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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, DIYcity.org, 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 Outside.in.

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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  • http://kicktime.org Lynn C

    Great ideas for participation in government, but misses the question of who has access and who doesn’t. Universal access first?

  • http://friendfeed.com/unlinl Anton "Plr2" Noginov

    thanks a lot

  • Bob

    As I understand this article we’re talking about a move toward direct democracy.

    My concern, upon first take, with this discussion is that the issues being presented to the public for input are limited. For example, the public is not given any input on the amount of tax dollars the Fed returns to the city for infrastructure or other programs. Nor, does the public have any input on the value of their monetary system. These two issues are critical to wealth determination, and therefore the amount of resource a city has available to “operate” its infrastructure and services.

    What I see here is a system where the city’s inhabitants get to choose how they spend their scraps, but yet the total amount of scraps and their value are determined elsewhere, with the public having no input in that process.

    Seems to me we ought to be initiating Open Gov’t projects of this nature from the Top – Down, not the reverse, for our greatest challenges and loss of wealth comes from decisions made in DC.

  • zeitguy

    There are a lot of reasons to criticize this approach. It is especially frustrating for those of us who work in government and understand the incredible resistance to change within the systems that are in place.

    There is only one reason to give these ideas a try: We are running out of options that will preserve central control over civic systems.

    And that is when ideas like this need to be repeated. Not defended or explained in detail, but just repeated at every opportunity until those who need real solutions will give them a try.

  • http://rocksli.de monte christo

    Correct me if I’m wrong (just a guess here) but wouldn’t GPS enabled phones work for bus tracking? Give each bus a cell phone and have it broadcast its location, update via the interwebs. Voila – instant real time bus tracking without paying millions of dollars. Probably hook up an ad deal with the cell company and entire cost of the program would be neg or 0.

  • Luis

    Honestly

    I don´t see how crowdsourcing could alleviate
    chronic urban problems, since most of those
    who give their opinion take a purely personal stance. What we need , especially in my country
    (Brazil) goes far beyond crowdsourcing. Although
    some useful ideas could pop up, surely what is
    needed is a sound and coherent urban policy aimed at the dramatic problems in housing, urban decay and crime which are ravaging brasizlian cities.

    Luis Cunha

  • http://www.decheser.net David DeCheser

    A crowd-sourced solution to some of the NYC-region’s transportation needs actually has cropped up. Clever Commuter relies on updates from actual commuters.

    http://www.clevercommute.com

  • http://dangreenblatt.com/blog Dan Greenblatt

    Great article, very inspiring. It almost seems ridiculous that this sea change /hasn’t/ happened yet. I see security concerns as a big issue, but I would think that any information which is made available the ‘old way’ (paper, static html) can be published programatically via a read-only API without any additional risk.

    The progress you’re advocating for reminds me a whole lot of the kind of revolution that happened, quite recently, in another domain: cell phones. The open source Android operating system has made experiences possible on a mobile phones, in a timeframe and with an agility that no handset manufacturer could ever achieve.

    @monte – seriously, right?!? i’m sure there are robustness issues (poor signal among tall buildings), but it would seem a whole better than nothing at all.

  • http://www.visi.com/~snowfall/ Tom Erickson

    Portland and San Francisco have opened up their transit information API’s. See http://developer.trimet.org/ and http://www.bart.gov/schedules/developers/appcenter.aspx

  • http://www.creamcitizen.org Dan Knauss

    Is anyone stepping forward to form an organization that will help spread this message and create incentives for city councils and residents to get on board this train?

    A lot of city councils have people with lots of room for good ideas, and proven successes that save money is always a good sell. The vainglory appeal of being “with it” or not behind those who are “with it” also has a lot to do with the things city leaders pay attention to and get behind.

  • http://www.useful-community-development.org Nancy

    The idea of crowdsourcing, or direct democracy for those of us of a certain age, deserves more respect. Speaking as an experienced city or county government department head, two things are needed: (a) much faster, more efficient ways of collecting quick opinions, attitudes, and intuitions, and (b) high quality analysis. While the measures described in this article can’t provide (b), they can certainly provide (a).

  • http://www.officelab.us Wayne

    I would also add that individuals and organizations are able to bootstrap and collaborate much more effectively than any government agency that I’ve encountered. And I think this is the sort of competition that government agencies and city councils need – so that they find better ways to engage and serve citizens.

    Seed Providence has started an effort in Providence, RI to crowdsource ideas from the local community to improve the economic, environmental and social sustainability of our city. The most important aspect of the Idea Seeds project is the connecting of community-driven ideas with the people, organizations and resources that can turn those ideas into real action.

  • http://twitter.com/earthintelnet JZ

    It’s great to see these developments. Independent demos is a freer way to go. How to then get support and funds is the challenge. Appealing promotion/quality presentations is one important ingredient.

    I’d like to throw in a 2004/2005 proposal called “Re-configuring the Global Organisms’ Operating System Through Mobile Democracy” (http://tr.im/i6V5). This was before GoogleEarth & SecondLife became public.

    Other related idea presentations:
    http://tr.im/irBF
    http://tr.im/irBA
    http://smart-city.re-configure.org

    Resources with a ton of interesting links:
    CyberScout HyperLink Table 2007-2009 = http://tr.im/jg3Z
    http://link-bomb.re-configure.org

    Jason Liszkiewicz
    Executive Director, Earth Intelligence Network (501c3)
    http://www.earth-intelligence.net
    http://twitter.com/earthintelnet
    http://re-configure.org

  • http://harkopen.com madaerodog

    We at http://harkopen.com offer project hosting for open source hardware and a great place to discuss them and create new ones.

    Why not pay us a visit and see what are we up to!

    Have a nice day

  • http://www.rpgamrz.com RPGamerZ

    Thats was true

    excelent info.