Town Halls for All
Getting your voice heard by local government is unnecessarily difficult, says Elsa Sze (MBA/MPP 2014). “When you hold a town hall meeting on a Tuesday at 2 p.m., who’s going to show up?”
Agora, the online platform Sze launched last year, offers a place for citizens to interact with their elected representatives using everything from message boards to streaming video chats. Response has been global, with communities from Virginia to Costa Rica showing interest, and diverse, with corporations considering Agora to help manage shareholder and employee communications. “People want to be heard, but they have no channel,” says Sze. “We’re trying to fix democracy, one town hall at a time—or even just one comment at a time.”
Mobilizing the Complaint Department
The municipal needs of Boston residents vary by the season. “In winter, it’s snow,” says Lauren Lockwood (MBA 2014), the city’s chief digital officer. In spring, it’s potholes. In summer, it’s potholes and student move-in.” Six years after piloting a digital reporting system for these nonemergencies, the city relaunched it in August. The rebranded BOS:311 allows users to report a wider variety of nonemergency issues through more mediums, including Twitter. “There is a big difference between nominally available and truly accessible,” says Lockwood. And the system provides residents with tangible results: When a BOS:311 app user posts a photo of a downed tree limb, for example, the responding public works team often adds a photo of the clean street as well as the workers. “It closes the loop,” she says, “and allows us to reengage with our constituents.”
Water, Water Everywhere—Finally Fit to Drink
On the heels of this past summer’s crippling drought, California hit the switch on a long-promised technological solution to the water crisis: desalination. Poseidon Water’s $1 billion plant in Carlsbad began operations this fall, pumping 50 million gallons of water a day out of the Pacific and into San Diego County’s water system—good for about 8 percent of the county’s total water supply. Advances in material tech and science have driven desalination’s once-astronomical prices down, says Poseidon’s CEO, Carlos Riva (MBA 1982), and the prospect of a drought-proof resource has become increasingly appealing. “Carlsbad is a very important test case,” he says. “There are lots of eyes on it—everywhere from Texas to Florida.”
And it’s not only the tech that interests other cities, it’s the way Poseidon builds partnerships with local water agencies: The company invests up front to develop and build the desalination facility, signing up local utilities to long-term contracts at firm prices. “It’s one of the first examples of a private company in the US water industry taking on development and operational risk and forming a partnership with a municipality, which takes the market risk,” says Riva.
Bonding Together to Beat Traffic
Since its 2009 launch, the navigation app Waze has provided drivers with a crowdsourced commute, with user-supplied traffic reports providing more efficient city routes. When Waze began the Connected Citizens program late last year, it welcomed a user with loads of data—the city itself. Partner communities can alert Waze users to planned traffic incidents (concerts, sporting events) and road closures, reducing congestion; users get a better drive. The initiative has several pilot projects under way among its 20 domestic and 20 international public partners, says program manager Paige Fitzgerald (MBA/MPP 2014): In Los Angeles, it’s working with city government to push out Amber Alerts; in Rio, garbage truck drivers are using traffic data to alter their routes.
In the future, Fitzgerald thinks Google—which bought Waze in 2013 and is currently working on driverless cars—could offer cities an even deeper data stream. “When you start incorporating data generated from cars directly, you’ll be able to make much smarter transportation decisions, make much smarter infrastructure decisions, and respond to accidents much more quickly,” says Fitzgerald.
Bringing Cities to Their Senses
When Barcelona officials came to Cisco four years ago looking for ways to trim the city’s budget, one of the first questions from Arvind Satyam (PLDA 9, 2011), managing director for Cisco’s global business development, was—naturally—”What are your biggest costs?” Trash, they said—it was 30 percent of the municipal budget. So Cisco outfitted Barcelona’s recycling bins with sensors that would help determine how full they were at pickup. The results: Most bins being emptied were only about 25 percent full, and all were less than 50 percent. The resulting reduction in pickups didn’t just save on collection time. “European cities have very narrow streets,” says Satyam, “and now there were fewer recycling trucks blocking traffic.”
Sensors play a big role in Cisco’s work updating cities. One of the applications Satyam is particularly excited about is smart lighting—a kind of responsive lighting for city streetlights. “Let’s say you’re on 5th Avenue in New York at 7 p.m. on a weeknight. Do you need the lighting grid to be using 100 percent of the energy?” Maybe it can be at 35 percent at 7 p.m., says Satyam, rising to 75 percent at 10 p.m. “It’s not a binary decision.”