The digital economy and tech are transforming America’s cities as much as its companies. There are apps and hacks for every problem. But the resulting civic benefits are incomplete. Can we create enough jobs? Is access getting fairer? Health care improving? Transit? What more can companies, cities and citizens do to inclusively reinvent themselves for this interconnected, technologized era?
Kirkpatrick: Okay, let me introduce this amazing group that we have here. I’m going to start here with Dan’l Lewin of Microsoft—first I’m going to introduce you, then I’ll get into my questions. But he’s a Microsoft veteran—you’ve been there for 15 years?
Lewin: Almost, yes.
Kirkpatrick: And when you’ve been at Microsoft for 15 years, you don’t really have to be at Microsoft. So he’s doing what he loves. He’s the corporate vice president for technology and civic engagement. His boss, Brad Smith, who’s historically been Microsoft’s chief counsel and head of civic engagement, among other things, was just promoted to be president of Microsoft, which is indicative of a set of priorities that Satya Nadella has that are quite interesting, I think. And maybe we’ll get to that, maybe we won’t. But in any case, the kind of stuff that Dan’l is working on is super important at Microsoft.
Next to Dan’l is Beth Niblock, who I’m sure many of you know, who’s the chief information officer of the City of Detroit. We’re very pleased to have her here, as well as, later this morning, her boss, Mayor Duggan.
Next to Beth, Jon Gosier is—he says here, founder, Cross Valley Capital, partner, Rokk3r Labs, but he’s got a lot more in his background. He’s worked at big companies. He’s a TED fellow. He is a veteran of technology around the world, particularly in Africa, where he’s done a lot of work. His real interest is inclusion, I’d say, generally speaking, and we’re going to hear him talk about that in this conversation.
And finally, Thomas Ermacora, who I only recently got to know, is an architect and a multifaceted sort of cities experimenter who lives both in London and L.A. and is developing communities in a way that fulfills a vision that he’s developed. He’s got a book coming out—what’s your book called, Thomas?
Ermacora: “Recoded City.”
Kirkpatrick: “Recoded City.” That’s coming out just in a few weeks, right?
Kirkpatrick: And so he’s a deep thinker and comes at some of these issues from a slightly different point of view.
But what we’re really here to talk about is this issue of civic innovation and the intersection between citizen energy and institutional capability, or lack of same. And I think that there is something fundamentally new going on, and I wanted to ask Dan’l to just tell me if you agree with that, that there’s something fundamentally new happening, and just to try to define what you’d say it is that is this civic innovation movement that seems to be emerging. And by the way, we’ve published a number of articles on our website about it just in the last few days.
Lewin: Well, thanks, David. I do think there’s something new and interesting going on, and in many respects, I would come at it from the technology perspective. That’s part of the way I think about it personally, and obviously it’s the way—in terms of Microsoft, the way we’ve been thinking about it. In many ways, there’s been this explosion since 1975 more or less, with the microprocessor, of automating rational tasks, moving words around, or pictures or numbers and things like that. And with the mobility revolution and communications and connectivity being ever-present, the civic tech movement I think is this phenomenon of major infrastructure—and you made the point, and well placed, about the urbanization of the world. There’s this data-rich civil information, data that belongs to the public, and the evolution of technology, which is that it’s moving rapidly—not that rational tasks are going to go away, because we’re going to do word processing things, we’re going to draw pictures, we’re going to calculate things with machines. But the idea that information-rich, data-rich ambient or present intelligence, as the technology fades into the fabric of everything—including your clothes over time. But it is about the technology fading away, and therefore bringing you what you want, rather than you reaching out to it.
So cities, and I think the civic tech movement is the most present and real manifestation of what’s going on with the evolution of the microprocessor as it fades into things. So if you think about internet of things, you think about the fabric of a metropolitan area, and you think about moving through it—people move. People are constantly in motion. So what it coming to them as opposed to them reaching out to do tasks?
Kirkpatrick: That’s really good. But give us specific example of a place where you see that happening. I know you’ve been very involved in Chicago.
Lewin: Well Chicago was what I was going to mention as we think a really interesting instance proof. And out of my group, because we’re a small, focused strategic group at a corporate level, we’ve picked a few areas. And so you have to pick fertile ground, and then to use the analogy, you’ve got to pick, you know, jockeys—if you go to the horse races, you know, you sort of look at the horse, but then you say, okay, who’s the jockey? So Chicago is incredibly fertile ground, big, interesting city. Strong mayor, strong mayoral office. Very strong business community, with the World Business Chicago economic development group sort of volunteering pro bono—we’ve got to fix the place within which our people live, work, and play, and make sure that we evolve it.
