April in Lisbon – IGU Commission on Geography of Governance Annual Conference 2012

I will be presenting a paper at the Annual Conference of the IGU Commission on Geography of Governance in Lisbon, Portugal (April 12-14, 2012) .The paper, Citizen Apps and Urban Governance: Understanding the Landscape of Apps and their Impacts, draws on my current research project with  Akshay Bhagwatwar (Kelley School of BusinessIndiana University) and my IBM Center for the Business of Government research grant.

Citizen Apps to Solve Complex Urban Problems – Journal of Urban Technology

I have a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Urban Technology. Co-authored with Akshay Bhagwatwar (Kelley School of Business, Indiana University) this paper looks at how citizen apps are employed to solve complex urban problems.

Abstract:

Tackling complex urban problems requires us to examine and leverage diverse sources of information. Today, cities of all kinds and sizes capture a large amount of information in real-time. Data is captured on transportation patterns, electricity and water consumption, citizen use of government services (e.g. parking meters), and even on weather events. Through open data initiatives, government agencies are making information available to citizens. In turn, citizens are building applications that exploit this information to solve local urban problems. Citizens are also building platforms where they can share information regarding government services. Information that was previously unavailable is now being used to gauge quality of services, choose services, and report illegal and unethical behaviors (e.g. requesting bribes). To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper to examine the range of citizen applications (‘citizen apps’) targeted to solve urban issues and their ensuing impacts on planning, decision-making, problem solving, and urban governance. We examine citizen apps that address a wide range of urban issues from those that solve public transportation challenges to those advance management public utilities and services and even public safety.

Citation: Desouza, K.C., and Bhagwatwar, A. “Opening up Information for Tackling Complex Urban Problems:  A Study of Citizen Apps,” Journal of Urban Technology, Forthcoming.

Investigative Journalism

Over the next few months, I will be working with a team of researchers, graduate students, and practitioners to study the resiliency of local networks to crises (and catastrophic disasters) using a journalistic lens. Through interviewing subjects, we hope to collect a series of videos that can be used for traditional research analysis, but can also make for interesting teaching material, weblogs, etc.

IBM Center for the Business of Government Grant: Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology

I have received a grant from the IBM Center for the Business of Government for my research project, Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology:  Challenges and Opportunities for Federal Agencies. This project will be conducted as part of the policy informatics portfolio at the Metropolitan Institute.

Most US federal agencies have embraced President Obama's vision for 1) greater transparency, 2) increased citizen participation, and 3) greater collaboration. A critical outcome of these initiatives is the willingness of federal agencies to engage with citizens around open-data initiatives and the creation of technology for solving public policy problems - 'citizen apps.' We are witnessing an increasing proliferation of 'citizen apps', i.e. applications designed by citizens and developers to solve public policy challenges. Federal agencies are not only opening up data reservoirs, but are also incentivizing the development of citizen apps through competitions. In this research project, we propose to study citizen apps and the federal programs that fostered (incentivized) their creation.

There are many reasons why it is beneficial to involve citizens in the governance process. One, it opens up problem solving opportunities where citizens can participate. Second, it serves as a forum to increase the diversity of thought and knowledge brought to a problem. This increases the potential for innovation by engaging many minds to solve complex problems. Citizen participation leads to greater collective intelligence and hopefully more robust solutions for social issues. Third, it allows citizens to solve problems that a government agency might be challenged to address. Finally, it empowers the vision set forth by former President John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Citizen app programs normally come in two broad flavors. One set of citizen app programs are fueled by government open-data initiatives. In these cases, a government agency makes data available to the public and the public in turn responds by using this data creatively to generate technologies (the apps) that better the lives of citizens. The second set of citizen app programs is where a government agency issues a challenge or problem to the public. The public then responds by building solutions to the challenge. In this case, the government may incentivize the development of the apps through issue of recognition prizes and funding. This success of both types of citizen app programs depends on the dynamic collaboration of government agencies, app developers, and the citizenry. To date, our knowledge on what makes for successful collaboration among these three players is limited.

There are a number of design considerations that need to be addressed when building citizen app programs from the nature of incentives provided to goals of the apps, the motivations that drive citizens to create the apps, and how (and where) to deploy the apps, the involvement by the agency (e.g. staff time to interact with app developers), level and amount of data availability, and creation of problem-solving communities and forums, among others. In this research project, we will uncover design considerations that government executives need to bear in mind as they initiate citizen app programs. We will also compare and contrast citizen app programs to arrive at a set of best practices by looking at critical success factors that led to citizen app programs that were highly successful.

Our research project will thoroughly inventory and study the range of citizen apps to understand the typology of the apps, the data they use, the problems they address, the motivation of the designers, the usage by citizens, and the impact on government and governance. We propose to discover and define the inter-relations between the government agencies, the app developers, and the citizens. While our focus will be on studying citizen apps generated out of programs commissioned by the federal government, we will also look at programs started by progressive states (e.g. New York, California, etc).

