Tech And The City

Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne aims to make New York the “world’s top-ranked digital city” but she and her counterparts across the U.S. are still trying to figure out what that means.

No matter where you live, from Los Angeles to Boston, you can walk into a public meeting, sign your name on a piece of paper, and be given the opportunity to stand at a podium in front of your elected officials or civil servants and speak your mind for two or three minutes. This is called a public comment, and it’s allowed at pretty much any public meeting in any city in America. It’s the kind of open government that the founding fathers had in mind when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. It’s also totally old school.

Today if you want to voice your concerns to local officials, you can often do so remotely, from your laptop or cell phone. Websites, social media, call centers, and services that receive and respond to mobile text messages are becoming common means of communicating with the powers that be. With so many new avenues to reach municipal governments, the podium is increasingly irrelevant. In fact, the digitization and dispersion of the public-participation process is in such demand that some cities have created positions for technology chiefs to oversee the systems that connect the government to its people.

Earlier this year, New York City made probably the biggest move in this direction with the hiring of Rachel Sterne, a young Internet news entrepreneur, as the city’s first chief digital officer. In this new position, Sterne is charged with expanding communications between the government and its citizens and local businesses, as well as improving the city’s accessibility and transparency through digital media.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg created Sterne’s position because his administration recognized the potential of technology to improve the way the city functions. Sterne’s first order of business has been to create a detailed report on the digital future of the city. The report outlines how the city plans to improve access to technology, such as increasing public Wi-Fi hotspots. However, its main goal is to increase engagement by listening to and connecting with residents in new ways. Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have launched similar initiatives.

“It’s kind of turned the whole way things are done in government on its head,” says Bill Schrier, chief technology officer for the city of Seattle.

Schrier, who became CTO in 2003, has done this type of work for nearly 30 years. He remembers the days when massive IBM mainframes were first integrated into municipal systems, when typewriters and telephones were the prominent tools of communication. With the advent of personal computing, the Internet, and mobile phones, CTOs like Schrier are no longer cooped up alone with a roomful of humming supercomputers. Technology is now on the desks and in the hands of nearly every city employee—and the majority of Seattle residents.

As a result, computing has moved from the back room to the center stage in terms of interactions between the government and constituents. The city has a robust website, and its various departments maintain 30 Facebook pages, 15 Twitter accounts, and numerous blogs. Despite offering a multitude of public options for government interaction, the city is still trying to figure out how to best use them all and how much employee time should be dedicated to them.

“It’s one thing to push this [technology] out, but we’re still struggling with how to reply to tweets or Facebook comments, and whether these are even the right social media or social-networking tools that we should be using,” says Schrier, whose job includes coordinating the various interaction points, dealing with internal communication networks, and providing technical support. “If you want to tweet the Police Department or send a message to the Human Services Department on Facebook, chances are likely that you won’t get a response. You will on the mayor’s Facebook or Twitter pages, because he has staff dedicated to that.”

The deluge can be a burden, but enabling online citizen participation can also help fulfill a city’s needs. Give a Minute, a new project led by CEOs for Cities, creates an easy way for people to share ideas about improving their city with officials and fellow citizens. Civic leaders or officials pose questions at Giveaminute.info, and citizens can propose solutions online. Officials get more ideas from more voices and are able to identify stakeholders with interests in specific types of projects. Digital tools like these are changing the ways that cities receive information from their citizens. Most urban governments, though, are focusing first on getting their own information out to the people they serve.

In San Francisco, social media has become a significant part of citizen outreach. Ron Vinson, director of media for the city’s Department of Technology, is in charge of Web services, e-commerce, and content management. His staff handles tasks such as posting video footage of public meetings on YouTube and making sure people can pay parking tickets online. He says his role is similar in many ways to a public information officer’s, in that he provides details about city projects and responds to inquiries.

“Anything that impacts our constituencies, we have to make sure that we are getting information out to them as soon as possible,” says Vinson.

That means constantly tracking the city’s internal email lists and feeds for any information from, say, the Housing Department or the Transportation Department that seems useful for the public to know. Beyond improving communication, technology is changing how the city’s infrastructure works. SFPark is a new smart parking system that monitors thousands of the city’s metered and garage parking spaces to help drivers using mobile applications find available spots. It’s a wireless and almost instantaneous system that not only helps frustrated drivers, but also reduces the congestion caused by people prowling for a place to park.

In Washington, D.C., city officials are using technology to pioneer extreme government transparency. The city’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer has taken the vast amount of municipal data it collects—from juvenile crime statistics to building permits—and made it freely available to the public on its website. Nearly 500 streams of data are published in various spreadsheets and formats. Department staff, led by acting CTO Rob Mancini, would like interested citizens and computer programmers to use the information to develop easy-to-access websites and mobile applications that enrich the way citizens experience and interact with the city. The more, the better, Mancini believes, because the information will spread farther and get more use.

“In essence, technology allows us to expand communication, exchange information with the public more directly, and provide transparency,” Mancini says.

Making data available online is a growing trend that other cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, are embracing, too. New York City even sponsors a competition called BigApps that challenges developers to build websites and mobile apps with the city’s publicly available datasets to better serve citizens. Past winners of the competition include an app that helps drivers find parking spaces and another that provides transit schedules with real-time updates from commuters.

Schrier says access to this sort of data doesn’t have to turn into an iPhone app or a website to have an impact. He argues that neighborhood-specific data on crime stats or traffic collisions can inform residents about what they should watch out for and how they can keep themselves safe. It can also help them identify problem areas that officials may have missed, a growing prospect as city budgets tighten. “Making the data available helps people to help themselves,” says Schrier.

As technology becomes ubiquitous and gives people new ways to communicate, expect more cities to expand their technological capabilities. In the future, local government will be more open than ever before—and citizens will be able to participate in the process without ever needing to stand behind a podium.

Nate Berg is a writer and journalist who covers cities, the environment, and urban planning. His work has appeared in Dwell, Fast Company, Metropolis, The New York Times, Wired, and many other publications.

Colleen Corcoran is a graphic designer in Los Angeles. She is interested in how design can use humor, narrative, materiality, (and even ambiguity) to educate people and promote positive social change. Her work can be found at designedbycolleen.com

The Future of The City

About

The adoption of ubiquitous computing, mobile devices, and rich sources of data are changing how we live, work, and play in urban environments. Increasingly, a digital landscape overlays our physical world and is expanding to offer ever-richer experiences that augment—and in some cases, replace—the physical experience: “The city is the platform, the network, the sensors, and the interface,” as frog creative director Rob McIntosh put it in a recent talk. To celebrate the New Cities Summit where frog hosted a workshop on the Meta-City, design mind presents a special digital issue exclusively on the future of the city and live coverage from the event.

Articles in this series