So we’ve been working in a new construct called UI Labs, which is University Industry Laboratory. City Digital is the name of the project in which we’re working with Accenture and Tyco and ComEd and Siemens and others—those are the big companies, and then a series of smaller and medium sized ones, and then the civic tech community, the startup community, you know, hackers, local community, information-rich opportunity. And we’re looking at projects which are 6–24 months in duration that are not commercially off the shelf, so how do we bring together universities and hackers, the core data from the city, so everybody’s present, the whole community is present.
So part of this is this experiment of understanding substantial, in this case, substantive infrastructure technologies: water flows, green infrastructure—these are things that probably Thomas will talk about—and architectural infrastructure. If you’re going to redo the sewer systems, how often do you do that, what do you do in terms of visual mapping of that over time, and sensorizing it and all those kinds of things. So there are edge cases and interesting, fun little apps, but there are also really big problems which we think running experiments bottoms up, community-oriented—this is not a tops down phenomenon. This is a bottoms up. But you need both. You need sort of a top down awareness and opportunity. You need edge case interesting app-y kinds of things. And then out of that, I think we’ll get some formulaic things that can be, you know, in a collaborative, sustainable way, good for society, and frankly, for humans. Because we need cities to be livable, healthy, flexible, environmentally sound places for people.
Kirkpatrick: And I know as part of that, you have a lot of work you’re doing to engage the individual citizens. And, Beth, I want to go to you to talk about that dynamic of the intersection of citizen energy and the need to change these cities, and essentially our entire economy, when you get right down to it.
Now, you came to Detroit from the outside, from a smaller city, where you’d been very successful doing urban technology for the government there, and you took on a fairly big task of coming to a city where really there wasn’t a whole lot of urban technology in place, let’s face it. What’s happened, and how do you think about this intersection of citizen and city energy?
Niblock: Well, one of the reasons that I came to the City of Detroit was I was part of a group that the Obama Administration put together to come to Detroit to help with technology. And as part of our meetings, we met with a lot of civic tech people, and there is such a strong civic tech presence in Detroit that it was really intriguing to me. And they had to be that strong because government wasn’t functioning. So I know Erica Raleigh with Data Driven Detroit is out there. They have served the city well.
And so one of the things that was really important to me when I was recruited by Mayor Duggan was that he was very committed to transparency and open data. So we, in February, issued an open by default executive order, and thanks to Rock Ventures and the Knight Foundation, who put some money aside—so there’s this interesting struggle as you’re going through bankruptcy. You know, 80–90% of the PCs in our fleet were five years or older. They all ran XP or older. We couldn’t communicate—
Kirkpatrick: This is in city offices?
Niblock: City offices, yes.
Kirkpatrick: And weren’t there some city offices where there were no PCs?
Niblock: Yes, there are. You know, we couldn’t send and receive emails regularly. If you got an email, you couldn’t necessarily open the attachment.
Kirkpatrick: That’s a big difference from—open data’s like modern stuff over here. You’re saying you were like 15 years behind.
Niblock: Well, somebody said, “Oh, well you could do all this innovation.” I said innovation to us is like actually sending the email, receiving the email, and opening the attachment.
And sometimes it just has to be that fundamental. And we were talking at dinner about Maslow’s hierarchy of technology and you kind of have that building thing. But the nice thing that Rock Venture and the Knight Foundation did was they put aside a fund that—as we’re addressing, in the plan of adjustment through bankruptcy, we have about $100 million dollars’ worth of technology projects that we’ve got underway. But there’s this tension of, you know, is civic tech and open data just kind of like a nice-to-have? But it’s not. It’s a have-to-have. So Rock and Knight allowed me to hire a deputy director for civic tech engagement, and all he’s been working on is open data. So we had our executive order on February 19. We started with about 80 datasets. We’re over a couple hundred. We’ve got all of our assessor imagery is about to be put on open data, and eventually we’ll have all of our financial transactions on open data.
I think that’s really important in a number of ways. You know, Detroit’s history is Detroit’s history, so I think the more we can do to be transparent about what government is actually doing is really important. But more important than that, and the reason like Erica Raleigh and Data Driven Detroit are so essential to us is that we did summer data workshops with nonprofits and neighborhood groups to show them how they can access all the data that’s on the open data portal, not only for the City of Detroit, but all the things that other organizations are doing. And we feel very strongly that information is power and if we don’t put our information out there for citizens and neighborhood groups to be able to consume, we’re not—we don’t have a level playing field, because the person who has the information typically has the power.
