Boston

Urban Systems & Services - A debate at LLGA | Cities Summit

The Urban Systems & Services Parallel Session was moderated by Barbara Hale, the Assistant General Manager of SFPUC. Barbara focused the session on how cities are becoming massive interconnected systems and how to use technology as a tool to improve the quality of life of citizens. Parallel Session C

Speaker 1: Modupe Ajibola, CEO, OTG Playa

First up to speak was Modupe Ajibola of OTG Playa whose presentation centered on the role of technology in Africa and how it is slowly moving from a luxury to necessity. For example, there are already over 140 million cell phones in Nigeria making it one of the world’s largest mobile telecom markets. These devices had a multiplier effect creating many new jobs and services that were not available before. The problem is that many in the educated workforce are content in taking these newly created middle class jobs when they should be working in the white collar sector. For example, many of the electrical engineers end up working in call centers because it creates a life much better than they had growing up. While the progress is noble, it should be taken a bit further. These engineers should be working in R&D creating products for Africans by Africans. People in Africa want iPhones and iPads, but they don't want to pay a premium price. They end up buying Chinese knockoffs that break a few months later. Perhaps Africa could copy the U.S. and move to the subsidy model for mobile phones? By encouraging these engineers to start developing products and services for Africa and the rest of the world, the needs and wants of the people can be addressed while keeping the money inside the continent.

Speaker 2: Gianni Minetti, President & CEO, Paradox Engineering

Gianni Minetti followed by focusing on the open standards needed to network all the infrastructure for our cities. The shift from rural to urban is only accelerating, and he presented several facts to back this up. For one, 1.3 million people are moving to cities every week. This means that there are now 21 cities with over 10 million people. Paradox Engineering wants to put lighting, pollution monitoring, and power all together in one open system. While this may seem like something obvious to do, the problem is that many cities have separate systems for each infrastructure component. Not only is it expensive to build redundant infrastructure, it creates a spectrum crunch. By building an urban multi-utility network, we can make technology a tool, not a hurdle. By using open standards we can future proof the networks ensuring ROI protection for cities.

Speaker 3: Bill Oates, Chief Information Officer, Boston

Bill Oates spoke about how the city of Boston was using technology to solve its problems. The smartphone application, Citizen's Connect, has proven immensely popular, which isn't all that surprising considering 35% of the city's population is between 20 and 34. With the application, citizens can report potholes, streetlight outages, graffiti, and other problems. After seeing how much citizens loved using the app, city workers got their own version allowing the city to more efficiently dispatch workers and catalog repairs. Version 4.0 of the app, slated to be released by the end of the year, will allow citizens to be notified when the problem they reported is fixed. Embracing the recent trend of gamification, the new version of the app will allow citizens to thank the workers who fixed their problem. The app has allowed citizens of Boston to interact with government in ways previously not possible. Taking the application a step further, the city of Boston unveiled Street Bump, which uses a smartphone's accelerometer to passively detect potholes. Interestingly enough only 10% of the bumps reported were potholes; the other 90% were the 307,000 utility castings in the city. Using technology is essential for cities that wish to thrive in the 21st century. Bill Oats highlighted the point that if you stay at the status quo, you're falling behind. Historically, government has been very risk averse, but technology doesn't have to be risky. Those that avoid it completely will be left in the dust.

Speaker 4: Philip Playfair, CEO, Lowfoot

Last to present, Philip Playfair explained how his company pays people to use less energy when consumption (and thus prices) is peaking. The main purpose is to encourage consumers to shift power consumption from peak to off peak. His company has contracted with 6 companies with over 5,000 smart meters. In a way, the software can act as a virtual peaker plant. When demand exceeds supply, energy usage can automatically be reduced. The consumers are compensated for this inconvenience via monthly payments. Additionally, the software measures carbon savings to show consumers how shifting their energy usage benefits the environment. In order to increase engagement Lowfoot has added gamification aspects to the product. For example, users get badges for saving energy and can brag to their friends over Twitter or Facebook. While solutions like Lowfoot can marginally reduce power consumption, the main problem is that energy is too cheap to motivate people’s decision making. In order for huge shifts in consumer behavior, energy prices need to go up.

