Recap: Day One of the Open Cities Conference

Next American City, with support from the Rockefeller Center, is hosting a two-day conference in Washington, D.C. called Open Cities: New Media’s Role in Shaping Urban Policy. The 75 attendees, all urban advocates, will seek to link their common goals and shape a federal urban policy agenda that includes new media. Click through to learn more about the conference, and read periodic a recap of the first day.

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Open Cities: New Media’s Role in Shaping Urban Policy is a two-day conference, produced by Next American City and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, that will unite new media and urban policy’s top thinkers and practitioners. Through a series of panel discussions, presentations and networking opportunities, this conference will discuss new media’s strategies for dealing with a variety of challenges — such as how to build an engaged urban citizenry, best utilize municipal data and develop cost-saving technologies or networks to improve cities. The 75 attendees will seek to link their common goals and shape a federal urban policy agenda that includes new media.

For more about the conference, click here.

Coming at noon: Thoughts on the opening keynote speech, delivered by Adolfo Carrion Jr., director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs Policy.

11:15: In opening remarks, Benjamin De La Pena of the Rockefeller Foundation remembers the early days of the web, and compares the Internet’s growth to that of cities, noting that we’re trying in conferences like these to “search for the algorithm that will help develop cities.” Diana Lind, Editor in Chief and Publisher of Next American City, introduces Adolfo Carrion Jr, remarking that the goal of today’s conference is to unite the spheres of technology and policy.

Adolfo Carrion Jr. took the stage. He opened by talking about the nation’s being in a “very very difficult time,” but quickly moved to mention ongoing government programs like Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods and other initiatives. He mentioned that his office is optimistic that they’ll find room in the 2011 budget for new programs and policies to enable more engagement with communities, remarking that the Obama administration is hoping to “shift the culture” away from a top-down structure to one of national government supporting local protagonists. With that, he asked for help from tech community to help the administration reach its goals of technology, transparency, collaboration and participation, calling the government “way behind the curve” on all three. He said the Office will soon launch a web presence, and is engaging in ongoing internal and external exercises to help get government offices out of their silos, and an external exercise, otherwise known as the National conversation on the future of America’s cities and metro areas, in order to find new ideas and get rid of ones that don’t work. The next phase, he said, is new media. We need to figure out a way, he said, “to create the right kind of platform, not just a website,” that allows the administration to engage with people. “The furthest I get into this universe that you’re in,” he told the audience, “is Googling stuff. The President knows way more than I do.” With that, he asked for input from attendees.

Asked if there’s a working relationship with Aneesh Chopra, the CTO of the country, Carrion says he’s “definitely a partner.”

Beth McConnell of the Media and Democracy Coalition encourages Carrion to look into issues involving state legal and tax structures that preempt cities from creating communications networks.

Jennifer Pahlka from Code for America, which builds web apps for city governments asks, where civic leaders are sharing information now. Carrion mentions the Brookings Institution, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Governors’ Association. “We want to be a “clearinghouse” for this conversation,” he said. “We want to get the information to the White House.”

Panel: The Potential of Cities
Moderator: Damon Rich, City of Newark and Center for Urban Pedagogy
Assaf Biderman, SENSEable City MIT; Robin Chase, Meadow Networks; John Tolva, IBM

As local governments open their municipal data, they are opening their cities to transformation. How will open systems, geolocation, hyper local data and other technological innovations change the ways people exist in and perceive their cities?

12:02: Calling himself the “resident skeptic” on the panel, Damon Rich introduces the panelists. Robin Chase speaks of a need to create “open networks” and encourage “open devices” like smartphones, that are multipurpose, as well as open standards, and open source technologies. Assaf Biderman says that now that we know that digital connectivity didn’t kill cities, we’re looking for ways to use tech to make urban life better. With that, he tells the group about a trash-tracing technology that MIT tried out, which may make people more aware of where their garbage ends up, and how their decisions to throw something away might affect the environment. He expresses a goal to create a “dynamic relationship between us and the infrastructure.” To this end, John Tolva talks about “opening up the built environment” by involving planners and builders in the tech conversation – “placing technology in the context of the built environment.”

12:36: The panel opens to questions/stories from participants. One attendee talks about how it’s difficult for policymakers to make comprehensive data sets available; the panel responds that the tech side needs help in turn from the policy side to sort how how comprehensive data sets relate to one another.

