Civic Tech

Bringing Street Safety to the Next Frontier of Smart Cities

In Microsoft’s Civic Tech Engagement group, we partner with civic organizations and governments not only to create new ways to leverage data and technology to tackle local priorities but also to sustain and scale those innovations across cities and communities. Therefore, we are thrilled to announce that we are partnering with Open Data Nation to lay the groundwork on innovative approaches to applying data science to transportation safety. Open Data Nation will build on the collaborative experimentation of DataKind, Seattle, New York, New Orleans and Microsoft to empower more cities to integrate data science into their Vision Zero programs. We welcome the CEO of Open Data Nation, Carey Anne Nadeau, as a guest blogger to articulate the opportunity and approach for this partnership.  

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Microsoft

Smart city technologies and data science techniques are making incredible and swift leaps forward – from smart sensors that detect smog to analytics that guide efficient water use in times of drought – but in this figurative race to the moon, select cities have been able to get projects off the ground while most others are stranded back on earth.

In a first-of-its-kind partnership between Microsoft and Open Data Nation, we’re tackling this inequity head on, lowering the barriers to entry, and making sure that the benefits of the smart cities movement diffuse to all who may share in and benefit from better, safer, and healthier cities.

We’ve identified a big issue in cities, where a broad-based, adaptable solution can have great impact. In 2016, the number of people who died in a car crash spiked to nearly 18,000, the most since 2008. From Fort Lauderdale to Seattle, at least 40 US cities have recognized that traffic crashes are putting bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers at risk in their communities. And, mayors in each city have signed on to the Vision Zero Initiative, pledging to reduce the number of traffic deaths to zero.

While a common goal to prevent injuries and save lives is clearly articulated, the Vision Zero Initiative is not prescriptive, and each of the 40 cities has taken its own unique approach to traffic safety planning. For example, the three cities that worked with DataKind and Microsoft applied data science techniques to local priorities, identifying factors that contribute to incidents, prioritizing investments, and tracking the impact of interventions (Read more about these three cities in the case study here and many more here).

Over the course of 2017, Open Data Nation will build from these early examples to guide the next frontier of Vision Zero cities to explore a data science approach. First, we’ll work with interested cities to advise them on what data is useful and how to prepare for data analysis. Then, we’ll work with three select cities to build models that predict where and when people are in the most danger of being struck and killed in car crashes.  Along the way, we’ll document the experience, creating relevant guidance that will lower barriers and enable even more cities, who prioritize traffic safety, to try what has already shown to be effective elsewhere.  

As driverless cars come down the pike, our vision for nationwide, real-time predictions of car crashes, could eventually equip vehicles with the safety features and routing technologies necessary to prevent injuries and save lives.

This collaboration represents a giant step forward in the smart city movement — it has matured to a point where best practices may be applied and progress may be shared more broadly. With this partnership, between Open Data Nation and Microsoft, we begin being better stewards for the smarter nation of tomorrow.

To participate as one of the three pilot cities, representatives can submit a brief statement of interest here: (http://www.opendatanation.com/vision-zero).

About Open Data Nation

Open Data Nation combines detailed public records and industry expertise to reveal new, leading indicators of risks that threaten lives and livelihoods in cities. This is not the first time Open Data Nation has made waves by bringing open data initiatives to scale. In 2015, the City of Chicago demonstrated that it was possible to predict health code violations, and today Open Data Nation’s technology helps better police foodborne illness outbreaks and workplace injuries, covering more than 62,000 restaurants.

Fellow Profile: Kaivan Kotval Shroff

Where are you from? Westchester, NY
 
School/grad year/major: Yale School of Management Class of 2017
 
Last thing you searched on Bing: Lorde’s album release date
 
Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? I’m passionate about finding efficient ways to use big data and institutional power to solve social problems on a mass scale!
 
What’s your favorite civic project in the New York? I’m a big fan of the non-profit Year Up! The organization matches urban young adults with mentors and provides them with job training skills that give them the experience and opportunity they need to reach their full potential. I love how the organization uses corporate partnerships to not only find mentors for students, but to also establish a diverse talent pipeline in industries that may not have a high degree of lower-income and minority representation. This is a highly sustainable and progressive way to meet the needs of business and the underserved.
 
Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? I’m impressed by how Mark Zuckerberg laid out his plan for the future of Facebook as a localized community hub.
 
What excites you about civic tech? Civic tech is an awesome way to empower and access disenfranchised demographics in a cost-effective and scalable way. Millions of us are engaging with our phones and laptops all day every day. Small changes applied on that scale can have critical impact on society and how we engage with one another!
 
What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? Police misconduct and abuse

May’s Civic Tech Events

We’re almost halfway through with 2017 — let’s celebrate May with a jam-packed schedule of events:

Every Thursday in May

How to document apartment repair issues using justfix.nyc.

JustFix.nyc is a free website you can use to document the repair issues in your apartment. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s Northern Manhattan Office will host a training to help you create an account and start taking action to resolve your repair issues. Thursday, May 4, May 11, May 18, and May 25, 6 – 8 pm, 431 West 125th St.

May 8

NPC17 DataJam with NYC’s Department of City Planning and BetaNYC

Do you want to improve NYC’s capital planning process?

Can to use your data science and GIS skills to improve NYC capital planning process?

YES!?

Then, join us on Monday, 8 May, from 9:00 AM to 3:00 pm to improve NYC’s Department of City Planning (DCP) Facilities Explorer, a pioneering urban planning open source and open data platform!

May 9

May 2017 NY Tech Meetup and Afterparty – Creative Tech Theme

Join us for NYC’s most famous and longest running monthly tech event! You’ll see a fantastic lineup of New York tech companies presenting live demos of their products, followed by an afterparty where you can network with the community and meet our demoers and sponsors.

