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What's New in Civic Tech: New York City Rebukes FCC's Actions on Internet Privacy, Net Neutrality

Plus, the Knight Foundation announces $1.2 million in funding for six cities to explore Internet of Things technologies, a Maryland county's Bicycle Stress Map serves as a template for others, and Boston stumbles upon inconsistencies with Web analytics.

by , / April 27, 2017

What's New in Civic Tech takes a look at highlights and recent happenings in the world of civic technology.

New York City Takes on the FCC

Earlier this month, legislation was passed that negated Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules for how Internet service providers (ISPs) were allowed to collect, sell or distribute personal browsing data. Under the newly appointed chair, Ajit Pai, the agency argued that the onerous regulations created an unfair advantage to social networks that were not affected by the rulemaking.

New York City is not willing to forfeit those rights so easily. At a Technology Committee hearing on data privacy, members of the City Council rebuked the actions taken by Pai and passed by Congress. According to Civicist, councilmember James Vacca said, “Lately, digital privacy rights — and countless other rights — have been under attack by the federal government. … Our city has the opportunity to stand as an example for other cities around the country that are looking to adopt the latest technology, while maintaining residents’ privacy.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office shares the commitment toward digital privacy for New Yorkers. After the FCC regulation change, the city updated the privacy policy for LinkNYC, a network of smart, Wi-Fi producing kiosks that have replaced telephone booths. The policy was updated in March when the rule change was proposed, said Anne Roest, the city's CIO and commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

In a joint statement, Roest and Chief Technology Officer Miguel Gamiño said that the “unconscionable legislation … [will] unravel essential protections of your online privacy. … We are prepared to fight these atrocious invasions of privacy wherever and whenever we can.”

"This law serves no one except the multi-national corporations that lobbied for it,” the statement reads. “It’s clear that the president and congressional Republicans may be willing to put everyday Americans’ personal information up for sale. New York City is not."

Gamiño wrote another post rebuking the recent FCC proposed rule change, stripping government oversight of ISPs to ensure a fair and open Internet. “Net neutrality is critical to the city’s robust and growing tech community, who under the chairman’s plan would need the blessing of Internet service providers to reach digital consumers,” reads Gamiño’s post on Medium.

Knight Foundation Awards IoT Grants

The Knight Foundation announced on April 21 that it was awarding $1.2 million to six cities in order to explore how the Internet of Things (IoT) can benefit modern cities. The awardees include: Akron, Ohio; Boston; Detroit; Miami; Philadelphia; and San Jose, Calif.

The IoT holds the promise of a more responsive city, one in which data helps drive decisions. Sensors hooked up to highways could gauge congestion and inform traffic signals to alter timing. Devices could also be installed on river banks alerting the city of potential flash floods.

Each city, awarded $200,000, will focus on location-specific issues:

  • Akron: The Ohio city will develop a smart city strategy and use IoT technology to overhaul the Main Street corridor in the downtown central business district as part of the pilot.
  • Boston: Bean Town will “open source” its assets by creating a process and platform for researchers, advocates, startups and citizens to place sensing technologies in urban environments for research toward the public good.
  • Detroit: In an effort to open up the city’s data, Detroit will develop a strategic plan to recognize and catalog information acquired through the city’s existing assets and identify ways to apply smart city applications to current infrastructure, including improved use of predictive analytics.
  • Miami: Miami will build on its resilience strategy, focusing on infrastructure mapping and strengthening its ability to share data with community partners for collaborative problem solving.
  • Philadelphia: The plan for Philadelphia will begin with outlining strategies on how to implement, support and use smart technology effectively and efficiently. The city will invite community input into the process, to ensure the plan reflects the needs of its residents and businesses.
  • San Jose: The capital of Silicon Valley will direct funds toward creating a plan that will inform decisions about where to invest, how to finance the necessary infrastructure, and how to regulate smart technology assets. It will also outline a strategy to develop effective partnerships with the private sector that preserve public assets and data privacy.

“These cities will help create a model and guidelines for the thoughtful and responsible use of IoT, linking its development to the public’s benefit,” said John Bracken, Knight Foundation vice president for technology innovation, in a release.

Getting the Data Lowdown on Bicycle Stress

For about a year, Montgomery County, Md.’s digital Bicycle Stress Map has highlighted just how difficult it is for the average person to travel by bicycle within the county. While adults could technically bicycle on 78 percent of road miles in the county, only about 20 percent of rides can be completed on what the county calls a “low-stress bicycling network.”

Enter the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Bicycle Stress Map, which shows the stress levels encountered when bicycling in different areas of the county. According to the map, very low stress roads, shown in dark blue, are ones that all adults and some children will bicycle, such as a quiet residential street with a 25 mph speed limit. Very high stress roads, shown in a deep red, are cyclable by only 1 percent of adults. A six-lane suburban highway where cyclists must share the roadway with traffic adhering to a 40 mph speed limit is an example of a high-stress environment.

The map, which on April 26 received a National Planning Award for Transportation Planning by the American Planning Association (APA), is one response to the challenge to create “the best bicycling plan ever.” It also is part of the county’s work on designing a data-driven Bicycle Master Plan that will provide additional infrastructure to make low-stress bicycle routes the norm.

In the APA’s honoring of the map, it recognized that other jurisdictions also could use the tool in the same manner — something that’s already in the works. The Montgomery County Planning Department says it has been contacted by planners nationwide who would like to prepare similar tools.

Boston on the Trouble with Web Analytics

Boston’s digital team, led by Chief Digital Officer Lauren Lockwood, has shared a cautionary tale about how the numbers cities look at to track traffic to their websites “lie to us all the time.”

Boston officials look at Google Analytics to “use metrics to drive improvements to the site — what we display, where we display it, etc.,” the team wrote, adding that it noticed years ago that its food truck schedule is often one of the top three most visited pages — especially in summertime.

But earlier this month, after the old food truck schedule “went on the fritz,” the team looked at replacing its schedule with open source options — at which point it found “a handful of apps focused on Boston’s food trucks specifically … several of them getting their data by using bots to regularly scrape”

Here’s why that matters when assessing Web traffic: Those site-scraping bots boost the numbers. But that’s not all. Because the food truck info also is being disseminated to an audience outside the city’s Google analytics, the traffic data is artificially low. So ultimately, the digital team wrote, “It’s clear we haven’t been looking at an accurate traffic number for that page and it’s not likely we’ll have one in the future.”

The moral of this story? To remain a bit skeptical of the metrics, because as the digital team put it, “There’s a lot to unpack behind each number that changes the solutions we build.”

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Jessica Mulholland Former Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland served as the Web editor of Government Technology magazine from October 2012 through September 2017. She worked for the Government Technology editorial team for nearly 10 years.

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.

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