Citizen roles in civic problem-solving and innovation

Satish Nambisan: “Can citizens be fruitfully engaged in solving civic problems? Recent initiatives in cities such as Boston (Citizens Connect), Chicago (Smart Chicago Collaborative), San Francisco (ImproveSF) and New York (NYC BigApps) indicate that citizens can be involved in not just identifying and reporting civic problems but in conceptualizing, designing and developing, and implementing solutions as well.
The availability of new technologies (e.g. social media) has radically lowered the cost of collaboration and the “distance” between government agencies and the citizens they serve. Further involving citizens — who are often closest to and possess unique knowledge about the problems they face — makes a lot of sense given the increasing complexity of the problems that need to be addressed.
A recent research report that I wrote highlights four distinct roles that citizens can play in civic innovation and problem-solving.
As explorer, citizens can identify and report emerging and existing civic problems. For example, Boston’s Citizen Connect initiative enables citizens to use specially built smartphone apps to report minor and major civic problems (from potholes and graffiti to water/air pollution). Closer to home, both Wisconsin and Minnesota have engaged thousands of citizen volunteers in collecting data on the quality of water in their neighborhood streams, lakes and rivers (the data thus gathered are analyzed by the state pollution control agency). Citizens also can be engaged in data analysis. The N.Y.-based Datakind initiative involves citizen volunteers using their data analysis skills to mine public data in health, education, environment, etc., to identify important civic issues and problems.
As “ideator,”citizens can conceptualize novel solutions to well-defined problems in public services. For example, the federal government’s initiative employs online contests and competitions to solicit innovative ideas from citizens to solve important civic problems. Such “crowdsourcing” initiatives also have been launched at the county, city and state levels (e.g. Prize2theFuture competition in Birmingham, Ala.; ImproveSF in San Francisco).
As designer, citizens can design and/or develop implementable solutions to well-defined civic problems. For example, as part of initiatives such as NYC Big Apps and Apps for California, citizens have designed mobile apps to address specific issues such as public parking availability, public transport delays, etc. Similarly, the City Repair project in Portland, Ore., focuses on engaging citizens in co-designing and creatively transforming public places into sustainable community-oriented urban spaces.
As diffuser,citizens can play the role of a change agent and directly support the widespread adoption of civic innovations and solutions. For example, in recent years, physicians interacting with peer physicians in dedicated online communities have assisted federal and state government agencies in diffusing health technology innovations such as electronic medical record systems (EMRs).
In the private sector, companies across industries have benefited much from engaging with their customers in innovation. Evidence so far suggests that the benefits from citizen engagement in civic problem-solving are equally tangible, valuable and varied. However, the challenges associated with organizing such citizen co-creation initiatives are also many and imply the need for government agencies to adopt an intentional, well-thought-out approach….”

Prospects for Online Crowdsourcing of Social Science Research Tasks: A Case Study Using Amazon Mechanical Turk

New paper by Catherine E. Schmitt-Sands and Richard J. Smith: “While the internet has created new opportunities for research, managing the increased complexity of relationships and knowledge also creates challenges. has a Mechanical Turk service that allows people to crowdsource simple tasks for a nominal fee. The online workers may be anywhere in North America or India and range in ability. Social science researchers are only beginning to use this service. While researchers have used crowdsourcing to find research subjects or classify texts, we used Mechanical Turk to conduct a policy scan of local government websites. This article describes the process used to train and ensure quality of the policy scan. It also examines choices in the context of research ethics.”