This month we are partnering with Creative Tech Week to showcase a select few of their featured experts showing us the latest technologies being put to creative use.

In addition, we’ll have demos from the Top 3 finishers at hackNY’s Spring 2017 hackathon!

May 10

Smart Cities Innovation: Action-Focused Perspectives From Key Leaders

NUMA New York and Civic Hall are at the center of innovation in the civic space and we would like to invite the community to join us for “Smart Cities NYC Recap Event” taking place the week after the summit on Wedesday, May 10th at 6:30pm at Civic Hall (118 W. 22nd St., 12th Floor, Buzz 12A when you arrive).

May 14

Neighborhood Challenge Applications Due

The NYC Department of Small Business Services, along with partners New York City Economic Development Corporation and New York City Business Assistance Corporation, are proud to offer the Neighborhood Challenge Innovation Grant competition.

This year’s Neighborhood Challenge 5.0 competition pairs nonprofit community organizations and tech companies to create and implement tools that address specific commercial district issues. The competition seeks to make awards of up to $100,000 to fund innovative ideas that use data-driven capacity building solutions to improve operations, target services, or address local public policy challenges.

May 18

Databite No. 99: Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner

Data & Society Research Institute is pleased to welcome Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner as they share excerpts and discuss their new release, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press, April 2017).

Successes and Challenges for ICANN and Beyond

Join Chris Mondini of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to hear how multistakeholder participation helped globalize the Internet and learn what is on the horizon – for Internet addresses, technical coordination, and throny geopolitical issues.

May 23

NYC BigApps 2017 Finalist Expo & Winner Award Ceremony

Join us as we celebrate another exciting year of the NYC BigApps competition! At this culminating event, we will be showcasing the finalists from each of the three BigApps challenges at the Finalist Expo. The Judges will then announce the Grand Prize Winners during the Winner Awards Ceremony, followed by a cocktail reception.

May 24

Civic Hall Presents: NYC Open Data Spring Updates

For this month’s Civic Hall Member Showcase, we are excited to present the NYC Open Data Team!
The NYC Open Data Team recently finished a collaboration with Reboot, doing research on the users of open data and developing different personas to support the team’s upcoming user acquisition efforts. Come see a preview of this research and hear other updates and announcements from the City’s Chief Analytics Officer Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki.

May 25

We Don’t Learn Alone

The apps we build are more important to society and culture than ever, but the way we learn how to make them is often completely anti-social. What could a more connected and human mode look like?
The use of permissioned blockchains in the public sector has the potential to create a new balance point between two extremes: pure algorithmic governance (e.g., Bitcoin) and pure human governance (e.g., your local city council). This talk will explore if and how blockchain can help bring automation, transparency, and audit-ability to the world’s governing systems and institutions. Does the strategic introduction of blockchain-enabled validation mechanisms and smart contracts offer a means for rescuing public confidence in governing institutions while cutting costs and better ensuring fair outcomes per policy? Behlendorf will discuss these and other questions related to blockchain’s coming impact on how we govern.

May 30

Harlem to Haarlem Pitchfest

We’re Having our Harlem 2 Haarlem Pitchfest again this year! we are looking for 3 Harlem based tech companies to present their business to the audience. If you are part of a business that would like to show our Netherlands friends the innovation in Harlem, New York please send an email to siliconharlem@gmail.com.

May 31

Startup Cities — Brad Hargreaves

Join Boston Civic Media’s third annual conference for a day of inspiring keynotes, presentations and networking with peers and community leaders around igniting civic creativity. Dive into topics including media literacy, youth-led advocacy, DIY activist technologies, and creative storytelling. We’ll also be announcing the first ever inter-campus curriculum addressing climate change.

June 8-9

Personal Democracy Forum

This conference will bring together top technologists, campaigners, hackers, government officials, journalists, opinion-makers,  and academics for two days of game-changing talks, workshops, and networking opportunities – celebrating the power and potential of tech to make real change happen.

Using Data Science to Improve Traffic Safety

As U.S. traffic deaths continue to rise, cities across America are increasingly focused on eliminating crash-related injuries and fatalities. Data can be a powerful resource in these efforts to make streets safer.  We’re happy to support this effort, partnering with DataKind, which recently completed the Vision Zero Labs Project. This effort worked to develop valuable analytical models and tools to help the cities of New York, Seattle and New Orleans further their work to increase road safety.

In partnership with DataKind, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of data science in service of humanity, and the New York City Department of Transportation, we launched this project in August 2015, joining forces with the Seattle Department of Transportation and the City of New Orleans’ Office of Performance and Accountability in March 2016. With these cities, the Vision Zero Labs Project has become the first and largest multi-city, data-driven collaboration of its kind to drive traffic safety efforts in the U.S.

Using data science techniques, DataKind accessed open and internal city data to design several models and tools that enable cities to test the effectiveness of various street safety interventions, estimate total traffic volumes and gain additional insight into crash-related factors.

Learn more about our work with DataKind and Vision Zero:

ABOUT DATAKIND

Launched in 2011, DataKind is a global nonprofit that harnesses the power of data science, AI and machine learning in the service of humanity. Through its core programs – Labs, DataCorps and DataDives – the organization brings together leading data scientists and social sector experts to collaborate on projects to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges. A leader in the Data for Good movement, DataKind was named one of Fast Company’s Top 10 Most Innovative Nonprofits for 2017. Headquartered in New York City, DataKind has Chapters in Bangalore, Dublin, San Francisco, Singapore, the UK and Washington, D.C. For more information visit www.datakind.org

ABOUT VISION ZERO

An initiative born in Sweden in the 1990’s, Vision Zero aims to reduce traffic-related deaths and serious injuries to zero. It has been adopted by more than a dozen U.S. cities including New York and Seattle. Vision Zero believes that crashes are predictable and preventable, which means there is great potential for data and technology to help uncover patterns of incidents so governments can take action to prevent fatalities before they occur.

