This post by Harvard Kennedy School student Jen North recounts the second session of a new Cities, Technology and Democracy Study Group at Harvard Kennedy School hosted by student groups Tech4Change and Regional, State, Local and Tribal (RSLT) Governance Professional Interest Council, along with the Ash Center. The session featured Susan Crawford, the John C. Reilly Visiting Professor of Intellectual Property at Harvard Law School. Professor Crawford discussed how city government officials and civic activists use data tools and information access strategies to transform city government.
By Jen North
On March 12th, just before spring break, Harvard students gathered at the Ash Center for Democratic Innovation and Governance for the second installment of the Cities, Technology, and Democracy study group. Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) students Denise Linn and Alison Flint led a conversation with Susan Crawford, the John C. Reilly Visiting Professor of Intellectual Property at Harvard Law School.
In advance of the release of her forthcoming book co-authored with Stephen Goldsmith, Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of Innovations in American Government, Crawford discussed how government officials and civic activists use data tools and information access strategies to transform city government.
Cities around the world are using data tools to improve city services and increase public engagement with citizens. Cities like New York and Chicago are leveraging data sources to track everything from energy use in city buildings to trash pick-up to medical emergencies and crime. Analyzing this data has helped cities better predict where and when city services will be needed and better respond to citizen needs. Customer relationship management (CRM) systems that track, manage, and automate feedback and requests from residents have become a critical component of the management of big data.
Crawford highlighted Boston’s data tools, based on learnings from research she conducted last summer along with Project Assistant Dana Walters. Over the last several years, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has been instrumental in bringing innovation to city processes. The office launched a new customer relationship management (CRM) system and smartphone app Citizens Connect, both of which are increasing collaboration among city departments, improving city service response times, and deepening engagement with Boston residents.
Crawford was quick to note that municipal technology successes don’t lie solely in engagement tools, but also in access to those tools. Cities that provide residents with access to high speed Internet services ensure that all residents can engage with a municipality’s digital platform.
Crawford shared stories from interviews she conducted with municipal officials in Stockholm who noted that they laid the infrastructure for broadband Internet access over a decade ago, which has allowed them to provide open access for businesses and citizens. Crawford noted that cities will hopefully follow in Stockholm’s footsteps and expand broadband access. One interesting benefit is that this connectivity will allow for more activity and data to be stored on the cloud rather than on smart phone and laptop devices themselves. In turn, the prices of these devices will likely fall, further increasing citizen access to city data tools.
Yet, successfully implementing technologies isn’t as easy as simply purchasing new software, building an app, or increasing digital access. Crawford explained that four key elements contribute to the success of new technologies.
- First, digital infrastructure must be present for data tools to be successful.
- Second, strong leadership for implementing data tools at the executive level is critical to set a direction for how these technologies will be used.
- Third, successful implementation relies on employees to be empowered to test out new ideas, make adjustments along the way, and collaborate in new and different ways.
- Lastly, encouraging citizen action ensures that the technologies benefit residents and bring city government closer to residents rather than creating a technological wall between government and citizens.
What these elements point to is that implementing new technologies is an act that is decidedly human. Successfully bringing these tools to fruition is as much about personality, leadership and organizational culture as it is about the detailed specifics of a new technology system. While cities may rely on smart phones and big data and top notch analytics teams to improve city services and respond to citizen feedback, these technologies are only the vehicle by which we find new ways to communicate and respond to each other’s needs.
For Crawford, if data and technology are leveraged properly, these tools could be significant in improving trust in government. If that turns out to be the case, these technologies won’t only be the tools that make government more efficient and effective, but in this polarized world, may be the tools that bring us closer to government and to each other.
Jen North is a Master in Public Policy Candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.