Bridging the Digital Divide in Gigabit Cities

Denise Linn conducted this research as an MPP Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is currently a Program Analyst at the Smart Chicago Collaborative.

With the rise of coalitions like Next Century Cities and Gig.U and the development of groundbreaking networks in cities like Chattanooga and Kansas City, the buzz surrounding gigabit Internet speeds has swelled in the US. Cities are working closely with companies like Google Fiber or even building out fiber-optic infrastructure themselves. The suggested rewards of these investments include stronger local economies, vibrant tech startup scenes, progress in distance learning, telemedicine, research—and the list goes on.

But when superfast gigabit speeds are available in a city, what does that mean for people beyond tech entrepreneurs and other heavy Internet users? How can cities make sure that technological innovation lifts up the lives of every resident? This all leads to the ultimate question I examined in my recent research: What does the availability of high speed Internet mean for the digital divide?

Unpacking public data can shed some insight on this important issue. The 2013 American Community Survey’s tract and city-level demographic data merged with the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband subscribership data tell us a complex story about what faster speeds do to digital inclusion in metro areas. Though on the surface, both normal cities and gigabit cities do not appear to differ greatly in terms of overall broadband adoption, the data show that there is significant interaction between poverty and gigabit infrastructure. In other words, the presence of gigabit infrastructure has a significant correlation with higher connectivity in lower-income neighborhoods. Poorer cities and poorer census tracts are predicted to fare better when there is gigabit availability.

Why is this? There are a few possible explanations:

  1. Increased competition: It’s possible that faster speeds spur competition, lower prices, and make at-home broadband subscriptions possible for more people.
  2. Greater awareness of why the Internet is important: According to Pew, the number one barrier for broadband adoption in the home is lack of awareness or understanding of how the Internet is relevant to everyday activities. It’s possible that the community organizing process required to build gigabit networks engages low-income neighborhoods and heightens awareness of why the Internet is important throughout a city.
  3. Empowered anchor institutions in low-income areas: Within gigabit cities, anchor institutions—community-based organizations and libraries—deliver critical services to help get people online. In my research I saw interesting outliers—namely, very poor census tracts that were walkable and had easy access to public amenities or programs saw higher rates of Internet connectivity. For example, Hamilton County’s census tract 20 in Chattanooga, TN is both dense and is home to four churches and Howard High School. In 2013, 46% of households in this tract were living in poverty, but over 80% subscribed to broadband service.

The data analysis also points to weaknesses in high-speed Internet cities: broadband adoption in concentrated populations of non-English speakers and communities with low educational attainment. Interestingly, these residents are predicted to be worse off in gigabit cities. This observation points to what many might already suspect—that the relevancy and skill barriers to broadband adoption cannot be solved by faster speeds alone.

Fortunately, cities can understand and take ownership over their own digital divides, whether they are gigabit cities or aspiring gigabit cities. The public sector has a major role to play in digital inclusion. For example, cities can hire a digital inclusion specialist to work full time on the issue or create a grants program for local nonprofits. It’s clear that city governments can set the tone for broadband adoption. You can see my recommended digital inclusion actions for city governments here.

The National League of Cities, in partnership with Next Century Cities and Google Fiber, is conducting a webinar on August 6th to provide practical steps and specific case examples for city governments seeking to heighten their work in this area. Also, cities with great programs or programming ideas will have the opportunity to win a first-ever Digital Inclusion Leadership Award and share their success stories at the NLC conference in November.

To learn more about digital inclusion and dive deeper into the subjects covered in this post, see A Data-Driven Digital Inclusion Strategy for Gigabit Cities, or the summary here. Continua a leggere

Smart Maps for Smart Cities: India’s $8 Billion+ Opportunity

Gaurav Gupta is Dalberg‘s Regional Director for Asia.

Did you know that India is expected to see the greatest migration to cities of any country in the world in the next three decades, with over 400 million new inhabitants moving into urban areas? To accommodate this influx of city dwellers, India’s urban infrastructure will have to grow, too.

That growth has already begun. In the last six years alone, India’s road network has already expanded by one-quarter, while the number of total businesses increased by one-third.