So we’re putting all that out there and neighborhood groups are just consuming it like crazy. The chief of police, who has been an incredible supporter of open data—and typically, they can be a little hinky about that—he’s just like, “Yeah, it was a great time when I went to the neighborhood meeting and they were talking to me about smash and grabs, and they were quoting all these numbers and we’re like, ‘Where’d you get that?’ and they’re like, ‘Off your open data portal.” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s good.”
Kirkpatrick: They had data he didn’t have?
Niblock: Yes, they had a whole heat map and they were looking at patterns. But he also was really thrilled about that because that’s an engagement at a different level that was exciting.
Kirkpatrick: You know, one of the things about the moment we’re living in is—you know, it’s widely said startups can start with very little resources because we have the cloud. You know, individual citizens are walking around with supercomputers in their pocket and apps are relatively affordable to build. Analytics are getting rapidly better and available as a service. So all the things that allow a startup to get up and running really fast also prove, I assume, to be an asset in a city which is resource-constrained and wants to make a leap from this more or less prehistoric technology era that Detroit was in to a modern open data-based ecosystem of capability. So it actually saves money, I would assume, in addition to bringing about all these great new capabilities.
Niblock: It does. But it’s a longer term solution for us. So we have very old systems. There’s no hiding that our payroll system is over 30 years old. It was on a mainframe that was no longer supported, in a generation of language that is eight generations behind. That’s how we pay 90% of the City of Detroit.
Kirkpatrick: Even still?
Niblock: Even still. So we have to keep those things alive while we’re putting in a new cloud-based HRIS payroll/time and attendance system, we’re putting in a new cloud-based financial management system. Our new inspections, permits, and licensing will be cloud-based. So it allows you over time to jump there. The hard part is you have to keep that other stuff alive until you can get on it.
Kirkpatrick: Really interesting. I’m trying to decide who to go to next. Let me just go to Jon. I mean when you hear this kind of talk, especially a big company like Microsoft being so enthusiastic about this—you know, you have kind of a foot in the community movement, and also a foot in the technology industry. What’s your perspective about what’s possible, how far we’ve gone, and what you’d like to see happen next in terms of technology for sort of civic improvement, particularly in our cities?
Gosier: I think that there’s—I mean obviously there’s a lot of opportunity to engage citizens through the civic tech movement. I think just embracing civic tech culture period has been a huge kind of stamp of approval, point of inclusion between government and the citizens of the cities and states that create these movements. In Philadelphia, we had the first—
Kirkpatrick: Which is where you’re from.
Gosier: Yes, where I live. We’ve had one of the first chief data officers actually be created as a position in government. And, you know, it was interesting to see some of the struggles that that person, Mark Headd, went through in Philadelphia, many of the same things that you’re talking about, you know, wanting to do all this cutting edge stuff but realizing that the real struggle is combating the legacy problems that remain—some of it not even being technology, some of it being just stubbornness to change. And so I think it’s worthwhile because that culture of wanting to improve cities and wanting to embrace technology to improve people’s lives is something that’s very powerful and it’s sort of a citizen’s way of getting involved in creating things and making their own lives better.
So I think it’s important from a point of access, a point of inclusion, and a point of embracing what’s around you and making use of those resources. And it’s been interesting to see this play out both here and in cities internationally. I did a lot of work in East Africa, in Nairobi and in Kampala, Uganda, where some of the most cutting edge open data stuff that I’ve seen in the world was coming from there, being done there, being experimented there, and seeing some of the same technologies a few years later be implemented in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia—well, in many other cities around the US. It’s just interesting to see that in both environments, it’s sort of the citizens’ power and the ability to address their own problems from their perspective that I think government has realized can be a resource.
Kirkpatrick: I mean this is the real revolution, that citizens have power they didn’t have before. As Beth points out, when the police chief goes to a neighborhood and the people in the community have more data about crimes in that neighborhood than he has, that’s a landscape shift.
Gosier: Yes, absolutely. And it’s also—you know, one of the projects that I’m working on now actually, a group of technologists and myself won the Knight News Challenge recently for a new project that we’re doing in Philadelphia to get communities that are otherwise disenfranchised, and just frankly not voting, how do we get them to understand the importance of civic engagement and what they’re giving up by not participating; how do we reeducate people who are coming home from prisons to know that they—although you may lose your right to vote for a while, it’s not permanent, you know, you can get it back; and just educating people to help them understand not only that you can vote, but why it’s important and what power you have in your communities to change things by participating and what you’re giving up by not participating.
Kirkpatrick: That reminds me of a statistic that I saw yesterday in the “New York Times” that there are 5.6 million mostly Mexican American, Latin American—that they’re living legally in the United States, eligible for citizenship, who have not yet become citizens. This was being discussed in light of the political campaign, what happens if they all became citizens and voted. But the point is, they up to now haven’t felt like even becoming a citizen was beneficial to them. So there’s a lot of things that need to be moved forward.
