How cities score

Better use of data could make cities more efficient—and more democratic

Mar 26th 2016 | From the print edition. Original post: http://goo.gl/MDsrDm

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MARTIN WALSH, THE mayor of Boston, keeps on top of what is going on in his city. His office is dominated by a dashboard, a large screen packed with constantly changing snippets of text, numbers and charts (pictured). One section shows the current traffic to the city’s call centre and the percentage that has been answered within 30 seconds. Next to it is a chart tracking the number of potholes filled every day, which makes way for a map of Boston’s neighbourhoods coloured according to how often Mr Walsh has visited them.

 

But the central piece of information is the “CityScore”, a single number to indicate Boston’s overall health. It combines 24 different metrics, from crime to Wi-Fi availability, energy consumption and grants for the arts. A value above 1 means that things are going better than planned; anything below this, and the mayor is likely to pick up the phone. “Everybody knows that he is looking at this,” says Daniel Koh, Mr Walsh’s chief of staff, who came up with the idea for the index. Bostonians can check it online.

 

CityScore, launched last October, reflects a growing trend among city governments in America. Led by Boston, Chicago and New York, they have started to use the ever-increasing amounts of data they collect to improve planning, offer better services and engage citizens. To speed up the process, the White House recently launched a new “smart-city” initiative.

 

Here we go again, you might say: it was only a few years ago that big makers of computing and communications gear made an effort to persuade city halls to buy more of their machines. But this time the push is coming more from the city governments and even the citizens themselves. Cities are becoming aware that data, and the infrastructure to analyse them, will eventually become as important to their citizens’ welfare as the power grid and the transport system.

 

What most mayors have yet to realise, however, is how much their administrations will have to change to be able to get the best out of these data—and use them to make their cities more democratic. More and better data could help governments ensure that services in poor neighbourhoods are as good as those in rich ones. Given a city-wide system of sensors, the lead-contaminated water that poisoned poor citizens of Flint, Michigan, in 2014-15 would probably have been spotted much earlier.

 

Pinpointing potholes

In some ways Boston has been a digital pioneer. In 2006 the previous mayor, Tom Menino, hired the city’s first cabinet-level chief information officer. He was behind the launch of an app called “Citizen Connect” which made it easy for people to report problems, for instance by taking a picture of graffiti. Another first was the creation of an internal innovation team, perhaps best known for another app, Street Bump. This collects vibration data from moving cars to pinpoint potholes that need to be filled.

 

Now the city is putting more effort into learning from such data. About one-third of its rubbish bins are equipped with solar panels and sensors that signal when a bin is full, making rubbish collection more efficient. The city’s data scientists have also analysed online classified ads to identify landlords who cram too many tenants into their flats. And they are running experiments known as “A/B-tests” that have already become routine online. So far they have tried prioritising buses at traffic lights and increasing fines for blocking an intersection, and then used data from Waze, a popular navigation app owned by Google, to see how this affects congestion, a big problem in Boston.

 

MIT’s Senseable City Lab in Cambridge across the Charles River gives a taste of how much more cities could do with data. Researchers there are working on a cheap package of sensors to be put on top of street lights, which if widely deployed would make it possible to measure noise and pollution levels almost house by house in real time. A project called “Underworlds” envisages small robots crawling through sewers, collecting samples and perhaps one day analysing them on the spot. This could reveal things such as what people eat and how many have the flu. “Imagine how many data get flushed down the toilet,” says Erin Baumgartner, one of the lab’s directors. The project is supported by the government of Kuwait, which is looking for ways to measure its people’s excessive intake of salt.

 

However, this sort of thing is not going to make much difference if the bureaucratic structure of city governments remains the same. Most are collections of departmental silos that do not communicate much with each other, held together by complex hierarchies and rules. That may have worked when information was scarce and moved slowly, but now it has become an obstacle. City governments have to become more of a coherent whole—a “platform”, as geeks put it.

