3 Projects That Show How Cities Can Use Technology as a Force for Good – #smartcities

Platforms enabled by Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), like Uber and Airbnb, are increasingly being seen as looters by cities. They are like Death Stars, extracting great swaths of value from local communities only to transfer that wealth elsewhere. Indeed, it would seem that the original ideas of sharing and peer-to-peer collaboration have been co-opted through an almost feudal structure of wealth extraction. Technology as such is not the culprit here. But it certainly enables the creation of new products and markets that, in practice, can perpetuate or even deepen existing socio-economic inequities.

In contrast to the usual examples of on-demand “sharing” platforms, the initiatives below demonstrate technology’s capacity to enable real sharing within cities. These examples offer crucial alternatives to extractive platforms that are currently dominant. They are also solutions that are intentionally designed to address urban challenges, instead of exacerbating them. There are solutions based on an understanding of digital technology as what philosopher Ivan Illich defined as tools for conviviality: tools that empower people to realize their freedom through interpersonal dependence and reciprocity. — Adrien Labaeye and Ryan Conway 

These three short case studies are adapted from our latest book, “Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons.”

1. Human Ecosystem Project: Social Media Data Used to Analyze City Infrastructure and Citizen Well-being 

Social media networks and state intelligence agencies harvest massive amounts of data on their users. Private services primarily use the data to show targeted advertisements to their users, while government surveillance programs allegedly use the information for national security purposes. In both cases, the use of the data is neither transparent nor is it used to directly help the people whose information is being collected.

Human Ecosystem Relazioni is a project funded by the city of Bologna to harness public information available from social media to understand what their citizens care about and how they are feeling at a given time and place in the city. The Human Ecosystems platform, on which this project relies, turns data from privately-owned social media platforms into open data that can be used by city officials, researchers, and the community at large. It is a way to identify trends and patterns that can lead to observations about the functioning of city infrastructure, and which can in turn lead to possible paths toward their improvement. The data can also be analyzed to produce interactive exhibits featuring a series of visualizations that demonstrate certain types of behavior and opinions among the citizens of Bologna. The Human Ecosystems platform has also been adopted in São Paulo, Brazil, and New Haven, U.S. — Adrien Labaeye 

2. Smart Citizen Toolkit: Monitoring City Air Quality with Crowdsourced Data 

Air pollution is a critical public health issue that many cities are struggling to address. Aside from political disputes that can hinder regulatory solutions, there is also a broader obstacle to solving this challenge: the lack of accurate, publicly-accessible data that reflects the extent of the pollution on a real-time basis. This is why FabLab Barcelona, through a collaboration between technologists and citizen scientists, created the Smart Citizen Toolkit. It is a compact device that contains a data processor and a series of sensors that people use to monitor environmental conditions where they live.

Using the kit and the accompanying online platform, users can monitor such things as temperature, humidity, and carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide levels. The information is automatically uploaded to an independent platform that gathers the data from hundreds of distributed sensors. Since the published data can easily be made publicly accessible, universities, city governments, and anyone with the know-how can use the data for research on the local environment. The software and hardware for the toolkit is also all open-source. In addition to Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Manchester have used it to measure air quality in their region. — Adrien Labaeye 

3. PetaJakarta: Disaster Response Management Through Crowdsourced Civic Data

Jakarta has long faced a host of challenges. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and every year the area is battered by a monsoon. Since 40 percent of the city is at or below sea level, it regularly floods — a problem that will be exacerbated by the global sea-level rise induced by climate change. Jakarta also has one of the highest concentrations of active Twitter users in the world and a high proportion of cellphone use overall. That’s why a public-private partnership between Twitter, Jakarta Emergency Management Agency, the University of Wollongong in Australia, and others developed CogniCity, an open-source intelligence framework that manages spatial data received from mobile messaging apps.

The first platform built on CogniCity was PetaJakarta, a Twitter-based crowdsourcing map for flood data. It relies on Twitter to organize and display real-time information about flooding to Jakarta residents. PetaJakarta allows users to geotag Tweets to indicate flooded areas, which are verified and added to a map of government ood alerts that anyone can use to navigate hazardous, urban terrain. The platform has been so successful that it has received international praise from organizations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. — Ryan Conway 

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