Khan Academy has been the education start-up to watch for awhile now, having been featured in Wired Magazine and endorsed and promoted by none other than Bill Gates. A new article by David Hill at SingularityHub gives a great summary of the Academy’s past year, showing why the program remains the hottest thing in education technology.
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
This week’s video is a fun one; it’s a concept video about Urbanflow, a collaboration between a NYC-based design company Urbanscale and Finnish designers Nordkapp. They want touchscreens everywhere in Helsinki, so the public can access maps and transit info, interact with each other, and report municipal concerns like potholes. John Pavlus has raised some concerns about their plan—you can read his view here—but for now, just enjoy their beautiful visualization of the data-driven city of the future (after the jump).
Today I want to highlight a great project that showcases the potential for technology to change city life for the better. Random Hacks of Kindness (or RHoK) is as an initiative started in 2009 by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, NASA, and the World Bank that hosts app contests aimed at the more social-justice side of open data. (It was originally aimed at disaster and crisis response, but as they say on their site, they’re “always looking for new problems to work on.”) So far, they’ve hosted 3 worldwide events in 31 cities, engaging more than 3,000 participants. All projects developed during their events are required to be released under an open-source license. Here’s a link to their blog.
I’ll highlight one example of an app developed at a RHoK event: Sheltr, an app developed at the December 2011 RHoK contest in Philadelphia that recently won GovFresh’s Award for “Best Social Services App” of 2011. Sheltr is a mobile app that provides information about resources for the homeless in Philadelphia, including intake centers, places to get meals, and places to sleep. Their goal is to categorize this information so that it is easily accessible to community members and service providers. The problem is outlined on the project’s website: “Currently there is no way to gauge real-time availability of food and shelter services for these disparate groups. The Philly Sheltr Project establishes consolidated baseline information (service availability), contact for intake centers, and specific instructions to access resources.”
Hopefully, the Sheltr project will spread to new cities soon. I knew some homeless advocates in Atlanta, and this project would have been a big help to them. They gave volunteers hardcopy lists of shelters and meal sites, but the lists had to be constantly updated and redistributed to volunteers. This project would make it a lot easier not only to update the list but also to distribute it throughout the community.
Kudos to RHok, Sheltr, and all the other hackers working for the public good!
In 1932 Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” And indeed, the States remain a powerful laboratory, able to innovate constrained only by the U.S. Constitution.
But the quote applies ever more to cities. Although they sometimes lack deep pockets, and their authority to regulate is derived from the state, they offer many advantages over state and federal government. I’ll list four. First, as Benjamin Barber recently argued, cities tend to be more pragmatic and less ideological than other levels of government, meaning real innovation gets done in a practical way. Second, as Edward Glaeser points out in “Triump of the City,” cities are smaller geographically and dense with human potential, which accelerates the spread of ideas. Third, comparatively minimal bureaucracy allows cities to respond quickly to changing technology. Four, if an initiative fails, it doesn’t affect a whole state (or the whole country).
Put differently, cities are the tech start-ups of government; the federal government is Microsoft. As Arianna Huffington recently wrote, “It’s our cities, not the nation’s capital, that are the real idea factory of our country.”
I’ll give two examples.
First, one many people are familiar with—open-data initiatives. In 2007 Vivek Kundra, then Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Technology for Virginia, became Washington D.C.’s Chief Technology Officer. He created the D.C. Data Catalog, making government data available for open-source application development. He also instituted an app contest, using a pot of money to crowdsource innovation. When Obama became president, he drafted Kundra as Chief Innovation Officer, where he created data.gov, an initiative to provide an accessible online catalog of data from federal agencies. The idea has spread like wildfire, with more and more cities creating open-data sites and sponsoring app contests. And the data.gov model has now caught on in more than 13 countries. The world has been changed, with momentum generated by a city that was willing to embrace new ideas and showcase on a small scale what would eventually become a worldwide movement.
Second, an example from an area of interest to me—vacant-property registration. In 2007 Chula Vista, California, enacted an ordinance that took a novel approach in the fight to maintain vacant properties: Rather than simply requiring property owners to register vacant property, the city required mortgage lenders to register property when it went into foreclosure and then to maintain the property to stringent code guidelines. Chula Vista’s code enforcement officer, Doug Leeper, was particularly vigilant, and during the program’s first year of operation, Chula Vista raised $77,000 in registration fees (at $70 per property) and imposed around $850,000 in administrative citations. The program was such a success that Leeper was called to testify before the House of Representative’s subcommittee on Domestic Policy in 2008 in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. Again, one city’s program spread like wildfire. By my count, nearly 100 municipalities had enacted a similar ordinance by 2009, and that number has continued multiplying ever since. Recently, even Chicago modified its registration ordinance to target lenders.