Thomas, in terms of looking at this stuff a little bit more from a distance, because you live partly in London and you have a fairly ambitious development you’re doing there—you spend a lot of time in Europe. How far do you think we are from achieving the potential of this whole movement of citizen engagement and kind of allowing big institutions, including governments, to take advantage of the new energies of individuals?
Ermacora: Well, I don’t know if I’m the right person to do the prognosis. But I would say that, seeing from Europe and seeing from traveling a lot, there are lots of signs that are pointing towards the fact that we have governments paying attention, we have the investor community paying attention, and we have the civic engagement happening. So that’s already a great sign.
I think with the advent of artificial intelligence around the corner, being in everyone’s pocket, there’s some real questions, both opportunities and threats. Therefore, I think it’s a great time to accelerate this process.
So I think there’s one which is there’s good news and there’s also, there’s no luxury in not doing it. We have to actually engage with this or we’ll have some serious considerations about who owns the data, what does it mean for people actually. Because we might’ve opened the door to having lots of data, open transparency, and then having crawlers and bots actually decide how that’s going to be interpreted and decision making being affected by that.
So I do think that we are seeing sort of a—this is happening everywhere in the world, even the most remote pockets, as Jon just mentioned. I used to work as a digital divide consultant in the year 2000, trying to bring broadband to lost communities that were off the grid. And that was sort of the beginning of seeing how the Internet could be so powerful. And I do think this is still true and it’s happening now.
So I don’t know if I’ve answered your question.
Kirkpatrick: Well, you’ve said some really interesting stuff, and I want to quickly drill down on one piece of it before I go to another thing I want to ask you. The drilldown is, when you say you’re worried with AI, talk a little bit more about what the dystopian sort of scenario might be if this all went haywire. What do you worry about the most?
Ermacora: Well, I’m actually an optimist, so I can’t—
Kirkpatrick: Well, I think probably all of us up here are. But go ahead and be scary for a second.
Ermacora: I’ll try. Some people are not meant to be scary. I’m Danish. You know, you can’t be scary.
So, okay, if I had to wear sort of the mask of the Joker, I would say that there are certain things that are worrying in terms of the collusion of interest between lots of corporate bodies that I think are unintentionally creating a context in which they’re enriching the situation for themselves and building the assets to, not control the data, but have access to what makes the data meaningful to them. Which means that a citizen could engage in having shared all his information and that’s going to be probably in an open platform that’s open to government, open to other bodies, etcetera, the third sector. But then there will be—and this is no attack to Microsoft directly, or any corporate body, by the way. This is not to say that there’s a bad guy in the room—
Kirkpatrick: Don’t hesitate to.
Lewin: No, it’s a fair conversation. It’s a really valuable conversation.
Kirkpatrick: Microsoft actually thinks about it more deeply institutionally than a lot of the other big companies. But go ahead. That’s really true.
Ermacora: I think it’s a bit like “The Terminator” scenario, if you want, where—
Lewin: It’s the rise of the machines. You’re hitting the nail on the head.
Ermacora: Exactly. And it’s not necessarily that one person wants to do the wrong thing. There’s no malevolence. I think it’s really just the fact that having so much open data and having a few hands that are more capable of making use of the data than the civic movements that are offering the data is the issue.
Kirkpatrick: Interesting. Jon, you’re nodding. I’m just curious what your thoughts are.
Gosier: Well, I think it’s almost the path of least resistance, right? You build all these autonomous machines or autonomous entities that make use of data that’s out there, and you’re right, there isn’t necessarily malevolence, but the end result is inequitable to people who don’t have access and who don’t know how to make use of these things.
Lewin: Well, you can look at the example—if you don’t mind, I’ll pile on to that.
Kirkpatrick: I want piling on.
Lewin: Because I mean one of the things that we do out of the group that I have is to finance academic thought leaders. And we don’t tell them what to do, but we think if they have interesting perspectives on problems that are inevitable where technology and social regulatory—whether it’s cultural norms or regulatory legal norms—are going to bump. And they’re inevitable. Let’s just pick a topic that’s obvious and in the news nearly every day these days about body cams—police, guns, people being shot. Are body cams the answer? There’s an interesting question about that, because you might say—let’s just say everybody’s instrumented with a body camera—
Kirkpatrick: Every cop?
Lewin: Yes, every cop has a body camera. Not that citizens won’t, because we’re all—
Kirkpatrick: Citizens will too, actually.
Lewin: Exactly. But let’s just say it’s the cops and let’s just say there’s a guy driving down the road and his taillight’s out and he gets pulled over.
