The Future of Our Cities: Open, Crowdsourced, and Participatory

Guest blogger John Geraci has spent the last six years making life in cities better with the use of web technologies. His latest project,, has web developers and urban planners all over the world teaming up to create open source tools for residents of cities everywhere. Prior to DIYcity, Geraci co-founded the hyperlocal news network

Back in January, the city of Los Angeles announced a gap of $433 million for their 2009 budget. Instead of just cutting services however, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took the unusual step of posting a survey online for residents of the city to fill out. For each category of city service, the survey asked residents, “what program would you reduce to help balance the budget?”, followed by an itemized list of services they could choose from.

It was in one sense a remarkable sign of the new openness and desire for participation sweeping government all over the U.S.

In another sense though it begged a larger question: if you’re going to involve city residents in these issues, why stop at asking people which services they would like to cut? Why not go a bit further and ask them for input on how to keep these services, while making them leaner, more efficient, and smarter? And why not then ask for their help in making those changes happen?

These are questions cities everywhere should be asking today, as they find themselves faced with the challenge of gigantic budget shortfalls brought on by the recession. The conversation about the future of our cities should involve the people living in those cities. But it should not be about which services to eliminate, it should be about how to reinvent these services as modern, efficient things, how to make them work at a fraction of their current cost, and, while we’re at it, how to make them better than they are now.

Why? Because cities don’t have the money to improve, or even sustain these services on their own. Because people have good ideas, often more innovative than the ones coming from the cities themselves. And because increasingly, people have the means to actually build and implement these services – not as centralized, closed, top-down systems we think of as public services today, but as distributed, participatory web-based systems built using data open to all.

Such services could be a perfect way forward for cities caught in the current budget morass, a way to cut their expenses without swearing off public services altogether.

Take for example the case of the New York City MTA, which currently operates at a budget deficit of $1.2 billion, and has been trying and failing for almost 20 years to implement a realtime tracking system for the city’s buses, at a cost of millions. As the MTA sees it, their two options are 1. pay for a gigantic, centralized, monolithic tracking system or 2. don’t have bus tracking. (And with their current budget shortfall, it seems like option 2 is the only real choice for them). What if, instead, they entertained the idea of implementing an open bus tracking system, one that relied to some extent on aggregated individual input from bus riders? What if they then crowdsourced ideas on how best to do this? And finally, what if they cooperated with the people who came forward with ideas, to make it easy for them to implement them?

Very quickly there would be some semblance of a bus tracking system in New York City–not a perfect one, but one that could be iterated on and improved on by all until it was robust enough to be relied on by residents of the city. That would at the very least be better than the complete lack of bus tracking the city has now, and it would cost the city nothing to initiate.

To the MTA of course this is unthinkable. They refuse to even make their timetable information public via API, citing legal and security concerns, and seeming to harbor a feeling that there’s money to be made from that data.

To be fair, some government agencies are more forward thinking that this, a few even going so far as to link out to third party applications built using their publicly available data. Most though fall closer to the MTA in their stance toward open data and third party applications. And so the damper is kept on these kinds of innovative solutions to our cities’ problems.

Of course these new sorts of user-built services are beginning to pop up anyway, even without the blessing of the city agencies they help. Programmers, on their own, are exploiting every possible resource to build applications that help people make better use of their city. The result in the case of the MTA is a variety of applications, built without the approval of the MTA, that exist to make the MTA’s service better.

These services are being built and used whether the cities want them or not.

Imagine now what would happen if cities did throw their weight behind this kind of innovation? The landscape of those cities would change virtually overnight, with legions of new applications springing up to provide residents with every sort of information conceivable, making their decisions more informed, making their movements more coordinated, and ultimately making the cities themselves work better. This change would happen at a fraction of the cost of any proposals for change currently being considered by cities around the world. And much of that cost, for development and operation, would be offloaded from the city itself to the individuals building and using these services.

This is the future that is coming to our cities, one way or another, whether city councils and agencies accept it right now or not. Either it will come in a trickle, as interested developers find ways to build these services without the city’s consent, or it will come in a flood as cities get on board and help push things along.

I personally am hoping for the latter.

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