Technologies Changing Cities: Data and Machine Learning, Transportation Innovation, and Blockchain

Many of the ideas explored at CityXChange are no longer on the horizon, but are already changing how cities operate and have great potential to do so even more in the near future. The explosion of data production, both by cities and by citizens, is changing how cities make decisions, while machine learning is changing how cities turn that data into actionable intelligence. New transportation startups are changing how citizens choose to commute and live their daily lives. Lastly, blockchain technology is moving out of the shadows and into city halls throughout the world. Of course, these technologies are all connected: for example, transportation innovation can generate useful data that can then help cities make better planning decisions. But to fully take advantage of these innovations, cities should start planning today.

Data and Machine Learning

Cities are increasingly major creators and distributors of data. New York City’s open data platform offers over two-thousand different data sets, ranging from geographic data to permit status to payroll. This data can be critical for citizens looking for information central to their daily lives, but it has yet to truly change how cities operate, by showing where programs are working and how they are working.

New data tools, however, offer cities the ability to easily model the impacts of decisions, and better demonstrate to citizens the value they get from policies and investments. this can help build broad consensus for important policy decisions.

[My city’s most-used website] after a snowstorm, it shows the location of every plow. This is useless information because no one is actually planning the trip based on if the plow has gone down my street, but people love it. And they love it because that just makes them know that the city is doing something, so putting GPS on every plow was very, very useful.
– 2018 City participant

There is an inherent tension in any city’s data strategy. on the one hand, companies are increasingly interested in buying cities’ data, providing real monetary value to cities. On the other hand, there is a deeper civic value in making such data open, free, and available to cities and the private sector alike. Balancing the need to generate revenue vs. the long-term opportunity that may come from giving innovators access to such data is a genuine dilemma for cities.

Nobody wants data…[people] want ideology. And democracies, in a way, are propelled by ideologies because people believe in certain things and they don’t want to believe in something else unless you have data which proves otherwise…[But] unless we have data on the table, [we] cannot have informed discussions with citizens.
– 2018 City participant

A further challenge is how to appropriately integrate citizen data into their decision-making processes. Crowdfunded citizen data can help cities solve real problems: citizens know what they care about, they know what services they use, and they know what their daily challenges are. But finding the right tools for citizen engagement can be difficult: after all, people who respond to a survey or attend a public meeting are rarely representative.

I have difficulty with [the term Smart Cities] because it…suggests that decision-making in the absence of the wisdom of tech companies is something less than smart. I think that that’s a dangerous place to start. But I think there’s no doubt that data and technology can inform the decision-making that government officials have before them.
– 2018 Tech participant

Cities also need to do more than provide critical data; they need to turn the data they collect into actionable intelligence, and integrate that intelligence into decision-making processes. Cities, like most institutions, still make decisions by gut feel and tradition. Changing this model will require both better data, better tools, and new capacities. Machine learning is increasingly helping companies and cities turn complex data into actual decision-making capacities. Machine learning, often referred to as artificial intelligence, allows cities to extract additional meaning from large data sets, particularly complex perceptional data sets that are complex to analyze using traditional means.

The last century we were looking for insights from data. Now we are looking for actionable intelligence.
— 2018 Tech participant
2018 participant Calgary came to CityXChange looking for novel solutions to its affordable housing challenges, particularly for low-income citizens. Nearly 16,000 Calgarians are in extreme housing need, and nearly half of all residents of Calgary’s subsidized housing spend more than 30% of their income on shelter, despite subsidies. Additionally, nearly 80% of subsidized, non-market units are over 25 years old, and have significant maintenance needs. At CityXChange Summit, Calgary worked with SparkBeyond, a machine-learning startup participant, to develop novel ideas for using machine learning to predict maintenance issues in non-market housing and identify which issues lead to long-term costs. They hope this program will help the City save money, and redivert housing budget to more productive uses.
We are putting data in a special, temporal, social context but that’s not always done very well. We often don’t know if that database is reflecting the reality of living in a place, living in a city at that time. As we get better at doing that, then data becomes really an instrument.
– 2018 Academic participant
Let’s say, if you’re in a certain neighborhood of a city, and you have…a traffic problem, I think the data that you’ve collected in a local or hyper-local manner can easily be integrated into these machine learning models. It’s a matter of the stakeholders talking to each other, and feeding that data into that mix.
– 2018 Tech participant
The problem is a lot of cities…don’t yet have good data, or they have data that they haven’t digitized, or they have data in three different silos, in three different government departments, and they aren’t really integrated.
– 2018 Tech participant

What should cities do?

