Creating Technology for Social Change

Responsive Cities: Susan Crawford at the 2014 Knight Civic Media Conference

Susan Crawford on stage at the 2014 Knight-Civic Media Conference

Cities and citizens around the world are using data around the world to thicken democratic engagement. Susan Crawford will expand on themes from her new book, “The Responsive City,” co-authored with Stephen Goldsmith, and the heroism it describes—together with the many open policy questions it raises.

Liveblogging contributed by Catherine D’Ignazio, Rodrigo Davies, Ed Platt, J. Nathan Matias, vizthink by Willow Brugh

Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, introduces Susan Crawfordthe John A. Reilly Visiting Professor in Intellectual Property at the Harvard Law School. He mentions her new book, Captive Audience, and that she founded One Web Day. She has a book coming out in the fall called The Responsive City. How can a city that is filled with sensors really change what it means to be a citizen?


Crawford begins by saying that the idea of having a path to impact is very attractive to her. She is seeking optimism and thinks that one way to get there is to look at all the communities that require open internet in their towns. We all need this.


She has been working with Steve Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis on a book called The Responsive City. She recalls a recent conversation with an anthropologist who worked with tribes in Malaysia. The anthropologist is very disturbed about a post-humanist turn in anthropology. This is the idea that the humans are no longer the center of discourse. The idea that we should be thinking about the feelings of trees. She was critical of the idea of “smart” – that it stands for Simplistic, Mechanistic, Ahistorical, Responsive, Tautological.


The stories about Smart Cities seem fundamentally post-humanist – simplistic and mechanistic. The urbanist and researcher Dan Hill describes it as “The Urban Intelligence Industrial Complex”.

Crawford says she thinks these critiques are right. They wrote the book to capture what cities can do working with other communities to make their cities better places for human beings to live. Humans are the reasons for cities. We operate at our peril if we forget this. The energy and joy that you feel when you walk through a park.

To have a physicist’s view of the city is clearly short-sighted and uninspiring, but there’s a lot that cities can do using data to enrich the lives of people who live there. Cities are capable of great things, using a little bit of technology plus fiber. Cities are incapable of controlling large swathes of urban life.

She met many civic leaders while working on the book. They see the balance between human beings and the infrastructure that makes the city possible. She introduces Brenna Berman, the CIO of Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology. This is a rigorous set of work that Chicago is carrying out. The WindyGrid is the human readable form of this. They are also launching sensors this week that are collecting aggregate information about the environment of the city – noise, pollution, and temperature. They are instrumenting the city and then having hte data come into the city’s open data platform. With fiber and sensors picking up this data, this can enable finer-grained understanding.


The heroes of cities

Crawford lists a number of people-centered examples of leadership around cities and sensors:

Mike Flowers of New York City, based on his experience of Iraq, is able to understand how the city works. It’s tribal, it’s political and there are wars. He’s a very empowered civil servant who was able to use this knowledge to make the city work better.

Bill Oates, former CIO of City of Boston, walked into the office in 2006 and heard typewriters. He works closely with the Mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics. He is focused on citizen-led governance. It’s all about people in the end.


Dan O’Neill in Chicago has worked with the city to gather information about deteriorating buildings and put that data into the city’s 311 line. The feedback loop of response has been shortened.


Caroline Shannon of the Rio Urban Agora is establishing centers with good Internet where favela dwellers can organize and conncet with government.


Kathryn Pettit of the Urban Institute is working with nonprofits across the US to use data to have an impact on policy.

These people are balancing concerns around privacy and security with the need for the city to do a better job providing services to its citizens.

Cities are still at a very primitive stage of using this technology. It’s going to be very slow for cities to act on a lot of this input. Things like procurement rules get in the way of agile development.  The concern about ‘smart’ is a little overblown in some ways because we have so far to go.


