What We Do Together: Technology for Better Cities

6.14.12 | New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new competition this week that will award up to $9 million for innovative project ideas in cities around the country.

Metros everywhere are struggling to tackle ever more complex problems with fewer resources, as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out in his announcement. And since the recession, cities are restructuring to figure out the best way to cut through red tape, increase productivity, and improve public services. Mayor Bloomberg will be awarding up to $5 million to metros that come up with the most innovative project ideas that can “improve city life by addressing a major social or economic issue,” improve the “customer service experience for citizens or businesses, increasing government efficiency, and/or enhancing accountability, transparency, and public engagement.”

Many think technology can help. There was a slew of articles this week about new models for how citizens and government can work directly to address urban problems with the help of big data and technology.

New solar-powered, smart parking meters in Santa Monica, Ca., for example, use ground sensors to wipe out any extra time left over after a car leaves the spot. Drivers can pay by credit card, phone or coin. The meters are expected to raise as much as $1.7 million in new city revenue, according to KTLA News.

We’ve written about this before in a piece that highlighted Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. The city is about to release “Street Bump,” a mobile-phone app that will help the city identify potholes as people drive on city streets.

Shira Ovide, writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, explains how it will work:

The app detects minute changes in a phone’s accelerometer—the same technology used to shift the orientation of a smartphone screen when it’s tilted sideways.

Chris Osgood, co-chair of city hall’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, says Boston also hopes to use Street Bump technology to figure out which roadways are most in need of repaving. Today, municipalities often make such decisions based on cumbersome surveys that involve engineers in pickup trucks dragging chains behind them and measuring the vibrations of the metal.

Surveying the entire Boston roadway system each year using traditional techniques would cost roughly $200,000, Mr. Osgood says, while the city’s tab for developing Speed Bump was roughly $80,000. “This system will give us a living, breathing map of how the road system in the city is working,” he says.

The article goes on to describe how technology can gather data from phones and GPS systems and identify patterns, and create maps and charts that can help states and cities track car speed, potholes, and traffic jams. The technology makes it possible to identify and fix traffic problems they used to only be able to guess at.

Code for America, based out here in the Bay Area, is working to help make more projects like this a reality. The organization sends fellows –web developers, designers, entrepreneurs — to partner with city governments to help them use technology and the internet to improve services. This year, fellows are in eight cities including Austin, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

An article at Atlantic Cities this week describes the organization’s new “accelerator” for civic technology start-ups, modeled on how things work in Silicon Valley. With funding from Google and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the program will give financial, strategic, and operational support to technology start-ups that are working to develop technology solutions for government – applications and software to help government work better.

Citizens, foundations, and neighborhood groups are holding hackathon’s — collaborative gatherings that give people short amounts of time, often 24 hours, to come up with a rapid prototype of a solution to a problem. At San Francisco’s “Summer of Smart” last year, for example, the Gray Area Foundation For The Arts brought together developers, designers, city officials, urbanists, journalists, and community members for three different 48-hour hackathons, to brainstorm  ideas and software applications for the city.

The projects they came up with include sites that match artists with underused spaces; a site that aggregates green building information for LEED certification; and a smartphone app that allows users to report healthy food availability in local stores.

Code for America is working to develop infrastructure and provide support so that these ideas have the opportunity to go to scale.

Code for America’s Founder Jennifer Pahlka is careful to say it’s not that they want government to run more like the private sector, or more like a tech start-up. Instead she says in a recent TED talk, they want government to run more like the internet itself —“permission-less,” “open,” “generative.”

The new generation she says is tackling the problems of government “not as a problem of an ossified institution, but as a problem of collective action.”

“There’s a very large community of people,” Pahlka adds, “that are building the tools we need to do things together effectively.”

What do you think? We’d love to hear from readers. Can technology help government work better?  Are technology-based solutions feasible on a large scale? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Photo by Jun Seita.

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