How cities can cultivate genius

I just got the new Wired magazine in the mail (March 2012), and it has an interesting article called “Cultivating Genius” by Jonah Lehrer. (Sorry, no online link yet.) The article starts by essentially making the same point that Edward Glaeser makes in Triumph of the City about how innovators and creators tend to congregate, especially in cities, which allow for the quick spread of ideas.

But not all places attract and cultivate geniuses. Lehrer points to three “meta-ideas” places adopt that seem to encourage genius:

  1. Human mixing, i.e., diversity. I see three areas where this point is important. First, the debate about immigration, because, as Lehrer points out, “in the overall population, a 1 percent increase in the number of immigrants with college degrees leads to a 9 to 18 percent rise in patent production.” Second, to me, it is also important to affirmative-action policies, which the Supreme Court recently agreed to revisit, because colleges and universities are where many of our new ideas are generated. Third, it may have implications for general diversity in the US. For more on that, see this 2000 diversity-index map from the Census Bureau (the trends haven’t shifted too much in the past decade, according to this USAToday map):diversity in the US
  2. Education. Lehrer believes that effectively educating the lower and middle class will waste less genius. I agree. For an interesting visual on education in the US, see this graphic from Good Magazine comparing education levels to salary:
  3. Risk taking. Lehrer suggests that we do a better job developing institutions that encourage risk taking. He makes the point that we develop great athletes because we have institutions that take risks to develop them, with the result that even small towns often produce at least one or two great athletes once in awhile. We should do the same with other types of genius, he says.

It is this third point that I think deserves the most attention from cities. As I’ve previously said, cities may be the best place for government innovation and risk-taking, for four reasons:

  1. Cities tend to be more pragmatic and less ideological than other levels of government.
  2. Density of human potential that hastens the spread of ideas.
  3. Less bureaucracy (smaller government) lets cities respond more quickly.
  4. There is less aftermath if a new innovation fails in one city than in a whole state or country.

Lehrer’s article is thought provoking (and short), so I encourage you to check it out (I’d add a link when it’s up).

Should Congress authorize incentive auction for underused spectrum?

I have previously written about my support for Congress authorizing the FCC to hold incentive auctions for underused spectrum and giving the FCC broad discretion in doing so.

Today, the New York Times reports that a bill to authorize the auction may be approved this weekend. The Obama administration has said that the auctions could raise $25 million that would go toward wireless infrastructure spending.

I have two concerns.

First, under the current bill, only $7 million is going toward infrastructure spending, compared to $15 million toward extending the payroll tax holiday and jobless benefits. As the title of the NYT article suggests, this now-bipartisan effort to authorize auctions comes about really as an effort to provide these latter benefits. I’m all for extending the benefits, but it’s a bummer that a different revenue source couldn’t be tapped for that purpose, with all of the incentive auction proceeds going toward related spending.

Second, though I haven’t read the bill, it looks like it deprives the FCC of the discretion it needs to run successful auctions. As I wrote before, we don’t want too many rules placed on FCC discretion, or else incentive auctions might, like No Child Left Behind, become a maze of ossified, unworkable regulations. Rather, the FCC needs the flexibility to respond to market concerns and changes in technology, and to use recovered spectrum in a way that serves the public interest. As the article reports, FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, though pleased that Congress may authorize auctions, is concerned that some of the bill’s language “could limit the F.C.C.’s ability to maximize the amount and benefits of recovered spectrum.” He is speaking of a provision that prohibits the FCC from barring large spectrum-holding companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, from particular auctions, though the FCC can put limits on how much total spectrum a company has. Many lawmakers don’t trust the FCC with the power to exclude these companies, but I think that distrust is overblown and stands in the way of the FCC being able to serve the American people. Why tie the FCC’s hands? Do we think they are that much more beholden to lobbyists than Congress? It seems AT&T has done a good job of getting the language it wants into the bill. I think the FCC is the better government entity to handle decisions about who gets excluded.

What’s your opinion?


Chicago’s clever new way to collect unpaid parking fines

Yesterday, the city of Chicago approved a plan to collect unpaid parking fines from state tax refunds. As the Chicago Tribune pointed out, this “power to dip into tax refunds before they’re sent out comes from a little-noticed state law that took effect two months ago that allows cities and school districts to go to the state comptroller for help collecting what they’re owed.” Other Illinois cities, including Springfield and Joliet, had agreed to take advantage of this new law even before Chicago, but Chicago stands to collect much more: The article reports that state residents expecting refunds owe Chicago about $80 million (!), though the city plans to collect only about $8 to $20 million of that.