The Failure and the Promise of Public Participation

Dr. Mark Funkhouser in Governing: “In a recent study entitled Making Public Participation Legal, Matt Leighninger cites a Knight Foundation report that found that attending a public meeting was more likely to reduce a person’s sense of efficacy and attachment to the community than to increase it. That sad fact is no surprise to the government officials who have to run — and endure — public meetings.
Every public official who has served for any length of time has horror stories about these forums. The usual suspects show up — the self-appointed activists (who sometimes seem to be just a little nuts) and the lobbyists. Regular folks have made the calculation that only in extreme circumstance, when they are really scared or angry, is attending a public hearing worth their time. And who can blame them when it seems clear that the game is rigged, the decisions already have been made, and they’ll probably have to sit through hours of blather before they get their three minutes at the microphone?
So much transparency and yet so little trust. Despite the fact that governments are pumping out more and more information to citizens, trust in government has edged lower and lower, pushed in part no doubt by the lingering economic hardships and government cutbacks resulting from the recession. Most public officials I talk to now take it as an article of faith that the public generally disrespects them and the governments they work for.
Clearly the relationship between citizens and their governments needs to be reframed. Fortunately, over the last couple of decades lots of techniques have been developed by advocates of deliberative democracy and citizen participation that provide both more meaningful engagement and better community outcomes. There are decision-making forums, “visioning” forums and facilitated group meetings, most of which feature some combination of large-group, small-group and online interactions.
But here’s the rub: Our legal framework doesn’t support these new methods of public participation. This fact is made clear in Making Public Participation Legal, which was compiled by a working group that included people from the National Civic League, the American Bar Association, the International City/County Management Association and a number of leading practitioners of public participation.
The requirements for public meetings in local governments are generally built into state statutes such as sunshine or open-meetings laws or other laws governing administrative procedures. These laws may require public hearings in certain circumstances and mandate that advance notice, along with an agenda, be posted for any meeting of an “official body” — from the state legislature to a subcommittee of the city council or an advisory board of some kind. And a “meeting” is one in which a quorum attends. So if three of a city council’s nine members sit on the finance committee and two of the committee members happen to show up at a public meeting, they may risk having violated the open-meetings law…”

Entrepreneurs Shape Free Data Into Money

Angus Loten in the Wall Street Journal: “More cities are putting information on everything from street-cleaning schedules to police-response times and restaurant inspection reports in the public domain, in the hope that people will find a way to make money off the data.
Supporters of such programs often see them as a local economic stimulus plan, allowing software developers and entrepreneurs in cities ranging from San Francisco to South Bend, Ind., to New York, to build new businesses based on the information they get from government websites.
When Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an executive directive last month to launch the city’s open-data program, he cited entrepreneurs and businesses as important beneficiaries. Open-data promotes innovation and “gives companies, individuals, and nonprofit organizations the opportunity to leverage one of government’s greatest assets: public information,” according to the Dec. 18 directive.
A poster child for the movement might be 34-year-old Matt Ehrlichman of Seattle, who last year built an online business in part using Seattle work permits, professional licenses and other home-construction information gathered up by the city’s Department of Planning and Development.
While his website is free, his business, called, has more than 80 employees and charges a $35 monthly fee to industry professionals who want to boost the visibility of their projects on the site.
The site gathers raw public data—such as addresses for homes under renovation, what they are doing, who is doing the work and how much they are charging—and combines it with photos and other information from industry professionals and homeowners. It then creates a searchable database for users to compare ideas and costs for projects near their own neighborhood.
…Ian Kalin, director of open-data services at Socrata, a Seattle-based software firm that makes the back-end applications for many of these government open-data sites, says he’s worked with hundreds of companies that were formed around open data.
Among them is Climate Corp., a San Francisco-based firm that collects weather and yield-forecasting data to help farmers decide when and where to plant crops. Launched in 2006, the firm was acquired in October by Monsanto Co. MON -2.90% , the seed-company giant, for $930 million.
Overall, the rate of new business formation declined nationally between 2006 and 2010. But according to the latest data from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurship advocacy group in Kansas City, Mo., the rate of new business formation in Seattle in 2011 rose 9.41% in 2011, compared with the national average of 3.9%.
Other cities where new business formation was ahead of the national average include Chicago, Austin, Texas, Baltimore, and South Bend, Ind.—all cities that also have open-data programs. Still, how effective the ventures are in creating jobs is difficult to gauge.
One wrinkle: privacy concerns about the potential for information—such as property tax and foreclosure data—to be misused.
Some privacy advocates fear that government data that include names, addresses and other sensitive information could be used by fraudsters to target victims.”

