Structural Success in Civic Tech

This blog post is also published on Data-Smart City Solutions and is by Glynis Startz — Smart Chicago’s 2016 Harvard Ash Center Summer Fellow. Glynis is assisted with Smart Chicago’s Array of Things Civic Engagement work, among other smart cities-focused projects. Glynis is a Master in Public Policy Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.

As a Harvard Ash Fellow this summer, I spent 10 weeks working at the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization dedicated to improving lives in Chicago through technology. I was brought on to work on Smart Chicago’s resident engagement for Array of Things, a series of environmental sensors being installed around the city. In addition to assisting with the day to day aspects of that project, I got to step back and think more closely about the Internet of Things and civic engagement. You can find the resulting blog posts here. In addition to this more tangible work, I also was able to learn about the breadth of projects Smart Chicago works on, and see how they, as an organization, function.


Glynis, our 2016 Summer Ash Fellow, greets Pilsen residents at our Array of Things Public Meeting in Lozano Library

Smart Chicago has a unique structure, functioning between the governmental and non-profit spheres. It was founded jointly by the City of Chicago, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust, and sits within the latter. This structure puts Smart Chicago in a privileged space. They have both stability and a lean, agile structure difficult to maintain in a government office. From this position Smart Chicago has prioritized reaching out to communities while maintaining ties to the government, philanthropy, and tech spaces — being a bridge between these communities in addition to their specific project work. Sitting at Smart Chicago this summer, I was exposed to many different aspects of the civic tech sphere as well as the wider community, but it also made me aware how rare that position was. Most cities are without a Smart Chicago, and many may never be able to create a similar model.

Smart Chicago is very open about its successes, lessons, and individual project information. It’s also open to spreading their unique model, but it’s hard to see how to export that to cities or areas who cannot provide that stable foundation. How do you take success in one arena and hack it together to work in in areas with less (or different types of) local support? It’s something I thought about more generally this summer, watching the civic tech ecosystem in Chicago. How can we export all these successes in major urban centers to small cities or counties that operate under even greater financial and expertise constraints?

To some extent this is already being done. Areas and organizations who want to prioritize civic tech aren’t waiting for a perfect solution or someone to give them resources, they’re figuring it out. But there are many more areas that don’t have the internal drive or knowhow to push through new projects but which could benefit just as much. Smart Chicago has been working to help adapt some of their successful projects to other cities. A great example of this is their Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) which brings residents in to provide user feedback for civic technology projects. This summer Smart Chicago helped Detroit adopt the model.

Not everything can be exported in this way, however. Some innovations are simply too expensive or complicated to run, or may not work the same way in a new location. Smart Chicago’s government-philanthropy model may be one of these goods, not feasible for every city at present, but an innovation with outcomes to try for. I think what we all need to strive for is the ability to disentangle the essential from the fluff in any venture. When you strip it way down, what are the wires that hold a project or organization’s value? Can these be achieved by a different method or set of founding partners? For Smart Chicago, the essentials seem to be the smarts and dedication of the people who work there, and the little extra freedom to test things out and experiment. Smart Chicago strikes me as an exemplar of what most of us internally understand works, but still struggle to create, particularly within government: a place where people are supported enough to be comfortable going out on a limb and stable enough to spend time spreading their successes.


Thank you for join us this summer, Glynis!

Inclusive Innovation for Smart Cities: HUBweek 2016

unknownThis September I had the opportunity to attend HUBweek and participate in the roundtable “#Tech4Democracy: Meet the Change Makers.” The event, hosted by the Harvard Ash Center, explored the potential and pitfalls of digital technology in realizing democratic values such as participation, transparency, accountability, responsiveness, and equal representation. I was honored to join amazing leaders in the field: Seth Flaxman from DemocracyWorks, Rey Faustian from One Degree, and Tiana Epps-Johnson from the Center for Technology and Civic Life right here in Chicago.