Conclusion

Whether it’s using mobile applications to encourage engagement or unifying infrastructure communication systems, technology is changing how cities operate. While governments have been traditionally viewed as slow and cumbersome, in order to keep up with the ever evolving world, cities need to speed up deployments of innovative solutions. The problem is that government procurement has been very slow and risk averse. In order to help solve this problem, cities need to adapt new processes to accept technology with open (but vigilant) arms.

Reported by Chris Mojaher

“Hot or Not” for Cities

MIT from aboveMIT is full of cool labs.  SENSEable City Lab brought us the Copenhagen Wheel.  Now the Media Lab brings Place Pulse – an ongoing project to identify society’s perception of the safest, most affluent, and most unique places. The website is the front end of an impressive back end algorithm.  Geo-tagged photos of particular city scapes are presented to visitors of the site in pairs.  Users are asked to click which place looks safer, more unique, or more upper-class.  The algorithm uses the resulting binary data to classify places into these three categories.

That may not seem impressive, but check out the results.  Among all cities surveyed (Boston, New York, Vienna, Salzberg, and Linz), Boston and New York have the most unsafe-looking places, while the Austrian cities have the top 10 safe-looking places.  Just quickly looking at the photos categorized this way provides amazing insight into particular characteristics that draw people to, or send them running from, a public place. A sense of enclosure, vegetation, street-level retail, and other human beings are common characteristics among the safe-looking places.

As the developers note, these associations become even more powerful when mapped and correlated with other characteristics of their surrounding neighborhood or community.  These visualizations are not on the website, but will be published eventually along with a fully-featured, interactive website allowing anyone to participate in or create their own study.  If you’re in Austria, you should check out the exhibit in the meantime.

 

“Hot or Not” for Cities

MIT from aboveMIT is full of cool labs.  SENSEable City Lab brought us the Copenhagen Wheel.  Now the Media Lab brings Place Pulse – an ongoing project to identify society’s perception of the safest, most affluent, and most unique places. The website is the front end of an impressive back end algorithm.  Geo-tagged photos of particular city scapes are presented to visitors of the site in pairs.  Users are asked to click which place looks safer, more unique, or more upper-class.  The algorithm uses the resulting binary data to classify places into these three categories.

That may not seem impressive, but check out the results.  Among all cities surveyed (Boston, New York, Vienna, Salzberg, and Linz), Boston and New York have the most unsafe-looking places, while the Austrian cities have the top 10 safe-looking places.  Just quickly looking at the photos categorized this way provides amazing insight into particular characteristics that draw people to, or send them running from, a public place. A sense of enclosure, vegetation, street-level retail, and other human beings are common characteristics among the safe-looking places.

As the developers note, these associations become even more powerful when mapped and correlated with other characteristics of their surrounding neighborhood or community.  These visualizations are not on the website, but will be published eventually along with a fully-featured, interactive website allowing anyone to participate in or create their own study.  If you’re in Austria, you should check out the exhibit in the meantime.

 

Portland, Oregon to join bike share movement

On the heels of the launch of Hubway, Boston’s bike share program, it appears Portland will be getting one its own.  Last week, the City Council approved in a 4-1 vote and $9 million dollar spending package, which includes $2 million for a bicycle share system. To date, Boston, Washington DC, and Minneapolis are the only major US cities to implement bike sharing systems.  San Francisco is scheduled to join the bunch in spring 2012 and New York City is narrowing down its set of proposals with expected launch in the same timeframe.

Portland Bureau of Transportation notes that bike sharing has progressed through three generations:

  • 1st generation: no-tech, unstructured approach found in Amsterdam in the 1960s.
  • 2nd generation: low-tech, moderate expense like City Bike in Copenhagen and Helsinki
  • 3rd generation: high-tech and more expensive ($500 - $5500 per bike), including use of Smart Card technology.  Allow tracking of bikes.

