Originally published by the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation on Medium.
A pandemic may seem like the worst time to fix slow-changing, infrastructural data challenges, but there is no better time to begin correcting systems that just aren’t working.
Chief Data Officers (CDOs) manage critical data infrastructure that helps states innovate and make data-driven policy decisions. Earlier this month, we published Leveraging Data for Economic Recovery, a report showing how CDOs can focus their work to guide states to equitable economic recoveries. But within state governments, CDOs often struggle to make the case for sustainable data reforms when there are more pressing demands on frontline workers.
The term “accountability” can be vague to anyone who has watched their local government and questioned whether they’re really seeing it in action. The average person probably knows that when a scandal occurs, a local government official should step down — this is the most basic form of accountability, and one that we may witness on a seemingly arbitrary basis. A “scandal” implies that the public, usually by way of the media, cares enough about an abuse of power that the official responsible can no longer be trusted to serve. But what happens when the abuse of power is so ingrained and commonplace that what should be a scandal appears to be the everyday course of doing business?
There is a mythology around Houston that forms an invisible barrier between it and the rest of the world. As long as I’ve lived outside of Texas, I’ve felt that people needed to understand the city in order to begin to understand me, and I’ve spent years trying to communicate half-formed theories about it. Now that I’m living here again, I have an opportunity to see it with fresh eyes and try to find out what exactly it is that makes its culture so incomprehensible when comparing it to urban life in other major metros.
Last week, CityLab published a piece by Chilean journalists Juan Pablo Garnham and Nicolas Alonso connecting the Metro fare hikes in Chile to the structural instability and state oppression that the country’s residents have mobilized to protest over the last few weeks. When I first saw the headline about Chilean protests under the CityLab banner (and before seeing the authors’ personal connections to the struggle), I expected a milquetoast effort to connect current events to CityLab’s consistent coverage of innovations in transit. Something about how equitable access to transit is fundamental to running a peaceful, functional city. What I got instead was a deeply generous account of how urbanists might understand the interconnectedness of social policy at the city level and its effects on civic responsibility and political action.
Anyone who has worked in social services will tell you that navigating bureaucratic government systems can often be the most time-consuming and soul-sucking part of the job. In her TED talk in 2015, Hillary Cottam, a social entrepreneur and design research expert, highlighted the ways in which social service systems are broken: entangled in a world of government contracts. Social service systems, by design, place a significant administrative and reporting burden on case managers and social workers already responsible for caring for those with the highest need in our society.
In September 2018, the New York Times reported that a security breach at Facebook had exposed 50 million users to data theft. The breach of such a ubiquitous social media site, which houses a host of personal data from email addresses to credit card information, is a startling reminder of the power technology companies have in dictating our digital lives. And now tech giants like Google’s Alphabet are turning their focus toward urban data collection, enabling sensor-laden cityscapes to collect data on large swathes of cities’ residents.
Cities don’t control private entities and how their tech developments shape cities, but they do control public spaces, public infrastructure, and democratic decision-making, and they must leverage that power to ensure residents have an active say in how technology shapes public life.
Recent breaches of data privacy at Facebook have been flash points for discussion and potential Congressional action about how private companies are collecting, storing, and using our personal data. As tech companies around the world scramble to implement new privacy policies, repair trust in their products, and comply with new privacy standards, city governments should be paying attention.
Private companies are dominating figures in the push toward “smart cities”. They are developing technologies that will allow cities to collect and analyze data about their residents’ behaviors through our everyday built environment including pedestrian traffic sensors, connected bikeshare, license plate readers, and more.