Urban Democracy, One Click at a Time?

Posted: May 20th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Technology, Urbanism and Planning | 1 Comment »

The Economist magazine dedicated a special section of their March 1st issue to democracy. That essay observed that two decades after the triumphant 1990s, the political ideology is facing challenges. China’s rise has shown the economic efficiency of centralized power, and Russia, Venezuela, Ukraine, and Argentina are “perpetuating a simulacrum of democracy” rather than doing away with it altogether.

Amid this challenging landscape, the Economist saw hope in the uses of new technology to revitalize democracy, arguing that “the internet makes it easier to organize and agitate; in a world where people can participate in reality TV votes every week, or support a petition with the click of a mouse the machinery and institutions of parliamentary democracy, where elections happen only every few years, look increasingly anachronistic.” The solution to democratic malaise, the Economist argued, may lie in clever applications that make government more transparent and responsive to the electorate. Closer to home, many new participatory websites are seeking to tackle the perceived gap between how responsive cities currently are to citizen demands, and how responsive they should be.

This group of new websites and prototypes claim to help groups of people come together, make decisions, and realize change. Civic crowdfunding sites like Ioby (for “In Our Back Yard”) and Neighbor.ly collect donations for community gardens and neighborhood events. The website Neighborland invites users to fill in the blank “I want ____ in my city.” Recent posts in New Orleans, where the site originated, include high speed rail, a dog park, park improvements, and a Trader Joe’s. Less place-oriented sites hope to spark collective action with creative apps, websites, and other tools. The much-heralded Loomio, for example, hopes to perfect a tool with the grandiose goal of helping “anyone, anywhere, to participate in decisions that affect them.”

However the fate of a couple high-profile projects to link citizens with neighborhood change through the web from a few years ago raise concerns about the prospects for this new crop. John Geraci’s DIYcity project, which sought to make cities as interactive as the web, has sputtered out since launching in 2008 (he now works for the New York Times). Ben Berkowtiz said at many events he hoped to make pothole reporting the “gateway drug” of civic participation with SeeClickFix, a website that invites citizens to post reports and relays them to journalists and city officials. For the most part the project has remained focused on the prosaic. In many cities, a smattering of reports languish unsolved where municipalities can’t or won’t respond. Meanwhile, the website has begun marketing itself as an inexpensive municipal 311 system, in effect doubling down on a pothole-focused strategy.

How are we to make sense of the new projects following in the footsteps of DIYcity or SeeClickFix? On the one hand, they fall in the long tradition of grassroots organizing and bottom-up initiative that has doubtlessly shaped cities. However, there is also cause for concern. On many crowdfunding websites and Neighborland, public services and utilities (like transit) are seamlessly blended with fundamentally private sector amenities (such as Trader Joe’s), suggesting a disturbing blurring of the public and private spheres. Often conspicuously absent from these websites is any mention of formal institutions of government, as either a source of funds or legitimate manager of the urban environment.

Even an action-oriented project lacks any sophisticated engagement with governments. Neighborland claims that “action matters,” and prompts users with several possible options after they enter an idea: fundraiser, event, resource, or petition. However it’s unclear how these steps would lead to action. Fundraising is useless where ideas require public collective action – changes to infrastructure, or government permits. Petitioning is also a curious path to “action.” Who would you send the petition to, and why should they care in a city with many competing interests pushing pet projects?

One theorist who can provide a useful perspective on these issues is the philosopher John Dewey. At the start of the 20th Century, the advent of industrialization, mass media, and the rise of fascism in Europe sparked a crisis of confidence in the idea of democracy. In his classic The Public and Its Problems, Dewey acknowledged that new technology “create means which alter the modes of associated behavior which radically change the quality, character, and place of impact of their individual consequences” (Dewey 1985 [1927], p. 30). Unlike pessimistic intellectuals like Walter Lippmann (1927), who believed the mass public could only be governed by a technocratic elite, Dewey was more hopeful. He saw a public attempting to “form itself,” and during this transition argued there would be “increasing disparagement and disregard.” Together with growing contempt for government he predicted these tectonic changes would result in “various short-cuts of direct action” (Dewey, 1985 [1927], p. 31).