One of the major themes of HUBweek was inclusive innovation. That theme is certainly worth discussing within the context of smart city work. Inclusive innovation in smart cities could mean everything from building usable tools, building equitable technology infrastructure, or having ethical data collection practices. During the roundtable conversation our moderator asked me the question below which has sit with me ever since:

What would be a “home-run” in the smart city space: an innovation that the city could adopt that would make a big, positive difference in the lives of Chicagoans?

Though it would have been tempting to brainstorm a cool, hypothetical “home-run” piece of technology on the spot, my mind gravitated toward innovative processes, not tools. This might be because here at Smart Chicago, we just wrapped up the Array of Things Civic Engagement Project which challenged us to create an inclusive process for gathering feedback on Chicago’s newest “smart city” project.  Of course, if things happen the way we think they will, cities will only get smarter. Array of Things is unlikely be the last “smart city” innovation deployed in Chicago’s public spaces. Given that, perhaps a lasting, valued innovation would be the creation of a values-driven smart city process — a framework we can follow to ensure that current and future smart city projects are deployed with residents and for residents. After all, these projects — whether are they sensors, fiber networks, or Wi-Fi kiosks — shouldn’t just be innovative or new. We should also expect these smart city technologies to be accessible, welcoming, relevant, and usable.

You can listen to the whole event on soundcloud. The roundtable begins on 4:50:

Smart Chicago Ash Fellow Glynis Startz featured on Microsoft Chicago’s Civic Chat

This year at Smart Chicago we were pleased to host Glynis Startz, a Harvard Ash Center Summer Fellow in Innovation. As an Ash Fellow hosted by Smart Chicago, Glynis assisted as a writer, thinker, and strategist on the Array of Things Civic Engagement Project.

More about the fellowship:

The Ash Center’s Summer Fellowship is designed to prepare students for careers in the public sector. Students work with some of the most creative and effective public officials and policy advisors in the country, not only to learn but to add value by sharing cutting-edge trends and ideas explored at the Kennedy School.

Glynis was featured on Microsoft Chicago’s Civic Chat on Watch the video linked below to learn more about Glynis and Smart Chicago’s 2016 civic engagement work with data and the Internet of Things.

Here are all of the blog posts that Glynis wrote while she was working with us:

To learn more about the civic engagement process behind Array of Things and its privacy and governance policies, read our Array of Things Engagement Report.

Release of the Array of Things Civic Engagement Report

On August 15th, Array of Things released the final version of the project’s governance and privacy policies as well as responses to public feedback collected in June through the Array of Things Civic Engagement Project.  Alongside this release, Smart Chicago shared The Array of Things Civic Engagement Report.

Here is an excerpt outlining the purpose and content of the Report:

As smart cities embrace and deploy innovative technology embedded in public spaces, residents voices need to be represented. To prevent disconnect between residents and their city’s technology, broad engagement is key — not only to inform residents of innovations, but to take inventory of public concerns and questions associated with them.

The purpose of this report is to describe the civic engagement and resident feedback collection process associated with a new Internet of Things (IoT) initiative in Chicago: The Array of Things. This report outlines the methods, decisions, and philosophies that went into this effort to increase Chicagoans’ engagement and involvement with smart city technology. Since the deployment of Internet of Things is so timely for cities around the world, we’ve shared the lessons we gleaned from our work. We hope this information can be of service to similar projects in other cities.  

This civic engagement work was accomplished alongside Array of Things operator UrbanCCD as well as the City of Chicago’s Department of Innovation & Technology. Smart Chicago’s Documenters played a key role in promoting and recording public meetings. Additional partners who participated include the Chicago Public Library (CPL), The OpenGov Foundation and the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance & Innovation. CPL provided welcoming community spaces to host public meetings, the OpenGov Foundation worked with us as we utilized Madison to collect resident feedback, and our graduate fellow from the Harvard Ash Center, Glynis Startz, helped execute and write about this work.

The Internet of Things and the data which will emerge from it have great potential to advance research and community priorities. Involving residents in these projects early and regularly ensures that technology is relevant, not just innovative.

Smart Chicago continues to seek new ways to engage residents with emerging urban technologies. As we do, we are committed to writing about and sharing our successes, challenges, and best practices. If you have questions about this report, please contact us.


