Data-Driven Cities: Urban Innovation Goes National

0 Comments05 October 2014

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This post first appeared on the blog of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

If the states are “laboratories of democracy,” as Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, then cities can be the petri dishes for technological innovation. With fewer bureaucratic hurdles than both the federal or state governments, and the opportunity for charismatic mayors to drive local change, cities around the United States and the world are experimenting with new ways to use technology to create business opportunities and improve citizens’ lives. They have also been pioneers in data-driven innovation and especially in the use of public or “open” data, to reshape the urban environment. Major cities are hiring Chief Data Officers – Los Angeles was the latest to do so– and they’re working with tech entrepreneurs to find new solutions in transportation, health care, education, and many other areas of civic life.

On September 16, Wayne State University hosted the third annual Techonomy Detroit conference, a gathering that uses Detroit as a model for urban revival through technological innovation. As the conference’s organizers point out, Detroit has a history of innovation and “was the Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley.” Even five years ago, when Detroit was a national symbol of urban collapse, this claim might have been dubious at best. But the city has been experiencing a surge of recent investment, and now even has its own tech startup accelerator, BizDom.  The data revolution is part of the larger technological revolution, and Detroit is joining other American cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, DC in pushing to make more open data available for public use.

Urban innovation was highlighted at Techonomy in Detroit, the original Silicon Valley.

One company that presented at the conference, Loveland Technologies, is analyzing and mapping Detroit property data at a level that was not previously possible. This kind of city data isn’t always easy to use: Loveland has had to put in considerable effort simply to put city data into a form that the company can then analyze. But as city data in Detroit and elsewhere becomes more transparent and useful, applications like these will become possible in other cities as well.
Some companies have built their entire business model on making city data easier to use. OpenGov and Govini have developed platforms that any city can use to manage, distribute, and display data on finances and key city operations. In addition to making city government more transparent and accountable, companies like these help city managers compare their city’s performance to neighboring communities. One city, for example, might learn that its level of police overtime was twice that of a neighboring cities and might look for ways to improve as a result.

Scholars of urban government now envision a future where cities collect and distribute data that goes far beyond these basic metrics. The argument is best summed up in a new book called The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance by Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford, who was another Techonomy Detroit speaker.  As examples, Crawford points to Buffalo’s 311 portal, which tracks reports from citizens on problems from potholes to rotting trees, and the more high-tech Chicago program called The Array of Things. This latter project, the epitome of the wired city, has placed data collection points around the Loop District to measure pedestrian movements, air quality, light and noise levels, and more kinds of data for public use. “This is the first time,” Crawford said at the conference, “that we’ve seen a city trying to measure itself in a completely transparent way.” She believes that measure like these will help cities understand and improve their operations and figure out how to allocate resources where they will do the most good.

The Responsive City: From Buffalo’s 311 to Chicago’s Array of Things

Urban data has business value as well as civic value. The Governance Lab (GovLab) at New York University, which studies how technology can make government more effective, has been surveying companies that use open government data as a key business resource. The GovLab’s Open Data 500 study, which I direct as senior advisor at the GovLab, includes a number of companies in different sectors that have built their business on city data. Examples include:

  • Transportation: NextBus, one of the first companies to apply open city data commercially, uses metropolitan transportation data to tell commuters when to expect a bus along their route. In increasingly sophisticated applications, other companies are analyzing traffic patterns, facilitating ride-sharing, and helping solve the problems of urban transportation in a number of ways.
  • Safety: SpotCrime collects, analyzes, and maps crime statistics to tell city dwellers which areas are safest or most dangerous and to offer crime alerts. The results are important both to individual citizens and to real estate and other companies whose business is significantly impacted by crime statistics.
  • Healthcare: Purple Binder helps keep city residents healthy. The company’s mission is to connect people who need healthcare services with the agencies and organizations that provide them.

Several cities have launched competitions to encourage creative developers to build new apps from their city data. One of the most ambitious is the New York City Big Apps competition, which announced its winners in mid-September. One company,, describes its mission as helping “low-income New Yorkers find job opportunities more quickly and easily.” The company partners with nonprofits to provide “real-time information on job openings” with “distinct search options that are unavailable on leading websites.” Another Big Apps winner, Mind My Business from Vizalytics, “provides shopkeepers with business-specific alerts with information vital to the success of their business,” including “knowledge about issues like rodent sightings, upcoming construction, 311 complaints and changes to city regulations.”

More and more U.S. cities are becoming hubs for the new technology revolution. Over the next few years, the tech innovators who are flocking to America’s cities will help make their new urban homes more efficient, sustainable, and vibrant.

- Joel Gurin, founder and editor,

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