The Emergence Of The Connected City

Glen Martin at Forbes: “If the modern city is a symbol for randomness — even chaos — the city of the near future is shaping up along opposite metaphorical lines. The urban environment is evolving rapidly, and a model is emerging that is more efficient, more functional, more — connected, in a word.
This will affect how we work, commute, and spend our leisure time. It may well influence how we relate to one another, and how we think about the world. Certainly, our lives will be augmented: better public transportation systems, quicker responses from police and fire services, more efficient energy consumption. But there could also be dystopian impacts: dwindling privacy and imperiled personal data. We could even lose some of the ferment that makes large cities such compelling places to live; chaos is stressful, but it can also be stimulating.
It will come as no surprise that converging digital technologies are driving cities toward connectedness. When conjoined, ISM band transmitters, sensors, and smart phone apps form networks that can make cities pretty darn smart — and maybe more hygienic. This latter possibility, at least, is proposed by Samrat Saha of the DCI Marketing Group in Milwaukee. Saha suggests “crowdsourcing” municipal trash pick-up via BLE modules, proximity sensors and custom mobile device apps.
“My idea is a bit tongue in cheek, but I think it shows how we can gain real efficiencies in urban settings by gathering information and relaying it via the Cloud,” Saha says. “First, you deploy sensors in garbage cans. Each can provides a rough estimate of its fill level and communicates that to a BLE 112 Module.”
As pedestrians who have downloaded custom “garbage can” apps on their BLE-capable iPhone or Android devices pass by, continues Saha, the information is collected from the module and relayed to a Cloud-hosted service for action — garbage pick-up for brimming cans, in other words. The process will also allow planners to optimize trash can placement, redeploying receptacles from areas where need is minimal to more garbage-rich environs….
Garbage can connectivity has larger implications than just, well, garbage. Brett Goldstein, the former Chief Data and Information Officer for the City of Chicago and a current lecturer at the University of Chicago, says city officials found clear patterns between damaged or missing garbage cans and rat problems.
“We found areas that showed an abnormal increase in missing or broken receptacles started getting rat outbreaks around seven days later,” Goldstein said. “That’s very valuable information. If you have sensors on enough garbage cans, you could get a temporal leading edge, allowing a response before there’s a problem. In urban planning, you want to emphasize prevention, not reaction.”
Such Cloud-based app-centric systems aren’t suited only for trash receptacles, of course. Companies such as Johnson Controls are now marketing apps for smart buildings — the base component for smart cities. (Johnson’s Metasys management system, for example, feeds data to its app-based Paoptix Platform to maximize energy efficiency in buildings.) In short, instrumented cities already are emerging. Smart nodes — including augmented buildings, utilities and public service systems — are establishing connections with one another, like axon-linked neurons.
But Goldstein, who was best known in Chicago for putting tremendous quantities of the city’s data online for public access, emphasizes instrumented cities are still in their infancy, and that their successful development will depend on how well we “parent” them.
“I hesitate to refer to ‘Big Data,’ because I think it’s a terribly overused term,” Goldstein said. “But the fact remains that we can now capture huge amounts of urban data. So, to me, the biggest challenge is transitioning the fields — merging public policy with computer science into functional networks.”…”

When Lean Startup Arrives in a Trojan Horse–Innovation in Extreme Bureaucracy

Steven Hodas @ The Lean Startup Conference 2013 –…Steven runs an procurement-innovation program in one of the world’s most notorious bureaucracies: the New York City Department of Education. In a fear-driven atmosphere, with lots of incentive to not be embarrassed, he’ll talk about the challenges he’s faced and progress he’s made testing new ideas.

When Tech Culture And Urbanism Collide

John Tolva: “…We can build upon the success of the work being done at the intersection of technology and urban design, right now.

For one, the whole realm of social enterprise — for-profit startups that seek to solve real social problems — has a huge overlap with urban issues. Impact Engine in Chicago, for instance, is an accelerator squarely focused on meaningful change and profitable businesses. One of their companies, Civic Artworks, has set as its goal rebalancing the community planning process.

The Code for America Accelerator and Tumml, both located in San Francisco, morph the concept of social innovation into civic/urban innovation. The companies nurtured by CfA and Tumml are filled with technologists and urbanists working together to create profitable businesses. Like WorkHands, a kind of LinkedIn for blue collar trades. Would something like this work outside a city? Maybe. Are its effects outsized and scale-ready in a city? Absolutely. That’s the opportunity in urban innovation.

Scale is what powers the sharing economy and it thrives because of the density and proximity of cities. In fact, shared resources at critical density is one of the only good definitions for what a city is. It’s natural that entrepreneurs have overlaid technology on this basic fact of urban life to amplify its effects. Would TaskRabbit, Hailo or LiquidSpace exist in suburbia? Probably, but their effects would be minuscule and investors would get restless. The city in this regard is the platform upon which sharing economy companies prosper. More importantly, companies like this change the way the city is used. It’s not urban planning, but it is urban (re)design and it makes a difference.

A twist that many in the tech sector who complain about cities often miss is that change in a city is not the same thing as change in city government. Obviously they are deeply intertwined; change is mighty hard when it is done at cross-purposes with government leadership. But it happens all the time. Non-government actors — foundations, non-profits, architecture and urban planning firms, real estate developers, construction companies — contribute massively to the shape and health of our cities.