Balancing efficiency and compassion



We don’t want to value efficiency over compassion but we don’t want to devalue efficiency either. Here’s the most important point of this talk:


You can use data visibly to amplify the touchpoints of government and journalism on citizens. When you see a visualization of what the city is doing made possible by use of data and fiber in a city, democracy is strengthened.  Weak and authoritarian governments act through coercion and threat.

Without this kind of visibility we will not have enhanced trust in government that we need to accomplish things like roads, schools, and police.  All of these are public goods that need public trust.

There are wonderful tensions in this field. We have centralizing pushes in data policies but they make possible fine grained neighborhood levels of analysis. We need strong leaders like Menino. Deep personalization is possible. But we need broad civic concern to address the challenges like sustainability and resiliency.

Urban life thrives on inefficiency – NYC is very inefficient, and Stockholm is jealous, because they wish they had the grit.

There is no one right answer. There’s a lot of work to be done on the policy side.

We need to continue projects like Transparent Chennai where we are mapping resources. Areas like differential treatment of citizens/areas/businesses based on data analytics. But how does justice come into play?  We also run the risks of meaningless engagement.  When you ask citizens what they want, and don’t respond, it’s worse than not asking in the first place.


She shows a diagram of layers of the responsive city. This is her vision that puts together what’s possible for journalists, fiber people, local government leaders working on this to make the city better.


She offers suggestions about the smart city.  “Smart” compared to what?  We have to ask whether new technologies are really better than the alternatives.  The role of policy is just getting started – there is lots of room for thoughtfulness here. We also need to build the pipeline of mixed tech/policy/local civil servants/engaged citizens.


The Responsive City is not post-humanist. It’s deeply human and the human is at the center.



Ethan returns to the stage. He says that he is a Smart City skeptic partly because he is a city skeptic. He references Adam Greenfield’s new book, “Against the Smart City”. Greenfield asks the question, “Who gets to respond?” You gave examples of civil servants, but who gets to respond from other communities?

Crawford: We are just at the beginning. The online and offline worlds have collapsed. Yet we still think of being online as special. Ways of dealing with visualization and understanding them are changing. If much of this information is open and many people can chew through it, that makes possible engagement on a scale we’ve never seen before. For slices of your attention. Now you have to go to a town meeting and it might take many evenings. Here the smart city you could give it 5 minutes to participate instead of needing to do this. The potential for ampliciation of participation is great.

Ethan mentions Action Path by Erhardt Graeff which works exactly along these lines. He asks, “What are you hoping will come out of Chicago where you have sensors coming out with data in an open architecture? What do you dream happens in the next 5 years?”

Crawford: The city and its citizens begin to see the city differently. More is revealed. Where energy is. Hotspots to ignore or go towards. Now it has more vibrancy. My image is more of the same – more of what makes Chicago great and energetic and interesting. Plus a visual layer that is available at any time to its citizens.


Ethan: What keeps me from feeling like I’m constantly under surveillance in Chicago?  If the paths that I want to take are open data, that’s also open to marketers who want to target me.  How do we prevent that from becoming a panopticon, which I’m guessing is not your vision of a smart city.


Crawford: This is where the role of policy is so important and why the way Chicago is doing this is important. They are not tracking individual people. They are not tying phones to people, just looking to see levels of activity. Each sensor will be looked at in a public process. Because the information is public people will see immediately if they are troubled about collection or aggregation of the data.


Ethan: But – to play devil’s advocate for a second – Susan, isn’t this the culmination of your socialist dream of having Internet everywhere? Is this the back route to the fight you’ve been fighting for the past 10 years against Comcast and the other providers?


Susan: Actually, I’m winning. (applause) Cities are not competing directly, but they’re providing infrastructure, increasing access, and lowering prices.  The central problem is that connectivity is a luxury not a public good. I can see the possibilities of real infrastructure provided by government that helps people’s lives. I see this as taking a technocratic concern and making it more human and connected to people’s everyday lives.


Ethan reminds the audience that this is a time for questions which end with question marks and have an end.


David Manthos (SkyTruth): What about places that don’t perform well? So the sensors say that place doesn’t perform well. Doesn’t that confirm what you already know.


