Big Data and City Government – A Paradox No More for the City of Angels

Los Angeles becomes a leader in technological innovation and big data implementation to address continuing problems of traffic congestion, gang violence, and homelessness.

Los Angeles (LA) is one of the most populous, diverse, and sprawling urban cities in the world. Until recently, LA city government was notoriously bureaucratic, technologically underdeveloped, and incredibly inefficient when dealing with the growing pains presented by a rapidly growing population base that now numbers over 4 million. The more than 20 departments that comprise LA city government remained largely siloed from one another and lacked the technological infrastructure to easily access or share data with one another, ultimately harming the ability of public officials to efficiently serve the needs of its citizens [1].

These government inefficiencies have created a trifecta of problems specific to LA:

1) Traffic congestion and accidents: The number of people killed in traffic accidents in LA soared 43 percent from 2015 to last year, and LA drivers spent 104 hours each driving during peak travel periods last year, the most hours of any city globally. [2]

2) Public safety: Violent crime increased in LA for the third straight year due to greater gang violence. [3]

3) Homelessness: The homeless population grew over 23% from last year and now numbers approximately 58,000. [4]

Empowered by a forward-thinking mayor, LA has rapidly embraced technological innovation to begin addressing the problems outlined above through GeoHub, an ambitious map-based open data portal designed to improve cross-departmental collaboration, promote data-driven decision making, and provide efficient delivery of services to city residents [5]. Integrated across departments, GeoHub creates interactive maps that are modified in real-time using data such as traffic patterns, energy consumption, ongoing construction projects in specific neighborhoods, etc.

Ultimately, the GeoHub technology platform aims to address inefficiencies between the government’s main stakeholders – public officials and city residents – by better predicting the needs of residents and then having city employees more efficiently address those needs. The open architecture of the system also acts as a feedback mechanism in which residents themselves can input data on GeoHub, such as when they observe a pothole on their street that needs fixing.

In the short-term, LA hopes to use GeoHub to address traffic concerns in the city through its first two applications:

1) StreetWize: Pulls datasets from planning departments to map various capital and construction projects happening in each neighborhood. Government departments can better coordinate project timelines to avoid having work projects congested in one area which would create too much traffic while community residents can know what’s happening on their street [6].

2) “Vision Zero High Injury Network,” a map that shows where the city’s pedestrian fatalities occur and how the city plans to reduce them.

In the medium-term, government officials hope to address its other main concerns by developing applications focused on crime and homelessness. Future plans include developing a “predictive policing” application on GeoHub in which patrol officers receive digital maps of today’s “crime forecast” that show areas of high crime [7]. Another application will track movement patterns of the city’s homeless population to inform decision-making around where to build shelters. In the long-term, the city hopes to integrate GeoHub with Internet-of-Things connected devices, such as energy-use monitoring devices or road traffic sensors which can transmit data directly back into the GeoHub platform in real-time [8].

In my opinion, I think LA city government should continue to enhance its IT infrastructure to better address its traffic, safety, and homeless concerns. It can do so further by partnering with outside non-profit organizations to integrate their datasets within GeoHub. For example, GeoHub could partner with the LA LGBT center to understand where the largest proportions of the LGBT homeless population are living in the city to better deliver medical services and HIV testing in a more targeted fashion. It can also partner with the U.S. Geological Survey to import earthquake data into GeoHub, which can inform city officials on where to invest in building better infrastructure to prevent people from losing their homes in the event of an earthquake.

In the medium term, I also think LA can move into partnerships with private corporations, which may be more difficult given the proprietary nature of private companies’ data sets. Already, Southern California Edison has expressed interest in working with GeoHub to provide data on energy consumption in the city, helping inform government officials on where to focus renewable energy efforts.

However, an open data system, particularly within city government, poses huge safety risks. Is it dangerous to have publicly accessible data, especially given our current political climate that is rife with cyberattacks? Also, as residents learn to use the platform more consistently, will the government be able to afford to keep pace with addressing their needs more efficiently?

These questions aside, demand for greater transparency, efficiency, and cost-effective services have compelled LA city government to invest in technology and big data to more effectively serve its growing population base [9].

(798 words, excluding endnotes)

ENDNOTES

[1] Rise, L. and Baliva, Z. (2017). L.A. is a Smart City on the Rise. [online] Profile. Available at: https://profilemagazine.com/2016/city-of-los-angeles/ [Accessed 14 Nov. 2017].

[2]  Curbed LA. (2017). I lived out an LA nightmare by commuting from Hollywood to Santa Monica. [online] Available at: https://la.curbed.com/2017/9/19/16222158/driving-traffic-worst-commute [Accessed 14 Nov. 2017].

[3] Cindy Chang, M. (2017). Violent crime in L.A. jumps for third straight year as police deal with gang, homeless issues. [online] latimes.com. Available at: http://beta.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-crime-stats-20161227-story.html [Accessed 14 Nov. 2017].

[4] Gale Holland, D. (2017). L.A. County homelessness jumps a ‘staggering’ 23% as need far outpaces housing, new count shows. [online] latimes.com. Available at: http://beta.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-homeless-count-20170530-story.html [Accessed 16 Nov. 2017].

[5] Data-Smart City Solutions. (2017). Location is Driving the Value of L.A.’s Open Data | Data-Smart City Solutions. [online] Available at: http://datasmart.ash.harvard.edu/news/article/location-is-driving-the-value-of-l.a.s-open-data [Accessed 16 Nov. 2017].

[6] GCN. (2017). LA GeoHub: A model for ‘datafying’ communities — GCN. [online] Available at: https://gcn.com/articles/2016/02/04/la-geohub.aspx [Accessed 16 Nov. 2017].

