The Right Way to Make Cities Smart

Most data-driven "civic apps" report problems. What if they facilitated civic engagement instead?
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Christopher Le Dantec/Cycle Atlanta/Georgia Tech

In the 1960s, RAND Corporation researcher Harold Sackman advanced some of the earliest arguments for real-time data in the public interest: “It is commonplace to point out that computers make it possible to collect, organize, and process vast amounts of data quickly and reliably in real time experiments that were beyond the ken of the precomputer era.” Sackman’s assessment of computing in the late 1960s was meant to argue that computation would allow—and had already begun facilitating—large-scale, data-based experimentation with social programs. His was a pragmatist’s view. The combination of scientific method and open real-time control systems, or what we would now call Big Data and Cloud Computing, could be productively brought to bear on for benefit of the public good.

Nearly 50 years later, we are faced with whole new classes of devices and services that operate with very much the same goals in mind. By building sensing capabilities into everything from our phones to our refrigerators, our eye-wear to our thermostats, we occupy a world ever more sensed and sensible to computational analysis and management. Turning our selves into data, structuring our lives around devices that communicate with us through our smartphones, and adopting services that tailor themselves to our presumptive needs comes with incremental conveniences for the individual but substantial consequences for the community.

A subset of mobile computing apps and services bring this conflict into focus. These tools combine mobile computing devices that collect real- or recent-time data, with new forms of community participation, civic engagement, and local governance. Examples of these kinds apps and services include SeeClickFix, PublicStuff, and Street Bump—all of which exist as systems that mediate feedback about local urban issues and help communities mobilize to address those issues: SeeClickFix enables community members to setup neighborhood watch groups that record and respond to issues and interface with local officials when needed; PublicStuff acts as social-media enabled middleware allowing citizens to directly submit issues to local government; Street Bump automates pothole and pavement issue detection by leveraging the sensing capabilities of modern smartphones. These services hope to improve the public good by means of new forms of public participation, data collection, and data analysis. They enable citizens to collect facts about their community—untrimmed trees, broken streetlights, and potholes, for example—and help report those facts to local governments for more efficient repair and management.

These services encourage a specific type of public participation, one that reinforces the idea of cities as service providers and of citizenship as a kind of light-weight consumer feedback activity.

Computing has always promised efficiencies—of productivity, of data—and services like SeeClickFix and its ilk strive to apply those promises to local government. It is through these efficiencies that they are able to elide the messiness and contention of citizenship that play out through more traditional modes of public engagement and political discourse. Of course, the messiness of politics turns out to be unavoidable, and not so easily tamed by the rationality of computation. We are simply left with digital versions of the questions that have always followed democracy: Which citizens participate? Who benefits?

What might it look like to incorporate more active and political forms of participation in an app- and data-driven world? In my research group at Georgia Tech, we have developed a smartphone app that interfaces with a larger regional planning project. The app, called Cycle Atlanta, enables cyclists to record their ride data—where they’ve gone, why they went there, what kind of cyclist they are—in an effort to collect more knowledge about cycling in the city. But more importantly, rather than just using data to identify faults in need of mending, Cycle Atlanta aggregates information with the explicit goal of helping the Atlanta cycling community advocate for particular infrastructural reforms.

To put the difference into relief: apps like Street Bump or SeeClickFix are designed primarily toward individuals sensing the world. They are intended to collect raw data about the city by asserting facts like, “There is a pothole here.” The social and political consequences of such assertions have nothing to do with the data itself, but are instead linked to the socio-economic contours of the populations who would use their smartphone to detect potholes. This is a standard critique of smartphone-based civic participation: they may sense the urban environment, but they only sense the parts of the urban environment encountered by the citizens who would be inclined to use their smartphone to do so. It is not the data itself that is enacting a political reality, but the conditions under which those data are being collected.

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Christopher Le Dantec is an assistant professor at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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