Creating Safer Streets Through Data Science — A Case Study

Executive Summary

Tens of thousands of people are killed or injured in traffic collisions each year. To improve road safety and combat life-threatening crashes, many U.S. cities have adopted Vision Zero, an initiative born in Sweden in the 1990s that aims to reduce traffic-related deaths and serious injuries to zero.

While many cities have access to data about where and why serious crashes occur, the use of predictive algorithms and advanced statistical methods to determine the effectiveness of different safety initiatives is less widespread. Therefore, DataKind, Microsoft and three U.S. cities — New York, Seattle and New Orleans — came together to help demonstrate how cutting edge and scalable solutions can be developed to help tackle a complex societal issue.

Each city had specific questions that they wished to address around local priorities for increasing traffic safety, to better understand the factors contributing to crashes and the potential impacts of different types of interventions. The DataKind team, working closely with local city transportation experts, brought together a wide variety of datasets such as information on past crashes, roadway attributes (e.g. lanes, traffic signals and sidewalks), land use, demographic data, commuting patterns, parking violations and existing safety intervention placements.

These inputs were leveraged to develop models that allowed cities to examine how different street characteristics impacts the injuries that occur, to determine the extent to which roadway user behavior and street design are contributing factors in crash occurrence and severity, to assess the effectiveness of interventions for increasing safety and guide the placement of future interventions.

The DataKind team also developed a model to help cities accurately and cost-effectively estimate “exposure” or total volume of vehicles on individual streets, a key factor in safety analyses as well as broader transportation planning activities.

Today, as a result of applying these models, the cities are better positioned to determine what kind of engineering, enforcement and educational interventions are effective and how to best allocate limited available resources.

Specifically,

  • In New York, with the new exposure model capability, the city can perform initial safety project feasibility studies more efficiently. When combined with DataKind’s crash models, the new capability will help the city test the potential impact different engineering, land use and traffic scenarios would have on total injuries and fatalities in the city.
  • In Seattle, the city focused on bicycle and pedestrian safety issues in order to gain insights that could contribute to the planning for more than $300 million in anticipated Vision Zero investments. The DataKind models identified collision patterns and factors that contributed to higher levels of injury severity, including whether a motor vehicle is making a right turn or left turn and the effectiveness of crosswalks in reducing crash severity. They also identified key variables affecting the likelihood of accidents taking place on particular stretches of road, including traffic volume, land use, number of traffic lanes, street width and pedestrian concentration.
  • And in New Orleans, the DataKind team created an Impact Assessment tool that will allow the city to compare various locations that are candidates for street treatments, such as bicycle lanes, and to evaluate the impact of implemented treatments over time.

In addition to aiding the participating cities in their efforts to make streets safer, the Vision Zero Labs project showed how data science and collaboration between the public and private sector can help benefit the greater good and produce innovative and scalable solutions to address complex civic issues like traffic safety. Cities around the world can adapt the methodologies and learnings to reduce traffic-related injuries and fatalities in their own communities.

DataKind Vision Zero Initiative: Purpose, Projects and Impacts

Visualization of an early version of the exposure model that estimates traffic volume by street in Seattle. This view shows the difference between the model’s estimates and actual measurements

Tens of thousands of people are killed or injured in traffic collisions each year. To improve road safety and combat life-threatening crashes, more than 25 U.S. cities have adopted Vision Zero, an initiative born in Sweden in the 1990’s that aims to reduce traffic-related deaths and serious injuries to zero. Vision Zero is built upon the belief that crashes are predictable and preventable, though determining what kind of engineering, enforcement and educational interventions are effective can be difficult and costly for cities with limited resources.

While many cities have access to data about where and why serious crashes occur to help pinpoint streets and intersections that are trouble spots, the use of predictive algorithms and advanced statistical methods to determine the effectiveness of different safety initiatives is less widespread. Seeing the potential for data and technology to advance the Vision Zero movement in the U.S., DataKind and Microsoft wondered: How might we support cities to apply data science to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries to zero?

Three U.S. cities — New York, Seattle and New Orleans — partnered with DataKind in the first and largest multi-city, data-driven collaboration of its kind to support Vision Zero efforts within the U.S. Each city had specific questions they wished to address related to better understanding the factors contributing to crashes and what types of engineering treatments or enforcement interventions may be most effective in helping each of their local efforts and increase traffic safety for all.

To help the cities answer these questions, DataKind launched its first ever Labs project, led by DataKind data scientists Erin Akred, Michael Dowd, Jackie Weiser and Sina Kashuk. A DataDive was held in Seattle to help support the project. Dozens of volunteers participated in the event and helped fuel the work that was achieved, including volunteers from Microsoft and the University of Washington’s E-Science Institute, as well as many other Seattle data scientists.

The DataKind team also worked closely with local city officials and transportation experts to gain valuable insight and feedback on the project and access a wide variety of datasets such as information on past crashes, roadway attributes (e.g. lanes, traffic signals, and sidewalks), land use, demographic data, commuting patterns, parking violations, and existing safety intervention placements.

The cities provided information about their priority issues, expertise on their local environments, access to their data, and feedback on the models and analytic insights. Microsoft enabled the overall collaboration by providing resources, including expertise in support of the collaborative model, technical approaches, and project goals.

Overall, the work accomplished by the Vision Zero Labs team proved to be invaluable for the cities of New York, Seattle and New Orleans, equipping them with powerful insights, models and tools that can help inform future planning to prevent severe traffic collisions and keep all road users safe. With this knowledge, the cities can better determine how to best allocate resources and investments towards improvements in infrastructure and policy changes.

