How Long is Your City's Tail?

Here’s something that everyone doing business on the web knows today, thanks to Chris Anderson: it’s all about the long tail.

When the cost of each individual transaction falls to nearly zero, marginal and low-performing items, grouped together, can account for a lot more of the overall value of a company than the top-performing ones. makes more money from the aggregate of all of the books that sell one or two copies a month than from sales of best sellers. And Amazon is a much stronger, healthier, and richer company because of the extremely long tail of books it sells.

Everybody gets that.

What almost nobody realizes yet is that the same is true for cities – or can be.

Most cities right now are models of closed, rigid systems, systems that rely on a few, top-performing agents to get civic tasks done and keep quality of life high for residents. Most of these agents are departments of the city itself, though some are outsourced. Either way, cities rely on one agent per issue, no more. To use as an analogy, cities today are like an Amazon that only allows the #1 best-selling book from each category into its system.

A good number of cites are beginning to do deals with mega companies like Google and IBM, giving them access to city data so that they can build excellent tools for residents to use. This is a great thing. I love looking at Google Maps and seeing that bulging red line right next to my house indicating that traffic there is at a standstill so I should consider biking instead. Makes my life better.

Still, to use the Amazon analogy again, now these cities have allowed not just the #1 best-selling book from each category into the system, but best-seller #2, #3 and #4. It’s still a closed system of cherry-picked agents with privileged access.

And that’s about where a lot of people would choose to end the opening of cities’ data – giving unrestricted access to the Googles, Microsofts, and IBMs of the world. The rest get limited access, or access contingent upon satisfying some governmental board or other. (New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, who launched his Big Apps contest yesterday, is seemingly among this group.)

If we do that, of course, we’re missing out on what is potentially the biggest piece of the pie – the tail. That’s where a huge chunk of the value comes from.

So, imagine instead a city that has totally open, unrestricted access to data (say, San Francisco or DC in 2011). What does it look like? It has all of the familiar city-run departments providing all of the services and assistance they’ve always provided – that’s not going away. Then it also has public services offered by the mega companies, the Google Traffic, IBM’s Smarter Cities, and so forth. Those are huge added value to these open cities – they’re used by a large percentage of residents and make life in those cities better. But THEN, it also has an insane long tail of services set up and run by anyone with an interest in doing so, just by hooking into city data, distributing it in a new way, improving on it, mashing it up, giving it back to the city, etc. These services each individually get used by a small minority of people, but collectively they get used by more than any other single source in the city.

That’s the healthy, long tail city of the future in action: head, “meaty middle” and tail, all working together, all reinforcing each other, all driving each other forward.

And that’s the future of cities.

So it might be time to ask yourself: how long is your city’s tail shaping up to be? The answer may determine, to a large degree, how much your city is a thriving place to live in decades to come.

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