Crawford: It depends on what you mean by “bad”. If pollution is bad then the city can act on it. We only make progress when we see something. Making neighborhoods more visible to themselves could in itself be a tremendous assist to cities.


Alberto Ibarguen : I do want to believe you. I am a fan of urban. The case of Chicago is encouraging but what if political leadership changes and the government wants information about protestors, etc. How can you not feel the possibility of Big Brother?


Crawford: This is where the pipeline is so important. Training the next generation of students who see it as part of their lives to serve in government – and that they will be able to have impact there. Getting more people into local government who understand this balance and the risks is critical. We need to make this a voting issue. You need leadership in office who understands technology.


Carolina Rossini from Public Knowledge: You said that technology is culture. In the US we are heavily surveilled. Earlier this week a taxi driver showed me the spot where the police officer Sean Collier was killed, and that the park had been named after him. Are you seeing the limit ?


Crawford: These things don’t happen by magic. This is all about policy. Making decisions about information. Information is a tsunami. You can’t stop it.  It’s attractive to many people. we can be really careful about who gets access to it. But we need to establish trust in government to accomplish things. We have this problem in the US. The terrible internet access problem happened because of policy decisions.


Ellery Biddle, Global Voices: Could you talk about the political barriers to this? I think of Chicago as a very cronyistic place, where people have very set agendas that might not always allow these types of things (open data, open fiber) to happen.

Crawford: That’s another terrific question. How do you keep the tilt from going in the other direction? Again, civic involvement. Politics are everywhere. Making things visible helps. You can now see corruption that wouldn’t be visible in the analog world.  When only 20% of people vote, we have a problem.  We need to see how local government impacts our lives.

Kelly Virella of Longview: Can you elaborate on your theory of change a little? You can see in the physical world the manifestations of problems. I live in one of those neighborhoods. What else could we gain that we don’t already see with our own eyes?


Crawford: What you gain from it is the comparative visualization. Problems here, compared against another area of similar geography, treated differently, has different outcomes. To be able to show that one area is getting disproportionately more resources, allows you to make a different kind of argument. People respond to data in ways that they don’t respond to pictures of buildings. It has a persuasive power. It moves mountains, just showing a picture of reality using aggregated data.

Benji de la Pena:  Who decides what we respond to? The thing with data visualization is that it is not neutral. There is a historical basis for responding to the wrong data. The most measured data is vehicular traffic. Redlining was data driven. Algorithms that the Rand Corp put in place in the 1970s led to the fires in the Bronx. The 2nd question. 20% of people voting is a problem. How does all of this lead to more people being involved?

Crawford: It’s driven by engagement and trust.  If you think that there’s a far away city government that has no effect on your life then you won’t vote. You need to increase the sense of agency, autonomy, dignity and impact. It’s not just voting, it’s going to a neighborhood watch meeting, or picking something up on the streets. In America we went towards the auto, ripped up infrastructure to carry people around, and now we’re putting it ll back in again.

Rebecca Mackinnon: Your antidote to the Big Brother problem is more civic agency. What about Kiev, Istanbul and so on who are very much hoping that their governments do not implment these systems anytime soon?


Crawford: The answer has to be the same. Activism, protest must happen.


Mackinnon: But what if you can’t protest because of the authoritarian government?


Crawford: The availability of open internet is a tool of democracy, so people can find each other to solve problems.  Sovereign countries are going to make their own decisions and set their own rules.


Catherine D’Ignazio:  The caricature of smart cities is already human-centered – it’s only about humans dominating space.  I see post-humanism helping us understand the complexity of the world beyond humans and their time-scales and helping us understand pressing concerns like Climate Change.


Crawford: When it comes to cities, humans really should be at the center. Not treating them as sensors – because that’s not a great idea – but using what we know to make their lives better. Better ability to survive the next disaster, better lives that are more sustainable. To me the benefits of that outweigh the risks of data collection.