Kirkpatrick: We’ve heard of this situation, yes.
Lewin: He gets pulled over, and hands on the wheel just like you’re supposed to, and the policeman says, “License and registration.” The guy reaches in the glovebox, gets out the license and registration, everything’s good. Let’s just state the obvious, in terms of at least US politics and what’s been going on—and politics is defined as relationships between people, not just governmental politics—it’s a white officer and it’s a black driver. Is the officer going to say, “Just go get it fixed” or is he going to give him a ticket, which is going to cause that person to have to stand in line and lose a job because of the time that it takes to actually process all of that?
Culturally, he might’ve said, “Just get it fixed.” But with a body camera on, where the law says that the police officer should always give the ticket—
Kirkpatrick: And the camera has captured the light being out.
Lewin: The camera’s captured the exchange. So what happens?
Kirkpatrick: Give the example you gave about the spousal abuse point.
Lewin: Well, there’s another one. So spousal abuse, typically it’s a woman being battered and the question do you phone the police, who come to your front door with a camera on and then maybe step into your house, or not. What are the civil liberties/civil rights issues about walking into someone’s home—
Kirkpatrick: So in other words, people might hesitate to call because they don’t really want to have somebody arrested. They just want something to stop or whatever.
Lewin: Right. And big companies, by default, because of the scale and the economics, will be the ones that house this information.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, so there you’re getting right to Thomas’s point.
Lewin: Right, to Thomas’s point, which is we’re in the middle of suing the US government because they’re demanding that we deliver the personal papers of an individual who’s a US citizen that are sitting in an Irish data center. And we’ve said no, Fourth Amendment right, you know, sort of illegal search and seizure, the British knocking on doors, taking things from the colonists. What are we supposed to do? Our argument with the US government is, “You should go to Ireland, through the multilateral treaty that we have between the US and Ireland, and ask the Irish to go to that data center and get that information. You shouldn’t ask us to get that about a private citizen from the United States.” Because the counterargument is the Chinese or the Russians or whomever else come into the United States and get information out of data centers.
Kirkpatrick: Just quickly—and Microsoft is a sponsor of this conference, but this is not why I’m going to say this. You know, Brad Smith becoming president of Microsoft is an extremely interesting thing in light of what you said, because—
Lewin: Yes, because you really opened it up—
Kirkpatrick: Brad has led, at Microsoft, this differentiation that Microsoft has really played out very aggressively to take a more serious approach to privacy. For example, leaving certain defaults off in browsers that others leave on and certain things. You know, and now that he’s going to be president, the guy who was head of legal and civic engagement and public policy, it shows how seriously Microsoft is taking the challenges you’re describing. Although, the answers are by no means clear. And I don’t want to kiss your ass anymore, but—
Lewin: No, no, no, no, it’s true.
Kirkpatrick: Because I want to go to something else. Because I really do believe Microsoft—the thing that’s interesting, quickly, you know, Microsoft is a more experienced company than the other Internet giants. It’s just been around way, way longer and operating globally way longer. I mean the only company really comparable to it would be IBM or HP, for example.
But you had another issue, Thomas, that I wanted you to touch on. You know, your thing in London, and a lot of your whole theories are about how we can sort of effectively combine the energies of the institutional top down architects and citizens who build on top. Just talk a little bit about that juxtaposition.
Ermacora: So I think to your point that you started with today, we’re at a time where this can be a happy marriage between top down and bottom up. This doesn’t have to be a point of conflict. And actually, technology really solves that sort of issue really elegantly, because the platforms, if they’re well built, whether they’re citizen started or they’re government started—well, there’s of course some privacy issues, etcetera, and they have to be done the right way. But they create the context in which that conversation can happen, where before it was in opposition.
So I want to harness that in a way that’s, let’s say connected to urban development. So I have a project in London which is called the Lime Wharf Project, which is basically a stack of old warehouses, as you have in many post-industrial sites in the world, and we’ve converted that into a cultural center—I call it cultural innovation, because it’s got a combination of art and technology and social impact ventures. And in that space, we’re trying to develop an engine for an area. And we’re also linking to other small startups that are in the area. So instead of building just an incubator, we’re building a cultural institution. It’s somewhat of a hybrid. And when you look at what’s happening in cities, it tends to be that you have big players and minute players. There’s very few things in the middle. And so the expectation, or perhaps the hope at this point, because it’s still very experimental, is to see how can we create intermediary-sized institutions for neighborhoods to blossom, so that they find the kind—it’s like a satellite dish for global innovation, and it’s also sending out whatever it’s doing, because it’s sharing its innovation with the rest of the world.
