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The Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems


Last week the number of participants registered with the US healthcare website were released and the results were unimpressive. This could be for many reasons, although personally, I have not enrolled simply because the website, like all technologies, is an iterative process.  Whenever a new operating system rolls out for my laptop or ipad, I'm always excited, but I'm never an immediate adopter.  I typically wait until an update is launched, which is typically about 2 weeks later.  I'm rather excited by the healthcare initiative, but it would be foolish to rush into enrollment.  The website, like all technologies is a work in progress.

The constant media coverage about the dismal enrollment numbers has been paralleled only by NSA scandals which has done much to raise the social dialogue on issues of connectivity, surveillance, and our data driven lives.  In a few previous blog posts I've reflected on the persistence of data beyond communal memory.  This week I've had some time to read some of Anthony Townsend's new book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.  Concurrently I've also been reading Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll.  While both of these texts appear to handle different subjects, I'd argue that their is actually a strong link between these works and the current issues of technology in society.

Within Smart Cities, Townsend begins with a historical overview of urban technology development and describes the evolution of major corporations presently working with these issues such as Siemens, Cisco, and IBM.  He identifies established and emerging systems to contend with urban planning issues of climate change, traffic, and economic growth.  But Townsend isn't advocating for these mega-companies to dominate data-driven urban development.  Rather, he advocates for a more widely distributed net of stakeholders, consisting of empowered everyday citizens who use technology to interface with their governments and businesses to create a bottom-up model of a well designed urban landscape.  

I've met Anthony a couple times and have followed his work for many years.  Last June I sat in the audience at Poptech The City Resilient and listened to his talk on designing a wireless network in New Jersey that will continue to function under threat of natural disaster.  His faith in smart systems is optimistic, yet carefully hesitant, and I believe his argument for the creation of smart cities to be a more democratic process to be on target.   

Yet my own concern about smart cities is less about the actors involved in the creation of the technology and the control of the data, but is more interested in the actual "recipes" used to streamline the city.  When I lived in Cincinnati, I recall it had demographic and economic qualities nearly identical to the city of St. Louis.  Consequently, it was common for these two city governments to simply share or sell each other studies on their own cities (such as research on industrial clusters) rather than conduct the work internally.  If somethings works in St. Louis, then it should work in Cincinnati!  On a different scale, I've also sat in several meetings with members of the United Nations advocating a similar boiler-plate approach to urban development - even if the project failed in the first instance, it would be replicated and applied to the second.  

Consequently I believe that an extensive level of qualitative research must be done before any quantitive system can be constructed and applied to a given city.  Of course this is expensive and methodical mess, so probably not in the interest of companies like IBM.  This is where Anthony and I overlap.  If the work is done by the local communities, then the outputs will likely best conform to the local demands.  

Anthony advocates and hopes for the widespread participation of urban citizens in the creation of smarter cities.  He does well to identify many small organizations working to teach programming and give momentum to local-scale smart city development.  But here we differ again... my outlook is gloomier.

For much of internet history, we have mostly lived under the 90-9-1 rule - wherein 1% of internet users create content, 9% curate, and 90% consume.  In the 20 years we have had the internet, this has improved as online content creation has risen with the advent of social media.   In 2004, The Pew Research center found that 44% of internet users had actually created content on the internet.  Now, Pew has found that number has drifted upward to 54% in 2013. I should add that the Pew Research Center released another study identifying that 15% of Americans are not even online.    I realize this is a a very small snapshot, but does this rate imply that it will take 99 years for 100% of internet users to also become content creators?  But what is a more reasonable number? 50 years? 20?  

If 20 years of global internet access has resulted in only 50% of all internet users to become content creators, how will this translate to more technical processes such as coding?  Yes - there are many high quality online tools today for people to learn computer programming skills for free.  I am personally a frequent user of such tools.  But this stuff is not easy, requires discipline, and is not a skill set available in a readily consumable manner.  More importantly - there is an issue of incentive.

Participation in any enterprise requires an incentive, but the situation darkens when the enterprise has a steep learning curve.  Apparently health care and national security are not a sufficient incentive for most Americans to use a website or forsake personal data.  But in contrast, millions of Facebook users supply very personal details of their lives to the Facebook company for the satisfaction of gossip, shared photos, and adorable cat videos.  What incentives exist for a democratized process of urban systems design?

