I was back in California last week and met with two dedicated public servants I respect the hell out of. One a legend in California city management circles. The other the leader of an education organization with over three decades of experience pioneering creative ways to connect communities to our schools in the greatest need. We talked about how we can tackle civic challenges facing LA like the big drought going on.
Both described a similar underlying challenge facing public servants: being stuck between the clear potential of the digital revolution to transform how we deliver basic public services and the current reality of day to day demands of actually deliverying said services under the existing administrative paradigm.
LA certainly has helped lead the charge for how cities can harness the digital revolution, winning numerous awards and demonstrating a cool open source dashboard framework at the US Conference of Mayors. Yet many of the most transformative examples of how the digital revolution can improve our cities come of the consumer web from companies like Airbnb or Uber that succeeded by largely ignoring the existing municipal architecture.
If we focus on simply optimizing or improving the digital interface of existing city services, we might achieve nontrivial 5-10% improvements though we miss the opportunity to achieve transformative 5-10x improvements. Seismic shifts like climate change or growing inequality of opportunity or the foundational economic implications of automation demand transformative improvements in the delivery of basic public services.
And we too quickly forget many of the basic municipal functions we take for granted like professionally managed public water utilities or full time police deparments or universal K-12 schools are only a little over a century old and were radical innovations at the time. Of course, none of that's news for talented public servants. Furthermore, that's much easier to say than to do. So to make that logic concrete, here's the pilot projects ARGO has committed to delivering and their broader implications.
Learnr provides a seamless way to connect skilled volunteers with education professionals. The goal with this digital tool is to build from existing education nonprofit efforts and community school initiatives to routinize the heroic efforts required from both volunteers and education professionals today. Bulding a bridge between schools and the broader community helps make lessons more meaningful for students and getting more adults involved helps teachers in personsonalizing learning to individual students.
Learnr also demonstrates how municipal government might create other platforms to facilitate other positive community action. One might imagine a sort of California Conservation Corps on demand to help plant California friendly landscaping in street medians, sidewalk buffers, public parks, and even private homeowners. These sorts of community actions could even be subsidized by public funds to both increase the number of these actions and create jobs in the community.
Cities as laboratories
Steven Koonin, the Directer of the Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP.nyu.edu) where ARGO's founding team is about to graduate from, has boldly stated that CUSP's mission is to use NYC as it's laboratory. We too quickly forget that in addition to homes for millions of people, cities are remarkable physical systems where the natural environment and artificial infrastructure also interact. The increasing ubiquity of smartphones has radically lowered the cost to rapidly prototype sensors and created a new frontier for how we can measure city attributes like road quality.
In its ample free time this summer, ARGO has been experimenting with a cheap Street Quality Identification Device ("SQUID"). Building from Boston's streetbump app, SQUID combines Streetbump type accelerometer and gps data with images to generate authoritative street quality maps. It's an old saw in city management circles that filling poholes is the most expensive and least effective way to maintain streets.
SQUID's low cost means it can be deployed on many vechicle which means that an authoritative city-wide street quality map can be updated frequently. That empowers city managers to more efficiently conduct preventative maintanence and avoid simply reacting to citizen reported pothole sightings. Can we optimize street quality maintenance to make LA's big city pothole problems as obsolete 19th century water born epidemics? That's ultimately a hypothesis though well managed small cities like Santa Monica have already achieved that level of service and that's what ARGO's squid project aims to support cities across America in also achieving.
The same instrumentation logic can apply to other domains. Consider a pressing So Cal challenge: stormwater. The LA River was channelized with concrete in the 1930's in the wake of a terrible flood with the idea of sending water into the sea as fast as possible. With today's new normal of water scarcity that represents tens of thousands of lost acre feet of supply. And the Clean Water Act has increasingly stringent stormwater quality standards. Web enabled sensors could potentially use imagery to measure flows not just in centralized locations but distributed throughout the region.
The water management community generally takes sensor costs and abilities as a given, scoping projects using existing contractors. Institutions like CUSP, however, demonstrate that doesn't need to be the case, with nontrivial water efficiency implications.
