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Scaling City Tech to Tackle Inequality


Utilizing technology in cities is a trend that has moved from the fantasy of the future to the reality of right now. Nearly every large city has a function such as the chief innovation officer, who serves to integrate technology into city services. These innovations are tackling what the urban planning world calls “wicked problems” — issues that are both systemic and rooted in historic policy decisions — that have day-to-day implications for citizens. Homelessness, affordable housing, and school accessibility all fall into the bucket of wicked problems.

At the heart of these wicked problems is the issue of inequality, a growing problem across the board in cities today. Fast Company reports that large cities around the world are more unequal than their countries’ populations on average, noting that income inequality has increased in 94 of the U.S.’ 100 biggest metro areas since 1994.

An article from 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation, notes the types of functions that cities are using technology for: to aggregate and analyze existing data, to leverage information systems to improve operational efficiency, to create new materials and designs, and to increase citizen engagement. These functions allow cities to be more responsive to the needs of citizens and to address short- and long-term problems more efficiently.

Large investments from the likes of the Bloomberg Philanthropies are funding city-wide technological solutions to large structural problems. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Delivery program began with a successful five-city pilot project and addressed issues such as murder reduction and economic development. In 2014, Bloomberg expanded the Innovation Delivery program to fourteen additional cities in the U.S. and Israel.

How Can Tech Innovations Improve Cities?

The new Innovation Delivery projects tackle big problems; Minneapolis, MN will focus its $2.7 million grant on analyzing whether core city services are delivered equitably, while Los Angeles, CA is concentrating its $2.5 million grant on revitalizing neighborhoods. Long Beach, CA is dedicating part of its $3 million grant to improving online city services. While streamlining city processes such as building permits and paying tickets may not carry the same cachet that decreasing murder rates does, the returns on improved city services can be a healthier economy and a more informed citizenship.

Similarly, Code for America’s focus on economic development creates streamlined interactions between businesses and governments. Code for America’s materials cite that the U.S. is ranked 46 in the world for ease of starting a business due mostly to how hard understanding and meeting state and local requirements is. In Puerto Rico, the organization PrimerPeso worked with government and community partners to develop a web application to help business owners and entrepreneurs understand the business incentives and services available to them.

The timeline for seeing results from improving the process of delivering services to citizens is medium term. The jury is out on whether the new processing system will increase competitiveness; while it might increase business starts in a given community, will streamlined government attract entrepreneurs from other communities? Furthermore, will better service delivery impact the everyday lives of citizens living below the poverty line?

A handful of city tech functions tackle everyday problems. The Code for America team created the Promptly service for the San Francisco Human Services Agency to remind Food Stamp recipients to submit program renewal information before their benefits expire. Promptly, which is billed as “easy text messaging for government,” can also be used to help schedule, monitor, and provide notifications for any reason.

Other apps utilize civic information, but government entities did not create them. The Boston Globe worked with two professors from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA to design an app to compare public school systems. Using the resulting app, Dreamschool Finder, parents can look at how elementary, middle, and high schools stack up in college readiness, resources, diversity, and growth in math and English. Parents can use Dreamschool Finder to choose the best schools for their children, thereby providing a better and more targeted education.

Similarly, AccessMap Seattle uses information from the Seattle Department of Transportation as well as other sources, such as Mapbox and Google Elevation, to map various possible obstacles for people with limited mobility. Data from the Census Bureau shows that people with disabilities have lower median incomes than the rest of the population; AccessMap Seattle provides knowledge that could lead to more economic opportunities in the form of jobs or access to benefits.

Cities can use technology to improve social services, policing practices, and many other aspects of everyday urban life. These solutions can be successful with top-down approaches, but citizens themselves can also create technological solutions. To open the door for entrepreneurial innovation, cities and government entities should provide access to civic data. Using technology for cities, innovators at every level can address both ingrained, structural issues and their symptoms, leading to decreased inequality and thus fewer wicked problems.

Emily Brown

Emily works in urban planning, helping cities to become more competitive. She was named as one of 40 under 40 economic developers, and has taken part in a successful Kickstarter…