In addition to aiding the participating cities in their efforts to make streets safer, the project showed how data science can be effectively used to address complex civic issues like transportation safety. A particular example is the technique developed in this project around estimating road use volume even when complete data is lacking. This technique is relevant both for safety analyses and broader transportation planning activities. These are the kinds of cutting edge and scalable solutions DataKind’s Labs projects aim to deliver to achieve sector wide impact.

The project also showed how collaboration between the public and private sector and amongst partner organizations can help benefit the greater good and result in innovative and scalable solutions to address complex and critical issues like traffic safety. Cities around the world will be able to benefit from the results of the Vision Zero Labs project and can adopt the methodologies and learnings from the work to reduce traffic-related injuries and fatalities in their own communities.

Below are detailed descriptions of the specific local traffic safety questions each city asked, the data science approach and outputs the DataKind team developed, and the outcomes and impacts these analyses are providing each city.

New York: Estimating Street Volumes and Understanding How Street Design Can Reduce Injuries

Map showing street improvement projects locations and change in crashes in New York

Local Question: According to the City of New York, on average, vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every two hours, with vehicle collisions being the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14 and the second leading cause for seniors. Looking to improve traffic safety on its streets, the city wanted to understand what existing interventions are working and where there is potential for improvement to help inform how the city can better allocate its resources to protect its residents.

Data Science Approach and Outputs: The team leveraged datasets from New York City’s Department of Transportation, NYC OpenData, New York State and other internal city data to examine the effectiveness of various street treatments to help inform the city’s future planning and investment of resources. Lacking some of the data necessary to address the actual impact of existing street treatments, the team looked to answer other crucial questions regarding traffic safety that could help benefit the city.

Before they could answer these questions, they first needed to answer a more basic one — how many cars are on the road? Knowing the total volume of road users or “exposure” is necessary to understand the true rate of crashes, but most cities don’t have this data available. To overcome this, the team designed an innovative exposure model that can accurately estimate traffic volume in streets throughout the city. The model has two main components. The first is an algorithm that propagates traffic counts on a single street segment to adjacent street segments. It assumes that traffic on one city block is very similar to traffic on adjacent blocks. This process can be run many times and allows one to widely propagate traffic count values along neighboring streets. However, some streets may not have any nearby traffic counts available, so the second component of the model is a machine learning model, with high predictive accuracy, that predicts traffic volumes on streets based on their characteristics.

The team also created a crash model for New York, allowing the city to examine individual locations and test how different street characteristics impacts the number of injuries. For example, the city may be able to look at a particular street and determine whether it is safer for the street to be a one- or two-way road.

Outcomes: The exposure model will prove to be invaluable to the City of New York, filling a crucial void in vehicle volume data that many cities face. With it, the city can now perform initial safety project feasibility studies very quickly and provide context for a variety of other safety research work that requires an “exposure” rate. The model can also be altered to estimate other defined traffic volume measures, like peak hour traffic volumes. It can also help inform future work related to traffic congestion and citywide vehicle usage.

New York can also use the crash models to test the potential impact different engineering, land use and traffic scenarios would have on total injuries and fatalities in the city. They will continue to build upon the work started by DataKind, as the models developed set the stage for future research in crash prediction, congestion relief and city safety projects.

The team was able to leverage the work started in New York City to help develop and refine the approaches for both Seattle and New Orleans.

Seattle: Understanding How Street Design, Driver Behavior and the Surrounding Environment Contribute to Crashes

This “exposure” model developed for New York and Seattle shows estimates of citywide traffic volume, a key piece of information needed for advanced analyses that most cities don’t have

Local Question: While Seattle has seen a 30 percent decline in traffic fatalities over the last decade, traffic collisions are still a leading cause of death for Seattle residents age 5 to 24. Older adults are also disproportionately affected, so this trend could grow as the population ages. To supplement the findings of the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Analysis project and provide policy makers and engineers with actionable information for developing and implementing interventions, Seattle sought to find out what mid-block street designs are most correlative with collisions involving vulnerable roadway users and what the probability of such collisions occurring is at identified locations.

Data Science Approach and Outputs: Using Seattle’s collision, roadway traffic, exposure data and environment characteristics, the DataKind team developed models to uncover collision patterns involving pedestrians or bicyclists and determined the extent to which contributing circumstance and street design are correlated with collision rates, as well as the severity level of specific types of crashes. The team also applied the methodology developed for their work with New York to calculate exposure or total traffic volume citywide for Seattle.

By incorporating incident-specific information such as time of day, weather, lighting conditions and behavioral aspects, the team was also able to further develop a crash model to evaluate elements that may contribute to crashes at intersections and to what extent driver behavior, road conditions and street design played a role.

Outcomes: The DataKind team was able to determine several variables that had the greatest impact on mid-block collisions — traffic volume, land use, number of traffic lanes, street width and pedestrian concentration were the most demonstrative inputs associated with collisions.

For instance, it was found that the fact of whether a motor vehicle is making a right turn or left turn at a given intersection will influence the severity of the collision. Researchers were also able to identify in which months of the year incidences of crashes appeared to be better or worse. Interestingly, the number of crosswalks was found to be significant and that more crosswalks at an intersection showed reduction in the severity of crashes.

With these insights, Seattle will be able to pinpoint high risk areas and the factors that can be addressed to help reduce future crashes. The city recently passed a levy to fund multi-modal transportation improvements city-wide and the results from this project, along with additional safety studies, will help guide more than $300 million in Vision Zero investments over the next nine years. 

New Orleans: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Street Treatments

Local Question: While New Orleans hasn’t officially adopted Vision Zero, the city government and community are working together to make roads safer. In 2014, New Orleans was named a “silver” level bicycle-friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists and had the eighth highest share of bicycle commuters among major U.S. cities. New Orleans also leads Southern U.S. cities in bicycle commuting. Yet, a disproportionately high number of the state’s pedestrian crashes occur in New Orleans and the number of bicycle crashes doubled from 2010 to 2014.