[7] Ferguson, A. (2017). The rise of big data policing. [online] TechCrunch. Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2017/10/22/the-rise-of-big-data-policing/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2017].

[8] Esri.com. (2017). Smart City Hub | Los Angeles Amplifies Innovation with Collaboration. [online] Available at: http://www.esri.com/smart-communities/los-angeles [Accessed 16 Nov. 2017].

[9] Chawda, V. (2017). KPMGVoice: How Is The Government Using Data? How Should It?. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kpmg/2017/06/12/how-is-the-government-using-data-how-should-it/#4c84de5f64e6 [Accessed 16 Nov. 2017].

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6 thoughts on “Big Data and City Government – A Paradox No More for the City of Angels

  1. AJ, this is a fascinating post! Having lived in a city my whole life, and worked in city government, I couldn’t agree more that city service delivery is in desperate need of modernization. GeoHub sounds like a terrific tool, especially in the way of traffic patterns, energy consumption, and certainly construction projects, which can be both a safety hazard and quality-of-life issue. The pot-hole challenge is also very real! NYC, which has one of the worst pothole problems in the country, integrated a pothole reporting feature into its NYC311 app, and ended up filling in thousands of reported potholes over the course of 2015/2016. Pothole litigation is exorbitantly expensive for NYC (in the realm of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars), so I assume that these fixes, while voluminous, were actually cost-effective.

    That being said, I can’t help but wonder if we want to draw any lines when it comes to digitally transforming certain aspects of city life. For example, predictive policing is appealing on its face, however I’m curious about how such an algorithm would actually work. I think about how Watson applied historical data to conclude the probability of certain answers in Jeopardy. If predictive policing takes a similar tack and relies on historical data to forecast crime, I worry about the increased policing and surveillance of certain neighborhoods because they have bad track records, and not necessarily because they pose significant future risk. I worry about using this approach to predict individual offenders, too, which carries the added danger of bias and profiling. (My greatest fear about applying digital solutions to services such as law enforcement is that it places the spotlight on policing, and not necessarily on reducing crime.) In sum, while I commend LA for finally addressing an age-old problem of sorely lacking tech infrastructure in our cities, I think we may want to be wary of who will collect the data, who will use the data, how they will apply it, and whether personal information will accompany that data. Sorry to get all ‘big brother’ – I couldn’t help it! Thanks for a great and thought-provoking post!

  2. AH – very interesting piece about how technology can be used in the public sector to increase transparency and efficiencies. After driving in Boston for many years, I would love a way to interact with the city to understand where construction, traffic and pot holes may be. I’m curious how GeoHub interacts with users’ mobile devices to provide active feedback to the city and other commuters on current traffic patterns similar to Waze? This functionally could provide benefits to both drivers and the city, driving user adoption, which I imagine may be difficult with entrenched habits of map applications.

    However, I’m worried users will be skeptical to share their data because of general distrust with data security, especially involving the government. I encourage the city of LA to focus on how to make this platform secure for their users and find ways to build trust. If secured appropriately, I envision this being an excellent way for a city to meaningfully engage with their citizens in a two-way conversation that leads to more efficient use of public resources. However, I’m not as optimistic about predictive policing. The police force’s interaction with the public is so highly scrutinized today that the LAPD should be extremely careful utilizing predictive tools.

  3. Great topic! I’m excited to see LA take on these initiatives. The (albeit late) adoption of these technologies in cities reminds us how city governments frequently function as a service business that should enable their residents to live productive lives. There are many opportunities for applying technology to improve the operations of City Inc. and you list some interesting examples above. In addition to serving government institutions, I’m curious how cities can use technology to interact with their residents. Now that most of America city dwellers carry a smartphone, they can reroute their commute or direct them to free parking.

  4. This was a really interesting read – great to see a social application of digitalization! I’ve never thought about the potential impacts of technology in the public sector, but it is nice to see that LA is focusing efforts on bettering the community. I would be curious how the city plans to record and maintain the data for the application of GeoHub to the homeless population. I think it is a fantastic application for traffic where the data seems more easily available (and having sat through many hours of deadlock in the city I appreciated this effort!), but I would think it becomes more difficult to apply that system to the homeless.

    I would expect there to be an even increased push for digitalization in LA over the coming years given the recent announcement that the city was selected to host the Olympic games. Such a high profile event will undoubtedly be a catalyst for innovation in the city and it will be exciting to see where else they can apply new technologies.

  5. Very thought provoking article about how cities are using digital platforms to access/monitor data, as well as provide transparency to constituents! It seems that there is ample opportunity to tap into the “power of the crowd” here and have L.A. citizens able to report real-time challenges/concerns to the government (a la Waze). I like this because it gives citizens the opportunity to opt-in and also lets us scale finite resources (e.g., the police force) to deal with the most pressing issues. I do agree with Nathan, however, that the City of L.A. will need to think carefully about how its engaging with those that are being monitored (e.g., the homeless population). I fear that as “big data” continues to be proselytized, we will be short-sighted by just focusing on the “what” that data provides rather than asking the question of “why?”. For example, we might see where homeless populations are moving, but it seems to me that’s not enough. We need to understand why it is they are moving there and whether this trend will continue, which begs face-to-face engagement. Understanding our “users” becomes more important than ever, and I hope that government a all levels will continue to keep this in mind.

  6. I love the idea that digital technologies can aide city governments in better utilizing resources and prioritizing initiatives that have impact. I anticipate that a key challenge for city governments is obtaining the necessary funding for applications that can reduce traffic or improve livelihoods without also thinking about how technology can also be employed to save dollars elsewhere. Can technology like GeoHub be scaled for utilization by multiple cities at a lower cost per city, or does it require city-specific development to realize the true benefits? Will improved access to information enable the government to better address issues with less resources and cost?

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