The results of the final report will benefit public sector government executives, public managers, and the public-at-large in several ways: 1) it will enable government executives to avoid common pitfalls when incentivizing citizen app programs (for e.g. placing emphasis on the frontend, i.e. the creation of apps, and ignoring the more challenging aspect of ensuring that the apps are diffused into the agency's work practices or to citizens); 2) it will enable public managers to understand the landscape of citizen apps, the motivations of citizens who create them, and the factors that drive their usage; and 3) it will enable federal agencies to better engage citizens into the policy setting process through supporting technology development thereby increasing the chances of more effective solution generation for policy problems.

New Project – Examining Public Participation in ACTion Alexandria

The Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech has entered into an agreement to partner with ACT for Alexandria to advance the design of citizen engagement platforms.I will lead a team of researchers who will work in collaboration with ACT for Alexandria personnel to examine public participation on the ACTion Alexandria platform. The team will look at how user interactions on the community platform can guide design choices that promote more robust forms of citizen engagement.

ACT for Alexandria is a community foundation founded in the the fall of 2004 by a small group of citizens who came together to decide how best to stimulate philanthropic giving to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in their community. The ACTion Alexandria project is a new citizen engagement platform which provides interactive tools that make it easier for residents to take a more active role in addressing community problems. ACTion Alexandria connects individuals to nonprofit organizations they want to support, but with a strictly local focus. Individuals have the opportunity to take action on behalf of nonprofits working to improve the community.

ACT for Alexandria is a prominent player in the non-profit space. We are excited to partner with them to study the dynamics of public participation in action. The ACTion platform gives us access to real world scenarios of how citizens use technology to engage each other.

This initiative will advance the work being done in Policy Informatics at the Metropolitan Institute. Designing better collaborative and participatory platforms remains a critical challenge in the public arena. We are not only interested in this project from a research point of view but also from a design and policy point of view. The Metropolitan Institute will be analyzing information on user behavior on the platform, designing experiments to test various strategies for increasing engagement on the platform, and contributing to the design of the overall platform.

Collaborating on this effort allows us the opportunity to make a difference in our community. The MI is based in Alexandria and we want to be part of the community. ACT for Alexandria provides an amazing array of services, from scholarships to leadership training. ACTion Alexandria is where the idea of community engagement meets the newest technological innovations.

See here for the press release from the Metropolitan Institute (Link)

Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters Project – The Metropolitan Institute

Maggie Cowell (Assistant Professor, Urban Affairs and Planning, School of Public and International Affairs) and I have received a seed grant ($20,000) from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE) at Virginia Tech for our project “Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters: Studying the Emergence and Dissolution of Community Networks.” This project will be housed at the Metropolitan Institute.

The goal of this research project is to study how citizens coalesce into responsive communities, make an impact, and then dissolve during and after a disaster. This research will bring into light locally significant disasters that do not earn national headlines and where the local community turns to their own resources to respond. Too often these local disasters and citizen responses are not studied but they are vital to deepening of our understanding of community resilience and the dynamics of citizen engagement. We will uncover the dynamics of community emergence in response to a disaster. Questions considered will include: who organizes citizens into a community, how, and why? How do they respond to the disaster? How is technology, especially social media, mobilized for community organization and relief operations? And finally, what leads to the disbanding of these communities and is there any institutional memory preserved? Consisting of a series of in-depth case studies, made up of first-person accounts and interviews together with a review of secondary sources, the research will look at three stages of a spontaneous community response: the assemblage; the action and impact; and the dissolution of the community. We will study how these emergent communities use technology creatively in the various stages of the community formation as a catalyst to overcome the lack of formal response mechanisms or response planning.

This project will provide valuable insights for citizen activists, planners, and policy makers on the functions and impacts of community response and improve our understanding of citizen engagement. Understanding the emergence, and impacts of local community response can inform the efficiency of more widespread responses. We will construct a web-based platform to share results from the research project (including video interviews with citizens, case studies, and community planning tools). In addition, the web-based platform will support networking and community building among citizens who are interested in building resilient community networks.

  • “Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters: Studying the Emergence and Dissolution of Community Networks,” Institute for Society, Culture and Environment @ Virginia Tech, 2011, (PI) (co-PIL Margaret M. Cowell)  ($20,000)

Investigating Failures in Large-Scale Public Sector Projects with Sentiment Analysis

I have co-authored a paper with Sandeep Purao and Jonathan Becker, both based at the College of Information Science and Technology at Penn State University, which analyzes the IRS’s Business Systems Modernization Project using sentiment analysis. The paper will appear in a special issue of e-Service Journal.

We describe results from historical analysis of the IRS Business Systems Modernization (BSM) as an example of large-scale, public sector projects. The project has already spanned a decade and consumed more than 3 billion dollars. The paper suggests extracting stakeholder Sentiments and Confidence from documents, with a view to exploring how such measures may offer early indications of project progress and assist managers to prevent undesirable future outcomes. The key contribution of this research is a demonstration of a plausible technique to elicit stakeholder perspectives based on the content in publicly available documents, either complementing any existing methods, or supplanting them in projects where collecting primary data may be infeasible.

