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Cities have a way to go before they can be considered geniuses. But they’re getting smart pretty fast.
In just the past few years, mayors and other officials in cities across the country have begun to draw on the reams of data at their disposal—about income, burglaries, traffic, fires, illnesses, parking citations and more—to tackle many of the problems of urban life. Whether it’s making it easier for residents to find parking places, or guiding health inspectors to high-risk restaurants or giving smoke alarms to the households that are most likely to suffer fatal fires, big-data technologies are beginning to transform the way cities work.
Cities have just scratched the surface in using data to improve operations, but big changes are already under way in leading smart cities, says Stephen Goldsmith, a professor of government and director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. “In terms of city governance, we are at one of the most consequential periods in the last century,” he says.
Although cities have been using data in various forms for decades, the modern practice of civic analytics has only begun to take off in the past few years, thanks to a host of technological changes. Among them: the growth of cloud computing, which dramatically lowers the costs of storing information; new developments in machine learning, which put advanced analytical tools in the hands of city officials; the Internet of Things and the rise of inexpensive sensors that can track a vast array of information such as gunshots, traffic or air pollution; and the widespread use of smartphone apps and mobile devices that enable citizens and city workers alike to monitor problems and feed information about them back to city hall.
Just as individuals are flocking to Fitbits and other wearables to monitor their health, cities, too, are turning to sensors to track their own vital signs. Through this Internet of Things, sensor-equipped water pipes can identify leaks, electric meters can track power use, and parking meters can automatically flag violations.
Mobile data collection is also helping Los Angeles to clean up city streets. Teams from the city sanitation department use video and smartphones to document illegal dumping, abandoned bulky items and other trash problems. The teams can use an app to report problems needing immediate attention, but what was really noteworthy—especially for a city the size of L.A.—was that they were able to view and grade all 22,000 miles of the city’s streets and alleyways.
Waze data also has helped the city [Boston] to run low-cost experiments on possible traffic changes. For instance, to test how to best enforce “don’t block the box” at congested intersections, the center took more than 20 problem intersections and assigned each one either a changing message sign, a police officer or no intervention at all. Using Waze data, analysts would then see which enforcement approach was most effective at reducing congestion. As it turns out, Waze’s traffic-jam data didn’t show that either approach made much difference in reducing congestion (which may reinforce the view of those who believe little can be done to eliminate traffic headaches).
“When residents see a problem, sometimes their reaction is to call us, but more these days their instinct is to report it through an app like Waze or Yelp , ” says Andrew Therriault, Boston’s chief data officer. “To be as responsive as possible to the public’s needs, we need to listen to their input through whichever medium they choose to share it.”