2021 In Review: A conversation with Professor Stephen Goldsmith

BY Betsy Gardner • DECEMBER 13, 2021


“The most important thing that happened this year is the concentration on important policy reforms that could be driven by data. So instead of thinking about technology and data first, we thought of COVID, and equity, and resiliency, and justice issues - and then how reforms in that area could be powered by data.”

            -Professor Stephen Goldsmith


The Past Year

2021 was another year of change and uncertainty and progress. In this end-of-the-year article Stephen Goldsmith, Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at the Kennedy School and former mayor, discusses the trends and successes of the past year in the fields of civic data and government innovation, and highlights opportunities for the year ahead.

For Professor Goldsmith, one of the biggest strides of the past year was the movement away from silos and the move toward cross-cutting, data-informed work. Over the past year, many local governments have created interoperable data and tech platforms that connect multiple stakeholders on thematic, inter-departmental issues.

This platforming of information has increased in the past year due to COVID-19, but also the accelerating development of data rich sources such as connected vehicles and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices. For example, the city of Austin developed a parking platform that facilitates interaction with multiple apps, making parking easier for residents and also helping city officials set curb and sidewalk policy. Resiliency is also a top-of-mind issue for many cities and states. Digital infrastructure like water pipe sensors in South Bend and using GIS analytics  to increase solar and EV availability  facilitates shared data usage across multiple agencies producing  comprehensive systems whether for disaster prevention management. 

Of course, the local community is one of the most important stakeholders, but they haven’t always had open access to government data — nor the ability to provide feedback on policies, data collection, or process improvements. Another big issue that Professor Goldsmith saw cities tackle this past year was “how do we listen better and incorporate the views of those who have been ignored for a long time?” The above sentiment mining study is one example, but many cities have overhauled how they conduct community engagement – in order to respond to conditions from COVID to housing to justice issues, such as those that culminated in large-scale protests in 2020.

This past year the Innovations in Government team at the Kennedy School assisted with a study on sentiment mining, which helped 18 different cities understand how residents felt about COVID-19 vaccines. According to Professor Goldsmith, “The question was how can digital tools using anonymous data help cities better understand the community, for purposes of informing policy?” This type of work is again tied into broader themes of trust, equity, access, and fairness and is another example of working across departments in a way that puts people first, while using data as a tool rather than an end result.

Equity is a major factor in this increased community engagement as cities reach out to communities of color, non-English speaking neighborhoods, and other marginalized folks. While this increased attention to equity is welcome — and long overdue — Professor Goldsmith stressed that “we don’t want to set equity aside in a separate category; attention to this important matter should be a part of everything we do in government,” although he acknowledges it’s easier said than done.

One great example from 2021 is The Great Pave in Oakland, CA. Using data and data visualization, Oakland’s Department of Transportation captured information on historical disinvestment and was able to allocate millions of dollars in resources to correct for racial inequities. This was a practical and straightforward intervention that considered the voice of the community, drew on data for support, and clearly accomplished specific equity goals.

There were several major strides in what Professor Goldsmith calls “the calibration of the delivery of services, also known as nuance.” Despite increasing polarization, this calibration or nuance was possible due to data. Regardless of technologies, truly smart cities made decisions about spending, public health and justice interventions, and other critical services based on data. As the future of policing is hotly debated, some cities are using data to create new emergency services that provide appropriate mental health and crisis services, while diverting specific, non-violent emergency calls away from armed police. By looking at the data around emergency calls, these cities could establish more effective interventions by looking at data and finding that nuance.

Looking ahead to 2022

As for next year? Professor Goldsmith sees cities taking the data platforms they’ve established and opening them up to greater stakeholder access and usage. There are especially exciting opportunities for this in the infrastructure field; as intelligent civil infrastructure gains more attention and cities receive federal funding, there will be even more data on car usage, carbon emissions, green energy, and walkability. If this data is shared among stakeholders, the ability to collaborate can produce even better results.

And while 2021 has been a better year in terms of the attention being paid to issues of racial and gender equity, Professor Goldsmith views this as just the beginning. As communities are more engaged, there must be a corresponding push for privacy and data governance policies, in order to retain trust and transparency with residents — especially those who are part of communities that have been mistreated in the past.

While there is no simple answer, especially to concerns about surveillance, cities must establish best practice policies informed by examples from other cities, community input, third party advice, and academic research. Professor Goldsmith advocates for robust privacy and transparency safeguards with regular forensic audits, particularly when it involves data sharing and third-party vendor contracts. Both the implementation of these types of privacy and transparency policies, not to mention the enforcement, will be difficult. And likely the privacy protections will be easier than security protections, as the best security practices for city technology aren’t even clear — which is all the more reason why “cities and states must more aggressively engage in independent security examinations.”

The barriers that Professor Goldsmith foresees in 2022 vary, but he believes “the most substantial barrier is imagination, because government operates by a set of routines — many of which were adopted one hundred years ago.” Since those ingrained routines are so vertical, there isn’t much room for innovative thinking or new solutions. Yet the power of data can both expand our imagination and benefit from it. 

So, the best way to improve service delivery, quality of life, equity, and infrastructure? Let imagination take the driver's seat in 2022 and see where new ways of data-driven thinking can take your city.

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.