To help the city protect its growing number of roadways users, New Orleans wanted to understand the impact that future installation of street treatments, such as bike lanes and traffic signage, could have on preventing traffic injuries and fatalities.

Data Science Approach and Outputs: The DataKind team created an Impact Assessment tool that could be used to test the effectiveness of installed treatments, which would then be used to better inform the placement of future street treatments, both individual interventions and groups of interventions applied simultaneously.

Specifically, the tool takes a set of treatment locations and uses different statistical methods to create sets of comparison locations. These comparison locations are used as a point of reference to gauge the impact of the treatment on traffic safety by comparing crash rates before and after the installation of interventions to similar intersections that did not receive interventions. The tool includes visualizations to examine generated comparison groups, as well as methods for using manually selected comparison groups.

As an example, New Orleans could select a treatment, such as a bike lane, and compare the crash rates before and after the bike lane was installed. The city can then compare these crash rates to other comparison sites. The comparison sites are especially important because they allow the city to prepare for outside factors, such as overall growth in population or traffic. The crash rate could actually increase at a treatment site but this may be due to other factors such as large increases in traffic. When comparing a treatment site with similar untreated sites, we can see if the crash rate increased at a lower rate, thus indicating an improvement in safety due to the treatment. 

Outcomes: New Orleans has integrated the Impact Assessment tool into their systems and will be collecting more data to maximize the tool’s potential and evaluate the effectiveness of additional street features. These findings will help inform the placement of future street treatments.

“Making streets safer for all New Orleanians is a major priority of ours,” said Oliver Wise, director for the City of New Orleans’ Office of Performance and Accountability. 

Learn More:

Fellow Profile: Louise Lai

Where are you from? I was born in Malaysia, grew up in Australia, and now live in New York. I also lived in London and Shanghai. Cue the weird accent.

School/grad year/major: Junior at New York University, double majoring in business & political economy and computer science.

Last thing you searched on Bing“How to download Microsoft Azure for Mac”

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? It’s truly a one-of-a-kind program. I chose this over a pure software engineering role because it speaks to my diverse interests in politics, business and computer science. I was in the Microsoft data science summer school last year, and after my project presentation, John Paul Farmer, who I currently work under, came up to me and we started talking about civic tech. The rest is history.

What’s your favorite civic project in the New York? Retrofitting old payphones for WiFi. I like it for its simplicity and what it represents – scrapping the antiquated and moving onto the future.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? Obama. Many people don’t realize this, but he was the first president to bring in a team of techies to rebuild the digital infrastructure of Washington, which is now a permanent part of the U.S. federal government. He also created the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. Read this article ‘Obama and his geeks’ and prepare to be impressed.

What excites you about civic tech? The fact that civic tech is just in its infancy excites me. It feels like a startup that is about to take off. Traditionally, government has been resistant to big changes in technology, but now, people are truly seeing the benefit of using big data and cloud services which will only create a brighter future for all.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? Creating more efficient and inclusive public engagement.

The Rise of Smart Cities, From NYC to Tel Aviv

Israel is a global leader in technology and innovation, giving rise to companies like Waze and Mobileye (acquired last week by Intel for $15B).

Last month I had the pleasure of joining 1,500+ participants in Tel Aviv at iNNOVEX2017, Israel’s premier conference on technology and innovation, at which I met with a number of impressive Israeli startups and gave a presentation on smart cities:

Slides:

Because much has been said about smart cities, I focused my presentation on three truths:

  1. The decentralization of Silicon Valley is causal to the rise of smart cities;
  2. “Smart cities” means many things beyond drones and self-driving cars;
  3. Technology is not the challenge.

Decentralization is good.

Once upon a time, you had to be in Silicon Valley to work in technology.

That is changing domestically and around the world, as resource access is increasingly democratized:

 

Number of venture-capital deals, 2012

The 12 Cities at the Forefront of Global Tech – Savills World Research, Feb 2015

This shift in regional affinity is also contributing to a shift in demographic.

It wasn’t long ago that many technologists looked like this:

Credit: http://readwrite.com/2014/05/02/soma-street-style-hbo-silicon-valley/

That stereotype is rapidly dissolving, as technologists increasingly look like this:

Credit: Gaza Sky Geeks

Credit: The Kemach Foundation in Israel

Members of the White House science, technology, and digital service organizations in 2015.

This growing diversity and decentralization lead to increased access to opportunity and reduced implicit bias in technology. As it relates to smart cities, this also means that technologists are no longer concentrated in Silicon Valley, but are located all across the country and thus more attuned to the needs of their users, resulting in services being designed with (not for) local residents. This intimate familiarity is critical to the success of smart cities, as:

  • what works in Omaha may not work with the hills and seismic activity of San Francisco;
  • what works with the single-story homes and 900+ miles of highway in Los Angeles may not work with the tall buildings and city streets of Manhattan;
  • what works with the Internet connectivity of Kenya (86% coverage of 4 Mbps broadband) may not work with the digital infrastructure of Uganda (12% coverage), despite sharing a border and having roughly similar populations.

It’s not all about drones.

“Smart cities” often elicits thoughts of autonomous vehicles: self-driving cars, delivery drones, etc.

In fact, the most impactful aspects of a city becoming “smarter” are much more fundamental to the fabric of society:

When we expand the scope of what constitutes smart cities, we ensure the application of technology in the most meaningful ways.

Technology is not the challenge.

While recent advances in technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, computer vision, etc. have enabled various aspects of smart cities, many of the largest hurdles to adoption are not technological in nature.