Often this contribution is powered through policies of open data publication by municipal governments. Open data is the raw material of a city, the vital signs of what has happened there, what is happening right now, and the deep pool of patterns for what might happen next.

Tech entrepreneurs would do well to look at the organizations and companies capitalizing on this data as the real change agents, not government itself. Even the data in many cases is generated outside government. Citizens often do the most interesting data-gathering, with tools like LocalData. The most exciting thing happening at the intersection of technology and cities today — what really makes them “smart” — is what is happening at the periphery of city government. It’s easy to belly-ache about government and certainly there are administrations that to do not make data public (or shut it down), but tech companies who are truly interested in city change should know that there are plenty of examples of how to start up and do it.

And yet, the somewhat staid world of architecture and urban-scale design presents the most opportunity to a tech community interested in real urban change. While technology obviously plays a role in urban planning — 3D visual design tools like Revit and mapping services like ArcGIS are foundational for all modern firms — data analytics as a serious input to design matters has only been used in specialized (mostly energy efficiency) scenarios. Where are the predictive analytics, the holistic models, the software-as-a-service providers for the brave new world of urban informatics and The Internet of Things? Technologists, it’s our move.

Something’s amiss when some city governments — rarely the vanguard in technological innovation — have more sophisticated tools for data-driven decision-making than the private sector firms who design the city. But some understand the opportunity. Vannevar Technology is working on it, as is Synthicity. There’s plenty of room for the most positive aspects of tech culture to remake the profession of urban planning itself. (Look to NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress and the University of Chicago’s Urban Center for Computation and Data for leadership in this space.)…”

A Bottom-Up Smart City?

Alicia Rouault at Data-Smart City Solutions: “America’s shrinking cities face a tide of disinvestment, abandonment, vacancy, and a shift toward deconstruction and demolition followed by strategic reinvestment, rightsizing, and a host of other strategies designed to renew once-great cities. Thriving megacity regions are experiencing rapid growth in population, offering a different challenge for city planners to redefine density, housing, and transportation infrastructure. As cities shrink and grow, policymakers are increasingly called to respond to these changes by making informed, data-driven decisions. What is the role of the citizen in this process of collecting and understanding civic data?
Writing for Forbes in “Open Sourcing the Neighborhood,” Professor of Sociology at Columbia University Saskia Sassen calls for “open source urbanism” as an antidote to the otherwise top-down smart city movement. This form of urbanism involves opening traditional verticals of information within civic and governmental institutions. Citizens can engage with and understand the logic behind decisions by exploring newly opened administrative data. Beyond opening these existing datasets, Sassen points out that citizen experts hold invaluable institutional memory that can serve as an alternate and legitimate resource for policymakers, economists, and urban planners alike.
In 2012, we created a digital platform called LocalData to address the production and use of community-generated data in a municipal context. LocalData is a digital mapping service used globally by universities, non-profits, and municipal governments to gather and understand data at a neighborhood scale. In contrast to traditional Census or administrative data, which is produced by a central agency and collected infrequently, our platform provides a simple method for both community-based organizations and municipal employees to gather real-time data on project-specific indicators: property conditions, building inspections, environmental issues or community assets. Our platform then visualizes data and exports it into formats integrated with existing systems in government to seamlessly provide accurate and detailed information for decision makers.
LocalData began as a project in Detroit, Michigan where the city was tackling a very real lack of standard, updated, and consistent condition information on the quality and status of vacant and abandoned properties. Many of these properties were owned by the city and county due to high foreclosure rates. One of Detroit’s strategies for combating crime and stabilizing neighborhoods is to demolish property in a targeted fashion. This strategy serves as a political win as much as providing an effective way to curb the secondary effects of vacancy: crime, drug use, and arson. Using LocalData, the city mapped critical corridors of emergent commercial property as an analysis tool for where to place investment, and documented thousands of vacant properties to understand where to target demolition.
Vacancy is not unique to the Midwest. Following our work with the Detroit Mayor’s office and planning department, LocalData has been used in dozens of other cities in the U.S. and abroad. Currently the Smart Chicago Collaborative is using LocalData to conduct a similar audit of vacant and abandoned property in southwest Chicagos. Though an effective tool for capturing building-specific information, LocalData has also been used to capture behavior and movement of goods. The MIT Megacities Logistics Lab has used LocalData to map and understand the intensity of urban supply chains by interviewing shop owners and mapping delivery routes in global megacities in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and the U.S. The resulting information has been used with analytical models to help both city officials and companies to design better city logistics policies and operations….”

