Citizens are becoming the source of a lot of information that helps cities improve how they provide public services. For example, Boston just unveiled an iPhone app that uses the device’s accelerometer to detect possible potholes in city roads. Housing officials in South Africa use information from mobile phones to track conditions in temporary settlements. But although these technologies can help direct officials’ attention to problems they need to address, designing government initiatives around them could fail to account for the people who lack the latest devices.
“It’s clear to me that we’re not including the poor in our visions of future cities,” says Anthony Townsend, research director of the nonprofit Institute for the Future, who recently completed a study on how cities can take the needs of the poor into account when they make use of the data unlocked by new technologies. “There’s a danger of further empowering those who are already empowered and excluding those who are already disempowered.”
For example, Townsend says, it’s already documented that U.S. city officials are more responsive to citizens who communicate with them in English. If cities begin relying on a lot of public-service data coming in from smart phones, a disproportionate amount of the information that shapes their policies could end up coming from affluent citizens who are already well equipped to get officials to meet their needs. At a recent Forum on Future Cities at MIT, Townsend suggested a collection of principles intended to ensure that the disadvantaged can also benefit from new technologies. “I think of it as a battle for the smart city,” he says.
In particular, Townsend wants city planners to make sure that everyone can get access to devices that are being used to track conditions and that everyone understands and can use the information collected. To that end, he suggests that rather than using an iPhone app to collect data and deliver updates, cities could gather information from all mobile phones, including the simpler “feature” phones that are still more common. Most important, he notes, cities need to include disadvantaged people in the design of such data-collection efforts. Projects that attempt to impose themselves on the poor often fail, he observes, while those that are designed by or in coöperation with people from underprivileged communities are more likely to work.