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Can Civic Tech Overcome Urban Inequality?

Cities should work with their neediest citizens, rather than just for them.

For all of its best intentions, civic technology has long struggled with an inclusion problem. Data dashboards, web-based tools and mobile apps are typically built by relatively homogenous teams of developers for audiences that tend to share similar, relatively affluent demographic characteristics.

The acute growth of inequality in many of America's largest cities makes this problem even more pressing. As the urbanist Richard Florida put it in a blog post a few months ago, the "clustering of talent, business, and economic capability in large, dense, knowledge-based places ... carves deep divisions into our cities and society." According to Florida's research, growing inequality in cities is positively correlated with the urban agglomeration of high-tech jobs. Indeed, attracting and retaining the technologists needed to produce civic tech often comes hand-in-hand with the urban conditions, such as soaring rents and gentrification, that define the inequitable city.

Yet civic tech can play an important part in understanding inequality, formulating policy responses and delivering the necessary calls to action. Digital workers help address the economic divides of our cities when they create tools that better diagnose structural inequalities and amplify the voices of the underserved. And in the long run, we need to bring underrepresented groups themselves into the field of civic tech so that they can have an equal hand in designing solutions.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has worked with his staff and his Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded innovation team to begin unpacking the service imbalances that have long divided his city and many like it. Together, they are mapping residents' access to good schools, jobs, safe streets and other basic necessities critical to enabling upward mobility. Additionally, they are measuring the geographic distribution of wealth, income and economic activity to understand how the city's initiatives impact the livelihoods of residents.

With the understanding that analysis without action is meaningless, Garcetti and his team are using these maps to set goals and hold themselves accountable for meeting them. One such effort is addressing the problem of litter- and junk-strewn neighborhoods. The city built a Clean Streets Index, a map that depicts each city street coded on a scale of 1 to 3: clean, somewhat clean and not clean. Assessment crews manually input street-cleanliness scores into a mobile application that geocodes the presence of litter. Citizens are encouraged to help out by scheduling bulky-item pickup, reporting illegal dumping and volunteering for community cleanups.

Garcetti then declared that by 2018 there would be no city grid with a grade of 3. The Bureau of Sanitation responded by strategically deploying Clean Streets clean-up crews, and within its first year of use the app has driven down the number of unclean grids by more than 80 percent.

Once a city has identified a problem and conceived of a solution, the third -- and most often overlooked -- step is to make the data, visualizations and methodologies accessible to audiences from all backgrounds. In a recent Civic Analytics Network webinar, Lilian Coral, who just stepped down as Los Angles' acclaimed chief data officer, noted that by describing to city residents how the city was doing its data collection and evaluation she was able to engender trust in her team's process and commitment to improve the streets for all.

Still, cities face challenges in their efforts to enable residents in struggling neighborhoods to utilize the tools of civic tech. One approach is to work with intermediary organizations that facilitate diverse feedback and training initiatives, as is the case with Chicago's Civic User Testing Group, a foundation-supported civic organization that compensates individuals from around the city for focus-grouping civic tech products.

Another approach is to extend outreach directly. For example, with the support of the hip-hop artist's Foundation and the GIS vendor Esri, Los Angeles' Roosevelt High School now teaches students how to use Esri's ArcGIS system to learn more about their communities. High-schoolers mapping brownfields and park spaces are not only learning about their city but also how to do their own research in the future. This direct form of recruitment will help ensure that the civic tech teams of tomorrow are much more diverse and inclusive than today's.

Through targeted outreach, we tap a recruitment pool that may help solve three problems in the long term: the shortage of data competence within government, the lack of diversity that encumbers civic technology, and the economic inequality that's taking place in the neighborhoods we're all eager to help. Civic tech not only has a tremendous opportunity to promote equality but also a pressing need to do so if we are to produce our best work.

This article was originally published on Governing

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.