After the Detroit Mayor’s office hosted a series of workshops to show citizens how to access publicly available city data, the Chief of Police was greeted at neighborhood meetings by residents who knew more about local burglary patterns than he did. “He was thrilled about that,” said Beth Niblock, the city’s chief information officer, at a panel discussion at the Techonomy Detroit conference in mid-September. “That’s civic engagement at a different level.”
As access to data and technology becomes democratized, a civic tech movement is emerging that helps governments make cities more livable. Niblock said she seeks civic tech that addresses inclusion and breaks down the digital divide to enable Detroit’s aging population as well as its young people to engage with City Hall “however they want to, in whatever language they speak.”
She joined moderator and Techonomy CEO David Kirkpatrick for a discussion on “Hacking Our Way to the Cities We Need.” Other participants were Danish architect and author Thomas Ermacora, investor and data scientist Jon Gosier, and Microsoft senior executive for Technology and Civic Engagement Dan’l Lewin. Panelists ranged well beyond Detroit, citing examples of civic tech progress in Barcelona, Chicago, Kampala, London, Nairobi, and Philadelphia.
Kirkpatrick noted that “all the things that now allow a startup company to get up and running fast with very little resources—the cloud, supercomputers in our pockets, and better and rapidly available analytics—prove to be an asset in a city that is resource constrained.”
Niblock said that when she came to Detroit 19 months ago, the lion’s share of PCs in city offices ran software too outdated to even open email attachments. Today, she said, while her team builds a replacement, the city continues to rely on 30-year-old payroll software written in a near-dead language. Nevertheless, Niblock and Mayor Mike Duggan are committed to transparency and on a mission to leverage technology and data to engage Detroit’s citizens.
Since making 80 separate sets of data public in February, the city’s new Knight Foundation-supported Director for Civic Tech Engagement has put several hundred more sets online. Eventually, she said, all financial transactions will be open, as will inspections, permits, and licenses.
Her office has also established smart meters and parking-payment apps, a “Text My Bus” app to track public transportation, a 311-style “Improve Detroit” app, and “DPD Connect,” which lets citizens submit anonymous crime tips to neighborhood police from an app.
Philadelphia-based Jon Gosier, founder of Cross Valley Capital and partner at Rokk3r Labs, said, “some of the most cutting-edge open data experiments” are those in Nairobi and Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Now, he said, similar ideas are being adopted in Philadelphia, Detroit, and elsewhere in the U.S. “In both environments, it’s the citizens’ power and ability to address their own problems from their perspective that government has realized can be a resource,” he said.
In London, Thomas Ermacora’s Clear Village charity has helped establish LimeWharf, a cultural center to incubate institutions and help the neighborhood blossom. He described it as a “bridge between those who want technology, those who want to work, and those who want to be entertained.” He believes communities work best when “you stack up living, working, and showing [the arts],” noting that the idea reverses traditional urban patterns in places like Detroit where citizens live in one area, work in another, and shop somewhere else.
Microsoft’s Dan’l Lewin said culture is key to such progress. He described the city as “the core” that “collects, manages, and opens the data,” with the civic tech movement at “the edge.” The most interesting thing his Microsoft technology and civic engagement team sees, he said, “is this rapid experimentation from the edge in and from the core out.” In the next three years, he predicted, “the patterns are going to emerge and then…they will be financeable and scalable. Then we’ll see really rapid buildout.”
Whether civic tech and other projects are launched by citizens or governments, Ermacora sees potential for a “happy marriage” between top down and bottom up: “It doesn’t have to be a point of conflict; technology solves this elegantly,” he said.
That’s not to say he or fellow panelists deny the dark side of open data. Ermacora worries about corporations “enriching the situation for themselves” and possibly taking advantage of citizens whose data are public.
Lewin called it a “rise of the machines” scenario. And Gosier is concerned that, whether or not the data is used malevolently, “the end result is inequitable to people who don’t have access to or know how to make use of this data.”
Ultimately, however, Lewin said tech will inevitably blend into the fabric of everything, “fading away and bringing you what you want rather than you reaching out to it.” The civic tech movement, he said, is “the most present and real manifestation of what’s going on with the microprocessor as it fades into the Internet of things.”
This group of experts is supremely optimistic that if cities embrace this new movement we will see an even faster revival of places like Detroit and a continuing renaissance in cities worldwide.