The very first session at Techonomy Detroit is “Can We Hack Our Way to the Cities We Need?”. Techonomy’s been doing this event in Detroit for four years now, since “before the Whole Foods.” David Kirkpatrick, the event organizer, suggests that something fundamentally new is going on with civic tech. The panel features Dan’l Lewin of Microsoft, Thomas Ermacora of Clear-Village.org (@termacora), Jon Gosier of Cross Valley Capital (@jongos), and Beth Niblock, Detroit’s CIO (@DetroitCIO).
Dan’l Lewin starts from a technology perspective. Since 1975, the microprocessor and ensuing mobility revolution have created the conditions that allow phenomena like civic tech, where data-rich civil information becomes a form of ambient intelligence. The goal is for the technology to fade away – eventually even into the very fabric of our clothing – while remaining useful.
Dan’l’s Tech & Civic Engagement group is a small and strategic group at Microsoft. They chose a few key places to start, like Chicago. The partnership there, UI LABS (standing for University Industry) will take on projects that are 6-24 months in duration and designed with relevant communities (not off-the-shelf solutions). An example project involves bringing sensors to updating the city’s sewage infrastructure. The initial apps will show the edge cases of what’s possible, and out of that experimentation, Dan’l sees more formulaic problem-solving to follow.
Beth Niblock, Detroit’s CIO, came to the City of Detroit as part of a group that the Obama Administration sent to meet about technology. She says there was a strong existing civic tech community in place, partially because the government wasn’t functioning, so these groups had to step in and serve the city.
In February, the City announced its open data portal, supported by the Socrata Foundation. The city was in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings, but some city offices were still running Windows XP, while others didn’t have PCs at all. The basic technology landscape in the city was very outdated, but they also understood the immediate need to support the modern civic tech community. Deputy Director Garlin Gilchrist II to work on open data exclusively. They’re up to over a hundred open data sets, with assessor imagery coming soon. They feel strongly that information is power, and if the city doesn’t put its information out for citizen groups to use, they’re retaining all the power. Neighborhood groups are consuming the open data “like crazy”. The Chief of Police has been thrilled when, in his regular meetings with community groups, the community has already seen their data, is conversant in its descriptions, and can generally engage at a whole new level as citizens in a way that makes it easier to have a shared conversation.
Beth’s battle now is to keep the archaic legacy systems alive while they update and upgrade them over time.
Jon Gosier sees civic tech culture as a point of inclusion between the city and its citizens that lead the movements. Philadelphia, where Jon’s from, created one of the first Chief Data Officer positions, filled by Mark Headd. He saw the struggle between wanting to do cutting edge work and fighting a resistance to change. The culture of using technology to improve cities and peoples’ lives is the key. Global cities like Nairobi and Kumpala are leading the way with some of the most interesting work, with cities like Detroit and Philadelphia implementing the same technologies years later. In both environments, it’s the citizens’ power and ability to address their own problems from their perspective, and governments have recognized this as a resource.
Sharp Insight, a Knight News Challenge winner in Philadelphia, is working to enfranchise communities, and help them understand the importance of what they’re giving up by not participating in elections. People who have been in prison can get back their rigiht to vote over time, for example. 5.6M Mexican Americans are living here legally, but without becoming naturalized citizens, meaning a huge potential voting bloc is going unheard.
Thomas Ermacora spends a lot of time in Europe. His forthcoming book, Recoded City, describes how communities can rejuvenate shared places.
Thomas is concerned with artificial intelligence right around the corner, we should accelerate the process of using open data while we can, before the crawlers and bots use these data to make decisions on our behalf, without community involvement. It’s not about control of the data, he says, but about how those data are used to make meaning. There’s no malevolence necessary for it to happen. There’s more data to be had, but we need more citizen groups that can make use of these data.
Dan’l adds on. Microsoft has funded independent academic research looking into potential problems with widely heralded tech solutions. Consider police bodycams. They’re being advertised as the answer to police brutality, but will bodycams also demand full enforcement of infractions that officers previously had discretion to let go? People suffering domestic abuse could hesitate to call the police if they don’t know what will happen to the video recording of the incident.
Thomas makes the point that cities have big players and minute players, but few medium-sized groups that serve both the haves and the have-nots in the community. In cities like London, the cost of living has pushed even the affluent out of the city center. Thomas’s challenge is, can we develop cultural excellence outside of our city centers? He’s working to develop cultural bridges between the center and the outer parts of cities.