Portland’s system would likely be of the 3rd generation type.  Guangzhou and Hangzhou’s systems  and Barcelona’s Bicing are of this type as well.  Barcelona recently published a study indicating the safety aspects of its system – it claims 12+ lives a year are being saved as a result of the program.

-          Terra Curtis

 

Portland, Oregon to join bike share movement

On the heels of the launch of Hubway, Boston’s bike share program, it appears Portland will be getting one its own.  Last week, the City Council approved in a 4-1 vote and $9 million dollar spending package, which includes $2 million for a bicycle share system. To date, Boston, Washington DC, and Minneapolis are the only major US cities to implement bike sharing systems.  San Francisco is scheduled to join the bunch in spring 2012 and New York City is narrowing down its set of proposals with expected launch in the same timeframe.

Portland Bureau of Transportation notes that bike sharing has progressed through three generations:

  • 1st generation: no-tech, unstructured approach found in Amsterdam in the 1960s.
  • 2nd generation: low-tech, moderate expense like City Bike in Copenhagen and Helsinki
  • 3rd generation: high-tech and more expensive ($500 - $5500 per bike), including use of Smart Card technology.  Allow tracking of bikes.

Portland’s system would likely be of the 3rd generation type.  Guangzhou and Hangzhou’s systems  and Barcelona’s Bicing are of this type as well.  Barcelona recently published a study indicating the safety aspects of its system – it claims 12+ lives a year are being saved as a result of the program.

-          Terra Curtis

 

Sharing Catching On?

This weekend, not once but twice did I see RelayRides vehicles in action.  I mentioned RelayRides back in February after returning from the annual Transportation Research Board Conference in Washington, DC, where I overheard friendly banter between their Founder and some representatives of the federal Department of Transportation about the need for better carsharing incentives.  After initial success in Boston, the neighbor-to-neighbor carsharing service set out to conquer San Francisco, and now I’ve seen their users conquering the streets of the city as well as those of nature-preserved Marin County. I also recently received a newsletter from Avego, a real-time ridesharing service based in Seattle.  They’ve worked to create a critical mass of riders and drivers to facilitate real-time ridesharing to and from the Microsoft campus outside Seattle with their go520 project.  How are they getting it?  By offering a guaranteed ride in addition to rides arranged on the fly.  This will encourage skeptics to try it out, and the hope is that they’ll be satisfied and establish the needed critical mass for the system to run smoothly on its own.  They’re well on their way; over 1,000 participants have already signed up.

Lastly, I wanted to mention the launch of Boston’s bikeshare system, Hubway.  On July 28th, the system launched with 60 stations and already more than 700 people signed up for an annual membership.  Boston currently has about 35 miles of bike lanes, most of which have been built under Mayor Menino’s vision for a more bicycle-friendly city.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaTfsTdPsEs&w=439&h=250]

- Terra Curtis

 

Two Examples of Computer-Aided Visioning

Earlier this month at the PlanningTech Conference at MIT and the American Planning Association’s annual conference in Boston, I heard lots of buzz and several sessions dealing with the topic of technology-enhanced community participation processes. Recently, I heard about two examples actually happening in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Boston.  In San Francisco, You Choose Bay Area is a website meant to engage citizens in envisioning their future.  It was put together by a large group of Bay Area stakeholders – regional governmental groups, non-profits, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

The website leads citizens through five panels: challenge, priorities, choices, outcomes, and get involved.  These panels first educate on the issues facing the Bay Area, then ask the user to state their own priorities on things like conserving water, decreasing local traffic, and clean air.  After these priorities are set, the user has to make choices about where to build and how the area will grow.  The outcomes panel further educates by highlighting how the citizen’s choices affect their own priorities, making clear the tradeoffs that are necessary in city and regional planning.  The last panel gives the user the opportunity to spatially tag their choices by leaving their zip code; they can also sign up to an email list to stay informed as the regional planning process progresses.