Apparently, the new state law, passed in December, is so “little-noticed” that no news report cares to name the specific provision. I believe that the law is 15 ILCS 405/10.05 (effective December 16, 2011), which allows the state comptroller to deduct the amount owed to a “unit of local government, school district, or public institution of higher education . . . in accordance with an intergovernmental agreement authorized under this Section and Section 10.05d.”

Section 10.05d adds that taxpayers will be charged a $15 processing fee for the state comptroller to pay their unpaid tickets. It also provides some procedural protections: Taxpayers must be given notice that they have 60 days to protest the payment of unpaid fines with their refund money; if they fail to protest, the Comptroller pays the money directly to the local government.

In combination with the city’s efforts to use cameras to catch traffic violations, this could be a huge revenue generator for Chicago. I think it’s a great plan, there’s no reason people shouldn’t have to pay their parking fines. If they disagree with how steep the fines are, they can complain to city hall. In order to present both views, however, here’s a news report that interviews people who strongly disagree with the new proposal:


MIT’s SENSEable City Lab’s TED talk – Video Wednesday

This video is from March 2011. It features Carlo Ratti from the MIT SENSEable City Lab discussing how they track real-time data from cities, particularly cellphone data. I like the video because it moves beyond visualizations to some useful analysis. It also covers some of their cool projects, such as trash_track. The lab is also doing some other great stuff, I encourage you to check it out. Here’s an article covering some of their older projects. One of their latest projects, United Cities of America, tracks how far commuters travel in US cities, again using cellphone data. The results are surprising and have real implications on how we run our cities. Continue reading “MIT’s SENSEable City Lab’s TED talk – Video Wednesday”

Federal crime in Chicago versus southern Illinois

I thought it would be interesting to look at the different type of criminal cases in the federal Northern District of Illinois versus the Southern District of Illinois. (There is also the Central District of Illinois, which I am not going to discuss.) Obviously, the Northern District includes more than just Chicago, but the city makes the District much more city oriented than the Southern District. I checked out the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s sourcebook on federal sentencing statistics for 2010 and looked at the total cases by category for these two districts (these include cases which went to sentencing, not just those where charges were brought).

Here’s the Northern District’s stats by primary offense:

Here’s the Southern District’s:

Here are a couple of thoughts. Continue reading “Federal crime in Chicago versus southern Illinois”

Featured Websites: Crowdsourcing disease surveillance

Today I’m spotlighting a few websites that track real-time health information.

One neat site is, a site that scans news reports and gives an hourly update about health concerns worldwide, pinpointing the location on a map. It says it’s a go-to place for disease-surveillance experts, and I can see why: The site does a good job of consolidating information about outbreaks and quickly showing where they are concentrated. Here’s its promo video:

Another new website,, is focused on collecting information from social networks. Users can (1) input their health symptoms or (2) let sickweather’s algorithm crawl their Facebook and Twitter feeds for reports of illiness. Then, that data is used to show where in the US certain symptoms are cropping up most often. As reported in Fast Company, it’s named “sickweather” because, “just as Doppler radar scans the skies for indicators of bad weather, Sickweather scans social networks for indicators of illness.” Yet as John Metcalfe at Atlantic Cities points out, it looks like some cities have a bulk of the users so far, so until it catches on, it’s more just for fun. And since it relies on user self-reports and has no fact-checker, it may be less accurate than healthmap, which relies on articles that have are vetted in some way. Sickweather, however. has the potential to catch outbreaks much earlier in their lifecycle than healthmap; it’d be great if the two services could be integrated.

One final project that has the potential to catch diseases early on is Google’s Flu Trends, which uses search terms that, Google says, “are good indicators of flu activity” to provide a visualization of which countries have the worst flu activity. Google also has a tool for tracking Dengue fever.

These technologies are an important leap forward. And the more people who know about it, the better the technology gets, at least in regard to So, check it out.

The legal limits on government use of social media

Ad-tech London 2010 (5)What are the limits on government use of social media? If a city has a Facebook page, can it remove distasteful comments? profane ones? racist ones?

