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Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative

I will be traveling to India to meet with researchers at IIT Kanpur as part of our project on Sustainable Infrastructure Development that was funded through the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative. The project was developed while I was the Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech along with Ralph Hall and Michael Garvin. I will be presenting a talk on Designing Smart and Resilient Cities while at IIT-Kanpur.

Conference on Community Resilience – Davos, Switzerland

I am headed to Davos for the 3rd Annual Conference on Community Resilience. I am co-chairing the conference along with John R. Harrald and Jim Bohland, both from Virginia Tech. This conference was organized while I was a Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. I will chair a session on Citizen Engagement & Technology Deployment in Disaster Mitigation Preparedness Response and Recovery. Panelist include:

  • Maggie Cowell, Assistant Professor, Urban Affairs and Planning, School of Public & International Affairs, Virginia Tech
  • Liesel Ritchie, Assistant Director for Research, Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado
  • Georg Frerks, Professor of Disaster Studies, Wageningen University
  • Isabel Ramos, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Information Systems, Minho University

Getting Serious About Resilience in Planning – in Planetizen

I co-authored an article for Planetizen with three students (Trevor Flanery, Jaimy Alex, and Eric Park) who were working at the Metropolitan Institute this summer.

Resilience is a term much bandied about these days in the planning and development professions. Buildings, plans, economies and even cities are expected to be resilient to unforeseen externalities in a world of rapidly changing technologies, climates, and cultures. With this in mind, we at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech would like to engage you, the planning and development community, in a discussion of what exactly it means to be resilient in a planning context, whether this is a laudable goal, and, if so, how we can achieve it. To read more, please click here.

What is a Smart City?

Within the past 18 months the concept of smart (and intelligent) cities has been become popular in the media. For instance, Scientific American ran a special issue on smart cities. Industry players (e.g. IBM, Siemens, etc) have specific programs and practices dedicated to advancing the cause of building smart cities. Government agencies are dedicating resources and making investments in designing smarter cities (for e.g., see - EU invests $450 million in smart cities). Despite its intuitive appeal, we have limited empirical knowledge within the design, planning, and policy fields about the dimensions of smart cities—its characteristics, the barriers, and the potential opportunities. One reason is the term smart city is still new and it appears to means different things within different fields. In some ways the term is complex and vague. Some experts use the term smart city to highlight advances in sustainability and greening of the city, while others use the term to portray infusion of information via technologies to better the lives of citizens that reside in these spaces. Even others, consider the presence of high-level of citizen engagement in the design and governance of the space as a key attribute of smarter cities.  Therefore, no consensus existing within the academy on the characteristics of smart cities and how they fit within existing conceptual frameworks, such as sustainability and policy informatics.

In a working paper, I propose the following definition: A smart city is livable, resilient, sustainable, and designed through open and collaborative governance.

  • A smart city is resilient in that it possesses the capacity, desire, and opportunity for sensing, responding to, recovering, and learning from natural and man-made disasters.
  • A smart city takes a sustainable approach to the management of its economic, social, and ecological resources to ensure that they have vitality going into the future.
  • A smart city infuses information for automated and human, individual and collective, decision-making on optimal allocation of resources, design of systems and processes, and citizen engagement.
  • A smart city enables intelligent decision-making through leveraging information via technology, platforms, processes, and policies across its environments, infrastructures, systems, resources, and citizens.
  • A smart city operates as a seamlessly integrated platform where information links the various infrastructures, systems, organizations, and citizens’ goals and values.
  • A smart cities engage citizens in planning and design of public spaces and govern use of public resources through open and collaborative governance platforms that generates, and leverages, collective intelligence. 

