Six Notes for Smart City Futures Note 3: RESPONSIVITY

"In God we trust," Mayor Michael Bloomberg used to say, “everyone else bring data.” 

By “Responsivity” we mean that a city's public infrastructure will be in constant touch with the needs of its denizens. What that means, or how a city will aim to know its residents must change in tune with the 21st century, for “structures that produced progressive government in 1890 ensure regressive results [now].” Wherever we are in the world, there are public officials working within narrow frameworks delimited by archaic laws, contracts, classifications, bureaucracies, corruptions, inflexible rule applications, redundancies, complicated legacies and regulatory environments, multiple agency involvements, and tone deafness to peoples’ changing needs. Confined to insular verticals of each separate agency, authors of The Responsive City Goldsmith and Crawford point out, “public servants strain to engage with constituents who, like all other people, live their lives “horizontally”—in neighborhoods and families, not within the purview of the sanitation department or the housing agency.”

The responsive city is one which enables both its workforce and its residents to interact differently. It collects data about its residents, often directly from them; through data, it feels the pulse of the city, and keeps aware of its changing needs. The Responsive City makes a fundamental commitment to transparency, accountability, and pliability. It seeks to build trust. It seeks citizen participation, and even welcomes some disruptions. But it lacks adequate models to emulate, if it is to really develop collaborative forms of governance or foster smart citizenship. It relies at the moment, perhaps too heavily, on retail models inspired by business: customer service-like feedback loops, affirmations, and communication with employees and citizens alike. It focuses on efficiency, optimization, and rational information-driven decision making—often to the exclusion of the serendipity, unpredictability, and non-rational dimensions of human need and behavior. Will the responsive city be able to lay the groundwork for the development of civic life in all its dimensions? How will it develop a nascent consumer participation into robust forms of collaborative governance? How will it help create not just smart processes but smart citizenship? These are questions only beginning to be articulated.

The Responsive City is, first and foremost, an attentive one.

Unsplash, Hatim Belyamani

There are countless examples of how cities collect real-time data from individuals on traffic (and there's google maps, of course), potholes , snow plowing, dilapidated buildings or buildings requiring the city’s attention, and more.

Each of these help to direct the city’s attention to work that needs doing.

Cities like Rio de Janerio, Brazil, and Jakarta are combining their own traffic data with Waze user data (on date, destinations, routes, speed etc.) to gain situational awareness of roads for repairs, traffic diversions and emergency responses. (Seeing Cities Through Big Data)

Cities like Tel Aviv have learned also that citizen engagement is higher when people are in the thick of situations and less after the fact, so they hone in on personalised, location-based citizen engagement—or asking for inputs at the right time and place. Engagement online can require just "shards of attention" rather than entire evenings. After all, Google’s head of Civic Innovation Anthea Watson Strong reminds us, we’ve all got to make dinner.

It is focused on interoperability, information sharing, and efficient decision-making processes

Platforms coordinating open source software development and data collection on transportation and other civic issue tracking are efforts to draw together otherwise unconnected data sources, to integrate the “verticals,” and create interoperable systems that allow citizens to more directly interact with their cities. After all, says Susan Crawford of Harvard Law School, “a citizen faces government as one picture, not as a series of departments.” 

Por Mi Barrio is just one example of a citizen report tool build using FixMyStreet code that had been adapted for a Latin American content. It allows citizens to report directly on city infrastructure issues to local government agencies, through computer or mobile devices. The project is based on local government compliance and utilizes offline resources and outreach to get the tool closer to the people who will benefit.

Information exchanges or "Common Information Models" which lay the framework for interoperability exist across industries and well beyond civic tracking. An example is the US-based National Information Exchange Model (NIEM): a “community-driven, standards-based approach to exchanging information. Diverse communities can collectively leverage NIEM to increase efficiencies and improve decision making.”

The idea is to figure out how to listen differently

Unsplash, Stephen Arnold

Cities generate large amounts of health, land-use, environment, socio-economic, energy, crime, and transport data. When events like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing or the Ray Rice NFL scandal occur, social media responses flood in. How do we listen? How do we make sense of the volumes of data from social and other data-intensive streams to really understand what is happening in people's lives?

