Many of the marque open data programs are in the big cities. Think New York City and its NY Big Apps Contests, or Chicago or London or Barcelona or Rio de Janeiro. But smaller cities are also sitting on public data. They receive requests for information from their constituents, and their constituents expect new applications and services. Not to mention the fact that cities of all sizes are responding to pressure for greater openness and transparency. These are a few of the reasons why the City of Palo Alto recently launched its open data community site. According to Jonathan Reichtenthal, the CIO of Palo Alto, “It is more common that information is public than not.” And, therefore, why not make it easier for citizens to access?
Palo Alto – with a population of about 65,000, located between San Francisco and San Jose, California, and known as the home of Stanford University and the “birthplace of the Silicon Valley” – was a prosperous, tech-savvy city. But from an IT perspective, the city administration had been working in the past… until about eight months ago when a new CIO came on board. Jonathan Reichtenthal is the “first cabinet-level CIO” of Palo Alto. IT had historically been an administrative division housed with legal, HR, and finance. When the previous head of IT retired, the city manager decided to elevate the status of IT and drive more strategic use of technology within the organization. One of the first initiatives launched by Reichtenthal was open data.
Engaging citizens in government isn’t a new concept. Referenda, ballot initiatives, and recall of elected leaders are common in the US and other democracies. Even the EU has recently sought to involve citizens through its European Citizens’ Initiative. This new program, however, has started in an era where new modes of constituent engagement are easier and cheaper. Obtaining the signatures required to place an initiative on a ballot or bring an issue to government leaders’ attention no longer requires endless hours in front of a shopping mall. New social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, or even more local sites like Everyblock in the US or Iniative.eu in Europe make it easier to reach out to citizens and for citizens to reach out to their governments.
And, the pattern extends across types of government and geographies. Political activists in Nigeria are using social media to drive election reforms. Political unrest and even revolution throughout the Middle East garner support via social media sites. Recently, citizens in China used social media to block destruction of trees in Nanjing.
New tools specifically tailored to citizen engagement — such as citizen reporting platforms, open data infrastructure, and competition platforms — even further transform governance. These tools provide citizens with not only a voice but also a role in the governance process.
The promise of new citizen-centric government services enabled by social and mobile technologies and often access to government data is fast becoming reality — and has changed the way in which government organizations and their constituents engage.
Open 311 initiatives have spread across the US, and the equivalent non-emergency access initiatives have gained traction in other geographies as well. However, citizen engagement is not just about potholes and power outages; it is increasingly about the long tail of needs and interests. Public access to data and the ease of application development have facilitated the development of new applications and services. As a result, specific groups, however large or small, can develop an application to serve their purposes. Or applications can be developed for a specific project and may only be used for a couple of months, or may only be used by a niche audience.
I have had several lively conversations this week with vendors working to enable open data and new tools for constituent engagement. As an example, ESRI brings maps and the value of GIS to this explosion of citizen services. People like to visualize things, and seeing data represented on a map helps identify patterns and create a context for the data. That makes it easier to understand and easier to act on. ESRI and their partners have worked with a wide range of government organizations on creative ways to engage constituents — both citizens and businesses.
In my last blog I asked the question, “What’s it take to be a smart city?” One of the critical elements lies in smart governance. Smart governance takes leadership, coordination, and collaboration. (Take a look at my recent report, "Smart City Leaders Need Better Governance Tools.") Part of this leadership is finding innovative and cost-effective solutions to intractable problems – and that often lies in engaging constituents for input on the problems and feedback on the solutions. As Charles and I were working on another project, we came across a great example of a US state looking outside the box to solve a real and frustrating problem faced by its citizens.
What’s it take to be a smart city? Is it smart transportation, such as sensors in parking spaces that call out to drivers like sirens calling to Ulysses as he headed back to Ithaca? Or parking meters sending SMS messages to alert those parked that their time is up, like a baby bird calling to be fed? Is it smart buildings that turn the lights on when you enter or off when you leave? Is it smart waste management? Is it smart energy grids? Is it smart water systems? Or smart administration? All of these help make city services and operations more efficient. But the real key to being smart is to have an overall management system that allows leaders to coordinate across these smart systems, capturing and sharing the data generated and using it to inform new policies and city programs. Smart cities require good – “smart” – governance and the processes and tools that enable it.
Increasingly, city leaders are adopting enterprise management practices – and technologies – in order to improve city governance. Smart city leaders:
Match budgeted spending with performance objectives.
Adopt enterprise apps such as EAM, ERP, and CRM in shared or cloud models.
Appoint professional operational and IT management to coordinate.
Implement regular process and performance reviews – and supporting technologies.
Establish integrated reporting for greater transparency.