In some respects the description resembles a vision statement with supporting principles or goals that make the vision of a smart city come to life. First, the overarching goal of having a smart city is that it is livable, resilient, and sustainable. These goals increase the value of the city and contribute positively to the lives of the citizens that interact with, and reside within, the city. Second, we must recognize these goals as a function of infusing information into the fabric of the city. Technological devices enable citizens to leverage information as they conduct their daily activities, while they also enable planners and designers to have accurate situational awareness about the city. Information is infused into the planning and design apparatuses as public sector projects are conducted. For example, the use of computational platforms and simulation technologies can enable city planners and designers think through various alternatives, test assumptions, and visualize the impacts of various interventions on critical outcomes. Through harnessing information, the smart city is able to conduct public projects in a highly effective and efficient manner. Third, smart cities use a wide assortment of information pipelines and platforms to integrate the often disparate physical and human sub-systems, infrastructures, and processes. Through building viable connections, information flows between the various parts of the city seamlessly so as to enable for real-time intelligent decision-making. Fourth, smart cities leverage the collective intelligence of its citizens, residents and, even transients (e.g. people who commute to work in the city) using participatory platforms. The smart city has viable vehicles and platforms through which its citizens can contribute to its governance processes and the future design of the city.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the definition and the elements of a smart city.

Presenting at the NSF Workshop on Participatory Challenge Platforms with a Public Intent

I had a wonderful time exchanging ideas with policy makers, researchers, practitioners, and even students at the NSF Workshop on Participatory Challenge Platforms with a Public Intent put on by the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University. My formal remarks during the workshop drew on research results from our study of Challenge.gov. Since the workshop, I have heard from over 30 managers across the public, non-profit, and even private sectors for copies of the draft report. The feedback on the findings has been overwhelmingly positive. I hope to have a revised draft out for circulation by the end of the month.

See for a press release on the events in D.C. - "ASU Concludes White House Initiative in Nation's Capitol," ASU News, June 12, 2012.

Report now Available – Challenge.Gov: Landscape Analysis + Citizen and Agency Perspective

I have just completed the first draft of my report on the Challenge.gov platform. This paper has been a few months in the making and builds on my recent work in community intelligence platforms, citizen apps, and innovation in the public sector. To receive a copy of the report, please send me an email.

Challenge.Gov: Landscape Analysis and Implications from the Citizen and Agency Perspective

To solve complex social and policy challenges we need to broaden the conversations, involve more minds and talent, and collaborate effectively and efficiently. Traditionally, public agencies have felt the burden to tackle challenges by relying on their own internal intellectual capital or through structured contracting with external partners. Seldom could an individual citizen share his or her talent, expertise, and skills with a public agency directly. Today, public agencies are becoming more participatory, inclusive, and transparent in how they engage with citizens as well as with each other. Challenge.gov is the crowdsourcing platform for US federal agencies that seek to engage citizens, leverage collective intelligence, and tackle complex social and technical challenges. In this paper we report on an exploratory landscape analysis of the competitions run on Challege.gov. We interviewed citizens who took part in competitions on Challenge.gov as well as public managers and government executives to understand their motivations, experiences, lessons learned, and future plans. Drawing on these interviews, we arrive at a set of actionable guidelines presented through implications to improve the state of competitions hosted by Challenge.gov. 

Acknowledgments: This project was made possible through funding received from the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Tim Moon and Akshay Bhagwatwar served as research associates for the project. I am grateful to the assistance provided by Eric Park and Lauren Bulka during the project. I also thank all solution contributors to challenges and public managers who designed challenges that participated in our interviews. All errors and omissions are solely my responsibility. I acknowledge the thoughtful discussion and comments from participants at the NSF Workshop on Participatory Challenge Platforms with a Public Intent. The views represented in this paper are our own, and do not represent official positions of IBM, any of its affiliates, or the NSF.

Local Sustainability Planning and Harnessing the Power of Information Technologies

Information technologies have a critical role to play in advancing sustainability of our organizations, communities, cities, and nations. In the recent issue of PM Magazine (Vol. 94, No. 5, June 2012), Joe Schilling, Associate Director of the Metropolitan Institute, have a piece that looks at how local sustainability planning and the creative use of information technologies to build sustainable living spaces. Please click here to read the article.

Dean Jenkins, Creator of PapayaHead App, Second Place @ Department of Agriculture’s “Apps for Healthy Kids”

We are half-way through our research project on Citizen Apps. Below, you will find our findings from our conversation with Dean Jenkins who created the PapayaHead App.