This type of innovation comes only from local thinkers (and doers) living in communities, seeing local problems, and testing solutions in perhaps America’s greatest laboratories for government innovation—our cities.
Wanted to highlight an app from last year’s Apps for Metro Chicago competition called OkCopay.
The app compares the cash price of medical services. It’s primary for people to shop around for those services not covered by insurance. It also compares other variables, such as years of experience and distance from your geographic area, though, unfortunately, I didn’t see a place where users could rate their medical care (which would be helpful). Nonetheless, it’s a great effort because cash prices vary widely, and people need to know that. Here’s an example they gave during the App Contest: “the cash price for an Abdominal MRI in downtown Chicago at accredited imaging facilities can range from $420 to $2093, and an eyeglass exam can range from $44 to $300.”
The Chicago Tribune recently interviewed OkCopay’s founder, Toure McCluskey, about being one of a few black startup founders in Chicago. And here’s another interview about the more technical aspects of the site, and the announcement that the company won the “Innovate Illinois” award in the Apps Contest.
I think that this is a great idea; there are a lot of services not covered by basic insurance, including vision and dental care, and around 12% of Illinois residents don’t have health insurance in the first place, according to this Chicago Tribune article, though that number is expected to decrease when Obama’s healthcare law kicks in. Providing this data helps citizens make smart choices in choosing private healthcare, and that’s a win-win for government and the public.
The Cook County jail is currently the largest single-site jail in the nation. (Jails, as opposed to prisons, house inmates sentenced to less than a year imprisonment or who are awaiting trial, which can last for multiple years.) The Cook County jail can house nearly 10,000 inmates at a time and holds about 100,000 annually. (Interestingly, I learned on a recent tour of the jail that it also operates the state’s largest mental-health facility, just for inmates.)
Running a jail that big is very expensive; not to mention that overcrowding increases the risk of bad conditions and violence. Cook County Board of Commissioners president Toni Preckwinkle says the cost is $143 per inmate per day. With nearly 10,000 inmates, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars. Preckwinkle wants to cut the cost, as reported by the New York Times:
She set a goal of reducing the average daily population at the jail from about 8,500 to 7,500 in the next fiscal year , which begins Dec. 1, to save about $5 million.
That’s a pretty ambitious goal for a county to take on.
The county can’t rewrite the criminal laws; nor does it generally choose who to prosecute. Those decisions are left to the state and federal government. But the county does get to choose how it restrains people: a spokesman for the county sheriff says they are working to enhance their approach to electronic monitoring, particularly for nonviolent first-time offenders. Apparently 70% of the jail’s inmates are there for nonviolent crimes, and Preckwinkle wants to see more of those people put on electronic monitoring rather than incarcerated. Chicago estimates the cost of home surveillance is $65 per day, so it seems like a good plan. (I’ve seen estimates that electronic surveillance can cost as little as $5 per day.) The cost can even be charged to offenders, who, in most cases, would be glad to pay $65 for a get-out-of-jail card.
This seems like a great idea to me, and one that highlights the potential for municipalities to help solve problems that the state and federal government can’t seem to figure out. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. This costs us more than just the price of housing inmates: inmates bring hundreds of civil-rights cases a year against prison officials for constitutional violations (some caused by overcrowding), which add cost to the state and federal government and, of course, human potential is wasted. But no politician wants to be the one to let off more criminals, so there is a lack of support for reforming our prison system. Preckwinkle’s plan makes sense; it targets those awaiting trial (people aren’t getting off too easy in the end), and those who are the least likely to be a risk to society.
What are your thoughts?
Here is Rachel Sterne, NYC’s Chief Digital Officer, discussing a four-point plan for advancing technology in NYC. The four points—which are useful for any city government—are as follows:
- Access to technology, e.g., expanding the access to wireless Internet
- Open government, e.g., sharing more information with developers
- Engagement, e.g., using more social media, specifically Twitter, Youtube, and Tumblr
- Industry, e.g., welcoming start-ups and engaging developers