These online projects share the impatient ethos of adherents of “tactical urbanism,” a movement frustrated by the often-glacial pace of officialdom, who suggest installing temporary parks or amenities (sometimes without permission) to spark change. Dewey viewed democracy as a dynamic and culturally rooted practice, whose resilience and success lay in its ability to respond to changing social conditions.

While websites like Neighborland and Loomio might not replace representative democracy — nor should we necessarily want it to — they may take some of the pressure off our democratic institutions by giving people the ability to make some decisions for themselves, and come together around common concerns. They may also provide a proving ground for new forms of democracy that may filter into public institutions. However another path is also possible. If these “short-cuts” to action remain isolated and disconnected, the result will be increasing conflict in cities. This scenario results in a political life where collective action is smoothed for some, but where government remains a frustrating stumbling-block to improved neighborhoods and cities.

Works Cited
Dewey, John. 1985 [1927]. The public and its problems. Chicago: Swallow Press.
The Economist. “What’s Gone Wrong With Democracy?” 1 March 2014..
Lippmann, Walter. 1927. The phantom public. New York: Macmillan.

MIT Dissertation on Planning Support Systems and Return to Michigan

Posted: June 14th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Site Announcements | 2 Comments »

I have a couple personal announcements I thought I should make here. On May 22nd I successfully defended my dissertation, and last week I graduated from the PhD program at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning. The complete 271-page document will be available on MIT’s DSpace in several months, and I will post here again when it is available. A short abstract is included below below, and researchers interested in viewing it now can contact me for a copy.

In September, I will be starting a position as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. This fall I’ll teach the introduction to geographic information systems (GIS) class, and in addition to contributing to the core planning classes I plan to develop classes on collaborative planning and new participatory tools for planning. On the research front I plan to build on the dissertation research, and also I have several exciting journal articles underway. I’m thrilled to be joining Michigan’s excellent planning department, as well as return to the university where I earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 2004, and met my now-spouse Libby Benton. As I transition to Michigan this summer and plan my research and teaching agenda for the next few years, I’m happy to hear from potential collaborators in Michigan and beyond.

Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion

Posted: June 10th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Urbanism and Planning, Zoning | No Comments »

The Great InversionIn the acknowledgements section at the end of his book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, author Alan Ehrenhalt demurred he is “no Jane Jacobs” but says he followed her advice for researching cities, namely to study them through close personal observation using a minimum of preconceptions. The results of this approach are apparent throughout his readable and interesting discussion on the changing geography of U.S. cities. The vivid details gleaned from personal observation, especially in Chicago, Houston, and an Atlanta suburb, provide a vitality and richness too often lacking in nonfiction treatments of cities. In addition, his clear prose captures the essence of key intellectual debates –- such as new urbanism and gentrification –- without getting bogged down.

Organized around a series of short city-based cases, Ehrenhalt explores his thesis, that the return of wealthy residents to city centers will produce U.S. cities more reminiscent of the 19th century Paris and Vienna than the typical 20th Century U.S. city, where wealthy suburbs surround a poorer urban core. However, unlike more narrowly construed books like Lineberger’s The Option of Urbanism, or the lack of nuance in Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, Ehrenhalt brings a reporter’s eye to his subject, presenting wonderfully detailed descriptions of how this trend is translating into unique local conditions. He describes how downtowns are becoming (or attempting to become) more residential, and suburbs are seeking to transform themselves into more urban places in response to shifting preferences. Each of the places he profiles must grapple with unique local conditions. At its best, he captures the interplay between social and demographic trends and urban form that characterizes good descriptions of urbanism. For example, he describes how Philadelphia developed into a city of owner-occupied row homes organized into largely working class neighborhoods. This produced a physical fabric, unique politics, and public policies (such as a wage tax) that together create challenges for neighborhood revitalization and largely confines revitalization to Center City. Similarly, he describes how lower Manhattan’s obsolete commercial buildings contributed to the unexpected residential renaissance there, as they were ideal for retrofitting into condos and apartments. (As an aside, a similar phenomenon is happening in downtown Detroit, including the recent conversion of the formerly largely vacant commercial Broderick Tower into 124 apartments).

