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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.

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.