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How civic tech can steer development and create smarter cities

Civic-minded techies are finding ways to digitize, demystify, and improve local government

SeeClickFix, developed more than a decade ago, has helped hundreds of local governments become more responsive,

The latest buzz-phrase catching fire in planning and technology? Smart city concepts. The various strains of reactive infrastructure and efficient transportation that make up these new ideas for smart cities suggest a cleaner, less crowded, and more clever version of urban life is right around the corner.

But with developers and technologists anointing everything from digital signage to entire neighborhoods with the smart city label, it can be hard to figure out what the term really means. Who gets to decide what these technology-infused visions of urban life look like—and how they operate? Even the best-publicized smart city concepts, like the Toronto waterfront project from Sidewalk Labs, have generated significant blowback when it comes to issues of data privacy.

More importantly, what makes them “smart”? Convenience is one thing, but there’s a big difference between data and wisdom, between the information gathered by smart cameras and the vision of lifelong citizens. That’s why a new raft of technological advancements being adapted for cities can be so transformative.

Over the last decade, programs like Code for America and Startup in Residence have become incubators that help civic-minded techies find ways to digitize, and demystify, local government. Successful case studies have saved cities money and made strong cases for increased investment in better tech. In California, Sen. Kamala Harris recently proposed a plan to invest $15 million annually in tech for local government.

Here are a few examples of how cities have used technology to shape development and improve neighborhoods.

Tech is fostering civic engagement—by letting citizens suggest their own development policies

When Mesa, Arizona, launched Imagine Mesa, a digital forum for community engagement, in 2017, Mayor John Giles hoped to create a more “bottom-up government.” Two years later, the crowdsourcing platform, where residents make suggestions for proposals and click on the ones they support, has led to a number of initiatives and projects, including a new farmers market and the conversion of a historic home into a restaurant that promotes locally sourced ingredients.

It’s just one of a number of successful crowdsourcing projects that have made local government more interactive and transparent. Imagine Mesa used the framework of a program called Neighborland, which, akin to other platforms—like Patronicity, Spacehive, Ioby, and Small Change—enable the community to either direct public funding or contribute to projects, helping them play a larger role in development.

Other sites seek to give the public the power to see where and how their money is spent. PolicyInsights seeks to create a database that allows users to parse the $2 trillion spent by the nation’s roughly 30,000 local governments. Providing more power to compare and spend, these new apps can help average citizens get a better handle on the budget.

Empowering citizens to become data analysts

Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mayor G.T. Bynum had a problem sadly familiar to many in government: outsized ambitions and an undersized budget. Hoping to use data-driven policy to improve operations in the midsize city (population: 400,000), Bynum came up against technological and financial limits.

To convert the raw information gathered by the city into better policy, Bynum decided to harvest Tulsa’s existing talent: Launched in 2017, Urban Data Pioneers invited residents and city employees to become part of data-focused cohorts, each of which focused on a single issue and spent 10 weeks gathering information to deliver to city officials. Since launching, the program has combed through data on traffic crashes, land use, and blight. One group wanted to link data on utility payments and evictions to figure out if targeted action can help residents avoid losing their homes. Another created a new way to prioritize street maintenance, and it’s been adapted by the city.

Using data to solve city problems isn’t new: Tulsa had plenty of datasets before launching this program. But as The Frontier put it, using the Moneyball approach to city government can unlock the potential of that data, especially for cities with more limited means.

Rethinking the reporting process

When the creators of 311SA, San Antonio’s new mobile app and digital reporting tool, sought to increase citizen engagement with the city, they used the same strategy any app designer would consider: gamification and social media. Users who flagged a pothole would see if other users had added the same issue, and be able to upvote their requests. And those who regularly post can earn titles such as “neighborhood leader” and “community representative.”

Six months after its debut, 311SA, created by local design studio Cityflag, boasts a 90 percent success rate, with nine in 10 of the more than 2,500 issues flagged fixed. Other cities, including Mexico City, are reportedly interested.

Apps that address these everyday interactions with local government have been around for a long time: SeeClickFix, developed more than a decade ago, has helped hundreds of local governments become more responsive, and Bonayo helps San Franciscans parse the city’s own log of 311 calls. In an era when people often feel less connected to their neighborhoods—and their neighbors—coming together over a common annoyance and seeing it fixed can be a powerful tool for civility.

Untangling traffic and making roads safer

The place where cyclists approach an intersection and need to decide whether to push through a yellow light or stop is called the “dilemma zone.” It’s one of the many dangers that face those who commute by bike; cyclist fatalities have increased by 25 percent since 2010. In Detroit, however, the city has an added weapon to help prevent crashes and save lives: the “world’s smartest intersection.”

Part of a citywide deployment of traffic tech by Canadian company Miovision, these smart traffic monitors not only help cyclists in the above scenarios by lengthening the green light, but also provide priority to emergency vehicles or pedestrians, and generally use data and analytics to make the street both safer and more efficient.

Other companies, like Ride Report in Portland, see tech as a traffic savior which allows cyclists to self-report dangerous routes to spur city improvements in bike infrastructure. While the bulk of technological spending is geared towards driverless cars—which present their own pedestrian dangers—other tech companies have shown that small investments in traffic systems can save lives.

Supporting social justice

Increasingly, coders have harnessed tech to bring equity to city government, especially the criminal justice system. In San Francisco, a collaboration between the city’s district attorney and Code for America created Clear My Record, an automated way to speed up the clearance of marijuana-related convictions, helping thousands expunge their records. A system of text-message reminders that alerted New York City residents with criminal summonses when they needed to show up in court, what nonprofit developer Ideas42 called a “small nudge,” cut the number of people who fail to show up by 13 percent (the program’s initial trial run has since been expanded citywide).

Both of these projects, and others like them, aren’t necessarily about investment in expensive, cutting-edge technology. They’re more about seeing how small fixes enabled by technology can quickly and dramatically improve the lives of many.