Another attendee speaks of the many innovations in being able to track people and information, so the group discusses the privacy implications of open data networks. The panel agrees that there are highly specific ways — like using lasers on roads to image the shape of cars — to track specific information without invading privacy.

The panel closes by talking about the nexus of open data and policy: Robin says policy can become more transparent with open data because it’s cheap; Assaf says that soon we might see “mash-up” innovation on the street; John says that full data transparency is not useful unless you know how to apply it, and make useful applications from it.

Off to lunch.

Keynote: Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC Department of Transportation

Points from Sadik-Khan’s terrific speech, which highlighted the many strides New York has made in recent months to improve its transit networks.

- City is in the “early stages” of using media tools in an ongoing effort to increase government transparency. To this end, Sadik-Khan asked workers to create an app for door-to-door information for cyclists, resulting in Ride City.

- Since New Yorkers, on a per capita basis, use less fossil fuels than the average American, Sadik-Khan says, “If you really want to save the planet, you should move to New York City.” She states a goal to make New York “a better 9 million city than 8 million today,” stressing the importance of transit infrastructure expansion as well as the introduction and enhancement of mobility solutions like cycling.

Other things the city is working on:

- Parking pricing – making parking more expensive during peak hours. – Cycling – working on building it into the transportation network. Mentioned a new city ordinance that’s requiring some buildings to provide bike parking inside. – Broadway Boulevard and other “linear public spaces.” – The notion that you don’t need to use all the streets the same way all the time — hence, the summer streets program. – Making the transit networks more visually appealing by using public art and engaging the design community.

Informing the Public
Moderator: Bill Buzenberg, Center for Public Integrity
Panelists: Sewell Chan, The New York Times; Aaron Naparstek, Streetsblog; Rhys Thom, EMBARQ; Brian Boyle, Issue Media Group

Urban advocacy blogs have come to challenge online newspapers and magazines’ objectivity and reporting style. What are the most effective ways of informing the public and effecting change? Panelists will discuss how their media models serve the public.

1:54: Brian Boyle starts things off by observing how interesting it’s been to watch the media covering the decline of media. Then he talks about how he came to found his group of online magazines; the main impetus was simply moving back to the city of Detroit. “People do not “dwell” in Detroit,” he says, “They build there.” He spoke of the disconnect between the city and the suburbs: “The people living in the city are marginalized, and the people living in cornfields are living the dream.” So he sought to create a “dynamic” online magazine “wired on identifying people driving the transformation of city economies.” (Here’s the Pittsburgh publication, Pop City.)

Sewell Chan begins by talking about the distinction between advocates and journalists, arguing that journalism is supplemented by, but not supplanted by, online advocacy journalism. Digital media have shattered the monolithic model of journalism; digital media have altered the terms of the relationship between journalists and their audience. Digital media have disrupted the traditional time and space within which metropolitan news is organized. Everything is shortened and compressed. One thing he’s struggling with on his blog? How hyper-local to get – whether to cover every dispute, every hearing, and so on. His focus, he says, is more on starting the conversation. He mentions the abundance of available data as a transformative factor – allowing journalists to put together things like the homicide map. Finally, he warns the group about leaving behind and under-representing large groups of less “wired” people in coverage.

Aaron Naparstek talks about the beginnings of his blog, which attempts to cover a spectrum of transportation-related issues that he felt weren’t being covered well by the media. The landscape then (around 2005) was one of the city prioritizing car-friendly streets, a time before urbanism was considered an environmentally friendly concept, when local media was funded by the automobile industry. Since then, Streetsblog has focused on breaking news and “watchdogging” transit agencies, highlighting best practices, trying to make “wonky” issues more accessible, and leveraging collective intelligence. (Check out their Capitol Hill blog for more coverage of today’s events.)

Rhys Thom talks about his organization’s efforts to facilitate communication within cities regarding transit advocacy – he refers to Thecityfix, one initiative, as well as local blogs, research publications, a social network feature, institutional publications and magazines.

Bill asks whether there are too many urban blogs; everyone agrees that there can’t be. But the panelists bring up an interesting dilemma: How do you create a sustainable business model around blogs? All are trying to sort through the metrics of their sites to find out who is reading, and quantify the impact of their work. (For the record: two of the panelists’ organization rely on foundation/donation funding.)

