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Governing in the Smartphone Era

November-December 2014


Illustration by Michael Austin

Apps such as this one, developed for Boston, allow residents to report problems like trash or broken signs by uploading geocoded photos to a publicly accessible map.

Apps such as this one, developed for Boston, allow residents to report problems like trash or broken signs by uploading geocoded photos to a publicly accessible map.

In 2011, after nine years and a $2-billion investment, New York City’s revamped 911 system still had a major problem: trouble in tracking emergency responses, especially when multiple calls came in about the same incident, or one call involved multiple incidents. This made it nearly impossible for officials to tease out why some city residents waited longer for aid—a matter, potentially, of life and death.

The city had all the information it needed about the 30,000 calls it received daily, but lacked a system to unify that data and, more importantly, the political will to do so.

These are the kinds of challenges that former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, Paul professor of the practice of government at Harvard Kennedy School, and Susan Crawford, Reilly visiting professor in intellectual property at Harvard Law School (and co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society), tackle in their new book, The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance (Wiley). They argue for the transformative power of analytics in city governments, so that—once innovators cut through the red tape—simple changes can connect elected officials and city employees to each other and to the citizens they serve.

In Goldsmith and Crawford’s “responsive city,” technology allows information to flow in multiple directions between cities and citizens, connecting them in ways that are responsive to how residents really live. Existing tech solutions to urban problems range from traffic sensors that control red-light patterns in busy midtown Manhattan to Boston’s five-year-old Citizens Connect app, which has made the process of lodging complaints about potholes, trash, and broken signs as easy as snapping a quick photo and uploading it to a map.

And when city governments share their comprehensive data with their citizens, the authors argue, residents can not only complain but also cooperate in effecting solutions. They point to the example of Palo Alto, which has put intuitive, interactive visualizations of its budgeting priorities online. “People do have enormous civic energy, but they don’t have time to go to a three-hour community meeting,” Crawford says. “What’s great about the Internet is it allows them to devote just a shard of their attention—just the 15 minutes necessary to understand an issue, see it, visualize it, and act on it.”

The trillions of bits of data that cities collect can also help the mechanisms of government work more smoothly. In New York, a small cadre of analysts, led by employee Mike Flowers, fixed the 911 system by figuring out what the city knew, how data in different departments needed to be connected, and how they needed to analyze it to solve problems. The team applied similar methods to streamline mortgage fraud investigations and help the city’s 200 building inspectors triage the more than 20,000 complaints they receive each year about illegally converted apartment buildings, which pose serious fire hazards. “What stood out to me,” says Goldsmith, who was New York’s deputy mayor for operations from 2010 to 2011, and worked with Flowers, “was how easy it is for a group of smart, really committed people to solve some really big public-service problems.” Once innovators overcome bureaucratic inertia, the tech solutions are often easy to find. Savvy leaders, therefore, are important in an almost paradoxical way, providing the top-down vision needed to break down hierarchy and empower ordinary government employees. Crawford calls Flowers one of her government “heroes,” noting that it “took real leadership and commitment and zeal to get that done.”

The Responsive City focuses on pioneering innovations in New York, Boston, and Chicago, and the authors want it to serve as a blueprint for other cities in the United States and abroad. They’ve already found examples in the slums of Chennai and the favelas of Rio; Goldsmith has begun cataloging these advances on the Data-Smart City Solutions site run by the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

The transition to data-driven government is spreading, but Crawford and Goldsmith acknowledge that strong leadership is necessary to make sure its power is harnessed for good. In looking at the potential pitfalls, as well as benefits, Goldsmith cites what happened when New York City created HHS-Connect, a system that allowed authorized workers at hospitals and social-service agencies to create temporary “synapses” connecting patient and client information from the school, court, and social-service systems. Opposition from citizens wary of an all-knowing “Big Brother” government, and from lawyers worried about protecting clients’ privacy and controlling data access, nearly derailed the project. “Data boosters” also needed to convince skeptics that these systems would not be used as a simple formula—they do not constitute “a score card that says ‘1 plus 3 plus 5 means remove the kid from the home,’” Goldsmith says. Instead, systems like New York’s enable workers to learn as much as possible, synthesizing information that helps them make the right decisions.

Helping government connect better, and do better, is a fundamental idea. Goldsmith, who worked as a policy adviser for George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, and Crawford, who worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 transition team, come at their subjects from opposite ends of the political spectrum. “There’s a legitimate debate about the size and role of government,” Goldsmith acknowledges. “But maybe we can agree, as a democratic society, that whatever we decide government should do, it ought to do well.”

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