At Techonomy Detroit: Tech Giants Turn Attention to Civic Life

By  |  September 28, 2015, 11:26 AM  |  Techonomy Exclusive


Techonomy Detroit 15 (From left, James Fallows, John Webb, Annmarie Levins, Lauren Hood, Jennifer Crozier

The “Get Engaged!” panel at Techonomy Detroit 2015: (l ro r) The Atlantic’s James Fallows, Google’s John Webb, Microsoft’s Annmarie Levins, Deep Dive Detroit’s Lauren Hood, and IBM’s Jennifer Crozier

Big tech companies see a role for themselves in helping us all be more involved in our own governance and the improvement of our communities. For evidence of that, look no further than the newfangled job titles of some of their executives: Jennifer Crozier, IBM VP of Global Citizenship Initiatives, Annmarie Levins, Microsoft General Manager for Technology & Civic Engagement, and John Webb, a leader of Google’s Civic Innovation team. All of them were at Techonomy Detroit in September for a discussion on “Our Technologized Civic Life.”

Atlantic journalist and author James Fallows moderated the panel, which was also joined by native Detroiter Lauren Hood, whose organization Deep Dive Detroit “aims to create a safe space for uncomfortable conversations between disparate groups.” She brought a citizen activist’s perspective and a bracing skepticism to what was otherwise a mostly optimistic session.

This company crowd believes firmly that Net access combined with the availability of data can be catalytic in creating better governed and more democratic communities. Data, analytics, social media, and tech tools are opening new doors for civic engagement and urban renewal. “If you have data about how things happen and when they happen, not necessarily why, you can… make a difference to people. People who can make data-driven decisions about how to apply resources and when to intervene can reduce crime. And it has in many places,” said Microsoft’s Levins.

The need is massive. In his extensive recent reporting for The Atlantic, Fallows said he has seen citizens in cities across the nation struggling to recover from the “economic, political, cultural, demographic, and climatological shocks of recent years.”

The panel teemed with ideas to help, though most of them have been implemented so far only in pilot projects or in one or two places. Crozier said IBM has assisted public health officials in Louisville, Kentucky, develop a system to track juvenile asthmatic episodes with chips embedded in inhalers. And Fallows pointed to former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s use of sensors to measure potholes and monitor trash collection as well as a statistics-based crime-tracking system. In an earlier discussion, Detroit Chief Information Officer Beth Niblock shared several examples of tech tools designed to enhance civic engagement in this city.

But Hood noted that many Detroit residents are barely getting by. “Thinking about how to be fully actualized isn’t on their radar,” she said. When those people do engage in civic action, she said, it’s about survival: “People get involved in water activism because their water got shut off. People get involved in foreclosure crisis because their house got foreclosed on.” Hood dismissed apps as solutions for most of Detroit’s citizens, who have limited access to technology, and she expressed skepticism that data can reduce crime.

Research from Google indicates that it’s not just under-resourced voices that are unheard in the civic sphere. For whatever reason, too many are simply unmotivated to get involved. A Civic Innovation team survey of 2,000 U.S. adults including 100-plus in-depth interviews with people across the country revealed that half of the population are “interested bystanders,” who follow the news and the issues, but don’t participate in civic life. And while “clicktivism” is on the rise, Webb said many survey respondents could not remember the subject of the last online petition they signed.

Still, panelists shared examples of ways tech is being employed in cities around the world to enhance civic life, for even the most impoverished. Crozier described, for example, how social media tools have enabled residents of favelas in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to secure government budgets for their own communities. In Glasgow, Scotland, she said, data analytics help the poor make choices that reduce their utility expenses.

Google’s Webb admonished fellow panelists to walk in the shoes of the citizens they aim to assist. “As technologists in the civic space, we have to understand their needs. What problem is technology trying to solve?” Hood concurred. “What’s missing is that the people most impacted by this technology are not in the room, and that model gets replicated on any problem we have,” she said.

As the discussion took place, a team of 6 IBM executives from around the globe was settling in for a three-week assignment in Detroit, Crozier reported. After taking a bus tour to witness the city’s expansive blight, they expect to develop recommendations for employing technology and analytics to figure out ways to remove Detroit’s massive city-wide accumulation of debris. The ideal outcome will be if Detroit and its citizens are able to apply and sustain the recommended tools after the IBMers depart. The panel gave just a glimmer of hope that it might happen.

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