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How Tech Is Enhancing Citizen-Government Relationships in Cities

Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution (left) spoke with Harvard's Susan Crawford about engaging city communities in data-smart governance.

Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution (left) spoke with Harvard’s Susan Crawford about engaging city communities in data-smart governance.

Cities enabled by sensors, mobile technologies, cameras, and big data will be better places to live, according to Harvard Law School Professor Susan Crawford’s new book, “The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance,” coauthored with Harvard Kennedy School’s Stephen Goldsmith.

In contrast to the notion that tech will further enable the surveillance state or nefarious uses of data in cities, such as redlining in Detroit and Philadelphia, Crawford’s is an optimistic outlook.

At Techonomy Detroit this week, Crawford, who also co-directs Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, discussed with the Brookings Institution’s Jennifer Bradley various ways tech is enhancing urban living standards. “There were crushing asymmetries of information in the past, in the era of redlining and isolating neighborhoods,” Crawford acknowledged. “The way things are developing these days, technology is democratizing access to data and devices in ways that weren’t true in the past.”

Crawford believes that tech is enabling urban dwellers to virtually march on City Hall or otherwise make their voices heard. “Voices are much leveler than they were in the past,” she said. “And there’s an increased sense of accountability and visibility on the part of government, driven often by technology.”

One example is Buffalo, New York, where maps layered with 311 and 911 data are shared with the public to pinpoint neighborhoods with problems. Viewing a shared screen, Crawford said, “lowers emotional temperatures,” and gets citizens and government to cooperate to target scarce resources to neighborhoods most in need.

In the city of Jun, Spain, said Crawford, Twitter handles are branded on the town’s police officers’ uniforms. Citizens are invited to direct-Tweet the mayor’s office, and the office responds. Citizens are also able to reserve a public room in City Hall via Twitter: “the room unlocks itself in response to a Tweet when you arrive,” noted Crawford.

Crawford said mayors are essential to the success of the responsive city. She credits tech-savvy mayors with “making sure that the resources are made available for people to use technology to make their lives better,” and calls the trend “technically able citizenry empowered by a strong mayor.”

Crawford pointed to Chicago as another city that “sees itself as a platform” and is making significant advances using technology to open up the city. Not only did Chicago make all its crime data available online, but it is now sharing an open data-smart platform to enable other cities to follow its lead. Crawford said the city leadership is using predictive analytics to target city services, such as inspections. A new program called the Array of Things uses sensors placed around the central business district, the Loop, to measure and openly share data on noise, humidity, and light. Based on community input, the city can swap out sensors to measure other inputs. “It’s the first time we’re seeing a city trying to measure itself for ways that are useful for research and citizens in a completely transparent fashion,” Crawford said.

Bradley wonders if effective use of “smart cities” technology “demands smart citizens” who have the time and know-how to interact with and understand the value of the data. “There’s a limit to the amount of time and energy we can give to civic engagement,” she noted.

But Crawford, who prefers the term “responsive” city or citizen to “smart” city, said the responsive city is an easier place to engage as a citizen. “Responsiveness online can require just shards of attention. A person can insert their self if they want to with very little effort,” she said. “You can feel a sense of agency and autonomy and impact that’s very difficult in a world without screens.”

Crawford noted that technologies enable cities to increase the number of touch points they have with citizens, and that a city’s digital presence in citizens’ lives enables richer relationships. Rather than seeing the city as something alien to which we pay taxes and that arrests us, digital interaction can enhance the participatory democratic nature of life and the reciprocal nature of relationships between cities and citizens, she said.

Do digital relationships compromise physical individual ones between citizens and cities, such as traditional organizing and gathering, or the sense of community? Bradley asked.

Crawford said no: Deep personalization as well as genuine collective action are possible using technology. “We don’t lose anything, we’re amplifying our abilities along both of those vectors. You can talk to your precinct captain using Twitter, but you can also finally see your entire city in a way that’s difficult without digital technology.”

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