The cases, selected to demonstrate the varied impact of the broad trend on urban neighborhoods or suburban municipalities outside the center city include, with these neighborhoods or suburbs noted, Chicago (Sheffield), New York City (Lower Manhattan and Bushwick), Atlanta (Gwinnet County), Cleveland (Cleveland Heights), Washington, D.C. (Clarendon and Tysons’s Corner), Philadelphia (Center City), Houston (downtown), Phoenix (downtown), and Denver (Belmar, Stapletown and Englewood).

In general, the book’s weaknesses are few and forgivable. While general well-selected, the cases show a northeast bias, with the notable absence of any west coast cities, especially one in California. While Charlotte, North Carolina is discussed at one point, another well-developed southern example might have been illuminating given the region’s distinctive culture and history. The relative scarcity of photos (just 18 in 236 pages) is puzzling, given the author’s first-hand accounts. A few more could have helped illustrate the places and people that are so well described. One strength is the well-designed maps provided at the start of each chapter.

My only substantive complaint is the relatively sketchy and simplistic treatment of the planning process that in many cases fostered or responded to the changes he describes. As an example, the light rail systems and accompanying transit-oriented development plans described in Phoneix and Denver are presented as easily adopted proposals designed by an urban elite. This account omits the extensive planning and outreach work required to secure passage of new taxes and new zoning in a largely anti-tax and anti-urban U.S. electorate. (Approval of transit taxes are by no means guaranteed.) However, convoluted planning processes that feature negotiations, ever-evolving renewal designs and plans, and interminable hearings and meetings make for tedious reading. But greater attention to these issues would help avoid two common misconceptions about U.S. urban development. First, that it is simply the product of heroic, top-down planning, such as the urban renewal feats orchestrated by Philadelphia’s renewal-era planner Ed Bacon. This type of “star planner” has faded from the scene given the separation of power and resources in U.S. cities. While leadership remains important, public action requires cultivating consensus among stakeholders. A public process that defines goals, refines plans, and analyzes proposals is often required before projects are funded and approved. The second erroneous impression to avoid is that planning is not needed because cities change by the market forces alone. Of course, private industry does not provide infrastructure, transit service, parks and public services required for urban life. While planning and public sector action may lead urban change, or respond to private initiative, it is an indispensible factor in any account of urban change.

One entrée into the topic of public sector planning might have been the issue of zoning, a topic with only three entries in the book’s index. Ehrenhalt discusses zoning in the section on Houston, which famously lacks this type of land use regulation. This chapter describes how Garret Coleman and the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone are using property purchasing and restrictive covenants to to slow gentrification in the Third Ward neighborhood. While alluding to them briefly, the analogous public mechanisms to these in other cities are not described, which include zoning and historic preservation laws, and the plans that guide detailed regulations. In fact, several recent books on zoning are notably missing from a generally comprehensive biography (including Levin’s Zoned Out, Talen’s City Rules, and Ben-Joseph’s The Code of the City).

These complaints aside, the book is unparalleled as a useful portrait of American cities. U.S. metropolitan regions are dynamic and complex, and inevitably evolve much more quickly than our understanding of them. This makes book like this especially useful. Therefore I believe it will be a seminal text of popular urban geography for this era, in the same category as such classics as Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere (which vividly described and critiqued suburban development) or Garreau’s Edge City (which coined a term for places like Tyson’s Corner in the first place, which are now attempting to develop greater urbanity). These books share a vitality and journalistic sensibility that helps us better grasp the cities of today, whether the readers are scholars, professionals, or residents interested to know more about their place in the evolving urban tapestry.

> The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City [WorldCat]

The Trouble With ‘Civic Media’ Studies

Posted: May 31st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Government, Technology | 1 Comment »

On the Radical Anti-Institutionalism of Internet Intellectuals

I recently attended a talk by Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media advertised as addressing the question “is digital media changing what it means to be an engaged citizen?” As a blogger, founder of three hyperlocal news websites, and now student of technology in (government-led) urban planning, I was interested in what he would have to say. The talk, which lasted at least 45 minutes, was ostensibly on this, but I found it deeply troubling. Zuckerman, officially a “research scientist” at MIT, talked about government, media, technology, and society with little mention of any previous research. I waited –- in vain –- to hear even the barest mention of previous thinkers on these topics (for example: the Federalist Papers, de Tocqueville, Dewey, Lippman, Schumpeter, Arnstein, Pateman, Castells, Fung, work in communications and political science journals, etc.). (It looks like what I heard was very similar to his keynote at a recent conference, see notes and a video of the talk.)