So we’re building a place that’s open to people who have nothing, so the have-nots are welcome. And we’re building a place that’s interesting to those who have, because instead of having to go into the center of the city maybe, where they live—which is maybe slightly fringy, because they can afford it. And in a city like London that has experienced the growth of international capital in a way that’s a bit extraordinary, many people who are affluent and have great jobs have to live slightly out of center. So can they actually find access to what you would call cultural excellence just outside of the center? That’s not something that’s available now.
So it’s to see how you can create sort of the ultimate bridge between these communities that have and those that don’t have, those who want culture and those who want technology, those who want to work and those who want to be entertained, and to connect that with micro-development so that you also stack up living, working, and showing. This is currently—and Detroit is the most eminent example of this anywhere in the world, where you’ve fragmented the city based on car planning, right?
Kirkpatrick: And getting rid of all the mass transit.
Ermacora: Exactly. So you basically are living somewhere and you’re working somewhere and you’re buying somewhere else. We know now that we can do this differently. So, as I said, I come from Denmark, and it’s a city that has experienced a transition from the 1960s till now.
Kirkpatrick: What, Copenhagen, you’re saying?
Ermacora: Yes, Copenhagen. So in the 1960s it was actually a car-driven planning city. And this guy called Jan Gehl was thinking, “Well, you know, I actually want to know where people are living. I want to know what they’re doing in the city.” And he found absolutely no data on that. So he started to create data about what people are doing in public space: Are people sitting on a bench, are people moving around, are people cycling, etcetera. And he created new datasets that allowed him to speak to the stakeholders and say, “We need to transform the city towards pedestrianized planning, or cycling planning.”
Kirkpatrick: Bicycle-ized, yes. If you’ve ever been to Copenhagen, they ride bikes everywhere.
Ermacora: Well, it’s 50% of urban commute.
Kirkpatrick: Is bicycling—50%?
Ermacora: Fifty percent, as of this year. So it just means that there are things that you can do. So from a city—you know, maybe Detroit can do it faster than 50 years.
Kirkpatrick: I want to move to Detroit and get back to Beth for a minute. Because, you know, this thing with the apps you’ve done, just quickly describe that. Because it is an extraordinary transformation that you now have apps that allow people to report things, coming from where you started. Just quickly summarize where you are there.
Niblock: So I want to give kudos to Code for America. We were a Code for America city several years ago, and, you know, it’s all a matter of what’s innovative. So there are a lot of folks in Detroit who don’t have data plans on their cellphones. So as we’ve pointed out, it’s a rather vast expanse and we use a lot of public transportation, and so the folks who typically ride public transportation, our buses are notorious—and you’ll hear the mayor talk later on about his drive, and if you are in our cabinet meeting every Wednesday morning at 9:00 a.m., one of the first things we talk about is the on-time bus pullouts. Because, you know, we have to get through that hierarchy of, you know, we turn on streetlights, now we’ve got to have bus service, now we’ve got to have safety. So we’re moving through that.
But, so these apps, they created a Text My Bus app that will allow people to text and see where the buses—so I mean it gets a little bit chilly up here, and the buses aren’t on time, so you’ve got people waiting, waiting, waiting, and so to be able to do that.
We also have launched an app called Improve Detroit, which is like 3-1-1 in your pocket, and we’ve had huge adoption with that. I was so thrilled to be able to pay my parking with an app, so we’ve launched parking apps and smart meters. And then our police department has an app called DPD Connect that allows people to know who their neighborhood police officers are, because we have a very strong neighborhood policing focus. And so you can push a button and call your neighborhood police officer, as well as reporting anonymous crime tips. And you can also see the rundown of the comp stats for the week from the police department.
Kirkpatrick: So what’s your biggest priority? What would you like to see in, say two or three years here that is not here that would make the most difference in terms of integrating the citizen energy and the city’s capability?
Niblock: So assuming that I get $100 million dollars’ worth of projects done in the next two years, that will be great. To me, it would be having citizens be able to engage with government in any way that they see fit. So we have a lot of aging population. We have a significant digital divide. We’ve got to do something to address inclusion more. And we have a lot of young folks who are moving into town, or moving back, they’re Detroiters who have moved back. So however they want to engage in City Hall, in whatever language they want to engage in City Hall, that we’re there for them.
Kirkpatrick: That’s a great vision.
Lewin: I think a couple of things that Jon and Thomas mentioned in particular is the word culture. In many ways, it’s this—there’s the core, which is the city itself that collects and manages and stores and then opens the data, and then there’s the edge, there’s the people in civic tech movement. They’ll connect, but the cultural norms by which people will use the information, or act on it in a positive or negative way, and what kinds of, if you will, AI or machine learning technologies will be applied to the data, either by the city, or the departments, whether it’s the police or fire or safety infrastructure, or the individuals themselves, using their voice or, you know, in general acting on information as well. So there is this thing—I think you sort of framed it right in the sense of it is probably a couple, three or four more years, because we’re a ways into this. But it’s going to be the blending of infrastructure and edge, and so a new culture will emerge.