Developer: Dean Jenkins

Bio: Dean holds an Executive MBA degree from the University of Washington. Prior to establishing PapayaHead, Inc. in 2006, Dean spent 14 years working as an Enterprise Software Program Manager at Intel Corporation. In addition to his work at PapayaHead, he serves on the Pastoral Staff at Mountain View Church in Tumwater, Washington.

App in Focus: PapayaHead

Federal Citizen App Program: Department of Agriculture’s “Apps for Healthy Kids”

Recognition: 2nd Place

Description of the app: PapayaHead is a family meal planning website and app that allows family members to fill out a unique and individual profile of food preferences. Logging things such as likes and dislikes, as well as allergies and other nutritional requirements. From these profiles, a family can build meal plans for the day which display the nutritional value of their meals and its impact on their profiles. In addition, the plans, recipes and shopping lists may be printed.

Who is the app intended to serve: Families and individuals looking to coordinate and plan their meals.

Why was the app developed: The initial motivation was for a website application to meet his own meal planning needs for his family. He always had the desire to be an entrepreneur and start his own company. Dean saw this as a business opportunity to do something he cares about and start a successful business.

The application was not developed for the contest. It was already under development. A registered dietician on their team heard of the contest and recommended they participate since they met the challenge’s criteria.

Examination of other apps: The team looked at what was available like Jenny Craig, they found that nobody was doing what they were specifically proposing to do. Other programs were doing bits and pieces, but not exactly what they were trying to build.

How was the app developed: They spent 2 years planning (benchmarking and functionality), and came up with the functional requirements that answered what they would want to be able to do with it. The PapayaHead team worked with an offshore development firm to build the web app, but due to communication issues and other complications, the app turned out to be more of a prototype. However, through the process they learned about things they hadn’t considered before. In addition, to technical roadblocks, they also had to pause development a couple times to fund raise, primarily from friends and families.

He launched a beta version in 2009 to gathered user feedback and addressed necessary changes. The app did a full launch in 2010. This app was a web-based application. They do have a derivative product that uses the main engine on their web app which was recently launched.

Communication of app availability: They started out using word of mouth to share their product. They sent emails to ask others to look at PapayaHead, to provide feedback, and to share it with others. They did some small Facebook ads, but did not spend much on a major marketing push and relied on word of mouth.

Issues of privacy: The best way to ensure the privacy and security of users is to limit the data they collect. All large organizations have breaches of security, so there really is no system that’s 100% safe from a breach. They just limit the data they collect in order to better protect their users. They do have system protections in place like firewalls. Within the application, rather than ask for sensitive things directly such as, “Do you have any heart diseases?” they would ask, “Do you want a healthy heart?”.

Realization of original goals: They would like to see more users on their site. They were hoping the site would go viral on its own, but unfortunately this hasn’t been the case. They have more features they want to add, but it’s a slow and gradual process.

Overall Challenge experience: In sum, Dean noted it was enjoyable to go to DC, but it would have been better to see the First Lady Michelle Obama there since she sponsored it. They were hoping to be able to get a picture with her it would have enhanced their experience.

Advice for federal agencies:

  • After looking at other challenges, these challenges aren’t something an entrepreneur is able to take too seriously because the prizes and amount of effort going into most of these isn’t significant. Right now it seems more directed towards hobbyists and enthusiasts. It’s hard for someone who is looking to turn this into a serious business to take these challenges seriously.
  • Some winners may want to take things further and turn their thing into a company. It would be more beneficial for the challenges to have the goal of helping their winners build companies that continue to tackle these problems if they so choose. It would be better putting together a larger prize because the current prize offerings for most challenges aren’t something you can gain much from. Even better, would be to provide connections and mentoring to build a business. Something similar to GE’s challenge.
  • The only feedback they received from the challenge was being informed that they had won 2nd place in the challenge. People like Steve Wozniak and Mark Pincus were among the judges for the challenge, but they did not interact with them at all. It would have been extremely beneficial to receive feedback from them or, even better, have a chance to talk with them and others, such as venture capitalists.