointed. It would need to put in place governance structures including public accountability and participation structures.

The trustors are individuals, companies, agencies and governments who donate digital and financial assets to the trust. While the civic digital trust would own the digital assets, they may grant a licence to use the assets back to the trustors under the conditions of use established by the trust.

The purpose is the reason the civic digital trust is created, encoded in a mission and governing principles. The purpose should make it clear what value the trust is intended to deliver to its beneficiaries.

The diagram below summarizes the essential elements of a civic digital trust.

Essential elements of a civic digital trust.

A civic digital trust must always be aligned to the specific data and digital assets at issue. Therefore, a trust that oversees public realm data (and possibly other data) from Quayside might have some unique features not seen in other civic digital trusts to date.