Brecht Weerheijm is a PhD-student at the Institute for Public Administration at the Faculty for Global Governance and Affairs (Leiden University). His PhD focusses on the use of AI in the security domain. The promotors of his PhD-research are prof. dr. Bram Klievink and dr. Sarah Giest.
Next to his PhD-research, Brecht is a municipal councillor in Lansingerland.
Could you tell me more about your academic background and what you are currently working on?
I did my bachelor in Public Administration here at the Institute at Leiden University in The Hague, followed by a master’s degree in Public Administration and in Political Philosophy. Afterwards, I worked as a teacher in the bachelor programme. In February, I started as a PhD-student here at the Institute. So I haven’t really left this building very often in my academic life – it feels a bit like my second home.
In my PhD, we look at the use of AI in the security domain. In particular, we want to see how we can improve communications between organisations in that field by looking at how we can transfer data that can be understood by both machines and people without sharing sensitive data. We only started two and half months ago, so if you ask me again in three years I can give you a much more concrete – and maybe very different – answer!
Currently, I am also working on a research project together with Bram Klievink and two researchers from Utrecht University, Albert Meijer and Carmen Dymanus, on digital twins. The municipality of The Hague has commissioned us to develop an ethical framework for the digital twin they are developing. There is already a 3D-model which has some of the data and they are currently looking into expanding that.
However, at this moment several open questions remain. What is needed in the organisation to make better integral assessments? What data should (not) be processed and combined in the digital twin? How do you ensure that this happens in a responsible way? So that not all sorts of data sets are put into this digital twin without someone asking questions like: “Hey, is this the right way to do that? Are there non-digital alternatives that are maybe more appropriate?”
There are already quite a few ethical assessments available, but most of them are more like elaborate checklists. We developed a framework that facilitates an ethical conversation and so that on the basis of these conversations choices can be made about for what purposes the digital twin can be used and what actions are needed to secure ethical considerations.
It is important to also slow down and ask: are we really creating public value or are we just doing something with data for the ‘hype’?"
How did you get involved with the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for BOLD Cities?
This was really because of this research on digital twins and through Bram. And I think that it fits really well with what the Centre is doing, especially because of the ethical aspect. There is a lot of enthusiasm at the local governmental level about the opportunities of data and digitalisation – the possibilities almost seem endless in what data you can collect. And that’s why it is important to also slow down and ask: are we really creating public value or are we just doing something with data for the ‘hype’?
I really think data can have significant effects on local governance – it can improve decision-making, make the public sector more responsive and improve our physical environment. But it is also important to keep asking ourselves: are we doing this right? How do we insure that we deal with the data – that is from actual people living in the city – in a responsible way?
How do you integrate an interdisciplinary approach in your research?
I think public administration is already a great example of interdisciplinarity. We focus on big societal challenges and you can’t consider them from only, for example, a political, economic or sociological perspective. You need all these different perspectives to understand what is happening and what needs to happen to address these challenges. The next step is then to invite people from other disciplines or to specialise yourself for that extra bit of depth to your analysis.
To address societal challenges you need ethics, you need political philosophy, you need economics, you need political science, you need sociology – so that you can in the end come up with a solution that focusses on the big picture."
I studied political philosophy, because I think philosophy – and then not necessarily the sort of more metaphysical questions – helps me to think deeper about current societal challenges, mainly from an ethical and democratic perspective.
What it comes down to is that to address societal challenges you need ethics, you need political philosophy, you need economics, you need political science, you need sociology – so that you can in the end come up with a solution that focusses on the big picture and considers all the different interests. For me, that’s public administration done well.
Do you have a book/podcast/film which inspires you that you would like to share with us?
I really like the podcast series Hi-Phi Nation. It is a philosophy podcast and what they try to do is to relate philosophical theories to real-life issues. They are doing a great job at also making complex philosophy understandable and relatable – I think that is something that academics in general should try to do more: repackage their knowledge so that everyone can understand it and profit from it.
On the 25th of May, Brecht and Carmen Dymanus (Utrecht University) will present their ethical framework during a mini-symposium on Digital Twins. Find out more here: Mini-symposium Urban Digital Twins | Centre for BOLD Cities (centre-for-bold-cities.nl)