  • Get your data ready. Many cities don’t have good data, or keep data in silos across different departments. to take advantage of big data, cities need to figure out what data they have, and what they need to build.
  • Create a modern data policy. Of course, simply having data isn’t useful unless it can be used. Open sourcing public data platforms can ensure that government and citizens alike can take advantage of data, but some cities may find value in privately selling data as well. Both approaches may require a change in mindset: some governments are innately suspicious of private uses of public data.
  • Change processes to take advantage of data. It’s not enough to have access to data; cities must reform their processes to turn data into actionable intelligence.
  • Don’t keep data in a silo. Today, governments largely keep different data sets in silos, but the power of machine learning comes from combining different data sets to identify novel patterns and ideas. To break down these barriers, cities need to build cross-functional, cross-departmental teams with the executive sponsorship to succeed.
  • Remember that technology isn’t everything. Technology can be a valuable tool, but it cannot replace the hard work of building consensus with stakeholders and citizens.

Transportation

Transportation systems are among cities most critical services, enabling citizens to work, play, study, buy, and live. Efficient transportation systems are critical to urban resilience, while congestion can strain daily life and economic growth. Unfortunately, most urban transportation systems still depend on the same technologies that we’ve used for decades, and some of the largest urban transportation systems date all the way back to the 19th century. Cities are ever-more congested, with more people and more cars. Between high costs and longer commutes, it’s clear that our traditional transportation systems are failing, but cities are finding it challenging to offer innovative transportation options. These issues are particularly prevalent in the global south, where rapidly rising car ownership rates have led to gridlock, strangling economic growth.

Fundamentally, the challenge for cities is determining which transportation functions should remain under government control, where startups should be given leeway to offer novel solutions, and how to make sure those novel solutions contribute to the public good. In recent years, startups have begun to offer numerous innovative transportation solutions, typically providing mobility-as-a-service. this, of course, started with ride sharing, but has more recently spread to shared bikes, scooters, and soon, even robots to help people transport goods short distances. Some cities have fought these innovations, both because they tend to disrupt entrenched interest groups and because they can leave a certain amount of chaos in their wake. But the evidence is clear: there is broad demand among citizens for these last-mile technologies.

Additionally, whether autonomous vehicles are two years away or twelve, they are coming. Cities must begin to plan for how AVs may impact urban transportation networks. AVs will not be panaceas: if regulations and infrastructure investments do not keep pace, they will exacerbate congestion by pushing more people into their cars. Instead, cities should work to identify how AVs can slot into existing transit infrastructure, enhancing existing service rather than replacing it.

The problem is that we don’t have affordable, fast, transit. The stuff that gets put in place, whether it’s metro or light rail, is way too expensive to be ubiquitous. And until transit is ubiquitous, it’s not really going to put a dent, at least in North America, in the wealthy cities of the world, it’s not going to put a dent in auto use.
– 2018 Tech participant
[Ride sharing] has created a system where if you don’t have a credit card and you don’t have the ability to get an app, you’re redlined out. You don’t have options of mobility provided to you. If you need a wheelchair, you don’t have options that are created for you. We fought for decades to make sure these things were reversed in society, so as we see technology changing mobility, we have to ask ourselves, “is it benefitting society?”
— 2018 City participant
El Paso came to CityXChange Summit looking for tools to help them both reduce urban sprawl, and also communicate the value of investing in density. The City discussed a partnership with both UrbanFootprint, a tech participant that develops city planning tools, and Remix, which focuses specifically on transportation planning. El Paso aims to use both technologies to make better planning decisions, as well as to allow the City to demonstrate to stakeholders how those decisions will improve their daily lives.
We don’t want to see a world where all our public assets are privatized. However, we live in a world where the solutions don’t come from Washington anymore. I have no money…because the state only allows me to tax people that live in my city. If I don’t find [private-sector] partnerships, we don’t have roads, and then poor people can’t get to a hospital. That’s the reality of today.
– 2018 City participant

What should cities do?

  • Be open to innovation. Transportation startups love using the Uber model of asking for forgiveness, not permission. Instead of fighting innovation, cities should find ways to tax and accommodate startups. Not every idea will work, but being open to change will allow cities and citizens to capitalize.
  • Start with small-scale pilots. Neighborhood-level pilots are an ideal way to pilot new technologies. If something works, people will find and use it quickly. If not, it will fade away with little damage done.
  • Consider innovative incentives. Incentivizing companies to serve low-income or disabled communities will ensure that innovation brings value to all citizens, and society at large.
  • Look global. Transportation remains one of our most local industries, with limited sharing of best-practices between cities and countries. every city has its own specific requirements and standards, dramatically increasing costs. Cities should look to their peers when thinking about new solutions, to see what has worked elsewhere: networks like 100 Resilient Cities can help.
  • Build in equity from the ground up. Cities should make transportation innovation work for everyone. This means wheelchair accessible vehicles and cash payment options, but it also means ensuring that technology serves current residents, rather than just driving gentrification.
  • Demand data. Startups’ transportation data can be extremely valuable to cities helping them to determine impacts and improve public services. Cities should insist startups share this data, as part of their core corporate citizenship obligations.