This is where I feel Schüll's research on human addiction to casino machine gambling might provide light.  Casino machines are highly refined to maximize the amount of time an individual spends on the machine.  Casinos also employ various design techniques to drive customers toward machines and increase time of play.  But many casino's now feature data driven analytics to refine the experience further, to create new machines, and to ultimately derive far higher profits.  An excellent example is the use of rewards cards.

Subscribed loyalty rewards programs encourage repeat visits but they also give customers a reason to share data.  By providing customers with free rooms, meals and tickets to special events - or even paid weekend resort getaways for high rollers - casinos provide a series of convenience and in exchange, capitalize on the windfall of collected data.  Many casinos maintain 90 different demographic categories on each customer, can predict future calendars and budgets, and generate behavior reports to assemble the best package of rewards to offer each individual.  If a customer strays from pattern... for example, a habitual gambler stops making visits, that person will be emailed, snail mailed, and telephone called with enticing offers to return.  

This creepy surveillant system has been of great value to the casino industry.  It works.  But it also appears to be popular with patrons.  According to Schüll, in Las Vegas casinos, "70% of gamblers use loyalty club cards" and the number continues to rise.  Apparently the provision of personal information to a corporation is okay in exchange for a hotel room and a prime-rib dinner.  But website enrollment for affordable healthcare?  Snooze.

A distinct difference between the task/reward systems of the casinos and the healthcare enterprise is that in the healthcare website, an individual must still express a level of work and payment in exchange for the reward.  Whereas in the casino system, it appears to consist entirely of rewards for the user.  The array of losses are behind the scenes.

So returning to the issue of "who" leads the charge in the creation of smart cities, I honestly don't see a great degree of grass-roots design unless the amount of effort is reduced and a direct system of ongoing incentives is increased.   The success of the Citi Bike initiative in New York City is a good example. Users enjoy the convenience of an affordable system, brought about through public-private partnership, and the primary sponsor CitiBank maintains a constant influx on user data with which to capitalize. Perhaps in the end the only real winner will be the bank, but right now it appears as a worthwhile exchange for over 100,000 enrolled bike users. 

Perhaps this rewards model can be applied somewhere as we continue down the road of data driven city optimization.  Maybe a clear system of direct incentives can be provided in exchange for citizens to contribute to the creation of better neighborhoods and the sharing of personal data.  Maybe one day, however, the simple rewards of a safer, cleaner neighborhood will be enough?  

Democracy 2.0 - Asking the People in Syria for their Input


Before taking any further steps in Syria, why not ask the people in Syria what they want to happen?Sounds outlandish, but with a little imagination and some basic technologies, its completely possible.  It even has a precedent.

Many city governments such as in New York City have discovered the value of combing the landscape for metrics and using this data for city management while organizations like Datakind specialize in extracting and interpreting information from neighborhoods. From mapping the spatial distribution of poverty at the World Bank to Kenyan citizens reporting violence with tools like Ushahidi, lots of organizations have discovered the value of obtaining and leveraging local level information to make informed decisions.

The technologies used to collect and organize this data do more than provide a picture to experts. These technologies also open the floor for broader participation.  I am in no way saying that technology solves all problems, but as a tool for communication, it can make voices heard that would have otherwise remained in the shadows. 

At this moment the world is in panic and American's are distraught over the decisions regarding Syrian intervention.  The decision making process is reliant now upon the influence of popular opinion, congressional interests, media storms, intelligence collection, international agreements, and back room discussions.  Yet among all the talk, the most important voice has been excluded from the conversation - the voices of people living in Syria.

Engaging an entire national population, let a alone a population under pressure from the horrors of war, is no easy task. But it is possible, at least to a degree, to use a mobile phone technology like rapidsms for citizens to vote by text message just like popular tv programs that ask audiences to vote for their favorite performer.  I was informed this morning by a friend with family in Syria that the mobile communications infrastructure in Syria is not steady, but over the last year it has been working off and on.   With a little ingenuity it would be possible to create a window for voting and to filter messages.  A little bit of scripting and it is possible to cancel multiple-votes from the same number and even to map the distribution of votes across the landscape. 