I have no doubt he is familiar with some of these thinkers, and probably has something to say about them. But they were largely omitted from the talk aside from perfunctory mention of several recent popular books. This presents a puzzle: why? Is it possible to conduct research on a topic by ignoring previous research? If so, why would you want to do it?

In hindsight, I should have not been surprised. The talk was an example of a broader milieu of “Internet intellectuals” who eschew previous research and thinking, or treat it in fragmentary or limited ways. I am sympathetic to the arguments put forward by Evgeny Morozov, who has gleefully attacked the most notoriously vapid talking heads (notably Tim O’Reilly and Jeff Jarvis), but I lack his indignation. The standards for public debate have always been fast and loose, and it’s probably good that way. In the long sweep of history, the junk is forgotten and gems of insight are remembered. However, academia is different. There is a norm of at least acknowledging other points of view, and attempting to take them seriously. Certainly, deep cleavages remain between fields, but they are for the most part about differing basic assumptions about reality or how to conduct research, not a willful ignorance of the alternatives. Good scholars read broadly and continually question their own basic assumptions.

In light of this, I concluded Zuckerman was choosing to omit previous research from this talk because he believes, at some level, that it is not required for the discussion. Perhaps the Internet has rendered everything totally new. We need new ways of thinking, and therefore the old ideas are not only a hindrance but must be deliberately exorcised. There is something to this point of view. Existing theories and worldviews are powerful blinders, and good empirical research often involves looking closely at reality before considering how to interpret it. This is required to make new insights, whether tweaks to earlier theories or totally novel ideas. However, research cannot be done in a total vacuum. All new knowledge is related, in some way, to previous thinking. Even boldly innovative work should acknowledge the flawed models it hopes to supersede.

Working on my dissertation, at the urging of my dissertation committee member Annette Kim, I explored some of the literature on institutions in society. Scholars in multiple fields began to realize in the late 80s that institutions play a key role in understanding the economy, government, and other social phenomenon. Economists focused on analyzing why institutions might be efficient for “rational actors,” but sociologists pointed out that institutions consist not only formal rules and structures, but broader cultural norms and ways of thinking. For example, companies follow lots of standard practices not because they objectively know they are efficient, but because they are influenced by broader cultural assumptions about how things should be done. Sociologists also argue that organizations and companies have missions broader than simply making a profit. In some deep way, institutions actually organize our behavior and create structures of meaning.

I realized the Internet-centric worldview is radically oriented towards deinstitutionalization. In short, since institutions are “socially constructed” (meaning they exist partly because we believe in them), if you get enough people to believe they don’t exist they actually won’t. Now, this may be useful if the institution you are attacking has no value or is harmful, but I’m not sure this is always the case. I don’t fantasize about the possibility of some type of benevolent anarchist utopia. Not only because my political opinions differ, but also because I think institutions perform valuable functions for us.

An example will help illustrate this. In a classic study of an impoverished town in Southern Italy in the 1950s, political scientist Edward Banfield (whose later work I would criticize) tried to figure out why it lacked a functional government and anemic economy. He concluded it was because of a local culture that made it difficult, if not impossible, to create institutions of any type. In short, institutions are important because they do stuff. Without them, modern life would be impossible.

Luckily, for the most part the deinstitutional thinking of “Internet intellectuals” has run up into the hard brick wall of reality. A key example is copyright laws, where despite the valiant efforts of activists it remains as deeply entrenched as ever, although there have been great strides made in voluntary copyright liberalization. Activists like Aaron Schwartz are subjected to (in my view, expectedly although not appropriately harsh) unrelenting state power. Moral arguments aside, good activism must be able to diagnose the nature of the enemy. In this case, copyright laws are held up by powerful organized interests such as corporations that are deeply invested in their maintenance. I don’t like or condone what is happening, but I understand it.

Another example of this tendency is in online education. To a certain degree, universities define what higher education should be. There is the idea that students select a major or field of study, which has a set curriculum, and then students pick specific topics and use accepted research methods to build on or challenge the existing knowledge. The idea of liberal arts education is that education isn’t merely for career purposes, but to broaden and deepen the human experience, attuning students to arts, ethics, and other dimensions of culture.