To better understand how smart maps—citizen-centric maps that crowdsource, capture, and share a broad range of detailed data—can help India develop smarter and more efficient cities, our team at Dalberg Global Development Advisors worked with the Confederation of Indian Industry on a new study, Smart Maps for Smart Cities: India’s $8 Billion+ Opportunity. What we found was that even for a select set of use cases, smart maps can help India gain over USD $8 billion in savings and value, save 13,000 lives, and reduce one million metric tons of carbon emissions a year in cities alone. Their aggregate impact is likely to be several multiples higher.

Our research shows that simple improvements in basic maps can lead to significant social impact: smart maps can also help businesses attract more consumers, increase foreign tourist spending and even help women feel safer.

In these quickly changing cityscapes, online tools like maps need to be especially dynamic, able to update faster and quickly expand coverage of local businesses in order to serve as highly useful tools for citizens. Yet today, most cities lack sophisticated online tools that make changing information, like road conditions and new businesses, easy to find online. Only 10-20% of the India’s businesses, for instance, are listed on online maps.

So what will it take to continue developing smart maps to help power these cities? Our study shows that India will need to embrace a new policy framework that truly encourages scalable solutions and innovation by promoting crowdsourcing and creating a single accessible point of contact between government and the local mapping industry.

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Housing Data Hub – from Open Data to Information

Joy Bonaguro Chief Data Officer, City and County of San Francisco. This is a repost from April at announcing the launch of their Housing Data Hub.

Housing is a complex issue and it affects everyone in the City. However, there is not a lot of broadly shared knowledge about the existing portfolio of programs. The Hub puts all housing data in one place, visualizes it, and provides the program context. This is also the first of what we hope to be a series of strategic open data releases over time. Read more about that below or check out the Hub, which took a village to create!

Evolution of Open Data: Strategic Releases

The Housing Data Hub is also born out of a belief that simply publishing data is no longer sufficient. Open data programs need to take on the role of adding value to open data versus simply posting it and hoping for its use. Moreover, we are learning how important context is to understanding government datasets. While metadata is an essential part of context, it’s a starting not endpoint.

For us a strategic release is one or more key datasets + a data product. A data product can be a report, a website, an analysis, a package of visualizations, an article…you get the idea. The key point: you have done something beyond simply publishing the data. You provide context and information that transforms the data into insights or helps inform a conversation. (P.S. That’s also why we are excited about Socrata’s new dataset user experience for our open data platform).

Will we only do strategic releases?

No! First off – it’s a ton of work and requires amazing partnerships. Strategic (or thematic) releases should be a key part of an open data program but not the only part. We will continue to publish datasets per department plans (coming out formally this summer). And we’ll also continue to take data nominations to inform department plans.

We’ll reserve strategic releases to:

  • Address a pressing information gap or need
  • Inform issues of high public interest or concern
  • Tie together disparate data that may otherwise be used in isolation
  • Unpack complex policy areas through the thoughtful dissemination of open data
  • Pair data with the content and domain expertise that we are uniquely positioned to offer (e.g answer the questions we receive over and over again in a scalable way)
  • Build data products that are unlikely to be built by the private sector
  • Solve cross-department reporting challenges

And leverage the open data program to expose the key datasets and provide context and visualizations via data products.

We also think this is a key part of broadening the value of open data. Open data portals have focused more on a technical audience (what we call our citizen programmers). Strategic releases can help democratize how governments disseminate their data for a local audience that may be focused on issues in addition to the apps and services built on government data. It can also be a means to increase internal buyin and support for open data.

Next steps

As part of our rolling release, we will continue to work to automate the datasets feeding the hub. You can read more about our rollout process, inspired by the UK Government Digital Service. We’ll also follow up with technical post on the platform, which is available on GitHub, including how we are consuming the data via our open data APIs.

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Better Permits, Better Cities: How Hacking City Policy Can Improve the Public Realm

Jake Levitas is a civic designer, organizer, and activist based in San Francisco. Cross-posted from

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. — Jane Jacobs

Cities are at their best when they change with their citizens; when, to quote Rebar principal Matthew Passmore, “a city’s evolution keeps pace with its own cultural evolution.” Unfortunately, cities are often preventing themselves from doing just that—from being responsive enough to their own changing dynamics to continue existing as accurate reflections of and platforms for their own cultures. Outdated permitting processes are keeping a large swath of promising projects in art, design, technology, and other modes of expression from ever becoming part of the urban landscape. Along the way, cities are missing opportunities to add economic and cultural value in a time of constrained resources.