A simple text message voting system will not capture popular opinion of everyone in country, but it can provide a statistically viable sample.  More significantly, implementing a tool such this could refigure the entire future of foreign policy and global security.  International policy makers already have the tools at their disposal to engage those populations most affected by military intervention, leaving imagination as the only missing piece to the puzzle.

Seeking Urban Planning 2.0


I love watching movies about the future.  I'm not exactly a major science fiction fan, but I  love to see other people's visions of what the future of cities could be like.  As a boy, I had a Back to the Future poster on my closet door and I lusted for a hovering skateboard.  I knew from an early age that I was to graduate high school in the year 2000, which even in the mid-90s tempted my mind with thoughts of glass sidewalks and gravity-defying cars.

So now, where is my floating car?  

I can't blame urban planners for our lack of aerospace transit options, but when I look at the evolution of tools for urban planning and development in comparison to the rate of growth in other technical fields, I'm struck with pangs of jealousy.  Within a matter of years, telecommunications have undergone a revolution.  Sustainable architectural technologies have leaped forward.  We can travel further, faster, and quieter than ever before and to any part of the world.  All I need is a laptop and a decent web connection to receive an education, start a business, market it, manage it, and sell it.  But regarding the decisions we make to improve our cities, the change has been slow moving.  Our modern cities very much resemble cities of 100 years ago.  Certainly they are cleaner and more efficient, but if you remove all the sleek products, they are more or less the same in organization.

Today the major obsession is big data for urban management.  We all want maps and data on everything in the city so we can cut down traffic, reduce taxes, improve utilities, and target infrastructure projects. Excellent.  To obtain this data we relay upon a variety of digital tools, which means we have to rely on computer scientists to produce the tools, manage them, and conduct much of the analysis to explain the data.  Consequently many of the best GIS users today are programmers not geographers.

The better urban designers are also often trained as architects.  They have a more specific knowledge of materials, spatial form and the construction process.  Engineers remain essential to make certain that everything has the structural capacity to function.

So with the influx of computer/data scientists and the strong role of architecture, what is today's urban planner left to do?  Mobilizing community engagement and employment within local legislative powers tend to be the two primary areas where urban planners work.  But why such a limited scope of work? 

Most urban planners I know work in one of the above positions.  I recall once meeting a planner who went on to get a JD and then worked doing rule of law in Afghanistan.  He said he would "never go back to urban planning" but I was shocked!  Building governance and law in Afghanistan is an excellent task as urban planner.

I suspect that one reason for the lack of vision and the slow growth of the profession is because the lack of imagination within urban planning education.  Many schools train their students to be mid-level bureaucrats, GIS technicians, and community workers.  They are not trained to be creators.  They are trained to be strategic.  The strategy is based upon a directed, assumed, or commonly determined vision. Within the pursuit of the strategy, many of the tactics are antiquated. In graduate school I was taught how to measure the quantitive impact of industrial job creation in a community, a rarity in today's economy.  Classes covered business incubators, industrial clusters, zoning laws, city accounting and historic preservation law.  But there were no classes that explained how a business functions, how to be an entrepreneurs, how to craft a vision for the city, how to write a computer program, or how to build a database.  There were also no specific classes on urban security, immigration, or food production or similar pressing issues.

When I left grad school I began targeting the world's hardest problems of refugee camps, urban violence, and war.  Fortunately, before pursuing planning, I started my career as an artist where I learned to create.  In graduate school,  I then acquired the ability to be strategic.  Yet it was clear that I didn't have the tools I needed.  I then went back to school for an additional year in Egypt to study international law and migration. That helped... but only made it more clear that more work needed to be done.  In the last couple years  I've spent countless nights reading books about business, working on business plans, and conducting exercises on codeacademy.com until the early morning hours.  Unfortunately, while I have some tools now that are more relevant to the problems at hand to create markets and work with information, I still have much work to do and these tools are far from sufficient.

If we are to make our dreams into a reality, we need to start training our urban problem-solvers and change-makers with more relevant tools. It doesn't all need to be digital.  They could be simple and organic tools too.  What matters most is that our tools evolve to reflect not only the demands of the present, but to better identify and pursue the opportunities of the future.  Until then, our cities will remain far removed from the possibilities of our dreams.