 

This often starts with getting the technology right. City governments’ computer systems tend to reflect their fragmented nature. Information is typically kept in separate databases. Making these work together is crucially important, but the task is often underestimated, explains Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief information officer. The city still has more work to do, but most of its digital information now sits in a “data warehouse”, a big computer system where it can be easily accessed and analysed.

 

The next thing is better integration of a city’s administration. To be able to improve existing services and develop new ones, departments have to work together more closely, says Stephen Goldsmith of Harvard University and co-author of “The Responsive City”, a new book about urban government. City employees also have to be able to act more independently and be judged by their results, not have to follow rules slavishly.

 

Regulation, too, has to be rethought. When information about businesses was hard to come by, it made sense to impose all kinds of rules and regularly check for compliance. But now that analytics can point to likely violators, and business practices can be tracked in real time, such regulation may amount to overkill. In Chicago inspectors were sent mainly to restaurants which an algorithm had identified as potential problems.

 

Yet the biggest change will be of another order: cities need to play a more active role as broker of urban data. This means more than just sharing reams of their own administrative information, as many cities around the world already do, says Anthony Townsend, a researcher at New York University and author of a book on smart cities. Municipal governments should become the guardians of the local data ecosystem, creating a framework that encourages others to share data and offer services to citizens. They could act, for instance, as a portal for information from utilities and online firms, while also protecting privacy and ensuring that the algorithms used do not discriminate against particular groups of people.

 

Some cities are beginning to take on this role. An early example is Boston’s data-sharing partnership with Waze on reducing traffic congestion. In return for some of the service’s data, the city is giving it early warning of any planned road closures. Chicago, meanwhile, has launched OpenGrid, a website which allows citizens and businesses easily to visualise public urban data using online maps.

 

In New York the Centre for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) has launched a project called “Quantified Communities” to work out how people could use data generated by increasing numbers of sensors in their neighbourhoods. One idea is to measure air quality in different areas and compare it with hospitalisation rates for asthma. Constantine Kontokosta, who heads the project at CUSP, explains that “we want to define the problem before we decide on the technology—not the other way around.”

 

Seattle, for its part, has discovered that citizens will insist on stringent protection of privacy. A few years ago it began using a wireless police network that could track smartphones, along with automatic licence-plate readers. The programme was implemented without much public discussion or thought about how the data would be managed. That led to a backlash from residents and a hasty about-turn. The city has since adopted detailed privacy principles and has just appointed a data-protection officer—a standard requirement in European cities but a first in America.

 

It is less clear what cities can and will do to prevent algorithms from becoming “Weapons of Math Destruction”, the title of a forthcoming book by Cathy O’Neil, a blogger and former quantitative analyst on Wall Street. Critics allege that local police forces in America are the worst offenders. Their “predictive policing”, which uses algorithms, crime statistics and other data to pinpoint “hotspots” where further crimes are likely to be committed, has sometimes proved quite accurate. But it can also lead to unnecessary questioning, excessive stopping and searching and racial profiling in such hotspots.

 

Even apparently neutral apps such as Street Bump may have unintended consequences: the service could give priority to wealthier neighbourhoods where people can afford smartphones, leaving potholes in poor areas unfilled. To avoid such an outcome, Boston first released the app to its road inspectors, who drive all over the city. It has also negotiated a deal with Uber, the taxi-hailing service, to get trip data so that its transport department can monitor, for instance, how long passengers in poor neighbourhoods have to wait for a car.

 

The big political question is whether data will simply make city government more efficient—which in itself is a worthwhile goal—or whether they will also empower citizens. Susan Crawford of Harvard University, co-author of “The Responsive City”, argues that having access to data will not only show people what their tax money can achieve, but give them the tools to get involved in their city’s affairs.

 

Others are not so sure. Technology rarely fixes the underlying problem but mostly replicates it, says Benjamin Barber, an American political theorist with an interest in local government. “Above all we need smart mayors and smart citizens, not smart cities.” The dashboard in the mayor’s office suggests that in Boston, for now at least, efficiency and control win out.

 

From the print edition: Special report