Smart Cities are Taking a New Approach to Measuring Progress

Smart Cities Start Here

As the private sector continues to reshape the way we live, work, and play it’s clear that in the Information Age, data is the raw material of innovation. And it’s exploding.

By 2020, 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet, creating conditions where people are demanding new services and solutions from government while also generating the data necessary to make such services and solutions possible (think: smart trash receptacles and weight-triggered traffic lights).

Even so, while businesses invest millions in data and analytics to improve profit margins, city halls across the country are hamstrung in using data and analytics to improve citizens’ lives.

A city’s ability to overcome the intractable problems at the heart of the innovation gap—to get their own data out of systems and silos and into operational, strategic, and policy decisions —will be the difference between thriving, surviving, and declining.

“In terms of city governance, we are at one of the most consequential periods in the last century.”  - Stephen Goldsmith, Director of Innovations in Government Program, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Forward-thinking organizations like What Works Cities and the Sunlight Foundation have done a lot to raise awareness about the need for local governments to collect, share, and use data to achieve better results. In response, many have adopted policies and best practices for open data and performance management.

But executing on those policies and practices has proven prohibitive—and consequently, even in the age of Big Data and Smart Cities, communities struggle to answer a basic but existential question: Are we becoming a better place for all citizens to live, work, and play?

After four months of research at mySidewalk—including in-depth interviews, workflow mapping, and design sprints with dozens of city leaders and analysts—it’s clear that smart cities will take a new approach to not only answer that question, but to ensure it’s a yes.

What Smart Cities Know

Smart cities know open data can deliver on its promises: increased civic engagement, greater trust in government, and innovative solutions to systems problems.

Smart cities know that once that potential is realized, new pathways will open up to even more powerful uses of data, like machine learning and predictive modeling.

But smart cities also know they have to move beyond the practice of handing off raw data files with blanket requests to entrepreneurs, coders, and data scientists to “build apps that solve problems”—to practices that reinforce what they know about the true nature of innovation. 

Innovation happens when diverse groups of people are empowered with actionable data.

What Smart Cities Will Do

“Open data has immense potential to catalyze creative problem solving by practitioners and policymakers, but troves of vaguely-labeled spreadsheets will do little to inspire interest or facilitate innovative solutions.” - Chris Bousquet, Data-Smart City Solutions

Today, most proactive cities share their data in its raw form through portals (think Dropbox-like file sharing), which means technologists are the only ones who can make sense of it. But very few cities have computer and data scientists on staff, and in the broader community, they are approximately 1% of the general population (and are disproportionately white males).

One of the most important, doable steps cities must take is to treat access to actionable data the same way they do broadband Internet, affordable housing, employment, and transit. In doing so, they’ll not only meet basic standards of equity, they’ll also open up civic innovation.

Innovation comes in many forms: technology, yes; but also plans, policies, pilot projects, and citizen-led ballot initiatives. And from many people: technologists and entrepreneurs, yes; but also neighborhood leaders, health care workers, college students, and civic activists.

When cities adopt inclusive data-sharing practices, the best ideas will emerge from those who marry information and intuition—those who know the city in their bones and understand the statistics, policies, and strategies behind their lived experiences.

“We must move beyond data about and for citizens, and actively promote data with and by citizens, if we are to realize open data’s potential to tackle rising inequality.” - Ana Brandusescu, Digital Citizen Research Officer, The Web Foundation

What are inclusive data-sharing practices?

Inclusive data-sharing practices are rich in context. Take, for example, the issue of neighborhood livability, of which the percent of vacant properties is a key indicator. If the goal is to educate and empower everyone to offer solutions, then the data shared must be: 

  • Geospatial. Cities are places. Dimensionality matters. They can’t be reduced to typical business analytics, but instead must be brought to life geospatially. Residents must know the distribution and concentration of vacant properties in their own neighborhood, and how that compares to surrounding neighborhoods.

  • Integrated. Dealing with abandoned properties and absentee landlords; combating the corrosive crime and health effects of vacancies; and selecting appropriate reinvestment tactics isn’t the work of a single department. Unconnected but relevant datasets—vacant properties, tax delinquencies, property values, code enforcement, crime incidents, health outcomes, and citizen satisfaction—must be integrated and flow seamlessly and legibly across departmental boundaries and into the public consciousness.

  • Dynamic. Cities are vibrant, living systems. Housing, transportation, economic, and social systems are linked and dependent on each other. Only powerful and elegant methods of quantification can capture the reality of these relationships. A spreadsheet won’t cut it. But when people can interact with vacant property data by clicking on their own neighborhood and seeing charts on property assessment, mode share, household income, and citizen satisfaction update in real-time, they begin to grasp the dynamic, interrelated nature of neighborhood livability.  

  • Predictive. People have remarkably similar questions when they’re trying to understand their communities: How have things changed? How are things expected to change? What helps livability? And what hurts it? When data is geospatial, integrated, and dynamic, it also becomes predictive—and answers start to take shape. Geoanalysis of historical vacancy and property value data can reveal livability trends and projections; policy outcomes; and the point at which vacancy rates drive down property values, so that stakeholders can act in the right place, at the right time, with the right intervention.

  • Narrative-Driven. People are wired for story. Telling simple stories about complex problems is the surest way to help them understand their world and the opportunities they have to change it. The story of neighborhood resilience is universally resonate. It’s about whole communities working together to drive awareness of issues, share innovative solutions, and overcome conflict in order to become a better place to live, work, and play.

After nearly eight years of helping cities all over the country engage residents online to co-create the future of their communities, it’s exciting (and humbling) to be in the position now to help cities harness data to ensure that future works for everyone.

In fact, we’ve updated our mission to reflect the opportunity:  

Our mission is to empower city leaders and the public with the most complete, clear, and real-time understanding of their communities so they can improve and innovate together.

We’re not the innovation. We’re the tool that makes innovation possible—by enabling cities to track, analyze, and communicate progress on some of their most pressing issues, like blight, mobility, economic growth, inequality, and environmental quality. Learn more here.


mySidewalk is a city intelligence tool that helps analysts track, analyze, and communicate progress on department and citywide goals. Our mission is to empower city leaders and the public with the most complete, clear, and real-time understanding of community data so they can improve and innovate together. You work hard for your data. What’s it doing for you?

Connect with our team here

About the Author

Stephen Hardy is the CEO of mySidewalk. Stephen is responsible for providing the strategic vision for the entire mySidewalk team. Before mySidewalk, Stephen worked at BNIM as the director of planning where he developed BNIM’s sustainable community planning practice and became a highly-sought expert for cities rebuilding after disasters. He has also worked for Senator Jerry Moran and The Conservation Fund. Stephen is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners, holds a LEED AP credential, and is a graduate of Harvard’s School of Design.