Impact evaluations by default
Of course, there's an obvious question lingering in the background of this digital and data experimentation: what's the impact? Too often in public service basic questions about how well a given education afterschool or street quality maintenance program actually works. Part of the challenge is that such questions are inherently, well, challenging. Civic affairs necessarily involve dense causal webs as teachers, PTA's, local businesses, popular culture and countless other actors affect how students learn. And such questions are inherently political with implications about winners and losers -- just look at the ongoing debate about charter schools.
Part of the challenge though is that such questions remain obfuscated by existing public administration. Consider a basic civic question confronting California: "How much water was used in the last month by households with a home value over a million dollars?" That's an important data point in understanding what actions are working to achieve water conservation in that key high usage demographic.
Yet answering that question would require merging household level water usage data from hundreds of utilities as well as integrating home valuation information from California's County Tax Assessors. Huge swathes of civic affairs are largely terra incognita or only mapped by clunky pdf reports that only a handful of people ever read. The open data movement has demonstrated that digital tools exist to make the underlying data available in the right format.
The Strategic California Urban Water Analytics ("SCUBA") data collaborative leverages the same sorts of tools to enable raw water usage data to flow freely between participating utilities and approved academic partners. Per California law, this data cannot be public on the web yet there is huge value in sharing this data both to enable ongoing comparative analytics and empower more robust research into the impact of utility actions to manage demand.
A dirty little secrete of social science research is that academics generally expect to be provided a clean dataset and even then data transformations still take up the lion's share of work. Lowering that data cleaning cost should have nontrivial implications for the volume of impact evaluations that can be conducted. Furthermore, a model of say the impact of switching to a water budget based rate structure can be refined through research and then pushed into production to generate probabilistic water demand impact forecasts for any utility manager looking to shift to water budget based rate structure base on their specific service area demographics, hydrology and climate characteristics.
NYU's GovLab estimates that only $1 out of every $100 government spent is backed by any sort of impact evaluation. A little over a century ago the same ratio was true of even basic aspects of municipal budgeting. Instead of a formal professional budget, municipalities would just spend money until they ran out. ARGO expects in the not too distant future we will look back at today's impact evaluation free spending with the same incredulity. We might not find The Answer to what works everywhere for all time though we can develop better ways to tackle the specific local challenges facing cities.
The Need for A New Progressive Movement
It's worth remembering that today's public administration paradigm -- a professional civic service, nonpartisan municipal management and detailed rules regulating administrative action -- has only been in place for around a century. It's also worth remembering it took a Progressive movement to put that new paradigm in place. That movement built from isolated examples of improved municipal management not too unlike today's case studies coming out of civic tech, city data offices and other innovative work.
The big question mark with today's nascent movement is maturity. How do we move from a world where we're celebrating isolated deployments of a cool civic tech tool to one where municipal governments are digitally native by default? Consider a great up and coming Code for America app:
Citygram is a geographic notification platform designed to work with open government data. It allows residents to designate area(s) of a city they are interested in and subscribe to one or more topics. When an event for a desired topic occurs in the subscriber's area of interest, a notification (email, SMS, or webhook) is delivered.
What happens though if someone lives outside of the handful of cities like New York or Charlotte where CityGram has been deployed? Or what if someone lives across the river in Hobokken but work in the city? And for that matter are the notifications that I really care about as a New Yorker just EVERY 311 complaint within a specified radius of where I live?
No in a mature movement, Citygram meets the standards of the consumer web: simple, useful and ubiquitous. This (kinda obvious to the Facebook generation) notification tool needs clear foundational standards about what data in what format is expected from cities -- no different than how all municipalities must produce a Consolidated Annual Financial Report (CAFR). To do that, CityGram needs more than civic hackers coding on their nights and weeks or even a year. That's not how we resource other basic public infrastructure like a water utility. And more than just resources it needs a new administrative paradigm to manage these sorts of virtual public services.
And if we're really going to be serious about this movement, we need to articulate how the new creative, adaptive and digitally native public administration paradigm can help us meet the mountains we face like inequality of opportunity or climate change or the seismic economic shifts under way. Note the last major Progressive movement confronted its contemporary big civic challenges like the crony capitalist Southern Pacific Railroad in California head on. It's an obvious point though one that's worth remembering: shiny digital interfaces are just a tool. It's how we use them to meet those mountains that matters.