Smart Cities, Civic Engagement, Big Data

November 12, 2019 by Kendall Ingram

Smart Cities, Civic Engagement, Big Data

If you’ve worked in government at all over the last 5 years, there’s no doubt you’ve heard the term “smart city” tossed around one or two (hundred) times. From implementing an issue reporting system to identifying a creative way of promoting a parks and recreation program, many cities strive to achieve the “smart” label. It can often seem like an impossible goal. What does it mean to be a smart city? How do you get there? Then, once you’re there, how do you keep moving toward a smart future?

What is a Smart City?

To really understand smart cities, it’s helpful to start at the beginning: the definition. While many variations exist, the National League of Cities (NLC) defines a smart city as one that has developed technological infrastructure that enables it to collect, aggregate, and analyze real-time data to improve the lives of its residents. Their “Trends in Smart City Development” report states that smart city efforts should include policy recommendations about infrastructure and data, an administrative component, and, last but certainly not least, civic engagement.

Why Civic Engagement?

The most valuable information related to a community’s success often comes from the people that walk its streets, visit its parks, and interact with its civic leaders on a regular basis. This probably comes as no surprise as an increasing number of governments are turning to city websites and apps with one goal in mind: to connect with their citizens.

Too often, a city’s digital presence unintentionally becomes a one-way form of communication. It gives citizens a source of information, from city history and a council directory to announcements and important news, but it lacks an avenue for community members to voice their opinions, report issues and receive notifications, vote on a public topic, or provide ideas and suggestions for improving city operations.

With the rapid rise in civic tech, it’s easy to find visually pleasing platforms, but it’s not enough to stop there. The struggle is finding a platform that truly engages citizens, encouraging them to interact with their governments. When citizens are engaged, cities are exposed to an infinite well of real, qualitative data directly from their constituents — data that can be used to support strategic decisions and push a city toward a “smart” future — otherwise known as big data.  

Big Data: The Smart City Backbone

Access to real-time big data can have a profound effect on any city. When information such as crime reports or polls is gathered through civic engagement, it can be analyzed to help government leaders respond and make changes in accordance with the needs of their community. The data can be used for deeper understanding of community issues, whether they’re broad, like which areas have the highest reported crimes, or more specific, like the time of day crime is at its peak or which type of crime is reported most often.

Data in isolation is merely numbers. However, when a city effectively uses the data made available to them to establish more effective city planning and preemptive risk solutions, it can help them transform into an operational smart city.

Impactful Applications of Big Data

Cities across the country leverage civic engagement platforms and big data to stay at the forefront of the smart city movement. Here are just a few examples:

1.      Security and Policing:

Leverage real-time, non-emergency crime reports to determine patterns and rising crime trends. Deploying a larger police presence in problem areas can lead to lower crime rates.

2.      Funding:

See which city departments receive the most reports and use the analytics to make informative appeals to reallocate city funds.

3.      Disaster Aversion:

Identify areas that are prone to disasters such as flooding or tornados to help guide the creation of anticipatory solutions and contingency planning.

4.      Traffic and Parking:

Empower community members to request parking exemptions, as well as report illegal parking. This has the potential to decrease booting and towing instances, while the data can be used to identify future parking allocations.

5.      Resolution Setting:

Assign an estimated resolution date for each issue you receive. The data gathered helps determine office efficiency and issue redundancy, while providing insight into the need for more or fewer staff.

Becoming a smart city is more than just an end goal to be reached. It’s not the finish line. It’s an achievable state of having access to the data you need to improve your community, but, most of all, it’s the desire of a city to move forward and proactively address change. By encouraging civic engagement and putting big data to work, there’s an opportunity for every smart city to become smarter.

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