Big Mountain Data (BMD) wants to establish a national open source repository on repeat offender data that can be made available to civic hackers, governments, law enforcement, social service, universities and state and federal agencies. They view intimate partner violence as a "big data" social problem, and offenders as “datasets” who perpetuate the cycle of violence. BMD is supported by the Socrata Foundation which creates open data sources for the purposes of social improvement.

Others like DataViz study existing data to discover lacunae—for example the fact that although Asian women will report experiencing violence, they will neither speak about it nor seek support from strangers. This allows for the development of guidelines on cultural translation and culturally sensitive tools to address domestic violence issues.

Listening to data means finding patterns and predicting outcomes

The threats of surveillance-oriented data collection (or "dataveillance") are well-established. Nonetheless, data predictive analytics software tools are here to stay. They are being used by law enforcement to parse volumes of incoming information from social media networks, geographic profiling, 911 calls, video CCTV footage, and other data-intensive sources.

A mathematical model developed by SCU Professor George Moher to predict earthquake aftershocks, was the predecessor of the LAPD's PredPol, used to predict where crimes are likely to occur with 500 sq ft accuracy. Earthquakes are difficult to predict, but aftershocks are another story. The model was tweaked and then fed with 80 years of crime data, and found it was accurate in generating predictions which matched past crime patterns. PredPol is credited with reductions in burglaries and other violent crimes in areas where it is being used. Its mission is to “place officers at the right time and location to give them the best chance of preventing crime”

Listening to data means optimising

A critical assumption underlying data use in smart technologies is that data helps with efficiency—for everyone from City Workers who need to close cases within pre-set time-frames to Police Departments who want to do more with less in budgets to each of us who wants to beat traffic and get home to make dinner.

An MIT-based team is developing a Mobility Electronic Market for Optimized Travel, or MeMOT, a system in which consumers are rewarded for optimal behavior. By being given accurate, real-time information, people are encouraged to exchange less efficient patterns of behavior for more efficient ones. This is a data-driven approach to changing behaviors and improving quality of life by increasing efficiency. It emphasizes the importance of models: “through modeling we can combine the most useful pieces of information in diverse data sets to provide a picture of the daily choices available to consumers of vehicles, drivers and travelers more generally.”

But is optimization always what we need?
 Are we always such rational actors?

 Attentive cities require an even more attentive citizenry.

Unsplash, Clem Onojeghuo 

What "responsiveness" means can vary from context to context. What “Open data” can best achieve also depends on context.

An attentive citizenry can use open data to examine existing practices and press for equitable rule-enforcement. For example, Ben Wellington of IQuantNY promises a “a glimpse at the possibilities of a future with truly open data,” uncovering the stories that data can tell, set-by-set.

In one case, he studied the top locations that were ticketed for parking violations in New York City and found several areas where parking was legal—but ticketed nonetheless, as patrol officers were unaware of changes in regulations. The discovery lead to the City retraining its officers in response.

An attentive citizenry can press for greater accountability—by replacing public data which is fundamentally mistrusted with its own. This is what Transparent Chennai does. Indeed, the initiative holds that a “lack of data has sometimes allowed for government to evade its responsibilities to provide basic entitlements to all city residents, and to exercise force with impunity over informal settlements and workers.” Transparent Chennai thus collects, aggregates, and disseminates data via map-based tools on urban governance, electoral accountability, participatory planning processes, pedestrian issues, slums, sanitation, and solid waste management. Their aim to help citizen's groups become better advocates for their rights and entitlements.

Unsplash, Stephen Arnold

Research shows showing what you do builds trust

Citizens' Connect is a mobile application launched in 2009 by the City of Boston to engage citizens in the process of reporting on and maintaining their own city neighborhoods. A subsequent version allowed users to see on a map the other issues submitted—and resolved—by others. Such elements "build trust in government and trust in one’s own capacity as a citizen—the two are mutually reinforcing" (Goldsmith and Crawford 2014).