Many policy implications exist:

Ethical considerations also exist:

Further resources

There is a lot of activity around smart cities, including an interesting talk by FCC CIO David Bray at SXSW last month and various Smart City Expo events planned for 2017 globally.

Finally, don’t miss Smart Cities NYC ‘17 coming up this May 3–6 in New York!

How We Can Use Tech to Help Citizens Better Access Local Government

Originally published by CHORUS on Medium.

TEAM GOV Left to right: Regina Schwartz, Chief of Staff Department of Intergovernmental Affairs for the City of New York, Nicole Neditch, Senior Director of Community Engagement at Code for America, Tiana Epps-Johnson, Founder and Executive Director at Center for Technology and Civic Life, Matt Stempeck, Director of Civic Technology at Microsoft, and Stonly Baptiste, Co-Founder and Partner at Urban Us.

A few weeks ago, I got to spend two days in Chicago with a deep bench of civic innovators and senior campaign veterans to celebrate the launch of CHORUS, a new organization working to foster and strengthen the movement for equity, opportunity, inclusion, and justice. We shared candidly, brainstormed openly, and workshopped around advocacy, volunteering, voting, and governance, working out of the University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Our team took on the challenge of governance, or more specifically, how to improve residents’ awareness of, and engagement with their local government’s services. Fortunately, we had exactly the team you’d want to put together to do that kind of thing (see photo above).

First, we considered all of the barriers to effective government, as well as the levers that we might have available to us to create change.

Some of the common barriers within government included siloing of knowledge within individual city agencies and departments, difficulty effectively communicating the work that is done, and an overriding risk-averse culture. Fear of a negative headline was mentioned several times. On the public side of the relationship, a major barrier is a lack of basic civics education and awareness of how government works.

Fortunately, our team had experience in accomplishing things with government, and could identify some tactics that have worked in the past. Small pilots were encouraged as a way to experiment without triggering the bureaucracy’s allergy to risk. The ability to get quick wins, and generously share the credit for them within government was also a proven method. Having a short amount of time to complete the project — a sprint — was also found to be a great forcing function. And we acknowledged the power of peer networks to connect communities of practice within government to one another.

Our next challenge was to create a concise problem statement. Given the universe of potential problems, this took some discussion. We framed the challenge with a helpful model of citizen engagement proposed by Regina.

Her model flips the infamous ladder of civic engagement on its side to demonstrate residents’ spectrum of engagement with government, from:

  • ignorance of the public sector’s role in their lives to
  • awareness of what government provides them to
  • a deeper understanding that we shape our governments to
  • a sense of agency to go from a recipient of services to a shaper of services

We chose to focus on the early stages of this journey, helping residents discover government services, and setting the stage for deeper engagement.

“How might we enhance people’s awareness of their local government’s impact on their lives?” With this problem statement framing our work, here’s what we came up with…

Increasing Engagement with Government Services through Contextual Discovery

Our solution might best be understood as a specific example in an applied setting:

You go grocery shopping. As you check out at the register, the Point of Sale device where you swipe your debit or credit card asks you if you’d be interested in receiving help paying for your groceries (we’ll test the exact language here for comprehension, inclusiveness, and a sense of empowerment). If you say you’re interested, the dialog asks for your cellphone number so a staffer within your local government can text you more information.

As you’re on the way home with your groceries, we send you a text that starts a conversation. Over the course of a few questions, we get a sense of your situation, and whether you might qualify for available benefits. We keep the conversation going, helping you discover other relevant government services, or connecting other people you know to the same.

When we zoom out and abstract this model beyond food benefits and grocery stores, there are three key components:

1. Natural context

Let’s surface government programs at the exact time and place that someone might want or need to make use of such a program (e.g. introducing SNAP benefits exactly as the person is paying for groceries, including tax preparation assistance on the tax forms).

2. Personal engagement

We set the stage for a genuine two-way conversation with the person that, over time and with additional communication, can grow into a true relationship. We chose SMS intentionally, knowing that low-income New Yorkers have access to smartphones, prefer communicating by text, and already use them to do their shopping and banking. Our conversation is designed from the onset to provide people with an increasing sense of agency. We begin with information about relevant services and grow the conversation over time to let people feel that government is listening, understanding that experiencing a responsive bureaucracy improves engagement.

3. Human-assistive technology

Recognizing that local government outreach staff may be busy (or non-existent), we propose to scale staff’s time with emerging technologies that will help them reach more people through personal channels.

In our example, the initial flow of the SMS conversation is pre-scripted, so that a staffer or even a chatbot can pull from a template bank to get in touch and begin the relationship. This allows the local government to qualify large numbers of people before more time-intensive conversation is needed (inspired by Hillary for America’s concierge voter text hotline).

So what’s next?

We’d love to see engagement services like the one described here tested in the real world. The lightweight version of this project could be accomplished with administrators at the local government level who are willing to try something new with a little bit of staff time, and a staff or volunteer technologist who could set up a simple texting program.

CHORUS is looking for partners interested in collaborating to bring this idea to life.

If you know of existing programs that achieve these goals, or if you’re interested in exploring how we might design a small pilot to try this out, please leave us a note in the comments or get in touch.

Beyond Representation: Designing a Modern Government

I recently flew down to San Pedro Garza Garcia, a city next to Monterrey, Mexico, for a quick trip to help launch DesafíoSP (‘Desafio’ translates to ‘Challenge’). I was invited by Dinorah Cantú-Pedraza, who runs NYU’s GovLab Academy, and helped organize the challenge, together with Graciela Reyes, the City Councilwoman who made the project happen, and Miguel Salazar of Codeando México, the country’s Code for All Brigade.

DesafíoSP reminded me of the most recent incarnation of NYC’s BigApps. Like BigApps, DesafíoSP focused on where technology, data, and innovation can improve residents’ lives. The list of finalist teams is an exciting mix of projects, including work to make government data more transparent and accessible, to capture more value from the city’s waste streams, to create geospatial maps of the community, and multiple projects to protect pedestrians from auto traffic.

