“I love civic tech,” says the data industry’s “Dean of Big Data” Bill Schmarzo, longtime VP at Dell and now CTO IoT and analytics at Hitachi Vantara. He loves it, but he also has ideas about how to make it work. It takes more than love to bear fruit.
Civic tech is the stuff I’ve written about before — and is possibly the most exciting aspect of “smart cities” today. Think of it: Cities want the technology to make them work better, but they have no money. What’s slightly more plentiful are talented young and not so young coders willing to help. Many of them are millennials, and they see a world that needs fixing. It’s their world that oceans may soon flood. It’s their democracy that post-Trump leaders will have to restore. It’s their food shortages, their privacy, their AI-displaced workers who’re hungry for work or just plain hungry. Many have already stepped up with their new coding skills to help.
They can build apps that use public data to help ease traffic, coax transit systems to flow, or to help the homeless with resources and comfort.
One good example is the OpenTransit app I wrote about recently. When released to the public, it will help coax the San Francisco’s transit system, “Muni,” into a more usable system.
That’s good for San Francisco, but what about other cities? Nearby Stockton and Modesto have their own transit districts but similar problems. Quick translation from one city to another would need a common layer of abstraction, a language that data from any city understands. Though the data may not be reusable across cities, the models certainly are, says Schmarzo. “There’s no reason cities can’t collaborate to share the models.”
But most city leaders don’t think about borrowing another city’s models. Why not? “These cities are for the most part not competing with each other,” says Schmarzo. “There’s no reason they can’t collaborate.” You may not be able to share the data, he says, but you can share the model.
Yet sharing models and other methods seems like a second language for many cities. “We saw these proposals for smart city initiatives all the time,” says Schmarzo, who served a one-year term on the City of San Jose tech advisory board. “The lack of collaboration between cities is disappointing.They really miss the multiplier effect.”
Where’s the leadership to come from?
Where’s the leadership going to come from? It won’t come from corporations, he says. “They see [smart cities] as a money grab. They’re not thinking broadly.” But leadership could come from universities, where there is strong leadership already.
What would it take to make city-college collaboration the norm? The spark to start that fire would have to come from a higher level than the city. Perhaps the federal government could give money to states, who would bang the gavel to get it started. It might take someone like the governor of California Gavin Newsom to lead it.
Such collaboration would give students a ready-made sandbox. “To me that’s such a huge win-win. You need just one strong leader.”
While cities, regions, ands states work that out, the civic tech contributors can forge ahead, too. The OpenTransit group, for one, should hope that the app they build for San Francisco Municipal Railway can be easily reused in Stockton, San Diego, Sacramento, and other cities around the state and all over. They’d do that with a common platform, says BS, so that the rewiring for reuse in a new city would be easy. Make common layer of abstraction. Plug it in and let it go. You’ve got to have common language. “The people who build apps I’d think would be elated that their app is reused across 450 cities across the country.”
“Tech plays an important role,” Schmarzo says. “But it’s really about how you create a community.”