A Bottom-Up Smart City? The Utility of Citizen-Generated Data

By Alicia Rouault • December 20, 2013

"Leak the knowledge of the neighborhood into codified systems, like a backward Wikileak. Activate a citizenry."

— Saskia Sassen, MIT senseABLE City Engaging Data 2013

America’s shrinking cities face a tide of disinvestment, abandonment, vacancy, and a shift toward deconstruction and demolition followed by strategic reinvestment, rightsizing, and a host of other strategies designed to renew once-great cities. Thriving megacity regions are experiencing rapid growth in population, offering a different challenge for city planners to redefine density, housing, and transportation infrastructure. As cities shrink and grow, policymakers are increasingly called to respond to these changes by making informed, data-driven decisions. What is the role of the citizen in this process of collecting and understanding civic data?

Writing for Forbes in “Open Sourcing the Neighborhood,” Professor of Sociology at Columbia University Saskia Sassen calls for “open source urbanism” as an antidote to the otherwise top-down smart city movement. This form of urbanism involves opening traditional verticals of information within civic and governmental institutions. Citizens can engage with and understand the logic behind decisions by exploring newly opened administrative data. Beyond opening these existing datasets, Sassen points out that citizen experts hold invaluable institutional memory that can serve as an alternate and legitimate resource for policymakers, economists, and urban planners alike.

In 2012, we created a digital platform called LocalData to address the production and use of community-generated data in a municipal context. LocalData is a digital mapping service used globally by universities, non-profits, and municipal governments to gather and understand data at a neighborhood scale. In contrast to traditional Census or administrative data, which is produced by a central agency and collected infrequently, our platform provides a simple method for both community-based organizations and municipal employees to gather real-time data on project-specific indicators: property conditions, building inspections, environmental issues or community assets. Our platform then visualizes data and exports it into formats integrated with existing systems in government to seamlessly provide accurate and detailed information for decision makers.

The LocalData App

LocalData began as a project in Detroit, Michigan where the city was tackling a very real lack of standard, updated, and consistent condition information on the quality and status of vacant and abandoned properties. Many of these properties were owned by the city and county due to high foreclosure rates. One of Detroit’s strategies for combating crime and stabilizing neighborhoods is to demolish property in a targeted fashion. This strategy serves as a political win as much as providing an effective way to curb the secondary effects of vacancy: crime, drug use, and arson. Using LocalData, the city mapped critical corridors of emergent commercial property as an analysis tool for where to place investment, and documented thousands of vacant properties to understand where to target demolition.

Vacancy is not unique to the Midwest. Following our work with the Detroit Mayor’s office and planning department, LocalData has been used in dozens of other cities in the U.S. and abroad. Currently the Smart Chicago Collaborative is using LocalData to conduct a similar audit of vacant and abandoned property in southwest Chicagos. Though an effective tool for capturing building-specific information, LocalData has also been used to capture behavior and movement of goods. The MIT Megacities Logistics Lab has used LocalData to map and understand the intensity of urban supply chains by interviewing shop owners and mapping delivery routes in global megacities in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and the U.S. The resulting information has been used with analytical models to help both city officials and companies to design better city logistics policies and operations.

As the municipal open data movement spreads across the globe, publishing machine-readable municipal datasets through clearinghouse services like Socrata or CKan, we can also begin to redefine the role of the citizen group within the context of data. We can see data as a currency of legitimacy and a strategy for influencing the very scale of information upon which political leaders make development decisions.

Opening administrative data can be improved upon beyond simply making information available online. Contributing to the very process of data production itself can become a community building strategy, encouraging a sense of trust and belongingness between citizen and government. Embedded institutional knowledge at the neighborhood scale sits with the residents and community-based organizations that understand their communities with first-hand knowledge of the evolution of place over time. Using this untapped resource within formal municipal mechanisms will only yield better placemaking.

About the Author

Alicia Rouault

Alicia Rouault is an urban planner and founder of LocalData. She is a 2012 Knight News Challenge winner and former Code for America fellow.