Data-Smart City Solutions

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By Stephen Goldsmith

This article originally appeared on the blog "Better Faster Cheaper" on Governing.com.

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The top 25 programs among this year's applicants for Innovations in American Government Awards were announced today, and among them are many that are embracing the kinds of technology-enabled creativity that our new Harvard Kennedy School initiative, Data-Smart City Solutions, stands behind. Crowdsourcing, data collection and analytics, and smart infrastructure, in particular, cropped up multiple times as ways to help a variety of government bodies better serve citizens.

Many of these innovations harness the sheer manpower of the civic-minded public or gather the insights and out-of-the-box thinking that often resides within citizens or in unexpected corners of organizational hierarchies. For instance, the National Archives and Records Administration's Citizen Archivist Dashboard initiative allows citizens to contribute their time by tagging and transcribing archived materials or by contributing their knowledge to historical articles. Through diffused community engagement, the National Archives hopes to increase the volume of work it can do in partnership with interested citizens--especially important in these times of falling federal budgets.

Challenge.gov, created under the General Services Administration, seeks to also enable the federal government to do more with less by sourcing innovative solutions from the public--and offering prize money--for problems presented as challenges by a wide array of government departments. The U.S. Department of Transportation's IdeaHub seeks to do something quite similar within that department, fostering a collaborative approach to solving difficult problems and breaking employees out of their specific job roles to source more original thinking and development. Boston's Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics calls its incorporation of citizen involvement into city government and service delivery "participatory urbanism," and has brought this innovation to community planning as well as crime reporting.

Other innovative programs use data to drive prevention, turning government from reactive to preemptive. Rather than waiting for at-risk families to become homeless, for example, New York City's Homebase uses data to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place. By collecting data on those in jeopardy of losing their homes, the city can target specific services with the aim of keeping people in their homes and avoiding more expensive shelter costs.

And as some of these programs demonstrate, smarter infrastructure can produce the data to inform better decisions by citizens as well as by their governments. SFpark is an initiative that placed sensors and smart meters in parking spots in downtown San Francisco. The city gained the ability to adjust parking prices to reflect demand, reducing congestion from circling cars and improving the flow of traffic. Citizens gained longer meter limits, the convenience of paying by credit card and the ability to find open spaces using their smart phones.

Another example of infrastructure-focused creativity is Smarter Sustainable Dubuque, which utilizes smart meters installed throughout the Iowa city to collect and analyze water, electricity and travel data. Residents can better track their consumption, and they and the city government gain immediate monetary savings by leveraging the data streams that are generated.

The growing prevalence of data-based initiatives among this year's top programs in the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation competition shows how data can be utilized in new ways to shift governments from reactive service delivery to prescriptive solutions. Infrastructure that we always thought had limited capacity to be enhanced can be technologically recalibrated to help improve urban sustainability. These innovations demonstrate that creativity, especially when it emphasizes collaboration and data, can produce results previously not imaginable.

Topics: Civic Data

About the Project Director

Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. His latest book is The Responsive City.

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