How could technology improve policy-making?

Beccy Allen from the Hansard Society (UK): “How can civil servants be sure they have the most relevant, current and reliable data? How can open data be incorporated into the policy making process now and what is the potential for the future use of this vast array of information? How can parliamentary clerks ensure they are aware of the broadest range of expert opinion to inform committee scrutiny? And how can citizens’ views help policy makers to design better policy at all stages of the process?
These are the kind of questions that Sense4us will be exploring over the next three years. The aim is to build a digital tool for policy-makers that can:

  1. locate a broad range of relevant and current information, specific to a particular policy, incorporating open data sets and citizens’ views particularly from social media; and
  2. simulate the consequences and impact of potential policies, allowing policy-makers to change variables and thereby better understand the likely outcomes of a range of policy options before deciding which to adopt.

It is early days for open data and open policy making. The word ‘digital’ peppers the Civil Service Reform Plan but the focus is often on providing information and transactional services digitally. Less attention is paid to how digital tools could improve the nature of policy-making itself.
The Sense4us tool aims to help bridge the gap. It will be developed in consultation with policy-makers at different levels of government across Europe to ensure its potential use by a wide range of stakeholders. At the local level, our partners GESIS (the Leibniz-Institute for the Social Sciences) will be responsible for engaging with users at the city level in Berlin and in the North Rhine-Westphalia state legislature At the multi-national level Government to You (Gov2u) will engage with users in the European Parliament and Commission. Meanwhile the Society will be responsible for national level consultation with civil servants, parliamentarians and parliamentary officials in Whitehall and Westminster exploring how the tool can be used to support the UK policy process. Our academic partners leading on technical development of the tool are the IT Innovation Centre at Southampton University, eGovlab at Stockholm University, the University of Koblenz-Landau and the Knowledge Media Institute at the Open University.”

Are Smart Cities Empty Hype?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger in the Wall Street Journal: “A couple of weeks ago I participated in an online debate sponsored by The Economist around the question: Are Smart Cities Empty Hype? Defending the motion was Anthony Townsend, research director at the Institute for the Future and adjunct faculty member at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. I took the opposite side, arguing the case against the motion.
The debate consisted of three phases spread out over roughly 10 days. We each first stated our respective positions in our opening statements, followed a few days later by our rebuttals, and then finally our closing statements.  It was moderated by Ludwig Siegele, online business and finance editor at The Economist. Throughout the process, people were invited to vote on the motion, as well as to post their own comments.
The debate was inspired, I believe, by The Multiplexed Metropolis, an article Mr. Siegele published in the September 7 issue of The Economist which explored the impact of Big Data on cities. He wrote that the vast amounts of data generated by the many social interactions taking place in cities might lead to a kind of second electrification, transforming 21st century cities much as electricity did in the past. “Enthusiasts think that data services can change cities in this century as much as electricity did in the last one,” he noted. “They are a long way from proving their case.”
In my opening statement, I said that I strongly believe that digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will make cities smarter and help transform them over time. My position is not surprising, given my affiliations with NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) and Imperial College’s Digital City Exchange, as well as my past involvements with IBM’s Smarter Cities and with Citigroup’s Citi for Cities initiatives. But, I totally understand why so many– almost half of those voting and quite a few who left comments–feel that smart cities are mostly hype. The case for smart cities is indeed far from proven.
Cities are the most complex social organisms created by humans. Just about every aspect of human endeavor is part of the mix of cities, and they all interact with each other leading to a highly dynamic system of systems. Moreover, each city has its own unique style and character. As is generally the case with transformative changes to highly complex systems, the evolution toward smart cities will likely take quite a bit longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be more transformative than we can currently envision.
Electrification, for example, started in the U.S., Britain and other advanced nations around the 1880s and took decades to deploy and truly transform cities. The hype around smart cities that I worry the most about is underestimating their complexity and the amount of research, experimentation, and plain hard work that it will take to realize the promise. Smart cities projects are still in their very early stages. Some will work and some will fail. We have much to learn. Highly complex systems need time to evolve.
Commenting on the opening statements, Mr. Siegele noted: “Despite the motion being Are smart cities empty hype?, both sides have focused on whether these should be implemented top-down or bottom-up. Most will probably agree that digital technology can make cities smarter–meaning more liveable, more efficient, more sustainable and perhaps even more democratic.  But the big question is how to get there and how smart cities will be governed.”…