Kirkpatrick: And I want to go to the audience and your questions and comments. But you’re in a good position to sort of make an assessment of where the country is in this regard, because you guys operate all over the place.
Kirkpatrick: I mean my feeling—and New York has finally caught up on some of this stuff. But my feeling is that most cities still haven’t really gotten the memo on what’s possible here. Am I right or am I just a cynical New Yorker?
Lewin: Well, I mean I don’t know what the metrics are these days, but it used to be that people would say if it played in Peoria that it—I’m old enough to know that.
Kirkpatrick: Is there something happening in Peoria?
Lewin: Well, no, it used to be the hundredth major metro in the United States, right?
Kirkpatrick: So what’s happening with civic tech?
Lewin: So the point would be I think we’re a long way away from every city being ready, if you will. And, you know, maybe they’ve got the information up online, but it might also turn into a thousand PDFs that aren’t searchable. So, okay, so they’ve put the paper up online, if you will.
So there’s a long way to go, but I think the models are emerging through these experiments, and that’s the most interesting thing that we see is this rapid experimentation from the edge in and from the core out. And so the patterns are going to emerge. And then, to the financiers and others, they’ll be financeable and scalable, and once they’re financeable and scalable, then we’ll see this really rapid buildout. And so the technology’s not going to slow down. It’ll be the cultural uses and the cultural expectations about how the data gets used, under what security or privacy regime, or what behavior patterns are newly anointed in regulation, or what’s going to be the free for all.
So all those things are happening in real time. In five years, you know, ten years certainly, because you can never know, but in the next three years, we’re going to see patterns that will emerge that will be financeable and scalable, and then they’ll be implementable on a global scale.
Kirkpatrick: Let’s get the lights up so we can take audience questions. But there is a crisis—I want to just point out as we’re getting the lights, but, you know, I think there’s a crisis if cities don’t act. Because as I know Beth has talked—we’ve talked about this before, and I’m pretty sure everyone up here would agree. People, no matter what you call them—citizens, consumers, employees—they are getting used to getting everything they want by looking at their phone and touching some buttons, and if they can’t get what they want from government that way, they are going to get super pissed off. And that is true in every city, in every company, and in every company from the customer and the employee point of view. And I don’t think—this is why Techonomy exists, in part—that most leaders realize the pace at which that urgency is emerging. And I do credit Beth and Mayor Duggan for realizing that if this isn’t a major priority here—you know, obviously the greenfield aspect of Detroit gave you some assets. But it’s a crisis.
So I saw a hand here—please?
Humphrey: Andrew Humphrey, WDIV Detroit and TechTime with Andrew Humphrey. Thank you very much for being here. This question is for Miss Niblock. Is the City of Detroit making money by selling the data to a third party? Are they monetizing the data that they already have for data collection?
And the second brief question is—
Kirkpatrick: And if they did, would that be a good or bad thing, in your opinion?
Humphrey: Well, I think that’s up to the citizenry to decide [INDISCERNIBLE 0:39:37.8].
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Go on.
Humphrey: The second brief question is, you mentioned modernizing the technological infrastructure to allow citizens to reach out to law enforcement. Does that also allow law enforcement to reach back? For example, the new parking meters that are in, are those being used outside of the parking realm, are they being used by law enforcement to track down criminals, and what are the pros and cons, maybe for the rest of the panel, of a system like that?
Kirkpatrick: Okay, do what you can on both those questions pretty quickly, because they’re both great questions.
Kirkpatrick: On the selling data?
Niblock: On the selling data. And we’re figuring out what to do with the data that comes in through the parking. Because there are license plate readers, and so how—right now it’s only going to be if there’s an incident in the area, but I think we’re still working through the ramifications of that, as well as what Dan’l talked about with body cameras. There’s a lot of inflow—
Lewin: And we’ve built blurring algorithms so that you can blur faces. I mean we’ve done a whole bunch of stuff at our shop, because it’s necessary.
Kirkpatrick: In New York, people mostly don’t realize that basically every car’s license plate is being read on almost every street. Almost every street in Lower Manhattan, they know every car that drove down it, which has been true for a surprising number of years, partly because of 9/11. But, you know, people don’t realize how much the surveillance is, which is another question.
Comment question, who’s got—please? Can we get the mike on, because it wasn’t on for part of the previous question.