Systematizing Privacy and Governance of Data and the Internet of Things

This blog post was originally published on Data-Smart City Solutions and is by Glynis Startz — Smart Chicago’s Harvard Ash Center Summer Fellow. Glynis is assisting with Smart Chicago’s Array of Things Civic Engagement work, among other smart cities-focused projects. Glynis is a Master in Public Policy Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.

As cities begin to see big data as an essential part of governing, more are examining and formalizing their handling of data, and of the Internet of Things (IoT) in particular. There is a growing expectation that governments deal with data in a systematic way and embrace responsibilities beyond encryption of personally identifiable information (PII). As an Ash Center Summer Fellow at the Smart Chicago Collaborative, I’ve had the opportunity to witness Chicago’s process before the deployment of the Array of Things. As feedback rolled in on the Array of Things Governance and Privacy Policy, it seemed an ideal time to explore how other cities have dealt with this issue in comparison, and the direction or directions in which the conversation is moving. Recent examples include Seattle’s Technology Privacy Policy and New York City’s Internet of Things Privacy Policy.

In late 2013, in response to resident concerns over several public failures of data transparency, Seattle launched the City’s Privacy Initiative. According to CTO Michael Mattmiller, its goal was “driv[ing] consistency across the city” and helping departments evaluate their data handling and governance on a project by project basis. Seattle Information Technology led the process by creating a Privacy Advisory Committee of local experts and academics from the University of Washington. The effort culminated in the adoption of six Privacy Principles as City Council Resolution 31570 and a Privacy Policy directing city departments to follow a more in depth Privacy Statement. The principles outlined in the document are 1. We value your privacy; 2. We collect only what we need; 3. How we use your information; 4. We are accountable; 5. How we share your information; and 6. Accuracy is important.  

Approaches in Seattle & New York City

Instead of focusing on creating a set of static requirements, Seattle created a process which forces individuals and departments to fully to think through the implications of their data related actions for individual projects. Staff must consider these privacy principles when creating a new service, as well as create a privacy impact assessment for new technologies. The choice to structure the privacy policy in this way both requires and relies on future care, effort, and thoughtfulness of employees across the city.

New York City’s Internet of Things privacy document, which deals only with the governance of IoT data, is longer and more specific, but sets forth similar principles. There are a number of issues—surveillance, transparency—which are significantly more salient with the sensors required by IoT, but there are many common themes between the two policies. NYC lists their principles as 1. Privacy and Transparency; 2. Data management; 3. Infrastructure; 4. Security; and 5. Operations and Sustainability.

The Seattle and New York City approaches focus on establishing the spirit of the law rather than specific requirements which can be followed to the letter. There are positives and negatives to this approach, which puts the impetus on employees to react to specific situations. This could mean more tailored, sensible approaches to different technology projects, but it also forces citizens to rely on the city government to accurately evaluate each circumstance. That could be difficult for employees to manage and difficult for residents to check. In these policies is the assumption of basic trust in government to follow the spirit of the law when the letter is absent.

Trading less information for more privacy

Both Seattle’s and New York City’s approaches imply that privacy and governance start before the data hit the city servers. They emphasize not just careful handling of data, but also transparency, openness, and careful deliberation surrounding data collection. I believe it is the attention to data collection that really indicates a new level of maturity in technology or data initiatives in cities. It recognizes that cities that hold data have a responsibility to keep it secure. Some could argue that the technical ability to safeguard data has not grown as quickly as the ability to collect large amounts of data inexpensively. This issue is particularly relevant in regard to IoT devices which generally have the ability to gather almost continuous measures. For cities, the decision becomes less about how much data it wants to collect and more about about how much data it will discard.

Growth in the Internet of Things means cities open themselves up to new innovations, but also to a tempting, but potentially dangerous approach to data collection: ‘if we can get it, we may as well’ could create difficult questions about requirements for maintaining data, opening data up to the public, and keeping data secure. The ability to capture large amounts of data easily and cheaply is both a boon and a possible danger for local governments.