Needless to say this is in sharp contrast to many popular online education models. Curriculums are largely nonexistent, and the focus is on chopping up complex ideas into discrete snippets presented through short videos or exercises. The more nuanced practitioners are aware of these dimensions, but the loudest proponents of new online education models, inevitably from engineering or computer science, are throwing out the babies (curriculum, liberal arts, in-person seminars, the social experience of attending college, etc) with the bathwater, because they never valued the baby very much to begin with. For them, education is a set of discrete, narrow skills that are valued in industry. Full stop. The rest is for your spare time.

I am not a luddite opposed to technological innovation. However, institutional reform should be done carefully, not unthinkingly. We accept “disruption” in the private sector, but always under the watchful eye of regulations. But private businesses merely (for the most part) make stuff. Government and educational institutions play a much central role in our society, and we may be blind to their deep and nuanced functions. They are not all good or bad, and certainly should not be above thoughtful reform. In fact, I wrote previously that technology-centered efforts to reform city government are significant specifically because they are at least interested in the important issue of government reform.

I don’t think most of this is very original or profound, and the naive anarchism of Internet-centric people is legendary. However, what is surprising to me is the extent to which is has penetrated MIT, an elite educational institution. In fact, the entire MIT Media Lab, by design independent from formal disciplines, has been engaging more and more in social questions with limited links to existing scholarship and theories in the areas they are moving into.

Oddball centers exist throughout academia if you look hard enough, and maybe some of them are actually onto something the rest of us are missing. The point though, is universities share a spirit of inquiry and examination. All knowledge should be provisional and open to scrutiny. Therefore this is a direct address to the MIT Center for Civic Media. What have I got wrong? How do you engage in previous research, and if you ignore it, why? Not everyone shares your assumption that everything is totally new. I’s a too-rare academic willing to entertain the idea that some things may be, and new models are needed. Let’s meet in the middle and see where it leads.

Can Technology ‘Transform’ Cities and the Lives of the Poor?

Posted: December 17th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: eGovernment, Technology | 1 Comment »

Eight Theses on the Civic Technology Movement

In recent years, an exciting movement has been building in cities across the U.S. and around the world. Public officials, nonprofits, activists, and companies are experimenting with new ways to use new digital technologies to improve urban life by expanding access to data, upgrading government systems, and developing new apps. These loosely coordinated efforts have been dubbed by some a “civic technology” movement.

Recently the nonprofit OpenPlans and foundation collaborative Living Cities published a “field scan” of how the use of digital technologies and social media “has the potential to transform cities and the lives of their low income residents.” The report is based on interviews with 25 people and has a self-professed goal of sparking a broader dialog about the present and future direction of this movement. This blog post is a response to the report, and is intended to be critical and constructive.

What is the ‘civic technology’ field that is surveyed? It includes several components:

  • Public officials working towards technical innovation in government, such as Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (where I worked in 2010).
  • The creation of city data portals, and associated events such as application programming competitions and third party apps they encourage.
  • The rise of nonprofits, such as Code For America, a group that pairs programmers with cities to produce useful technology.
  • The development of private initiatives that work within this “space” such as websites that re-use government data, integrate with service delivery systems, and collaborate with public agencies to create new technologies.
  • An emphasis on open technology standards, open source software, and interoperability as key values that should influence civic technology.

Assessing such a large and diverse set of activities is no small feat, and this report is a laudable effort to identify some of the key issues. The report also takes a particular interest in how these developments are (or could) impact the lives of low-income residents. My reactions below are somewhat impressionistic and presented as a list for discussion. Because of my background, I emphasize issues around government agencies, which I believe play a crucial central role in the civic technology discussion.

1. Technology Will Not Necessarily Help the Poor

While it may be true technologies could be used (and maybe are in some cases) to help the poor, technology does not exist separate from society. To the extent its design and use is shaped by dominant economic and political forces, technology won’t necessarily be transformative of existing relations. In the scholarly literature there is a debate between those who view technology as an independent force, imposing its will on society (epitomized in the title of the book “What Technology Wants“), and those who view technology as merely the servant to existing interests (much of mainstream social science). I take a moderate approach advocated by some scholars in the general field of “science and technology studies” (STS). Technology does matter because it can influence our individual choices, available knowledge, and collective action. Information systems always contain policies and values, and therefore their design is an opportunity to push in one direction or another. However, using technology for “good” requires deciding on our goals and pushing technology to pursue them, sometimes against substantial opposing forces.