Blockchain

Over the past year, blockchain technology has exploded from a small curiosity associated with libertarians and criminals to one of the hottest ideas in tech. Most people view blockchain as synonymous with its most well-known application, cryptocurrency. But the technology has potentially wide-ranging applications, with the potential to disrupt a wide range of industries. Banks are increasingly interested in using blockchains to manage complex financial transactions, while many in the public sector believe that the technology can help revolutionize complex, often corrupt, government record keeping. For cities, it’s time to start taking blockchain seriously.

Despite the complex technology and obscure terminology, at its core blockchain is quite a simple idea. A blockchain is a secure, distributed ledger; i.e. a giant, decentralized spreadsheet. Blockchains have two unusual characteristics. they are distributed, meaning they are stored and verified by many people and across many computers, and they are permanent: once information is in a blockchain, it’s there to stay. Blockchain are constantly being checked for accuracy among the thousands of computers they are stored across: this makes them virtually tamper-proof.

The potential implications for cities are profound. Blockchain can, for example, protect key city records from shocks like natural disasters. Because blockchain data is decentralized, a flood that destroys City hall won’t cause property markets to grind to a halt. This is more than just a hypothetical problem, and it impacts cities across the economic divide: in Puerto Rico, more than 60% of all Federal emergency management agency claims have been denied or delayed as a result of confusion over land records. Blockchain are also highly efficient and transparent: this means that transactions that take months to file using traditional paper-based government filing systems, which still predominate in many cities, could be completed in seconds.

Blockchain can also bring greater accountability and transparency than current, centralized technologies. Citizens can be sure that governments and other powerful institutions aren’t manipulating data, since transaction records are permanent and secure. This can increase levels of trust between governments and citizens, as citizens can be sure that data, once on the blockchain, is accurate and uncorrupted (Of course, nothing can prevent bad actors from inputting bad data onto the blockchain: if institutions want to manipulate the system, they can.).

While virtually any city around the world may benefit from blockchain technologies, it is perhaps those in the Global South, which typically have comparatively weaker institutions and lower levels of trust, that will truly benefit. By making it easier to create secure property records, blockchain may decentralize and reduce the price of trust, making it easier to build institutions with broad consent in support. Blockchain may also make it easier for people in the Global South to prove identity in countries without developed identity systems, allowing them to access key government services.

What should cities do?

  • Get your data ready. It’s of no use to put bad data up on the blockchain. To take advantage of the blockchain’s power, cities must make sure systems are up to date.
  • Don’t go it alone. Cities should work together, through institutions like The Rockefeller Foundation, to partner to create blockchain solutions. Because they require distribution across many computers, blockchains don’t work in a vacuum.
  • Pilot moving records onto the blockchain. For cities in the Global South that lack clear property records, piloting blockchain land registries is a no-brainer. But more developed cities should consider piloting as well: the blockchain will build resilience to shocks and help reduce costs for citizens across the board.
The Prime Minister of Georgia asked us to move their land registry onto a blockchain based platform. The core rationale was to combat corruption. The issue was that if Steve had a beautiful piece of property by the lake, and I wanted it, and my cousin worked for the land registry, I could go and talk to my cousin, they would sign that property over to me, and because the registry controlled the record, there was nothing Steve could do about it. He was out of luck. Going forward in Georgia, even a corrupt official will not be able to go in and wipe out the records of the system. This is a game changer when it comes to accountability, and by the way transaction costs that would have previously entailed thousands of dollars and days or weeks, will drop down to ten minutes and a couple of bucks.
— 2018 Tech participant
2018 CityXChange Summit participant Quito is in the final stages of completing the first line of a potentially-transformational metro system. If successful, the metro will help Quito reduce urban sprawl and better integrate underserved communities into the jobs and social services available in the city core. A significant barrier to the success of the program, however, is that the City lacks the technology and capacity it needs to plan, regulate, and control urban growth. In particular, Quito’s municipal “cadaster,” or property registry, is significantly out of date, which makes it difficult to make decisions around land use and planning. At CityXChange Summit, Quito worked with the Blockchain Trust Accelerator to develop plans for a blockchain-based cadaster, which would allow the City to easily capture, update, and use land use data, and ensure it remains a trusted source of truth for all Quiteños.