In other words: cities can be more healthy, engaging, beautiful and productive if they make it easier for citizens to contribute to making them so.

Historically, projects that alter the public realm have been generally divided into two camps: those that play by the rules (city-sanctioned installations, community murals) and those that don’t (graffiti, vandalism). Recently, this dichotomy has been disrupted by projects that make practical and aesthetic improvements to public space—but don’t always ask for permission. This approach is driven by citizens with the passion to improve their cities and the impatience to not wait through the full public permitting process to take action. But what if that process weren’t so intimidating, time-consuming, and costly for the average city resident? Could we make cities better, faster?

Why Civic Design Policy is Like Rocket Science
In between powerful ideas and powerful change lies powerful bureaucracy.

Internally, city governments are tasked with ensuring that public infrastructure and funds are used safely and responsibly. Permits that utilize these funds or resources are, for good reason, a big part of this.

But from an outside perspective—for community members, designers, artists, architects, makers—the process of getting a project approved and permitted by city departments might as well be rocket science. The entire tactical urbanism movement exists largely as a band-aid solution for citizens who lack the resources, time, or patience to navigate this complex approval system, and prefer taking matters into their own hands to create local change. A key question moving forward is how this process can be opened up to look less like rocket science, and more like the DIY science kits that turn kids everywhere into excited, engaged brainstormers. How can we make the permitting process sexier to better engage the average citizen?

Let’s get into the details a little bit. Say you want to install an Urban Prototyping project like Urban Parasol in your city—attaching a modular shade structure to a light pole. In San Francisco, the light pole you’re attaching to is managed by SFPUC, the sidewalks people are standing on underneath your structure are managed by SFDPW, and the street thoroughfare your overhang stretches above is managed by SFMTA. You might need permits and approvals from all of these agencies before you even think of hitting the street—and often, existing permits aren’t set up to handle these types of ideas.

While you’re at it, you might want to talk to someone in the SF Arts Commission, City Administrator’s Office, Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, or your local Community Benefit District about gaining local support for the project. Then you’ll need to make sure it doesn’t make the area less beautiful, more dangerous, or more prone to attract noisy late-night revelry in the eyes of the neighbors nearby. And finally, you’ll also need a way to pay for the material costs, and find a way to get your work paid for if you’re not planning to donate your time as a civic volunteer. All of this work is on top of the citizens’ principal focus of creating the best public art piece, design intervention, or interactive installation they possibly can—which is a huge job in itself.

Understandably, it’s hard for most citizens who want to contribute to know where to begin. The process isn’t made easier by the fact that most government websites are difficult to navigate (though there are exceptions!), and most departments don’t have a liaison dedicated to making this process easy and accessible for the community.

Better permits will allow artists and designers to focus more on what they’re good at—creating great civic projects—while allowing city planners to focus on their own invaluable strengths—navigating the crucial regulatory nuances of City Hall that can make these projects a reality.

Why It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
Cities want to help, and the barriers aren’t as big as they seem.

Here’s the good news: the obstacles to getting public design projects approved, built, and installed are actually not as complicated as they seem—and they’re pretty much exactly what you would think they are. In speaking with city officials in several San Francisco agencies recently, they all outlined the same five barriers as the root causes of bureaucratic slowness and difficulty. I’ve listed these below, along with some basic steps toward getting around them:

  1. Liability + injury potential: Perhaps the biggest obstacle from a legal perspective is determining who is responsible if someone is injured or otherwise harmed directly or indirectly by a project. Most projects need someone to cover liability associated with them, which sometimes means working out a deal with the city or a local business owner who already has a policy in place. This can be tricky but certainly isn’t impossible, and could be streamlined by the city to make it even easier—for example, by creating a guide that helps citizens understand the liability process and their options for getting approved.
  2. Citizen complaints: Many projects can be derailed due to concerns from locals over issues like noise, aesthetics, traffic, or safety. Working with the community and conducting preliminary testing and meetings before a full installation can go a long way toward easing the public’s mind and garnering support for a project
  3. Funding + procurement: Procurement requirements—standards for the entities and people that can provide services to and receive funding from the city—can be a barrier for individual citizens and smaller organizations to create real projects that take advantage of city improvement funds and other public funding. There are a few easy ways to help remedy this: designers and artists can work through nonprofits and firms that are already city vendors; the city can make it easier for citizens to both become vendors and/or connect with existing vendors; and the city can also fast-track projects with external funding (from grants, individuals, or crowd funding) to increase the value they are able to capture from outside City Hall.
  4. Lack of interagency dialog: Every city has a web of responsibilities that is often spread across a complicated web of departments and individuals. However, most cities lack an interagency review board or task force to streamline the process of approving public design projects. Others make it difficult for departments to simply talk to each other, making it harder to find the creative regulatory solutions sometimes necessary to bring projects to life. We’ve started forming an Urban Prototyping Task Force in San Francisco to help get the ball rolling on these issues, and a culture of dialog can also be taken much further when it is promoted from the top by a visionary mayor or planning director.
  5. Lack of a good public interface: As mentioned above, there’s generally no central government touch point for citizens who want to design for the public realm. Ideally this touch point should be a combination of 1) well-designed and accessible informational resources and 2) dedicated staff members to support them and interface with the public directly. In San Francisco, we’re fortunate to have the SF Better Streets initiative—a simply fantastic effort that gets closer to this interface than anything else I’ve personally seen.

Finally, most city staff members I’ve met with are just as frustrated with the typical regulatory process as we on the outside are—and they’re actively looking for great new citizen-led projects and the means to take them forward. This may be somewhat unique to San Francisco, birthplace of the parklet, but my sense from speaking with officials in other cities is that the broader culture is changing—the permits themselves just haven’t been able to catch up yet.

Where We Go From Here
We know the problems—so let’s start tackling them together.

If the good news is that barriers to permitting civic design projects are well-known and surmountable, the better news is that many cities are already heading in the right direction. San Francisco’s groundbreaking work creating the parklet permit has been well-documented, and Boston’s City Hall to Go program is another great example of making city services and processes more accessible to the general public. Even more importantly, the conversations between City Hall insiders and outsiders—those in need of city approvals and those providing them—have become much more frequent and robust in recent years—a welcome change from the sometimes stereotypical bureaucratic Iron Curtain. Technology and new forms of engagement are only making these interactions easier.

To be clear, “hacking” the permitting process—rethinking it to make it more efficient, effective, and attractive—isn’t necessarily going to be easy, fast, or fun. It took about five years to formally establish the parklet permitting process in San Francisco. If we’re going to hack city policy successfully, our best tool is the continued dialog between citizens and government. Understanding each others’ needs and contexts is the first step to change, and it’s already starting to happen today.

Every citizen can be a part of this change by tracking down supportive officials in the right departments, sharing successful project examples, and organizing open discussions (like this one) to promote understanding and (most importantly) action. Together, we can ensure that better permits will create better cities.

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Visualization: The Atlantic’s Class-divided Cities Series

In January, Atlantic editor Richard Florida kicked off a series of posts called the “Class-divided Cities.” Each post includes an analysis and map visualizations of socio-economic polarization within different areas of US cities.

This divide is seen most clearly in where members of each class live. A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that residential segregation between upper- and lower- income households has risen in 27 of America’s 30 largest metros over the past several decades. Compounding this polarization between rich and poor neighborhoods, the share of middle-income neighborhoods has declined substantially.


To get a better sense of the scale of the divide in American cities, my research team at the Martin Prosperity Institute — relying on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — plotted and mapped the residential locations of today’s three major classes: the shrinking middle of blue-collar workers in manufacturing, transportation, and maintenance; the rising numbers of highly paid knowledge, professional, and creative workers in the creative class; and the even larger and faster-growing ranks of lower-paid, lower-skill service workers. For the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the various divides in some of America’s largest cities and metros.

The series began with New York, and yesterday, San Francisco became the 11th.

List of city analyses, in the order in which they were posted:

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