While BigApps began as an open challenge to encourage New Yorkers to build apps powered by open government data, it has evolved over the years into a more sophisticated model where teams co-design solutions with the people they’re working to benefit. DesafíoSP is starting at this point, and is especially focused on the participatory governance benefits of the program. The residents who participate have already made serious commitments of time and energy to improving their community, and will continue to as the program goes on. They will be coached by others who have embarked on similar projects, thanks to the GovLab Academy, and they’ll be connected to the offices and agencies doing related work in the public sector.

Below are my remarks from the launch event, edited for brevity:

Programs like DesafíoSP and BigApps NYC present an important question, as surveys show that people have lost faith in public institutions: What would it take to have a government that we truly believe in?

It’s quite easy to lose faith in our government when it doesn’t do what we want, or doesn’t do anything at all. The greater challenge is to help design a government that’s worthy of your involvement. The key word there is ‘help’ — we need to show up. Not just on Election Day, but also by participating in the many new programs designed to bring the people’s expertise to bear on public sector challenges.

How can we redesign our governments to invite people to take part in the first place? What would it look like if voting and taxes weren’t the only times you thought about your government? It won’t surprise anyone when I say that I think technology can help answer this question. But technology doesn’t automatically lead to better government.

In a lot of ways, technology has empowered individuals more than it has empowered our shared collective. But technology can do more than just enhance the agency of the individual. Technology can improve the shared group, too. We can make better groups, and collaborate better. We can use technology to discover new participants across very large groups of people that we previously couldn’t, as GovLab’s expert network projects seek to do. We can match problems to the people with experience solving that kind of problem.

For participatory government to work, we need two things:

  1. We need more people to know how their government functions.
  2. We need their government to open up more to more people.

It’s frequently said in civic tech circles that our governments organize 21st century citizens with 18th century technologies. There are good reasons for representation; Not everyone should have to spend all day reading legislation. There are also bad reasons for representation, like a fear of what citizens will do if they’re fully engaged. Representation allows us to become lazy as citizens, and forces our representatives and government employees to do all of the work.

We need to do a better of job communicating to the public what government does, who it’s for, and what all of these municipal departments actually do. What do all those government employees do? That park I bring my dog to each morning – who fought to create it, and where do I show up to keep it there? We need to tell the stories of the public sector – we can’t assume people will just trust institutions as they might have in the past.

There’s so much value the rest of us can contribute to government to improve it, to make it worthy of its ideals of serving all and lifting our community. But we can’t access that value if our government won’t acknowledge it or expend the energy to organize it.

Now, maybe all of this is obvious. But it’s really hard to actually do the things i’m saying.

What if I came to you at your job, in your busiest time of year, and said, I’ve got 50 people who want to help, but they don’t know how to do your job. Can you train them, and hold their hand, and find them work that’s appropriate for their skill level and background and degree of motivation each day?

You’d kick me out of your office.

So, how do we bring the public into the public sector?

We gathered to mark the launch of DesafíoSP, and to celebrate the government opening up to not just include, but really leverage the people it represents. We’re celebrating the people leading the way with projects to reinvent their communities, and their government in the process. With your expertise, your commitment, we will point a new way forward.

The municipality, Codeando México, and the Govlab Academy launched a call not just for solutions, but for solutions and involvement. And the people answered.

It wasn’t easy. There’s a big time commitment. More meetings and phone calls after a day of work. Very few of the people participating in DesafíoSP work for the municipality. All of the people live or work here and care about this place.

You probably know, there are two categories of motivation — extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. And when surveyed, you spoke of the impact of getting something done.

These are the projects you’re going to get done. Wanting to see something through for the sake of the result, not prize money or the glory of winning. That’s intrinsic motivation.

That drive, to contribute to changing something for the better, and your acting on that drive, is what will make this work worth your commitment, in the end.

Getting stuff done is where local governments can really excel.

 

While there can be a variety of barriers to successfully doing something, one limit to getting things done at the local government level is often as simple as someone raising their hand to do it.

San Pedro, you raised your hand.

From pedestrian improvements and composting to government transparency, you’ve identified exciting areas to update and improve where you live. You submitted projects from the public sector and the private, as committed individuals who built a team, and as existing groups re-engaging.

You represent a range of ages, professional backgrounds, and life experiences.

The Coaching program you’re embarking on is unique. It’s tailored to help you accomplish the impact that set you on this course to begin with. So you’ll be trained, and connected with others who have done similar work, and provided guidance by experts.

And I hope that even after recruiting your team, you will continue to connect others to your projects, to involve the communities around you early and often. Because your project will be most successful if it’s adopted, if you are not it’s only champion.

Thanks to Dinorah Cantu and Beth Noveck and codeando mexico, we’re moving in the right direction. Thanks to the leadership of San Pedro Garza Garcia, we have a place to experiment. Technology can improve how we do this. San Pedro Garza Garcia could be to participatory citizenships what Porto Alegre was to participatory budgeting – a shining example for the rest of the world to watch, and then, when things go well, to point to, in their own town meetings and government boards, and say, “Hey, why don’t we try that, too?”

NYC wasn’t the first city to do participatory budgeting. It now distributes $32 million a year guided by a public election rather than a government official. 27 city councilors participate.

In Boston, youth who can’t even vote, who have every reason to treat government like a faceless entity, have already had the experience of directing public funds towards improvements they specifically want to see to their neighborhoods.