2:45: Another interesting takeaway – One questioner asks whether journalists only end up skimming the surface of urbanism-type issues since they focus mostly on political squabbling; Sewell Chan counters this by arguing that the planning/development/urbanism sphere is very well covered compared to, say, people living in affordable housing and other under-the-radar groups.

3:01: Brian Boyle states that one purpose of media organizations like his is to help policy catch up to market conditions – to help people understand how they can change, for example, the fact that you can’t build a home in Detroit unless there’s a two-car garage, even though the market no longer has an interest in cars.

3:04: Chan and Naparstek agree that it’s important (if expensive) to moderate commenter discussions and keep the dialogue relevant and respectful.

Technology for Participatory Planning and Civic Engagement

Moderator: Rob Lane, Regional Plan Association
Panelists: Deb Ryan, Ryan-Harris; John Geraci, DIY City; Eric Gordon, Hub2; Nick Grossman, The Open Planning Project

New software and wikis are changing the way that citizens can engage with the design of their communities. Each participant will show how this software can revolutionize and improve the way that cities are planned and developed.

Rob starts things off by mentioning a few themes that are very connected to the previous panel: Just as advocacy is not journalism, advocacy is not planning. Who and who is not a planner? Planners and journalists have similar roles, in that they’re tasked with processing and applying all the data that’s now available to transform city life. He speaks of cities as “self-organizing, complex systems,” paying special attention the the “self-organizing” part, as planners are now tasked with dealing with an organic set of information and input that’s constantly expanding and evolving.

Nick kicks things off by TOPP’s recent effort to expand and improve the bike rack network in New York City. They talked to the DOT to determine bike rack rules and guidelines, and then went to the public and gathered opinions about where bike racks should go, returned the information to the DOT — all to show the government that urban planning can be simpler, more participatory and more organic. The idea is to start small, and move from there. With the advent of the internet, he says, a city plan is not something that happens every 20 years – it happens every day.

3:55: Eric talks about to concept of “immersive planning: – involving co-presence, participation and social participation. To come up with a plan for the Allston Honan Library Park in Boston, Hub2 employed Informal workshops, informal drop-in hours and tech platforms like Second Life. The ongoing project Participatory Chinatown is a similar endeavor; they are employing used game-like, 3-D models to help people come up with ideas and opinions about planning. They even had local youth help design characters in the games.

4:07: Deb Ryan, introduces Wikiplanning, a site her organization created in wake of declining numbers and general inefficiencies at public meetings about planning.

Finally, John introduces DIYCity, which has found ways to organize communication among citizens in order to improve city life. His goal is not to identify proven concepts, but to help those concepts make the leap into actual infrastructure/physical transformation.

One attendee asks how the panelists guarantee to their online participants that the information they are getting is informed and authoritative. “The stakes are low right now,” John says, indicating that we might not yet have a useful way of vetting the information that passes through online planning processes. Hub2 makes sure that its experts pay attention first to the people who actually show up at meetings, before dealing with online participants, and also keeps track of IP addresses to make sure, say, that people in New Hampshire aren’t planning a park in Boston.

John makes an interesting comparison: several years ago, the journalism hierarchy worked in such a way that bloggers referenced the New York Times; now, they still do, but the Times also references bloggers. He hopes that urban planning can evolve to look something like this — though Eric makes the point that with news, you don’t need, say the Times’ permission to break a story, but you still need the city’s permission to build a bridge.

4:45: An attendee asks whether there can be such a thing as “DIY subway,” John responds that his vision for DIYCity is to fill in the holes where city institutions aren’t doing well or where they can’t possibly reach (at a hyper-local level, say); with something like the subway, central, formalized planning still needs to happen.

4:54: The group ventures into more theoretical territory as it discusses how to quantify success – is it the level of engagement? Whether a citizen’s comment makes it into a final plan? One panelist thinks online engagement signals a new era of democracy and a higher level of general participation; another laments that there really is no way yet to statistically determine whether an open planning process is successful. Final thought from Eric: all of these new media tools give the planning process more time, as they permit people to engage during their “downtime,” whereas they wouldn’t be able to engage if it involved driving to a meeting.

That’s it for today! Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions or comments about the conference proceedings, please feel free to use the form below.

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Tags: washington dctransportation spendinggovernancenext american cityopen cities

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