Susan Crawford: How Tech + Local Government = Solving Real Issues

Feb 2, 2015   |   Susan Crawford


Americans at their best are never cynical, and The Responsive City is not a cynical book. I’d like you to read it, but just in case you don’t have time, here’s the quick version: (A) This is the best moment in the last hundred years to be working in local government, and (B) this moment has arrived in the nick of time.

On the global stage, our competitor for the 21st century limelight is China. Somewhere, next to a dusty window in a quiet American city hall office, there is a disgruntled public servant who envies the ease with which an authoritarian nation just gets things done. Build six large (population of five to ten million) cities by 2020? China will do it. Install high-speed rail? Check. Create a giant middle class by mandate? Done.

In the long term, though, America has a substantial comparative advantage over China: democracy. If we can make people feel valued and heard, ensure they have choices and freedom, and make self-determination a reality, we will continue to draw the best to us. But in order to hang on to that advantage, we’re going to have to do democracy better.

Cities are where democracy still works. People overwhelmingly trust local government—Gallup says 72% of us feel this way—even as a remarkable 81% of us say we “never” or “only some of the time” think we can trust the federal government to do the right thing. And cities are poised right now to make democracy work better.

The Responsive Story lifts up stories of cities that are using digital technology to make government more effective, engage citizens more meaningfully in governance and problem-solving, and empower public employees to act with greater professionalism and discretion. Key trends are pushing these developments along quickly: computation, storage, and connectivity are getting cheaper, talented leaders that understand the role of technology at the policy table are taking charge, visualization tools are becoming commonplace, and citizens are demanding the level of service and interaction they have become accustomed to online.




Chicago: a talented staff in city hall, led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has carefully and slowly worked with individual city departments to prioritize resources based on insights drawn from predictive analytics. (The first pilot: better-targeted rat baiting, based on correlations found in 311 data between particular call types and the presence of rats. More pilots are underway.) Chicago’s civic ecosystem is unparalleled, and includes a crucial nonprofit intermediary called the Smart Chicago Collaborative that works with both city hall and neighborhoods to improve civic engagement and digital involvement. (Smart Chicago’s slogan: “If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work.”) Chicago’s MacArthur Foundation and the University of Chicago play important roles in this ecosystem.

Boston: The late Mayor Tom Menino’s insistence that technology be used to bring people closer to city hall—rather than used to keep them at a distance—drove the work of his team in creating the first mobile app that allowed people to report street-level issues by way of geo-located pictures and text. (Key quote from Citizens Connect user: “When I use my smartphone, I feel like I’m helping—not complaining.”) Mayor Marty Walsh’s team is taking the effort forward, determined to ensure that the mayor’s “dashboard” (screens Mayor Walsh has in his office showing key indicators), the open data portal, and the city’s performance management system are all based on the same data.

And much more. Cities are using data to keep the focus on outcomes (“how healthy is our populace?”) rather than outputs (“how many beds do our hospitals have?”). The use of sensor data to monitor water, energy, and infrastructure issues is still in its early stages. Cities are doing their best to use their scarce resources to solve their most pressing problems, often with the creative assistance of citizens.

Cool is a peculiarly American descriptor. (Europeans are good at irony; we do cool best.) What’s happening in American cities right now in connection with technology is exciting, fast-moving, and transformative. It’s cool. It’s also crucial for our shared future.


crawfordSusan Crawford is a co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and will join the Harvard Law School faculty later this year. She is the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, co-author of The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, and a contributor to’s Backchannel. She served as Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (2009) and co-led the FCC transition team between the Bush and Obama administrations. Prof. Crawford served as a member of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Advisory Council on Technology and Innovation and is now a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Broadband Task Force.


Microsoft invites you to attend a book talk by Stephen Goldsmith, Harvard professor and co-author of The Responsive City. The event will take place this Thursday, February 5th at SPUR in San Francisco. To register, click here. Also feel free to join the conversation with @MicrosoftSV and others at #theresponsivecity

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