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Using Data to Design Government Services

Cities are trying to tap into information generated by mobile phones, but that approach threatens to leave poor people behind.
April 20, 2011

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.

Making plans: This illustration by Anthony Townsend, research director of the Institute for the Future, is meant to represent various strategies for using technology in city services.

“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.

The United Nations has begun an initiative called Global Pulse, which aims to “harness innovation to protect the vulnerable.” Zazie Schafer Nencetti, deputy director of the initiative, says the project is looking to collect and process data from all over the world and use it to spot and respond to signs of crisis, such as a sudden increase in international phone calls. “People in the remotest villages are connected via mobile phones,” she says. “There must be data.”

Nencetti says the project is taking steps to involve residents of troubled areas more directly by means of efforts such as “Pulse Labs” in developing nations. Such labs will aim to recruit local technologists and entrepreneurs who might also find local uses for the information that is gathered. One of the first will be in Kampala, Uganda. Global Pulse is also building an open data collection platform based in part on existing projects such as Ushahidi, which allows people to report on a crisis via text message, e-mail, Twitter, or a Web page. The platform collects and maps this data and makes it easy for people involved in the crisis to share information—an approach that links privileged technologists with vulnerable people.

Townsend notes that different groups design such projects differently: grassroots organizations tend to design technologies that are distributed and interoperable, he says, while academics seek to collect information that reveals patterns, and corporations try to find ways to increase efficiency and save money. “It’ll be interesting to see which approach over time starts to dominate and how cities choose their own paths in this battle,” he says.

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