2. The Poor Are Moving to Suburbia

The report largely assumes the poor live in central cities, and the report informants include participants from large cities including New York, Chicago, Boston and Newark. While historically these cities contained large poor populations, increasingly the ongoing revitalization of core cities mean that now the majority of the metropolitan poor live in suburban areas. How these areas will handle these changes is a major social and policy issue, one being tackled by one of my doctoral classmates at MIT, Christa Lee-Chuvala. This doesn’t mean inner-city poverty is obsolete, only suggests we may need to shift to regional perspectives or be attuned to different contexts. Big cities are typically more sophisticated at providing services and have more resources at their disposal than suburban or rural communities, impacting the types of technologies that might help in each place.

3. Cities Don’t Necessarily Want to Help the Poor … Or Might Not Agree on What to Do

There is also an assumption in the report that helping the poor is an unambiguous public goal. I’m not so sure. One doesn’t have to push very far to see where a consensus on this point might exist breaks down. First, even liberal cities aren’t exempt from political claims about who government should help and what constitutes a fair distribution. Even scholarly research on what interventions “work” to address poverty is remarkably varied. A great article by Teitz and Chapple that reviewed some of the scholarly theories about why inner-city poverty exists and found that while some have stronger evidence than others, the issue is sufficiently complex there may be several valid perspectives, meaning “fixing’ it is a tricky proposition. Foundations like those involved in this report are eager to push aggressively on issues of poverty and equity since they are usually only accountable to a board of directors. But cities operate in the real world of democratic accountability. While I believe professionals and leaders have a responsibility to lead, they must work within a broader civic landscape to get things done.

4. Changing Technology in Government is Hard Because it Requires Changing Government

Everybody knows there are some things money can’t buy, like love of happiness. It turns out another is often organizational change. The New York Times last week ran an article about an Air Force computer system that was cancelled after $1 billion had already been spent on it. $1 billion! For a presentation to earlier this year, I found this list of high-profile “IT project failures” costing companies billions of dollars. To be fair, the civic technology report does note to “ensure that civic tech solutions address real problems” technologists should use incremental and agile development methods. This is sensible advice but it was created in private sector contexts, where there can be tremendous impetus for organizational change and the market will impose strict discipline on firms. But governments are largely monopolies, and the larger issue isn’t lost funds (although that is important), but the ability to make changes at all, as seen in the Air Force example.

These large-scale “failures” occur establishing organizational technology doesn’t merely involve purchasing a tool, but instead requires developing a complex sociotechnical system. Implementing or changing technology therefore requires organizational changes (of roles, processes, values, etc), something that is so difficult it has sparked a mini-industry of scholars, consultants, and methods. Technologists often assume organizations with readily replace existing technology with new tools because they are clearly superior — faster, cheaper, easier to use, etc. While this is sometimes true, the inherent conservatism of organizations present an invisible barrier that must be overcome. And resistance to change may not be a bad thing, given the history of technical fads and unjustified hype. The known system that works adequately may be a better choice than the new one associated with unknown risks. As an example of this, I remember technologists advocating governments use mongoDB for open data portals several years ago, arguing it is technically superior than relational databases. Although it might be clearly superior along some dimensions (open source, more flexible, faster, etc), these are not dispositive in an organizational settings. Also important is interoperability with other systems, staff capacity and skills, and perhaps even the skills of citizens. The lesson to draw is that technology cannot be evaluated without considering the specific context in which it will be used, or implemented successfully without considering the necessary organizational changes.

5. Civic Technology is Hard Because Governments are Diverse … and Don’t Just Fill Potholes

Implementing civic tech means deciding on what goals it should help achieve. The report doesn’t dwell on the precise nature of government, and for good reason: governments are involved in a a bewildering variety of activities. When civic technology advocates do talk about governmental functions, they often focus on service delivery. Providing public services is an important and highly visible function, but governments do much more: establishing and enforcing regulations, administering grant programs, planning events, running facilities, orchestrating economic development, etc. These functions evolve in unique local contexts, and therefore what they do and their exact legal powers vary widely. (See Frug’s City Bound for a discussion of municipal legal powers). The diverse nature of governments has baffled scholars for years, and the best theory on the subject I have found is the one John Dewey’s sketched out in his classic The Public and Its Problems. In his view, government is by definition an ill-defined institution under continual change, as the democratic public deliberates about what problems exist and how they should be resolved.