With work, we can move the system in the right direction. It begins with a strong pilot. And from there, it can grow, to a handful of pilots, and then ongoing commitments. Maybe next it becomes a trend. And sooner than later, if we keep working at it, our innovation becomes so successful, we stop noticing that we do it this way. Like libraries and subways and NASA and all the other shifts in our idea of what the public sector can achieve, we’ll know we’ve accomplished victory when we completely take it for granted that one of the fundamental parts of an effective government is the contributions of its talented citizenry.

We’re all here in this together, and the point of having a public sector and a government isn’t to rule, it’s to bring us together to get things done. When the very idea of government and shared investments like public education are under attack, we need to prove that we’re better together every once in awhile.

That’s exactly why we’re here together today. By signing up to participate, by coming together to improve San Pedro, you’re living out the highest ideals of what government should be. Congratulations and please, lead the way.

Working Forward: Ross Dakin, Senior Advisor, Microsoft New York

From waiter to White House — it’s all about people

My first “real job” was at a local Italian restaurant in San Diego, where I bussed tables for three years during high school.

On my first night of work—having no experience—I loaded a tray full of eight water glasses, walked over to a table, and spilled them all onto a customer’s lap. I was devastated; I knew I would be fired.

Later that night, Javier (the restaurant owner) approached me in the back of the restaurant.

“What do you do when you fall off a bicycle?” he asked.

I paused, wide-eyed, then replied, “Get back on?”

With a nod, Javier walked away, and that was the end of it. To this day, he remains a mentor and one of my closest friends.

That job taught me so much about effective leadership, team dynamics, engagement with the public, and—above all—how to treat women and men working long hours in the service industry with respect and an appreciation for the distinction between “server” and “servant.”

Everyone should work in food service at least once—I’ve found no better lesson in empathy.

Technology is easy; culture is hard

Fast forward a couple decades—last year, it was my honor to serve as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow in Washington, D.C., where again I found service and empathy to be at the heart of my job. This program (affectionately abbreviated “PIF”) was created to provide an avenue for bringing modern methodologies and best practices from the private sector into the federal government.

While there is a technology flavor to the PIF program, its greatest strength lies in the beginnings of culture change that it has brought to the federal workforce (agile development, human-centered design, an embrace of failure and an appetite for experimentation, etc.), and the key to changing that culture has been the employment of deep empathy for career federal employees. Understanding their procurement, budgetary, and security requirements helped us best facilitate the shedding of the business-as-usual mindset (“but we’ve always done it that way”) in favor of an open-minded curiosity for novel and alternative approaches.

One manifestation of this was the warming of government to modern cloud technologies despite unfamiliarity and natural skepticism. By empathizing with their encumbering bureaucratic constraints, we (and our friends in 18F, USDS, and other groups) were able to help many agencies navigate their way toward adopting cloud services for their technical needs. It’s been very encouraging to watch more and more agencies trust their missions (from food stamps to national security) to Azure and other cloud service providers.

None of that would have happened without first building trust and understanding between our group and the civil servants with whom we worked—it all starts with people.

The real heroes

As a side note, I cannot overstate how amazing career government employees are. The vast majority of everyone I met during my time in D.C. had the highest levels of work ethic, integrity, and true passion for public service. While participants in programs like PIF, 18F, and USDS perform short-term “tours of duty” to help modernize government (sometimes in highly visible ways), the career government employees of all levels who dedicate their lives to public service are very truly deserving of the highest praise and recognition.

The challenges I mention arise from the fact that our government is an enormous organization that necessarily has many regulations unique to the charter of providing for every single person in our country, often requiring stability that results in a natural isolation from the ways of the ever-evolving private sector. In this and other respects, it was very illuminating to appreciate the critical differences between running a business and running a nation.

Speaking of business

Many PIFs remain in government after their fellowships end, either as White House advisors, at other technology-focused groups like 18F or the US Digital Service, or within executive agencies in such roles as Chief Technology Officer, Chief Data Scientist, etc.

I opted to return to the private sector because I realized that it’s just as important for people with government experience to be in private companies as it is for people with private sector experience to cycle through government. When both sides of the table share experience with each other, we can begin to collaborate from a place of common understanding and accomplish much more than we could accomplish without the benefit of having gained insight beyond our respective silos.

This continues to be true for me personally, as my time as a PIF informs my current role at Microsoft a great deal: they share many attributes (both are small groups within large organizations, both are undergoing periods of reinvention) and their associated challenges and opportunities. While not public service, the Microsoft TCE team strives to generate public good in many of the same ways that I did as a PIF (identifying strategic partnerships, leveraging our unique scale, employing best-of-breed technologies, etc.), and I am grateful for both the opportunity to have served in my governmental capacity and to continue applying the learnings I gained there in the private sector.

Stronger together

Both my time as a PIF and with Microsoft TCE have opened my eyes to many astoundingly unfortunate conditions that exist in our country. The fact that 19% of American kids grow up in poverty is unacceptable. It’s 2017—we can do better.

This is why private sector programs like Microsoft’s Tech Jobs Academy, public sector initiatives like #CSForAll and TechHire, and public/private collaborations like The Opportunity Project excite me so much: the keys to economic advancement should not be the zip code you grew up in or being of a privileged demographic, but a strong work ethic and the daring to chase big dreams.

Both public and private sectors share a role to play in advancing economic opportunity, and the most progress can perhaps be made when they function together in collaboration.

Success and humanity

With the shared responsibility of generating public good comes a shared challenge: what is “success” when the goal is not simply to make money?

If we impact the lives of 10 people, have we been successful? Must we impact a thousand people to be successful? A million? What depth of impact is required to achieve success? How should we quantify the level of impact?

These are questions without right or wrong answers. They’re questions that are highly subjective in nature. When much of a technologist’s career involves black-and-white programming, these questions present an interesting gray area that must be navigated with an element of gut feeling, ethics, and intuition that a computer cannot provide.

This is the human side of technology—it’s truly all about people.