People Power + Techno Transparency = Saving Our Cities

Clay Johnson has an provocative blog post about the crisis in municipal financing and the opportunity it presents:

There’s a crisis coming. Chicago is running a half-billion dollar deficit. New York City’s FY2011 deficit is nearly five billion dollars. Two months ago, Warren Buffett reduced his exposure to municipal bonds. According to the Pew Center on the States, there’s a trillion dollar gapbetween what states can pay for retirement benefits, and what those retirement benefits cost.

Municipal employee job losses are approaching 500,000 according to the National League of Cities and services are getting cut.

...

In this crisis, presently cities have two options— privitization and Chapter 9. I don’t want to be tried in a court run by a for-profit conglomerate that also owns the police and the prisons. Perhaps its the idealist in me, but I want this crisis mean more than privatization or bankruptcy. I want it to drive a need for people to connect locally, and I want it to further blur the line between people and the government they elect. I want it to usher in a new era of civic responsibility.

This past winter, the District of Columbia had its biggest snowstorm in 88 years. The entire city (and the federal government) was generally shut down for days, and Mayor Fenty waslambasted in the national news for being unprepared with his snow plows. As I was shoveling my sidewalk, I was listening to my able bodied neighbors complain about how the government hadn’t plowed the district 48 hours after the snow fell. The thing is — together, we had the people to plow the streets and the sidewalks ourselves. I count 60 households on my block of row houses. With a bit of organizing, we could build a small sno-litia to clear the street and sidewalks for the entire block. What we lacked was the connection to one another and the ability to organize. It was easier to complain in the warmth of our own homes.

Gov2 startup SeeClickFix makes public issues in a municipality public but it likely increases the cost of government services. By making it easier to submit service requests, more service requests government needs to do and that creates cost. Take a look at issue #47461 that complains the District of Columbia isn’t mowing the small park built with recovery funds. Here’s the park in Google Street View. If you turn the view around you’ll note that there are plenty of mowed lawns. These people are not without lawnmowers. Why not organize and take care of the park? That’s civic responsibility.

My bet is that with a bit of organizing that park could become a neighborhood’s responsibility. This may seem harsh. You pay taxes. That’s the government’s job, not yours. Remember, the assumption of this article is that we’ll soon be living in near bankrupt cities with minimal public services.

As a developer I think technology can play a role in this. I think things like the Neighborhood Watch can be revitalized with new technology. When my alarm system goes off, why does it not send an SMS to my neighbors? Why shouldn’t it turn on the flood lights of everyone in the neighborhood? Next to its “I want this fixed too” button, SeeClickFix should have an “I’ll help fix this, too” button. It could even keep track of how many people helped their neighborhood. Let’s have a ranking of who most helpful neighbors are. And heck, government should reward them with tax incentives.

I came across Johnson's post the same day I found this by Cliff Schecter:

To me -- perhaps because I have lived in big cities most of my life -- finding ways to reform city government, bring transparency, better deliver services and improve the quality of life in metropolitan areas is a passion, because I think there are so many possibilities (especially with today's technology) for making people's lives better by rising up to meet these challenges.

This is why I am thrilled to be working with the City Forward initiative. What is City Forward? It is a tool that pulls public data from urban centers on different issues (user specified) and displays it in customizable graphs.

For example, users can create an 'exploration' for important environmental issues such as water usage in multiple cities, and then have it displayed in charts that will visually present the data in a way that people can understand it. These charts allow anyone to make a case or tell a story about what one city or many cities are doing to improve in an areas such as this one, and what others are neglecting.

In other words, in addition to being groundbreaking in its potential applications, its a pretty cool tool for improving government transparency and letting people access public records in a useful, understandable way.

 

When I'm feeling hopeless it's this kind of innovation that reminds me that humans are resourceful animals and we can do more than drift aimlessly through crisis after crisis, we can adapt and attack our problems.

Tags: clay johnson, cliff schecter, city forward, transparency, IBM (all tags)

Comments

2 Comments

Zero comments?

I like the idea of connecting citizens to take direct responsibility for their neighborhoods, and what could be more appropriate for a post on My Direct Democracy?

This is something like what I described in "An Astounding Success for Grass-Roots Environmentalism," which is also languishing with no comments except my own.

And after the neighborhood associations finish clearing snow and mowing parks, they could also plant a few trees! Those things can accomplish miracles!

by Jacob Freeze 2011-03-01 06:48PM | 0 recs
Don't get me wrong, I actually like to shovel snow...

... but this kinda sounds like waving the white flag to the conservative talking point that we don't need government to do its job correctly because normal citizens can just do it themselves without any inefficiencies and corruptions that a government would impose.

I mean, heck, there are plenty of people who hold college degrees.  Why bother with a public school system when those college educated people are just knocking about without anything to do?  In fact probably a lot of people who have college degrees also already have school-aged children.  It's Little House on the Prarie all over again. Because, you know, the internet and wikipedia are so good who needs K-12 education?

Sorry for the snark, because I DO actually think people are able to take care of themselves and their neighbors in most regards, and I DO think that technology can help our lives -- especially by creating transparency.  But its this libertarian line of thought that leads Tea Partiers to believe that they don't need a government AT ALL.

How would the techno-libertarian small-town society deal with road building? With protecting its local water suply from an off-shore oil spill?  Would the techno-townspeople, armed with their iPhones and pitchforks, be able to fend off a drug cartel in some place like San Diego?

Of course these scenarios are NOT the same as shoveling snow or planting trees, but if you accept the premise that (State, Local, Federal) government isn't stretched thin enough and could really be much smaller, than you're granting validity to a fundamental tenant of conservative thought for the past forty years.  Look at what's happening in Wisconsin (and all over the country at every level) and tell me that's not part of the same "starve the beast" mentality.

It's not okay to see one thing after another cut and then turn around and say "oh, okay, we'll just figure it out ourselves," because inevitably Conservatives are already going to be looking for the next program to slash and I'd kinda like to keep the municipal pools open and teachers and police officers employed, etc. etc.

by jlars 2011-03-08 01:29AM | 0 recs

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