Professor Lyrissa Lidsky explains in her recent article, Public Forum 2.0,  that the answers to these questions isn’t always easy. The Supreme Court’s decisions on public forum and government speech are complex., she points out, creating a “maze” of different categories of speech. She breaks them down into five:

1. The traditional public forum, including public streets, parks, and sidewalks. The state is prohibited from imposing content-based restrictions on speech in these forums unless those limits are “necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and . . . narrowly drawn to achieve that end.” Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators’ Association, 460 U.S. 37, 45 (1983). Content-neutral limits (such as time, place, or manner) are allowed if they are “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” Id. Lidsky maintains that is unlikely this category applies to social media because the Court “has signaled clearly that the category is defined by the historical use of government property.”

2.The designated public forum, which applies when a government clearly indicates that it is designates the forum for public use. These forums are treated the same as traditional public forums.

3. The limited public forum is one the government designates for use by certain groups or for certain topics. For example, a school district can limit an area for use by students or restrict a meeting to speech about school-board business. The government’s creation and application of these limits must be reasonable and viewpoint neutral. As an example, the Supreme Court upheld a law school’s rule that all student groups, in order to receive school funding, must accept “all comers” to leadership positions, meaning the school could refuse to fund a Christian group that prohibited people with contrary beliefs from being leaders. Christian Legal Society Chapter of the University of California v. Martinez, 130 S.Ct. 2971 (2010). As Lindsky points out, this category becomes murky when courts try to determine whether a government is applying its rules is a reasonable manner. For example, the Supreme Court has also prohibited a university from cutting funding to a Christian newspaper, reasoning that the school could not exclude a group from expressing religious viewpoints because it allowed discussion of religion as a subject matter more generally. Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995).

4. The nonpublic forum, including anything that’s not a traditional public forum or designated by the government as a public forum. In these areas, the government may impose time, place, and manner restrictions and exclude speakers as long as the exclusion is “reasonable and not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker’s view.” Perry, 460 U.S. at 49. The distinction between this category and a limited public forum is clear in theory, but difficult to pin down in reality because an area can be “designated” a limited public theory simply because of a pattern or practice of its use in that manner.

5. Government speech is a newly created category that recognizes, in Lidsky’s words, that “the government is permitted to use media to communicate its views to citizens, and when it does so, it need not include opposing viewpoints.” The most-prominent example comes from the Court’s 2009 decision in Summum v. Pleasant Grove City, 129 S.Ct. 1125, allowing a city to refuse to erect a Summon religious monument in a public park, even though there was already a Ten Commandments monument in the park. The Court said that the monument represented the government’s own expression of speech, and the government “is entitled to say what it wishes, and to select the views that it wants to express.”

So what are some take-aways for local governments using social media? It’s a bit unclear. But Lidsky makes these  suggestions. First, “[a] non-interactive Facebook page controlled by a government actor would doubtless be treated as government speech, meaning that private speakers have no First Amendment rights to speak in those forums.” But an interactive site, she says, may be labeled a “designated” or “limited” public forum, thus limiting the government’s ability to police comments made on its site, though the government may retain some ability to limit profanity. Finally, she argues that “if a government actor is very careful in setting up its social media site, it can usually guarantee that the site is either government speech or a nonpublic forum and can therefore retain maximum control over speech that occurs there.”

I encourage you to read the whole article, which is available on SSRN. Lidsky eventually recommends a new approach to free-speech law as it relates to government use of social media.

Do we need a data-privacy treaty?

North AmericaToday’s post will briefly introduce a topic I plan to cover in more detail later: legal privacy concerns about data stored by the government.

There are many issues that fall under this topic, but I want to highlight just one, raised by a recent article from Technology Review addressing international jurisdiction concerns over data storage.

As the article points out, many cloud providers are located in the US, so oversea government agencies who want to use those services are concerned about whether the US can snoop on their data, especially under the expanded power given to US law enforcement by the Patriot Act. For example, British Columbia, Canada, passed a law in 2004 requiring that citizen information collected by the government be “stored only in Canada and accessed only in Canada.”

But the US government’s influence on data privacy reaches beyond its borders. The article gives two examples from last year: (1) Microsoft and Google confirmed that “even data stored outside the United States—including European data centers—could be subject to lawful U.S. government requests”; (2) “Amazon booted . . . Wikileaks off its cloud servers amid complaints from Washington that Wikileaks was storing stolen classified documents on the machines.”

Even aside from concerns over the reach of the US, the article emphasizes, companies “that store data in multiple places may face conflicting” legal regimes. For example, “some countries require data to be logged for a certain amount of time, while others require that data be deleted after a certain time.”

Is it time for the US to sign on to a data-privacy treaty? Should this be a topic for the fast-approaching G8 summit in Chicago? What are your thoughts?