The tremendous untapped power of data to reinvent city services
Shaina Doar
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“It’s time for cities to engage with local residents about their concerns over connected technologies, and to study the lessons being learned from cities engaged in similar efforts and conversations around the world….” writes Shaina Doar.

The author offers commendable recommendations that might result in greater urban efficiency, but not necessarily greater efficacy. Prior conversations need to take place between and among the governed and those charged with governing — but not about “connected technologies.”

Constituents’ first must have an opportunity — many opportunities! — to participate in the identification, formulation, and choice of city and county goals, and the means for their attainment; and then those goals associated with specific issues. Only after — not before — policy goals and means for their realization have been agreed upon can the pertinent technologies and data be identified, data-collection mandated, and data analysis begun.

This assumes in the first place, of course, that the right data is available to enable reaching the agreed-upon goals. Often, there is not. Many urban challenges are “wicked problems” that cannot be solved empirically: analyzing data in this case is a sort of numerology or voodoo. This is especially true of social issues that divide classes, races, and neighborhoods.

In fact, government’s very mandate to collect data should be a matter of public discourse and debate: there may be money-saving pros associated with improving the quality of data already being collected, but there are equally or more significant socio-cultural and political-governance cons associated with widespread data collection. When data is collected, smoothed (normalized), and applied to urban problem-solving, it leads only occasionally to breakthrough innovation and problem-solving. More often, it leads to reification — reinforcing the status quo, which becomes embodied in code, technology, and urban processes, usually without the public’s consent.

Cities are not corporations and shouldn’t be run as hierarchical businesses. They’re communities of people. IT holds promise in this regard, but sheer financial optimization isn’t at the top of the list. Inclusive conversation and consultation among the people — i.e., democracy — occupies that spot.

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PS A relevant and timely article in this regard was published in Government Technology (a widely-read online journal) earlier this month, “A New Smart City Model Is Emerging,” Adam Stone, June 2, 2016. “Instead of the sweeping overhaul first envisioned,” reports Stone, “today’s smart city initiatives are evolving on a far more modest scale.” And more human.

Also, the influence of Smart Citizens projects cannot be ignored, since it is the human dimension of urban innovation and resilience that most often lights a participatory fire under urban and regional citizenries. The global Smart Citizens movement aims to embed institutional knowledge in human beings rather than IT systems; the former are far more reliable and inventive in a crunch. Take Amsterdam’s Smart Citizens Lab, for example, established and run by the Waag Society (a nonprofit in part funded by the City):

Truly smart “smart cities” are integrating the smart-city and smart-citizens approaches. I discuss “smart citizens” vs. “smart cities” in my own recent Medium contribution, “The Import of “Open in the Civil and Civic Spheres: An Open-Ended Question,” December 4, 2015, describing work beginning in Arizona’s Pima County and Tucson. We’re going for the best of both worlds.

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