A previous version of this paper was presented at the 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences in theElectronic Government Track(Development Methods for Electronic Government, Minitrack).

Vision of the Metropolitan Institue

Below is the new vision for the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. I look forward to partnering with you on collaborative efforts.

Vision

As one of Virginia Tech’s premier research initiatives, the Metropolitan Institute conducts basic and applied research on the dynamics of metropolitan complexities, such as demographics, environment, technology, design, transportation, and governance. With most of the globe's population moving to urbanized areas, the major public policy challenges of this century will require a deeper understanding of how metropolitan complexities play out across multiple jurisdictions, locations, infrastructures, and stakeholders.

The Metropolitan Institute fosters research on designing, planning, and governing of livable, sustainable, and economically-viable urban spaces. Our research embraces the challenge of addressing the intertwining variables, goals, mechanisms, and systems of accountability within this space through an integration of heterogeneous information, emerging computational mechanics, and predictive theoretical frameworks. The Metropolitan Institute offers two special capabilities to help policymakers and practitioners address these emerging public policy challenges. Firstly, the Metropolitan Institute can visualize, analyze, interpret, and employ information from a wide assortment of sources, using sophisticated analytical approaches in a cost-effective manner as part of a new era of social science research that embraces policy informatics to solving complex problems. Secondly, the Metropolitan Institute provides an interdisciplinary platform for academic researchers from public policy, to geography and planning, from economics to computational sciences, and from architecture to engineering to advance the cause of designing, planning, and administering resilient and sustainable urban spaces.

Located in the National Capital Region in Alexandria, VA, the Metropolitan Institute is housed within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS) where it can leverage key strengths of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) faculty within the Departments of Urban and Regional Planning (UAP), Public Administration and Policy (CPAP), and Government and International Affairs (GIA), while also reaching beyond the boundaries of department, college, or university, to bring together the richest collaboration of thinkers to each research question. The Metropolitan Institute advances the mission of Virginia Tech by enabling policy makers, city planners, businesses, and citizens to invent the future of resilient and sustainable metropolitans.

Welcome Letter from the Director – Metropolitan Institute

Just completed finalizing my first letter as the Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. We will soon be loading this on the Metropolitan Institute's website and sharing it with faculty, staff, and friends of Virginia Tech.

Welcome Letter from the Director

Greetings,

It is a privilege to introduce myself as the new director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. I look forward to growing the Metropolitan Institute in the rich history of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, fueled by the dynamism of the School of Public and International Affairs. As we chart a new course for the Institute, I invite members of the Virginia Tech family (students, professors, and administrators) and past/future partner organizations from the Washington, DC metropolitan region and beyond, to visit our web site, review our upcoming work, and contact us as we explore new collaborations.

For the past decade, my intellectual curiosity has focused on designing more resilient and innovative organizations. Critical to this endeavor is understanding how information is managed within and beyond the organization’s borders. As part of my explorations, I have employed numerous research methodologies from behavioral to computational, and have collaborated with industry and academic partners across a range of disciplines from engineering to public administration and management.

A necessary reality of conducting my research was traveling to various parts of the globe to study organizations, the leaders and managers who were responsible for them, and the employees who supported their mission. Over the course of last five years, I have had the privilege of traveling to over 20 cities, including Mumbai, Madrid, Rome, Ljubljana, Johannesburg, Bangkok, London, and Prague. Observing and experiencing the diversity of metropolitan forms led me to consider the design and consequences of how information traversed urban systems across infrastructures, organizations, and social networks.

Urbanization is a major force of change in our world today and will impact the future of the planet on a number of dimensions from resiliency to sustainability and economic vitality. The need to become more effective and aware of the design and implementation of policies has never been more critical. Central to developing new and more effective models of urban policy are the needs to:

  1. Innovate the policy setting process, making it more dynamic, inclusive, cost effective, and timely.
  2. Leverage information through the deployment of computational systems, simulation platforms, and participatory platforms that allow for crowdsourcing of solutions to local problems
  3. Facilitate multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder approaches to framing, studying, and solving, the most complex urban problems.


I envision the future of the Metropolitan Institute as an open collaborative platform that brings together diverse expertise to solve complex urban issues. The Metropolitan Institute will fold together the best and brightest in the fields of informatics, urban planning, international affairs, engineering, and public policy to forge a new set of solutions for today’s urbanizing world. The Metropolitan Institute is a space that is open for all of you to connect and collaborate.

In the near-term, I plan to meet with stakeholders across Virginia Tech and also community partners, industry, and government to listen to your ideas. I have been humbled by the warm welcomes I have received from the various scholars and leaders at Virginia Tech. An esteemed university like Virginia Tech has many friends in public and private organizations across the 50 states and the world beyond. I look forward to meeting with the many friends of the University and welcoming them to the Institute. I am excited to begin designing a new future for Metropolitan Institute.

I look forward to meeting with you and hearing your ideas.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Kevin C. Desouza
Director, Metropolitan Institute
Virginia Tech