The age of the “Smart City” is upon us!
It’s just that, we don’t really know what that means. Or, at least, not yet.
So far, every “Smart City” pilot project that we’ve undertaken here in Boston has ended with a glossy presentation, and a collective shrug. Nobody’s really known what to do next, or how the technology and data might lead to new or improved services.
We want to change that. We address this playbook to the technology companies, scientists, researchers, journalists, and activists that make up the “Smart City” community. In return for heeding this advice, we commit that we, the City of Boston, will not sit in City Hall and complain about the lack of solutions to our problems. We promise to get out into the City, find ways to help you pilot new ideas, and be honest with our feedback.
Our goal is to create a City-wide strategy for the use of sensor technologies that is people-centered, problem-driven, and responsible.
We need your help to get there.
*This playbook is inspired by the US Digital Service’s Playbook.
We’ve got nothing against sales people. Many of us have sold things. But we’re getting calls every day from “IoT” vendors and we’re really tired of talking to your sales teams. We don’t even know why or how we’d use your product. You might think that your technology is ready for prime-time, but we’re not ready to buy it and put it up all over Boston. At some point, we’ll know what we need and we’ll need someone to talk to about dollars and cents, feature roadmaps, etc. Right now, in 2016, there are much bigger questions unanswered.
So send us someone who knows about cities, someone who wants to walk in the shoes of our City workers or talk to residents about what they love (and don’t love!) about Boston. Send us someone who’s looking for more than a 30-minute pitch or a relationship to manage. We’d love to have a relationship with you—but it needs to be a real one.
This sounds like such a cliché. But we can’t help feeling like this keeps getting lost. We’re happy if you have a technology for us to use internally, something that’ll make a City department’s work easier. But we’d be even happier if you were solving problems for residents. Talk to people on the street, talk to local businesses, talk to artists, talk to architects and planners, talk to advocacy groups—and talk to them before you call us. Show us that you’ve met them, thought about their interaction with the City, and designed around their needs and experiences.
When we day-dream about Boston’s use of sensors, we imagine a city in which residents could check sensors out of the Boston Public Library, and use them to answer their own questions. That way, they’d only be used by real people to answer real questions or solve real problems. That sounds far-fetched, but it’s the kind of thing that we’re aspiring to.
We live in a world—and in a city—of finite resources and infinite need. Spending taxpayers’ money as efficiently as possible is critical to making government work. At the same time, focusing on “efficiency” assumes that we’ve already figured out what services to deliver to residents, and now just have to make it all cheaper. That’s unfortunately not the case.
As a city, we’re continually examining what services we could deliver to residents and how we might fit into their lives. It’s why we built the Boston 311 application; why we undertook a year-long research and design process for the new Boston.gov website; and why we launched the “Where’s My Bus” application for parents of Boston public school students. We could go on. We’re really, really proud to be at the cutting edge of civic technology and civic innovation here in Boston. But we’re at that cutting edge because we’re continually re-thinking what government means to people, not just trying to make it cheaper.
So help us out. Be creative. Tell us about how we can make government more beautiful, more delightful, more emotionally resonant, more thoughtful, and more pleasurable to interact with—not just cheaper.
When a new smart city technology is pitched, the costs that the City has to bear are immediate. The benefits, though, are way out in the future. They’re framed in terms like, “the money you’ll save when you can optimize the routes of Public Works employees” or “the money you’ll save from delivering a City service only to those who need it.”
The problem is that those benefits are nebulous and really hard to achieve. They require behavior change—and, sometimes, policy changes—on the part of some other person or department. And behavior change that is dynamic, based on the output and analysis of some data that they didn’t necessarily collect. We’re really far away from knowing how to affect that sort of behavior change within City government. And that’s why, so far, most smart city pilot projects have ended with Powerpoint presentations of data.
So try to move beyond “data,” “algorithms,” and the like. Let’s talk about the stuff that makes those things useful and usable.
Over at theclevercity.net, Ross Atkin writes: “The Smart City is a top-down all or nothing proposition. We can start building the Clever City bottom-up with one lamppost, bus stop or parking space (and of course one problem). Maybe one day we will join up all the individual Clever City services and will have a Smart City. Maybe we never will, but the Clever City can make a real difference to people’s lives right now.”
It’s too early for platforms. We don’t know what kinds of sensors we’ll use in Boston over the next 10 years, who will build them, what technical standards they’ll adhere to, and where they’ll go. We also don’t know how they’ll be networked, where they’ll store data, and who they’ll serve it to. As a City, we’re not in the business of making bets on what technology standards will prevail. (It’s why we’re working with the National Institute for Standards & Technology as part of our work.) Until those standards are clear and until we have a better idea of the technical landscape, we don’t need or want a “smart city platform.”
Sensors aren’t new–the Boston Police Department monitors video cameras around the City and the MBTA uses GPS-trackers to sense the location of its trains and buses. But as and when the City starts to use them more frequently and for less obvious use-cases, there will be a sharp focus on our data collection and data management practices. Especially as those use-cases start to generate personally identifiable information (PII) that’s collected passively and in the public domain.