The importance of transparency and access to public data was the central theme of the second round table of the Barcelona Housing and Renovation Forum (FHAR). Big Data is revolutionising society and consequently the design of evidence-based housing policy. The challenge is how to take the maximum advantage of public data in the most transparent way possible while safeguarding citizens’ privacy. The round table had the participation of the Director of the Barcelona Metropolitan Housing Observatory (OBH) and Head of the Housing Service of the Government of Catalonia, Jordi Bosch; the Head of Innovation of the Basque Housing Observatory, Elena Sánchez; and Dáithí Downey, the Head of Research of the Dublin Housing Observatory. The discussion was moderated by Jose Miguel Calatayud, the Projects Director of the Arena Housing Project.
As Calatayud said, data is the theme of the moment and is all around us. This makes it a very useful instrument, but it also presents risks and challenges. Accordingly, he invited the three speakers to talk about the opportunities and challenges they have encountered and to present a case in which they have worked with data to drive housing policies.
As for the opportunities represented by data, all three experts agreed on one key point: we have more and more information available and this is very useful. The Director of the OBH, Jordi Bosch, said that compared with the past there are now many more publications and research and academic centres studying housing. The Head of Innovation of the Basque Housing Observatory, Elena Sánchez, pointed out that the administrations are also producing more and more data due to electronic administration. This enables the citizens to conduct formalities without having to travel and act in person, but sometimes they can relinquish a part of their privacy in exchange for this advantage.
Data and privacy
This aspect is related precisely with the two great challenges: guaranteeing the citizens’ privacy and security. In this respect, Sánchez spoke about the importance of not monetising the citizens’ data and guaranteeing a leakproof digital transformation. She explained the importance of the data-driven approach, that is, decision-making based on data. “For the private company it represents an opportunity: in the administration, in contrast, there is a conflict of opposing ideas regarding privacy,” Sánchez said. She also warned that data protection has often been used as a shield for not providing information. “There is a lack of courage for studying whether the party requesting the data has a legitimate interest and whether there is legal coverage for providing it. And in the end, it is the citizenry that is sacrificed,” Sánchez warned. “Audits have to be made on the use of this data,” she said, “but we also have to be proactive to take the fullest advantage of it.”
The Head of Research of the Dublin Housing Observatory, Dáithí Downey, explained that in Dublin, privacy and security are issues being worked on because several technology companies have their headquarters in Ireland. He explained that this is a debate that revolves around human rights, equality and inclusion, and that we have to find the way to maintain data gathering while guaranteeing justice and privacy.
Another challenge, Bosch said, is how to extract the maximum potential from all this volume of information generated and to do so speedily. Housing policies are often slow and costly, and systematising all this information can make them more effective and efficient and can help to evaluate their externalities: as Bosch said, we must anticipate through information and knowledge. He also said that what is done in the diagnosis and implementation of policies has to be worked on more in their evaluation.
Data use applications in housing policies
Finally, then, the most important thing is not technology in itself but the use we make of it. “Big Data can give us a lot of information, but it will not solve our problems. In addition to data, we need knowledge. It is technology that has to be at our service, not the other way round,” Bosch said. In this respect, all three speakers gave examples of housing policies driven by data.
Bosch spoke about the use that has been made in Catalonia’s housing policy planning system that is being constructed and includes the Sectorial Territorial Plan being drawn up at the present time and the local plans that are being systematised. All these plans feed off data and serve as a general framework for the rest.
Sánchez spoke about the importance of these data in the planning and evaluation of housing policies by way of two examples. On the one hand, to advance in the demands of the Subjective Right to Housing that exists in the Basque Country. By way of economic and demographic data on housing, among others, we can foresee what pressure these demands will exert on the housing market. She also spoke about the use of the data of the Technical Inspection Service of Buildings to identify the areas with the most urgent needs and their typology (façades, roofs, lifts, etc.). A key factor here, Bosch said, is to include all the fields related with the right to housing: constructed housing and its state, the socio-economic composition of homes, and tax and demographic data, among others.
Finally, Dáithí Downey presented Geohive, a pioneering project in Ireland in which a large volume of data of the Irish government has been gathered to be placed at the citizens’ disposal by means of an interactive platform. This interactive platform can provide a multitude of maps to analyse various themes such as the change in the ownership structure of homes or the areas with the highest construction activity, among others.
However, the project has not limited itself to offering data but has been accompanied by publications and podcasts to place all this knowledge at the citizens’ disposal, which is, in fact, one of the key challenges. Sánchez also spoke about the effort made by the Basque Housing Observatory in this respect by way of the publication of news and informative articles and publications on social media, among others, to provide this knowledge to the citizenry.
Barcelona Chair of Housing Studies
One of the tools for increasing knowledge on housing and transferring this knowledge to society is the Barcelona Chair of Housing Studies, a new initiative in matters of public housing and renovation policies promoted by the Barcelona City Council, the Government of Catalonia, the Spanish government and the four public universities of Barcelona. It was presented by the Doctor in Architecture and Professor of the Barcelona Architecture School (ETSAB), Josep María Montaner, and the Doctor in Law and Senior Lecturer of Administrative Law of the UAB, Judith Gifreu.
Gifreu explained that the Chair is a project that is just starting and therefore it is not yet possible to speak of projects in progress, but it is possible to speak of a basic objective, which is to generate knowledge and add it to the experience of the administrations: that is, to combine theory and practice.
Gifreu also wanted to explain how this Chair has been created. She said that for years in our country the situation of the right to housing has been delicate and even dramatic. “We have been in this situation for decades and there is no short-term solution in sight,” she said about the context of the creation of this Chair. She recalled the financial collapse and the real estate bubble, which led to evictions and dations of payment, and also the entry of new actors like real estate investment trusts and investment funds which have acquired real estate stock from the banks at knock-down prices but have then raised rents. But this has also been a period of innovation in housing policies with creative measures like Act nº 24/2015, which has imposed obligatory social rentals, or with the regulation of rents approved a year ago. She emphasised that we now see clearly that access to housing is a priority and also that it is necessary to improve the inhabitability and conditions of homes. And this is the context of the creation of the Barcelona Chair of Housing Studies.
The Doctor in Architecture and Professor of the Barcelona Architecture School (ETSAB), Josep María Montaner, described the functioning and objectives of this Chair, which was initiated with the first meetings of the promoting group in 2019 and this November has seen the signing of the agreements between all the universities and administrations. The objective is to study the housing crisis from a multi-faceted point of view: this is why it is an inter-university and pluridisciplinary chair with a structure of four non-nominative co-directors, since the concept is for it to be an open organ. Its objectives are to foster applied interdisciplinary research on housing but also to promote education and knowledge transfer in order for this research to reach society as a whole. The Chair is just taking its first steps, but it has two short-term milestones: establishing a state of the issue of the right to housing in Barcelona and hosting the Congress of the European Network for Housing Research from 30 August to 2 September 2022.