Both Seattle and NYC have a framework for thoughtful decision making about information collection. New York in particular requires data collection in projects be designed toward specific purposes and addressing specific problems. The importance of these policies rests on a couple of assumptions: that residents give up privacy when their data are collected, even if those data are not technically Personally Identifiable Information (PII), and that the only way for data to be truly protected is for data not to be collected in the first place. I think these are both valid assumptions, though ones that should be weighed against the value of these data collected, or, more importantly, the potential value of these data not collected. This move to push departments to think through all the future implications of data collection is an important step in the maturation of tech in government.

There are drawbacks to being selective in data collection. It’s not always clear ex ante what data will be the most valuable. Valuable research can be done with data that were collected but never used. Requiring exacting rationales for data collection risks losing the possibility for some of those discoveries, particularly as it becomes easier to facilitate discovery and use of government collected data. In some ways this was a main premise of the early open data movement–cities had data they weren’t using and didn’t necessarily know what to do with, and they put it online for transparency’s sake, but also with the expectation that citizens would make use of it in new and surprising ways.

What’s next for privacy policies?

It seems likely that more and more local governments will be coming out with privacy and governance policies for their data in the coming years — both general policies (like in New York City & Seattle) or project-tailored policies (like in Chicago). Larger cities may follow the path of New York and create ones dealing solely with the IoT, but it is less clear what form these policies will take. There are clearly trade-offs between specificity, clarity, and freedom. Structural decisions may come down to who the policies are designed for, residents or experts, and how much cities are willing to hem themselves in. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer here, but I absolutely think these are questions every city should be sure they’ve asked themselves before writing a policy.

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The proper design of a data governance policy may look very different in different cities. Large cities with significant internal resources and expertise may be more able to put forth generalist policies which put the impetus on departments to make specific decisions. Small cities, on the other hand, may not feel they have the ability to leave the process ad hoc and must instead mandate a one size fits all policy. Pushing the other direction, however, small cities may have more freedom to allow individual deviation because of their less bureaucratic structures, while larger cities have less of an ability to make certain the spirit of non-specific policies are being adhered to.

As more cities create policies, and hopefully engage with residents around them, more insight can be gained about what citizens want and expect from their government in this area. What level of specificity do they require? How much trust do they have in government to do the right thing and how much do they require continued oversight? How do residents view the trade-off between privacy and data use?

Prioritizing Resident Engagement When Implementing the Internet of Things

This blog post was originally published on Data-Smart City Solutions and is by Glynis Startz — Smart Chicago’s Harvard Ash Center Summer Fellow. Glynis is assisting with Smart Chicago’s Array of Things Civic Engagement work, among other smart cities-focused projects. Glynis is a Master in Public Policy Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The Array of Things Public Meeting at Lozano Public Library | June 14, 2016

The Array of Things Public Meeting at Lozano Public Library | June 14, 2016

This summer the Smart Chicago Collaborative is working with the City of Chicago and the operators of the Array of Things urban sensing project to engage with residents broadly and gather feedback on the project’s Governance and Privacy Policy. This project was recently mentioned in an article by Stephen Goldsmith about implementing Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives. In it, he recommended that cities consider five key themes:

  1. Leverage existing physical infrastructure
  2. Engage the local data ecosystem (ie partner with local researchers or non-profits)
  3. Employ a clear data management strategy
  4. Address security and privacy concerns with transparency
  5. Turn collected data into action

These five points are important technical aspects of a successful IoT initiative, but it’s also important to consider non-technical themes of IoT work. One less highlighted theme vital to IoT reaching it’s full potential in a city: engaging residents early and often.

Engaging with residents to see what they need, and designing projects that reflect that feedback, is necessary and useful. Effective engagement can provide valuable information to improve the implementation of an IoT project, in addition to easing resident objections or concerns.

Why Engagement Matters for Everyone

Engaging with residents is traditionally thought of as a way to gather and maintain local support for a project, but it can also enable implementers to take advantage of unknown neighborhood (institutional) knowledge to make a project more effective. We often see transparency and engagement as a chore–a political requirement instead of something which has more direct and functional value.  