More narrow views focusing on inputs and outputs, popular in some branches of public administration and popular discussion, can often lead to dead ends. For example, the high profile See Click Fix famously focuses on filling potholes and other discrete service requests. What is the broader public goal this achieves? What if the government just refilled potholes over and over, instead of determining a more durable or better pavement? Would pothole money be better spent a pavement management system that could avoid potholes, or should it be spent on other things, like public transportation? Given constrained resources, what services should government provide, exactly? It’s tempting to avoid these issues and their associated debates about the role of government. But any argument for change in the public sphere, even in the name of mere efficiency or services, is inherently political.


In light of these difficulties, what should we be doing? I will only suggest some ideas here.

6. Find Allies for New Partnerships

Amid the tremendous hype of civic technology, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they constitute just a small interest group contending for resources and power in cities. Plenty of others have equally laudable goals, and therefore this community must consider critiques seriously and seek out allies. Partnering with domain-specific allies could lend much-needed legitimacy, expert knowledge, and resources. These could include groups working in fields as diverse as vacant property, public safety, public health, or education. Although collaborations can flop, where they work the result can be greater than the sum of its parts.

7. Involve More Scholars and Community-Based Organizations in the Civic Technology Discussion

As a first step, continuing a self-reflective discussion is a constructive step. However this must involve a broader set of people, and include more scholars and representatives from community-based organizations. I couldn’t help but notice only only academic was interviewed for the report (U. of Albany’s Theresa Pardo, Judith Kurland only recently moved to a university after a long career in government). Most informants were city officials and technologists. City officials, especially elected officials and their aides, have a powerful interest in seeming innovative and effective, but are loath to tell you want they can’t achieve or what seemingly unsurmountable obstacles they face. Technology advocates also have specific perspective, and are often wedded to particular approaches or technologies and lack detailed knowledge of what cities need. I recognize there’s a supply problem as well involved in reaching out to these groups. A vanishingly small group of academics take any interest in the field, for a variety of reasons, and plenty of public officials don’t “get” new technology and so will require education and engagement. One encouraging development was the consultation of Kathy Pettit for the report, a leader of the Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP). This group of community-based practitioners has been working with data and technology in poor urban neighborhoods since the 1990s, and the network could provide rich experiences from this experience.

8. Focus on Building Long-Term Capacity and Infrastructure

Second, I think there should be a focus on building government capacity and infrastructure in the long term. This means engaging more deeply with existing IT staff, and focusing on efforts to institutionalize changes. The change strategy in many cities in this area has been to get some “quick wins” with unambiguous positive effects. However, these efforts are vulnerable to being swept away with changing administrations or shifting priorities. More lasting reforms have been the result of small groups working within government, often with limited resources, and not from “hack day” events or short-term fellowships, however important these can be as part of a larger strategy. Focusing on capacity will also require deeper engagement with the existing “government technology” ecosystem, understanding the existing tools in the marketplace and nature of the public purchasing process. Recent interest in focusing on the Request for Proposals (RFP) process is an exciting step in this direction.


Civic technology efforts represent a spirit of innovation and social hope, but one that should be combined with humility and a long-term perspective. Many fields can contribute insights to smooth the way and anticipate pitfalls. In many cases, there is no one “best” way forward. Despite Obama’s recent victory, there is no identifiable government reform movement in the United States, and existing institutional structures and bureaucracies are often viewed as hopelessly ossified. (The last visible effort in this area, Reinventing Government, was during the Clinton administration). For good or ill, today’s technology reformers are the vanguard of public sector reform in the U.S. In his prescient 1927 work The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey foresaw how modern technologies would “create means which alter the modes of associated behavior which radically change the quality, character, and place of impact of their individual consequences.” If social media has done anything, it is powerfully transformed our “associative behavior,” as Dewey predicted. Urging we avoid “short-cuts of direct action” Dewey argued the state is and should be always under debate, advising that “formation of states must be an experimental process … Only through constant watchfulness and criticism of public officials by citizens can a state be maintained in integrity and usefulness.” For these reasons, the civic technology field bears an importance beyond its important but modest achievements so far, since the field embodies the potential for a better democratic society that harnesses technological change as it is transformed by it.

