The extent to which Mexico City functions — say, the fact that water comes out of most faucets — often seems like a miracle. Famous for the worst traffic in the world and thick air pollution, the 22-million-person capital lives up to its reputation for chaos. Because layered over this chaos and under the smog are bright colors, ancient ruins, abundant public art and lush greenery, the city is also quite surreal. And solving its chaotic problems may just call for surreal solutions — like using data to leverage good will and cultivate a collective consciousness.
Gabriella Gómez-Mont, the director of city government department Laboratorio Para La Ciudad whose personal slogan is “imagination is not a luxury,” is working to do just that. She’s approaching urban problems with a completely new mindset about the division of responsibilities between the government and the people, what constitutes a resource, and what is even possible in a megalopolis.
Last November, Gómez-Mont, Jose Castillo, an urban planning professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and Carlos Gershenson, their data analyst, won the Audi Urban Future award for their plan to use big data to solve Mexico City’s traffic problem. The plan consists of three parts, the first a data-donating platform that collects information on origin and destination, transit times, and modes of transit. The app, Living Mobs, is now in use in beta form. The plan also establishes data-sharing partnerships with companies, educational institutions and government agencies. So far, they’ve already signed on Yaxi, Microsoft, Movistar and Uber among others, and collected 14,000 datasets.
The data will be a welcome new resource for the city. “We just don’t have enough,” explains Gómez-Mont, “we call it ‘big city, little data.” The city’s last origin-destination survey conducted in 2007 only caught data from 50,000 people, which at the time was somewhat of a feat. Now, just one of their current data-sharing partners, Yaxi, has 10,000 cars circulating alone. Still, they have one major obstacle to a comprehensive citywide survey that can only be partially addressed by their data-donating platform (which also, of course, does depend on people having smartphones): 60 percent of transportation in Mexico City is on a hard-to-track informal bus system.
The data will eventually end up in an app that gives people real-time transit information. But an underlying idea — that traffic can be solved simply by asking people to take turns — is the project’s most radical and interesting component. Gómez-Mont paints a seductive alternative futuristic vision of incentivized negotiation of the city.
“Say I wake up and while getting ready for work I check and see that Périferico is packed and I say, ‘OK, today I’m going to use my bike or take public transit,’ and maybe I earn some kind of City Points, which translates into a tax break. Or maybe I’m on Périferico and earn points for getting off to relieve congestion.” She even envisions a system through which people could submit their calendar data weeks in advance. With the increasing popularity of Google Calendar and other similar systems that sync with smartphones, advanced “data donation” doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
Essentially, the app would create the opportunity for an entire city to behave as a group and solve its own problems together in real time.
Gómez-Mont insists that mobility is not just a problem for the government to solve. “It’s also very much about citizens and how we behave and what type of culture is embedded in the world outside of the government,” she notes.
The concept could be carried far beyond traffic congestion. Gómez-Mont talks about “trust” as an urban resource that’s just waiting to be unlocked. Sure, she admits, the city is chaotic and silo-ed, “but, there is a factor between family and friends in Mexico that is incredibly strong.”
She explains that the cultural phenomenon of vaquitas, which means “little cows” but refers to popular home-brewed community banking systems in which neighbors and friends pool money, are prime examples of the generosity and trust already in place in communities. “The DNA of society,” she insists, “is such that all we need to do is start making bigger clusters.”
Since it’s really always the few bad eggs that contaminate trust on a large scale, she sees the responsibility and accountability that data can provide as just the tool. She points out Airbnb as an obvious example — where it used to be unthinkable to let strangers into our homes, now it’s okay.
“People come to Mexico City thinking it’s going to be this dangerous, mean, cold place,” Gómez-Mont says, “but there’s actually an incredible generosity and warmth. People want to help.”
The Science of Cities column is made possible with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.