A companion app called City Worker was launched some years later, to help improve the city’s response time to logged complaints and infrastructure issues—and to allow city workers greater control over their own tasks in real time. Users could reassign tasks, take pictures, close tasks, and make notes, all in real time. “[A]mong] other performance measures, pothole repair rates improved dramatically: in February 2011, only 48 percent of repairs had conformed to the department’s service-level agreement with the public—two days from start to completion. In January 2013, that rate was 96 percent.”

To boot, “the creation of City Worker and Citizens Connect has arguably helped to generate reliable data for the Department of Public Works, which has led to much improved performance management by the department. Public Works is a more accountable place than it was before the advent of Citizens Connect.”

“This virtuous cycle not only makes government more responsive; it encourages city workers to use their initiative to solve problems and in return generates citizen trust and confidence—the civic glue necessary for all cities to prosper.”

But are feedback loops and retail forms of governance sufficient?

Goldsmith and Crawford take inspiration from “retail” forms of governance—or methods of communication borrowed from business, which explicitly seek customer satisfaction and feedback. Such tools improve communication with employees and citizens, increase ownership, reduce “emotional temperature,” direct the city’s attention, and improve responsiveness.

Many civic reporting initiatives, however, are subject to the criticism that cities are merely service providers and citizenship is a light weight feedback activity. Or that the premise of reporting activity is rational, optimizing, efficiency is to see the city only along a single axis and no other. In other words: provide information and watch it work its magic.

But is that really all it takes? Are human beings always such efficiency-focused rational actors?

Pixabay, JPeter

Do data-driven regimes have the power to go further in redefining smart citizenship?

Of course, not all feedback loops are alike: Another MIT initiative wants to create and incentivize a feedback loop for energy pricing that would allow consumers to respond to real-time energy pricing, while mitigating excessive fluctuations in demand—potentially resulting in better energy policy, and less systemic risk to a smarter grid. Elements of smart citizenship may thus be embedded in policy which requires forms of participation about which we are not overtly aware. (Also where risks to privacy and security emerge, particularly with passively tracked data).

And some forms of smart citizenship may require no special tools at all, but a hybrid approach—both digital and face-to-face.

Dan Hill, Associate Director at Arup, a global design and engineering firm observes the connection between social media and the "essentially ancient form of the square" in major recent political upheavals: “Arab Spring was partly Tahrir Square + Facebook. Occupy was partly Zuccotti Park + Twitter…” Similarly, the success of Beppe Grillo's Movimento 5 Stelle was the piazza + social media.

Then there are crowd-sourced and crowd funded platforms like Kickstarter, and then Neighborland, In Our Backyard (IOBY), YIMBY, SpaceHive, Brickstarter,, Change By Us, Give A Minute, Smallknot, Joukkoenkeli, Lucky Ant, Voorderkunst, I Make Rotterdam, as well as several more general crowdfunding services occasionally bent into shape to serve as urban incubators (Indiegogo, PeopleFundIt, PleaseFundUs, Crowdfunder, and Kickstarter itself). Each project aimed at involving individuals in the building of their own city fosters a form of smart citizenship—but at very small scales which side-step government rather than creating collaborations.

At the core of smart citizenship is the need for greater participation and control over decision-making. We need processes, methods, and technologies to support a culture of cooperative urban governance—such as this one in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Constitución, Chile, “which pivoted the entire masterplan process upon citizen participation, with co-design as the organising principle.”

Above all, we need the methods by which we can start to think of the smart city as a public good – as a process and a journey far more than a destination.

Unsplash, Larisa Birta

To draw out the contours of what the "smart city" is and could yet become, we offer six core notes by which the "expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities" of the city in the age of data may be realized—six promises to guide the way to improved urban futures:

· Introduction
· Connectivity
· Inclusivity
· Responsivity
· Heritage
· Mobility
· Sustainability

Subsequent notes will be released in serialized form throughout November 2016. We invite you to join us in our quest to re-imagine the city and our shared urban futures through the data we collect.

Have an example or an idea of how data can be used to address urban dilemmas and build brighter urban futures? Share it with us on our UX Trendspotting page.

Report authors: Deepa S Reddy, Anand Vijayan, and Tushar Jain, for the Institute for Customer Experience at Human Factors International