Hubway Data Visualization Challenge

Posted: October 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Biking, Transportation | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

Curious about how people are using the new bike sharing systems that have been popping up in cities around the world? The bike sharing system in Boston, Hubway, has released detailed data for roughly half a million trips as part of a data visualization challenge. Sponsored by Hubway and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, competition winners will receive a free Hubway membership and original system maps installed at stations. Submissions are due by October 31. To submit or learn more, visit hubwaydatachallenge.org.

Crowdfunding Urban Infrastructure: Can It Be Done?

Posted: July 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Infrastructure, Transit | 5 Comments »

“Crowdfunding” refers to the use of the internet to raise money from a large group of people for a cause. The canonical example is Kickstarter, whose donors have pledged over $230 million since its founding for a variety of creative projects. Although most Kickstarter projects seek only a few thousand dollars, seven have raised over $1 million in donations to go towards projects to create new products, record music, print a comic book, and design new video games.

With the political climate in many places remaining hostile to new taxes, and cities in need of infrastructure investment, many are considering whether the principles of crowdfunding can be applied to urban infrastructure investment. Two projects I have heard about are doing just that, and I suspect many more are waiting in the wings.

An entrepreneur working in Boston is developing an idea to create a crowdfunding platform for “urban improvements.” Designed to be deployed at a small scale, the target could be small-scale neighborhood improvements or loans to local businesses. The entrepreneur is exploring connections with neighborhood groups and refining his business model before going public.

A project that launched this week is already collecting donations for urban infrastructure in the heartland. A friend of mine in Kansas City was frustrated when a public meeting about a planned streetcar line devolved into a debate about the proposed funding mechanism — a property assessment along the streetcar’s route. He’s launched neighbor.ly, a civic crowdfunding platform launched this week with two initial projects: $10 million for the streetcar and $1.2 million to expand the city’s bike sharing system. In exchange for giving money, donors can receive tokens of appreciation which include “pixels” on the side of the light rail cars (illustrated to the right), or a variety of free perks to use or advertise on the bikes. Donors have already pledged over $400,000 towards the bike system, although most is apparently from a large health insurance company.

Only time will tell whether these initiatives will raise the “real money” needed for public infrastructure. I suspect naysayers will be proven wrong and they will meet with some success for two primary reasons. First, they’re part of an ongoing revolution in public finance towards funding sources closer to the direct beneficiaries of public investments and away from federal and state sources. This interesting article notes more and more transportation infrastructure is funded by “local option taxes” and many of the new light rail systems have been largely funded by local or regional sales taxes (Including in Denver and North Carolina).

The second reason civic crowdfunding will succeed is that it follows a broader ideological shift away from taxation and traditional public finance. The right will like it since it reduces the reliance on mandatory taxes, and the left will like the ersatz grassroots character. Although decentralized, crowdfunding will inevitably result eventually result in tension between donors and elected officials, who presumably will retain permitting authority. This issue can be seen in Detroit, where private donors who pledged $80 million for a new streetcar argued for a curbside alignment while planners sought a more efficient alignment in the center of the street.

The logical culmination of postmodern public finance may be aided by the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act. Up until now, crowdfunding payments have been nothing more than donations, although the JOBS Act liberalizes federal rules to allow for equity crowdfunding for private startups. This will usher in an interesting period of financial innovation, and will theoretically make possible crowdfunded public private partnerships (PPP).

Like with fee-for-service and local donation schemes I discussed in a previous blog post, these ideas inevitably raise equity concerns. Will only wealthy neighborhoods — and cities — be able to fund public investments? Will funders only give to flashy investments (like bikes and streetcars) while the prosaic (and hidden) infrastructures like water and sewer lines crumble? To a certain extent, existing funding mechanisms already results in these problems. Perhaps public agencies can get ahead of the trend, requiring a portion of all crowdfunded donations be reserved for investment in low-income areas, or spent on agency-determined needs.

Only time will tell whether projects like neighbor.ly will result in a major new trend for funding urban infrastructure, or remain a whimsical footnote only useful in certain contexts.

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