Cities like Boston already know that getting citizens involved, whether it's reporting public transit outages or providing open records online, is critical to running smoothly. Everything from repairing parking garage elevators to opening up budgetary records can be done on a single platform, and nowhere was that more evident than at SAP's annual Sapphire Now conference a few weeks ago in Orlando, Fla.
There is no question that people are moving to cities and megacities (urban areas that encompass surrounding towns), which brings new challenges like increased crime and a strain on municipal resources. In a time when city governments are finding themselves without nearly as much state funding, putting citizens to work make sense, if they are willing to step up to the plate as active participants in city government.
Citizens can drive improvements and infrastructure repairs
One of the suggested applications demonstrated at the conference was the Citizens Connect mobile app offered by the city of Boston. Users can snap pictures of problems such as potholes and damaged signs, upload the pictures, and notify the city that the problem exists. The simple user interface even lets people view recent reports and images submitted by other users. On the back end, the city tracks key performance indicators (KPIs) like response time.
Of course, this kind of application should be taken with a grain of salt. It works best in cities with a population comfortable with using mobile devices and motivated to improve the city. Boston has a young, intellectual population spawned from the city's colleges and universities and embedded through an abundance of opportunities. A city with a more apathetic population -- or a population that isn't as comfortable with using technology -- would have more obstacles to overcome before a Citizens Connect app would be a worthwhile endeavor.
Opening public records to citizens
Boston is also a good example of a city that opens up its KPIs to citizens. Through a web portal, citizens can view the number of library cards issued, emergency dispatch times, and other things citizens view as key to a smoothly running city. The Texas Transparency Board also publishes KPIs relevant to citizens. This helps engage the population and provide insight into municipal government.
Making commuting less painful
The city of Montreal is using anonymized transit card data on the Montreal Metro to let the transit system collect data on how often people are commuting at a certain time, what lines they are using, and so forth. Citizens can download the companion mobile app, which lets businesses like the coffee shop down the street send special offers. The app also can alert regular transit riders to alternate or less-crowded routes. For example, someone who usually takes the 8:37 a.m. train could be told that the 8:30 train has fewer riders.
Finding the parking needle in the haystack
Finally, a big part of urban revitalization will hinge on getting people downtown to go to events. It's one of the challenges faced by the city across the river from where I live, Springfield, Mass. One way technology can be useful is by helping visitors find parking via an app. The solution demonstrated at Sapphire used sensors to track which parking spaces were open in municipal garages. It then uploaded the data to an app that could be downloaded to a smartphone or to a web portal optimized for mobile use. This would allow visitors to see the availability of spaces and predict whether they'd be able to park before heading downtown.
Based on what I heard at Sapphire, the data-driven city of the future not only will rely on citizens for information, but it will also provide value to citizens. It becomes a two-way street (pardon the pun) that benefits businesses, residents, visitors, and the municipality itself. And it all starts with leveraging current assets and investing in technology.
Re: Millennials to the rescue? Ahh, yes... complaining: The glue that binds the generations for all eternity. ;->
Again, I really like where you're going with this. I still worry that it will appeal to a very small intersection of groups: those who are already civic-minded with a history of involvement, AND the technophiles who, as you note, are busy pinning, tweeting, instagram'ing. Will a pothole or burned-out traffic signal light a fire? I'm dubious, but like those people who get married for the third or fourth time, maybe I can let hope triumph over experience.
Re: Millennials to the rescue? @digitaldruid: Well yes, things seem to be moving a little closer to the Federal model for the nation while the same could be said for the countries of the continent. The challenges in simply joining up the data are substantial and, even though the UK is very central in terms of Governance, sadsly that does not translate to how local governments store the data.
Re: Millennials to the rescue? @Terry - Thanks for the comments about my approach. Spent a lot to time and effort over the last 5 years working on it. Also bring 30+ years of IT experience to the effort.
Its the only forward way I can see (process of elimination). All other efforts I see are piecemeal, ineffectual and unsustainable. They address symptoms, not root causes.
@Toby - Yes this will be a long-term effort...but we have to start somewhere to re-design our governance for the 21st century. The UK is one of the most centralized governments in the world, but I'm seeing some "devolution" changes start to happen.
Re: Millennials to the rescue? @Terry - Yes, on campus. More info to come. App contest to follow...I'm an advisor to the longer-term app effort (its not just a weekend hackathon, from what I am hearing).
Contradiction in terms Thanks for great post. When I read this I was more struck by the implicit contradiction and how we have managed to get into such a pickle "Opening public records to citizens" After all if the records are public, you might citizens have every right to them. After a stint in local government here in the UK I soon learned how much work is needed to make this a reality.
Re: Millennials to the rescue? I think your formula is a great starting point, DigitalDruid, with Millennials, Gen X'ers and graybeards mashing up their expertise, creativity and ability to collaborate. It's exactly this sort of multi-pronged approach that will keep "data-driven government" from being a one-off deal that quickly descends into irrelevancy.
Re: Millennials to the rescue? We maybe be surprised that older generations like to snap pictures and send text. If the apps are user friendly all ages and backgrounds may get involved. Most people have cell phones.
Re: Millennials to the rescue? Sounds like an interesting conference, Digital Druid. I assume the event will be on the USC campus, given their involvement in the initiative. Can you share any more information? And will the Open Data app contest for USC students be taking place at the same time as the conference?
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