City solutions, like stories, should start with a problem


The first SXSW Cities Summit is going on in Austin this week, and over the next two days people will be talking about all kinds of innovative ways to address the challenges facing cities. On the agenda is everything from artificial intelligence to the internet of things to autonomous vehicles and more.

Creative ideas to city challenges can shed new light on chronic problems, and help city staff think of new ways to take action within limited resources. Beyond any one specific idea, events like SXSW can inspire city advocates to think in new ways—especially how to put people and community needs at the center of our work.

I work to help city staff understand and implement new approaches to their challenges. My work now focuses on making city data—on things like traffic crashes, construction permits, lobbying, and crime—open and available to everyone online. Open data is an important part of building trust between city staff and residents, and can empower everyone in a community to understand what’s happening in their government and in their city and to take action to change it.

Some city staff understand the benefits of open data right away, but not everyone does. A recurring question that has come up over and over again throughout the years is, “how do I convince my colleagues that this is a good idea?” No matter how much potential one city staffer might see in a new idea, they often face an organizational culture that is resistant to innovation.

This question applies outside of city hall too: “how do I convince residents that this is a good idea?” Residents are sometimes apathetic or similarly resistant of change. Either challenge can be demoralizing for someone working toward city progress, inside city hall or out.

Years ago, I asked a traffic engineer from North Carolina, Dean Ledbetter, about this exact question. Engineers are notoriously risk-averse and Dean spent years being skeptical about a human-centered approach to street design. His training as an engineer rewarded moving vehicles quickly, not keeping pedestrians safe. So it was not totally surprising that people were being struck and killed by cars at such a high rate in North Carolina that the Federal Highway Administration eventually forced transportation engineers to take remedial courses on pedestrian safety. It was during that course that Dean came around to the idea and eventually became a champion of the safer streets approach among his fellow engineers. I asked him how he convinced skeptical colleagues.

Bring me a problem like, ‘Traffic is too fast’ instead of a solution, like ‘We need speed bumps,’” he said. “When you challenge a traffic engineer with a problem and they come up with a solution, they have buy-in and they are on your side.”

Posing a problem invites collaboration. Understanding that there’s a problem is the first step in building consensus on any project—within city hall or in your broader community. This is a key role for any civil servant: to understand the problems facing all people in a community, to help other residents recognize those problems, and then to work collaboratively to solve those problems.

Open data can inform conversations about community problems. Cities are making data open on issues ranging from traffic crashes to spending to police use of force. This data can undeniably contribute to conversations about community problems, but too few cities connect the two.

Sunlight’s Tactical Data Engagement is a human-centered approach to using open data, that radically centers community needs in the conversation of what information should be made public and why, and provides a framework for how that data can inform community concerns. It helps city staff begin with a problem and then understand ways that open data could be part of the solution.

Starting with the problem is also a common approach to storytelling and there’s good reason why the processes are parallel. With storytelling, starting with the problem helps everyone get on the same page about what’s wrong and root for the hero on their journey. City staff might not think of themselves as storytellers, but helping everyone get on the same page and work together toward solutions is more valuable than any one innovative new idea.

City staff working on open data are already beginning to think in these ways. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, city staff are making data open as the city booms. “We’re adding 5,000 people a year,” said Adam Roach, neighborhood development coordinator at the City of Sioux Falls. “That might not sound like a lot, but to a city of our size it is.”

In Madison, Wisconsin, a city with entrenched racial division, city staff are using open data to help make neighborhoods more equitable and inclusive. Our work with the city involved conversations with nearly three dozen local activists, librarians, planning staff, direct service non-profit leaders, and business owners, who told us their stories and shed light on how city open data could help their work.

SXSW is brimming ideas to help cities move forward. The key to making them happen is to understand the priorities of our friends and neighbors and work toward those solutions from there. Let’s build that narrative together.

Crossposted on Medium