A: Hi, good morning. Welcome to Detroit. Hi, Beth.
Niblock: Hi, Jeff.
A: My question is, since technology is emerging in different cities across the country and across the world, are there any steps that are being taken to enable a common platform so I don’t have a separate parking system for Ft. Lauderdale and Detroit and we don’t get into segmentation?
Kirkpatrick: Wow, that’s a great question. Microsoft wants to build it all.
Lewin: No—I mean, no, we don’t, actually. We really don’t, and we’re not. We’re actually building the underlying infrastructure upon which others will build those things. We’re not in those businesses.
Kirkpatrick: But you think that standardization is going to happen?
Lewin: To my earlier point, I do think that there will be experiments that will prove to be efficient. I mean this is all about connecting things. The network removes distance. The data gets put out for free, no charge, people manage the data and move it around—those are the application layer. I think there will be examples that will be efficient, and then I think the likes of Jon and others will finance them. Right now you’re seeing nonprofits do some of that, whether it’s what Omare is doing or the Knight Foundation or others, or Gates or—others are financing these things to find things that work at a baseline, and then when they’re scalable, yes, you’ll see—to use Silicon Valley venture terms, I live in Silicon Valley most of the time and Andreessen Horowitz is funding, you know, open gov kinds of things. So there are—there’s a strong belief that there will be scalable platforms.
Do we want to run the plumbing, the data centers, and the storage? Do we want them to use our tools? Yes, that’s in our vested interest.
Kirkpatrick: By the way, a lot of this discussion will be continued when Peter Hirshberg’s onstage a little bit later. And he’s been involved with the White House conference where they did a Hacking Your City thing. And finally, I mean the White House—it took a while, but they’re really pushing this. And that helps to get the message out, and then I think that will lead to an urgency, which will lead to standardization. But it’s a little behind. I think the White House should’ve been on this stuff, not just this White House, but even the previous—
Lewin: Well, they made a big announcement yesterday, right?
Kirkpatrick: Which announcement was that?
Lewin: All around sort of the digital cities, the White House put hundreds of millions of dollars through NSF and—
Kirkpatrick: That’s good. That’s very pertinent to what we’re talking about here today.
Lewin: Yes. And so they got everyone from NSF—
Kirkpatrick: Peter, where are you? Make sure you talk about that in your talk.
Lewin: Right, right. I mean there’s a press release. We could push it around. But, yes, so these experiments—and the Chicago project that we’re involved in is party to that whole announcement.
Niblock: So, Jeff, the answer to your question, if you take Improve Detroit and you go to Jon’s City of Philadelphia, you have, you know, Philadelphia. So there is interoperability between a lot of the civic tech platforms.
Gosier: Yes. And most of it’s open source. People are sharing—
Kirkpatrick: And isn’t there that app that you were talking about, Jon—there’s a commercial app, that See—
Kirkpatrick: That’s a commercial app that cities can pry onto, right?
Niblock: That’s what we use.
Gosier: Yes. I was going to say, I know there’s a huge movement to connect the 3-1-1 services between cities. Rosetta Lue, who’s known for starting the Open 3-1-1 program in Philly, has been working on that. But when I talk to her, her biggest challenge isn’t the technical interoperability. Again, it’s the decision makers in these different cities, who kind of—even if they’re not monetizing the data, they want to own their data. And that’s the biggest hurdle to interoperability.
Kirkpatrick: Well, this is also something you mentioned before that I wish we had more time to delve into in detail, this idea of institutional resistance that continues, in government possibly even more than in business. I mean, interestingly, in business, the startup phenomenon, and Uber and Airbnb in particular, is forcing every company, “You know what? Something’s different.” We haven’t really got the Uber of cities yet. Although, you mentioned Barcelona when we talked on the phone. Quickly—that is kind of a really good example of someplace where amazing things have happened, right?
Ermacora: So my interest is to see really the distributed city happen. And so you know about the Fab Lab Network, the Bits and Atoms Center started that more than ten years ago with all the fab labs in the world. What they’re trying to do now is to see how they can help cities restructure their economic development when they’ve been hit by crisis, like Barcelona was after 2008. And so they’re creating a network—they’re actually sponsoring fab labs in order to sort of see things happening. So instead of putting seed capital into companies, they’re putting seed capital into spaces that create the environment for innovation, and social innovation. So I think that’s—
Kirkpatrick: Yes. Barcelona did a lot of that. Of course, they also put sensors on every garbage can—I mean they’ve been way ahead of most cities in terms of—you know, you can find out whether your recycling bin is full or not on an app in Barcelona I think.
I thank you all for a really good mix of panelists. Very happy you could all be here. Thank you so much.