In Boston, Second Life was used to help facilitate community visioning in its Allston neighborhood.  Hub2 was launched in 2008 in helped members of the public, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Harvard’s Allson Redevelopment Group envision the proposed Allston Library Park.  Meeting participants were able to visit Boston Island to move things around, leave comments on particular aspects of the 3D model, and imagine alternatives.

A white paper was written about this particular process; among other things, it highlighted the need for planners themselves to be more intimately involved when the public participation process gets high tech.  In Allston, no architects or planners were actually present.  This also poses challenges for the Bay Area website and other initiatives that attempt to open up the public process to those who cannot or do not want to attend public meetings in person.  How meaningful can “engagement” with a 3D model of one’s own city really be?

-Terra Curtis

 

Two Examples of Computer-Aided Visioning

Earlier this month at the PlanningTech Conference at MIT and the American Planning Association’s annual conference in Boston, I heard lots of buzz and several sessions dealing with the topic of technology-enhanced community participation processes. Recently, I heard about two examples actually happening in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Boston.  In San Francisco, You Choose Bay Area is a website meant to engage citizens in envisioning their future.  It was put together by a large group of Bay Area stakeholders – regional governmental groups, non-profits, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

The website leads citizens through five panels: challenge, priorities, choices, outcomes, and get involved.  These panels first educate on the issues facing the Bay Area, then ask the user to state their own priorities on things like conserving water, decreasing local traffic, and clean air.  After these priorities are set, the user has to make choices about where to build and how the area will grow.  The outcomes panel further educates by highlighting how the citizen’s choices affect their own priorities, making clear the tradeoffs that are necessary in city and regional planning.  The last panel gives the user the opportunity to spatially tag their choices by leaving their zip code; they can also sign up to an email list to stay informed as the regional planning process progresses.

In Boston, Second Life was used to help facilitate community visioning in its Allston neighborhood.  Hub2 was launched in 2008 in helped members of the public, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Harvard’s Allson Redevelopment Group envision the proposed Allston Library Park.  Meeting participants were able to visit Boston Island to move things around, leave comments on particular aspects of the 3D model, and imagine alternatives.

A white paper was written about this particular process; among other things, it highlighted the need for planners themselves to be more intimately involved when the public participation process gets high tech.  In Allston, no architects or planners were actually present.  This also poses challenges for the Bay Area website and other initiatives that attempt to open up the public process to those who cannot or do not want to attend public meetings in person.  How meaningful can “engagement” with a 3D model of one’s own city really be?

-Terra Curtis

 

Code for America

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkceyKlYrJo&w=440&h=278] I was surprised when I realized I hadn’t yet blogged about Code for America.  I mentioned it in a post last week about the future of technology and planning, and then came across it again reading Arc User: The Magazine for ESRI Software Users. For those unfamiliar, ESRI is the company that produces the most widely-used GIS software – ArcMAP.  Turns out they’re also advising the Code for America program.

So, what is Code for America (CfA)?  They’re a new non-profit that teams with cities, figures out a challenge the city is facing that could be solved most cost-effectively with a tech/web 2.0 solution, and recruits technologist fellows to spend about 10 months working out the solutions.  The result is that cities get their problems solved cheaper (and faster) than doing it on their own and the technologists get to do good while doing what they love.

This round, CfA has partnered with Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.  The intent is that they’ll solve each city’s challenge in an open and transferable way, creating solutions that apply to any municipality in the US.  Boston has challenged the fellows to improve high school education through an engaging web platform; Seattle is looking for a mechanism to enable more fluid collaboration between and among communities and public safety officials; Washington DC is expanding upon its own Apps for Democracy project, creating a manual to assist other governments in their open data programs; and, Philadelphia has asked for a solution to allow citizen collaboration on neighborhood services.

CfA is currently in full swing, with all fellows working together out of San Francisco.  We should expect the first round of solutions in September with a hand-off to cities in October and November.  In the meantime, they’re already recruiting for the next team of technologist.  Act fast because the early deadline has already passed!