Governmental or academic implementers sometimes underestimate residents and their genuine interest in innovative projects. There is a tendency to assume residents don’t want to engage in the complexities of a problem, and that it is therefore better for the project heads to go ahead and do what they’ve determined is right, but this undersells the commitment and sophistication of many citizens. Because IoT applications almost always touch on data and sensors, engagement involves privacy issues and can seem particularly scary. There are a few predictable reactions to open discussion of these issues which can put anyone off having that talk, but it’s a mistake to assume you know how the majority of residents will react.

A good example of this is the discussion that was reported around an IoT transportation project in Aberdeen. Researchers were concerned about data anonymity because of the low population of the project area, but when residents were brought into the discussion they felt the utility they gained from the project (improved tracking of bus arrival times) made that cost worthwhile.

Learning from Engaging

With that underestimation comes an undervaluing of the feedback residents can provide. There are vast reservoirs of relatively untapped institutional knowledge about neighborhoods or cities in residents’ minds. The more feedback you open yourself up to, and the more time you spend answering questions and listening, the more useful information you can gather. Sometimes you’ll learn things you didn’t know you didn’t know.


Brenna Berman and Charlie Catlett overview the Array of Things governance & privacy policies at a public meeting | June 22, 2016

The importance of engaging residents around civic technology more generally is something the Smart Chicago Collaborative has been grappling with for several years. The Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup), a community of residents in Chicago and all of Cook County who get paid to test out civic websites and apps, is one example of direct resident engagement with technology tools. Smart Chicago’s Array of Things Civic Engagement work could be considered an extension of that purpose — directly engaging Chicago residents in shaping technology projects and policies, rather than a tool. By acknowledging that there are some things best learnt from residents and users, these initiatives use civic engagement to improve technology and service delivery in Chicago.

Engagement around the Array of Things project recognizes the potential value of that input. In addition to gathering feedback about privacy concerns, events were a chance for residents to air concerns and ask clarifying questions about data, privacy, and governance, but they also became a forum for researchers to learn what new information residents could provide about their environment, and increase their involvement. Researchers would do well to follow up and continue to learn.

The engagement meeting referenced the historical and contextual knowledge of the area residents could provide, and which researchers may want to draw on when choosing sensor locations. For example, Charlie Catlett told attendees at the Lozano Library Public Meeting that they could influence the exact placement of sensors if there were reasons the Array of Things team didn’t know about or hadn’t thought of. Residents of every neighborhood are likely to have superior information about precisely where various aspects of their ecosystem can best be evaluated.

Engage or Inform

When we’re talking about civic engagement, it’s very important not to confuse informing with engaging. Helping residents understand the project is different from, but a necessary precursor to, collecting targeted feedback about the project and what aspects are useful or not to residents. If a project isn’t willing to be responsive to that feedback, they are informing, not engaging.

I think interaction with citizens in the data and open government sector can be split into three levels. The first level is technical transparency. This is creating an open data portal or putting the text of some policy up online. Technical transparency allows an organization to say they are being open without actively reaching out to citizens. The second level is informing–explaining to citizens what you’re doing while you’re doing it. This goes further than technical transparency in that it requires at least some attempt to curate open information for citizens, but it doesn’t require an explicit feedback loop. The third level is engagement, taking the time not only to inform residents, but to listen to and react to their questions, concerns, and desires. Engagement is the hardest to do well, and the most time consuming, but it can also provide the most value added for everyone involved.

A city or project should decide which of the three levels of interaction is appropriate and manageable. This may depend on the magnitude of privacy concerns or likely impacts on residents, on the potential malleability of the project, and on whether the design of the project makes local knowledge potentially valuable. For some IoT implementations, especially ones testing specific hypotheses, some aspects of the project may not be open to change. To measure the lake effect, for instance, Array of Things may need sensors set up in a certain formation. Sometimes simple informing is ok, and sometimes it’s not.

To capture the full value of the IoT, cities must not only “integrate it into existing data strategies” as Goldsmith points out, but integrate it into the existing social and cultural structures as well.

A resident snaps a picture of an Array of Things sensor at a public meeting | June 22, 2016

A resident snaps a picture of an Array of Things sensor at a public meeting | June 22, 2016