The Long Hack: Finding Your Own Take on Civic Tech By Way of ‘Smart Cities’

A new book from researcher Anthony Townsend looks at the ambiguities of big data and smart cities.

Credit: Rob Pongsajapan

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I want to begin by putting two facts from Anthony Townsend’s new book, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia, right beside each other. First, GPS-enabled phones aren’t just capable of tracking our locations all the time, but they are also pretty much making a giant record of it. Creepy, right? Second, do you know about the most frequently sent text in the world? It’s “Where r u?”

Humans have the urge to know where other humans are, and many systems out there work better when we have that information. On the other hand, it can be abused. Smart Cities takes a valiant stab at balancing the great promise of the data age, civic technology and hackable cities with all the ways it could be used to manipulate, oppress or even put us in danger as it ostensibly makes us safer.

Sorting out exactly which side Townsend, a research director at the Institute for the Future, falls on is hard to discern between his anecdotes. He clearly gushes about the promise of a new layer of urban sensors to track the life of a city, but he’s also disconcerted by just how much corporations and national governments know about us. He criticizes suburbs for looking like a tree with thousands of isolated branches rather than an encouraging latticework of urban streets, yet he also cites defense planners who say that Americans spreading themselves out has improved our disaster resilience as a people. He sings the praises of the grassroots and the activist hacker, yet when it comes to putting computing power into the hands of actual people in the developing world, there’s no contest: One Laptop per Child doesn’t even come close to what Nokia has accomplished.

He even gives some grief early on to the pragmatic reality of Jane Jacobs’ ideas, while nevertheless invoking her name throughout.

So, he’s tough to pin down. But that’s for the better, because he puts you in the position of coming to your own conclusions. And that’s what he wants. Spoiler alert: Townsend closes with a call for his reader to join the long hack into more efficient, more resilient, more democratic future cities.

The book takes readers through some of the early efforts to put urban areas inside computers, as well what’s gone wrong with it, what’s gone right and what isn’t yet finished. Here are some quotes that stood out:

  • “But it soon became clear that looking smart, even more than being smart, was the real force driving mayors into the arms of engineers.”
  • “Dodgeball had taught him that knowing where you are wasn’t actually that valuable; the value was in using that information to unlock new experiences.”
  • “Computerized mapping of cities is a half-century-old idea, originally developed by the US military and the census, but the first large-scale efforts to map slums didn’t begin until 1994, in the Indian city of Pune.”
  • “It turned out that, in their quest to maintain steady reduction in the reported rate of crime, police officers routinely reclassified offenses and even discouraged citizens from reporting them in the first place. CompStat showed that when data drives decisions, decisions about how to record the data will be distorted.”
  • “Apple’s Siri might be the most suburban technology ever invented: its voice recognition is perfect for connected cars and completely useless on noisy city sidewalks.”
  • “The risk of too much borrowing is generic design. As Phil Bernstein of AutoDesk, a maker of architectural software, has said, ‘I used to be able to drive around American cities and tell you what version of AutoCAD was used to design each building.’”

If you’re a reader in a hurry, the above could serve as a shortcut through what is, overall, a book filled with some really interesting anecdotes (including the Chernobyl disaster caused by safety equipment, how microcassettes undermined communism and the hacking of Levittown, N.Y.). I don’t think you should skip the middle, though. I got so into it that I came up with two different start-up ideas that I’m half-inclined to pursue.

You could probably get away with reading the introduction and chapters 1 and 2, and then skipping all the way to Chapter 9 (“Buggy, Brittle and Bugged”) and Chapter 10 (“A New Civics for a Smart Century”). The chapters in between are filled with compelling stories of what both small groups of individuals and big corporations have done in attempts to make cities work better. Surrounding many of these stories, though, were attempts to put them in a context that often felt a little too ideological or sometimes too mired in geek-speak for even this nerd to follow.

The penultimate chapter is an expert’s catalog of all that has gone wrong and just how much worse the backfires and breakdowns will get as smart systems become more important. It’s not a word of caution. It’s a barrage of it, and it’s fascinatingly scary.

Then Townsend gets to his final chapter, which is nothing but editorial context for all that’s come before, and here he makes up for whatever I may have found wanting in his efforts to tie the previous stories together. He articulates concise and important guidelines for city leaders and civic hackers, such as upgrading what you have and clearing out what’s obsolete while you go, creating as much publicly held data infrastructure as possible, sticking to open source no matter what the salesmen say, not being afraid to build your applications from something that worked in another city, and make broad engagement a priority.

It’s a lot, but this book is about creating a vision for a world that’s vastly more complicated than anything seen before. A recurring theme is to not forget about humans as machines get built. (In other words, don’t build Skynet.) We might have learned during the fight over SOPA that the anti-malware system to protect humanity from engineering autocracy into its datastream is already built in.

Townsend reminds us, as the SOPA fight showed, that the mores of Internet users are as important as the servers it runs on. Machines get everything wrong if they don’t do what humans want, and that’s why the engineers need to keep checking with communities as smart cities grow.

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Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Brooklyn.

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Tags: big dataappscivic techsmart cities

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