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Save Us From Our Data | Crowd-sourcing is the answer, the “smart city” is a sales pitch

Monday 14 April 2014 No Comment

Comuna 13, one of Medellín most dense and dangerous neighborhoods. Photo: Luke Vargas/TRNS


MEDELLÍN, Colombia (TRNS) – The World Urban Forum bills itself as a conversation between equals in the urban landscape—citizens, politicians, journalists, and business executives.

But these type-cast participants don’t come to the table with the same skill sets or ambitions and I can’t help feeling we’re building the city of the future – the city of numbers, the city in the cloud – on uneasy ground.

Those with the skills to harvest data are not the same people with the knowledge of what questions to ask, I overheard a University of Chicago computer science professor tell an eager young researcher. Bridging that divide is not a top priority of those peddling the “big data” of cities, he said.
After a week in Medellín, my understanding of “big data” and the “smart city” is as follows:

City-dwellers’ actions generate data sets so large that they necessitate new tools to make sense of it all. Digital infrastructure companies like Microsoft or IBM, with their substantial computing power, can provide city administrators with the ability to crunch those numbers and make more informed policy decisions based on the behavior of residents.

It’s an exciting prospect: analysis of system wide public transit data could reduce congestion; live information about the integrity of bridges prevent deadly collapses; and analyzing thousands of school report cards could identify under and over-performing teachers.

But few of these concrete examples were discussed by the smart-city salesman gathered in Medellín. To the contrary, a presentation by Microsoft’s Latin American Chief Technology Officer Josemaria Valdepenas served up lofty (and impossibly opaque) promises.

“It brings government the opportunity to make better decisions, to be more efficient and exercise democracy in the most pragmatic way,” Valdepenas said. “For the citizen, it gives the opportunity to be heard better than ever before, to have the opportunity to make better choices in every single facet of our lives.”

The homepage of Microsoft CityNext, the company’s online platform touting the power of data in city management.

The homepage of Microsoft CityNext, the company’s online platform touting the power of data in city management.

But last week Financial Times architecture critic Edwin Heathcote registered his skepticism that the much-ballyhooed concept of the “smart city” may not be any more intelligent than its predecessors.

“The city is already smart, not because of its data, but because of its inhabitants,” he said in a panel on urban journalism. Heathcote suggested that we’ve turned in the military-industrial complex for an information-political complex – an elegant summation of big data in the post-Snowden world.

Martha Thorne, the director of the The Pritzker Architecture Prize, also registered suspicion with the big data fad.

“Technological solutions on their own are not going to solve the deep-rooted structural problems in cities if they cannot help us address the root causes,” Thorne said, acknowledging that her opinion might be at odds with others at the World Urban Forum. She was, after all, sitting beside Microsoft’s Valdepenas.

Big data could help test assumptions about how cities work and move, Thorne added, but worried that researchers with “qualitative political, cultural, sociological, and economic points of view” could become “second-class citizens” in an industry that’s increasingly dominated by government and business.

Siemens highlights the benefits of digitizing certain city services.

The developing world seems to be the target audience of a cynical sales pitch: your city is falling short because you lack understanding of broad trends, not because of poor leadership or the misallocation of funds.

The promise of “big data” solutions to civic failings is a tempting rallying cry, but we should fear this kind of easy out for policymakers.

The primary concern of local lawmakers in developing cities should be responding to direct feedback from citizens, not deciphering massive amounts of big data (or hiring the contractors that typically requires). If a mayor or planning official can’t act on criticism voiced in an open forum, how can we expect them to crunch sprawling data sets?

HiMY SYeD, an aspiring Toronto politician and the founder of the city’s biggest Wiki website, said urban citizens are increasingly challenged by “data smog” devised to “confuse and conquer.”

“If you want to divide and rule, and you’re a big company,” he said, “confuse people, give them more information.”

Crowd-sourced open public spaces generate specific “urban wisdom” and could be the answer to suffocating data smog, SYeD said.

“Where is the best bus route to take at what time because the bus driver sings and I like his voice? Where are the shortcuts to walk through? Where are the tastiest samosas?”

Tangible tips like these offer emancipation from the imposed order of cities, but I am not naive enough to think urban data should end there.

As a taxpayer in one of America’s costliest cities, I appreciate the prospect of trimming public expenditures that big data claims to work toward. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that traditional methods of analyzing the city are inadequate.

Constituent letters over-represent retirees with quiet afternoons, and online polls skew toward those in command of social media armies, but they still bring light to the tough issues facing cities.

The subway may not be perfect, but it is the century-old tunnels holding back the total re-imagination of the network, not an absence of information on passengers. When I find the best hamburger in Brooklyn, I’ll review it on Yelp. When in Toronto, I’ll reference a Wiki.

If you can crunch the city, I wish you luck. If you can speak it, hear it, and share it, won’t you be my neighbor?

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