-Terra Curtis

 

Tech + Transit

By now, this article has made the rounds among transit advocates and techies, at least in the US.  I’m hoping to spread it to Europe now, but especially to readers of this blog who I think will be particularly enthused.mbta app A recent study conducted by Latitude Research and Next American City reveals that new technologies and improved access to information can encourage transit use.  They sampled 18 individuals aged 24 - 51 from Boston and San Francisco who are regular car drivers and asked them to go car-free for a week.  They were tracked by GPS, surveyed about their perceptions of mobility before and after the study, and engaged in group discussions using the web throughout the study.  Boston and San Francisco were chosen due to their recent commitment to open data solutions and technological initiatives.

The study is summarized by three main insights:

  • Information can equalize transit choices
    • Participants rated convenience, control, and flexibility as their highest values for mobility.
    • Location-aware mobile apps provide real-time information about the trade-offs between different routes and modes of travel, extending a feeling of convenience, control, and flexibility to transit.
  • Lose a car, gain a community
    • The majority of participants felt reconnected to their neighbors and their community by riding transit or adopting other non-automobile oriented transportation.
    • Mobile apps can enhance the off-line, real-world experience by connecting individuals to others while traveling.
  • Alternative transit is good for me and we
    • Participants gained insight into the environmental, health, and economic/financial benefits of car-free lifestyle.
    • Readily accessible information, largely available through the use of mobile apps, allows for empathy formation and an increased understanding of their own and others’ preferences and values.

This study serves to legitimize what many of us has believed for a long time.  It goes further to say there’s great value in deprivation, where individuals learn by doing and experiencing, rather than by being preached at by an advocacy crowd.  I hope this study gets expanded to a larger group, comparing the behaviors and experiences of those in tech-enabled cities (e.g. Boston and San Francisco) to areas who have not yet adapted these innovations.  I’d also like to hear thoughts about how this type of experiential learning can be extended beyond the world of research and into policies of programs of municipalities.  Bike to work and school week seem like promising opportunities.

-Terra Curtis

Tech + Transit

By now, this article has made the rounds among transit advocates and techies, at least in the US.  I’m hoping to spread it to Europe now, but especially to readers of this blog who I think will be particularly enthused.mbta app A recent study conducted by Latitude Research and Next American City reveals that new technologies and improved access to information can encourage transit use.  They sampled 18 individuals aged 24 - 51 from Boston and San Francisco who are regular car drivers and asked them to go car-free for a week.  They were tracked by GPS, surveyed about their perceptions of mobility before and after the study, and engaged in group discussions using the web throughout the study.  Boston and San Francisco were chosen due to their recent commitment to open data solutions and technological initiatives.

The study is summarized by three main insights:

  • Information can equalize transit choices
    • Participants rated convenience, control, and flexibility as their highest values for mobility.
    • Location-aware mobile apps provide real-time information about the trade-offs between different routes and modes of travel, extending a feeling of convenience, control, and flexibility to transit.
  • Lose a car, gain a community
    • The majority of participants felt reconnected to their neighbors and their community by riding transit or adopting other non-automobile oriented transportation.
    • Mobile apps can enhance the off-line, real-world experience by connecting individuals to others while traveling.
  • Alternative transit is good for me and we
    • Participants gained insight into the environmental, health, and economic/financial benefits of car-free lifestyle.
    • Readily accessible information, largely available through the use of mobile apps, allows for empathy formation and an increased understanding of their own and others’ preferences and values.

This study serves to legitimize what many of us has believed for a long time.  It goes further to say there’s great value in deprivation, where individuals learn by doing and experiencing, rather than by being preached at by an advocacy crowd.  I hope this study gets expanded to a larger group, comparing the behaviors and experiences of those in tech-enabled cities (e.g. Boston and San Francisco) to areas who have not yet adapted these innovations.  I’d also like to hear thoughts about how this type of experiential learning can be extended beyond the world of research and into policies of programs of municipalities.  Bike to work and school week seem like promising opportunities.

-Terra Curtis