At a time when public trust in government is wavering, a group of tech-minded city leaders are hopeful they can use data to regain community confidence and improve civic engagement.
The Knight Foundation has invested $1 million in seven projects across the country that will use data to create more informed and engaged communities. The projects are designed to build new models of public trust that hold governments accountable while also creating data that is accessible, applicable and easy-to-understand.
"These projects meet residents where they are — on platforms they recognize and in the cities they know — to show that we can engage residents with data and create more responsive communities," Lilian Coral, Knight's director for national strategy and technology innovation, said in a statement.
"Utilized well, open data could help local governments effectively tackle major community issues, such as the health effects of lead and pollution, or growing gentrification in communities."
The seven projects include:
Charlotte, NC to engage young people with visual data: Residents, particularly young people "who have been especially disengaged," can interact with the City of Charlotte’s Comprehensive Plan via an immersive platform that enables 3D visualizations of neighborhoods and community data.
Philadelphia to offer a new take on permit processes: A local resident and startup-led effort plans to use the city’s open data portal to inform neighbors about construction permits, potentially helping residents identify any unsafe construction practices to prevent lead exposure and building collapses.
Wichita, KS taps audio to expand civic data access: Audio company Sonify and the Wichita Community Foundation, Envision and a local newsroom plan to use data-driven storytelling for users who are visually impaired or blind.
Long Beach, CA pilots a real-time asthma alert for children: The pilot will use a real-time alert system to pinpoint when and where residents are likely to experience an asthma attack based on air pollution concentrations.
San Jose, CA creates urban periscope: In a project led by design and architecture firm Gensler, augmented reality is used to create data visualizations that can inform pedestrians and residents about different locations to encourage civic participation.
Philadelphia residents to remotely "co-create" public realm: The "Edit the City!" initiative is an effort to create public-sourced open data suggestions for the city’s South Street Headhouse district planning process. Residents can share their input for alterations to the street via remote and digital engagement.
Philadelphia residents to play "SimCity-type game": Drexel University’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio is using a Sims-like game with municipal data to help residents to engage in conversations about gentrification, exploring the political, economic and sociological forces that form a city neighborhood.
The City of San Jose, CA, for example, captures a variety of data, including information on traffic patterns, waste creation and clean energy usage. And despite the city's ample development and construction plans, San Jose still struggles to have a sufficient affordable housing supply, according to Gensler Studio Director Jen Tank.
"The citizens of San Jose, CA are interested in being a part of the discussion," she said on a webinar.
Tank's "urban periscope" project uses the city's affordable housing data to help spark a broader conversation. The application allows residents to point their phones at a development site — or an augmented reality illustration of what will be built — to see how many affordable housing units will be included in the development.
"Bringing that data off the page and into the real world, making it 3-dimensional, and making it in the scale of a real world execution, could really change the conversation," she said.
Cities and their partners aren’t the only ones working to restore public trust in data. Following the recent demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd, tech giants have adjusted their own data-use policies. IBM, for example, has ended their facial recognition software services, and Amazon has banned the technology from being used by police for one year.