Our newest blog series delves into four, unique accelerants that put U.S. cities on the verge of something “very special” in 2016. In this post: the ubiquity and power of technology.

began my last two blogs by asserting my belief that, in a decade, we will look back at 2016 and see that it was the year where we began seeing rapid, sometimes exponential, narrowing of disparities between rich and poor, white and non-white Americans.

The convergence of four unique accelerants will get us there in 2016 and beyond: (1) public will for a more equitable America; (2) cities as home to a majority of the population and their effectiveness as laboratories for addressing complex social and economic challenges; (3) the ubiquity and power of technology; and (4) the unprecedented availability of impact investment capital.

My prior blogs covered two of the four accelerants: public will and the role of cities. This post addresses the ubiquity and power of technology.

My focus on technology is not techno-optimism, as Paul Krugman might call it, or the “constant assertion that new technologies will rekindle rapid economic growth.” No, I believe that technology is an accelerant because it enables us to do things never before possible. And that these possibilities make it easier to fight poverty, link low-income people to the economic mainstream and speed up the results we want achieve through a “New Urban Practice.”

Technology enables us to:

Measure the Human Condition Regularly

We now have the information, and the processing power, needed to understand and rapidly respond to urban society in ways previously unimaginable. Big Data has infinite potential to improve the human condition on an ongoing basis. I’ve written before about the power and potential of big data to create “Humanity’s Dashboard.” We’re seeing cities move to harness that power.

In Boston, for example, the CityScore Dashboards use data to grade how the city is performing on everything from fire department response time to school attendance. The dashboards have allowed the Mayor and his staff to evaluate the health of the city in real-time, and rapidly adapt to most effectively meet the needs of Boston’s residents. The CBPP recently tweeted that CityScore was “the coolest and most comprehensive set of city data analytics in the country.”

Better Understand the Problems and Even Predict the Future

Technology gives us the opportunity to understand, address and even anticipate the problems that low-income people are facing, continuously, and at a level of specificity that was never before possible. The ubiquity of geolocation data, or data associated with an electronic device that can be used to identify its physical location, is one game-changer. At the city level, Detroit was able to map 380,217 parcels of land in 10 weeks by “blexting”. Surveyors used a mobile app that photographed and geotagged each property with details about its condition, then fed a live-stream to staff who conducted a quality control check on the data. Village Defense, often referred to as “Waze for crime fighting,” is an app that uses the power of crowd-sourced, geolocation data to help neighborhoods fight crime. Over 2,700 neighborhoods rely on VillageDefense to communicate about criminal activity.

Similarly powerful is the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT): the ability of everyday objects to collect, connect and automatically exchange data via the Internet. Popular examples include the Nest thermostat and wearable technologies like Google Glass. Yet, the IoT can improve the lives of low income people too. One example already being used in several major cities to address increased gun violence is ShotSpotter. Cities install sensors on lampposts, roofs and other parts of a neighborhood, which then pick up sounds from the street that might be gunfire. The sensors can sort and geotag the sounds, and report gunshots to the police department much faster than a 911 call. Other examples are much more personal. More and more frequently, sensors in homes are being used to monitor the health of an individual in real time, from the missing of a meal or failure to get out of bed, from tracking glucose, to heart rates and blood pressure.

Finally, we’re seeing the use of all this data to actually anticipate events that are likely to happen and – in some cases, stop problems before they occur. “Predictive analytics” is the use of data, statistical algorithms and machine-learning techniques to identify the likelihood of future outcomes based on historical data. It is helping cities address problems and fight fires–literally and figuratively–before they arise. New York City uses a data tool called FireCast 2.0, and its advanced algorithm, to identify which of its hundreds of thousands of buildings have the highest risk of catching on fire. Beyond literal fires, predictive analytics enables cities to re-engineer how they provide human services. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice uses predictive analytics to identify juvenile offenders most likely to commit new crimes and preemptively engages them in specifically designed rehabilitation programs to keep them out of jail.

Access Markets (Products & Services) as Never Before

It is expensive to be poor. Historically, low-income people and communities have not only had fewer choices of products and services in their neighborhoods, but the available choices have cost more than they would in other parts of town. Technology is changing that and, in the process, mitigating the role of geography as a key factor in how low-income people access markets.

The ubiquity of smartphones and apps in low-income households is a driving force behind this change. Last year, for the first time, ownership of broadband-enabled smartphones by people earning less than $30,000 a year, especially those of color, passed 80%. This access is not only helping low-income people look outside of their neighborhoods for more and better priced products and services, but posits low-income people as a viable market for entrepreneurs as well.

The emerging FinTech industry is a great example of this. Historically, low-income people met their most pressing financial needs–from deposits and payments to loans–at local, and often predatory, pay day or title loan companies in their neighborhoods. Now, there’s even an online solution that helps people smooth out the highs and lows in their income and offers an alternative to payday lending. Similarly, PayNearMe makes it easy and convenient for people without credit cards to pay with cash for things like rent, car payments, utility bills and more at a store in their neighborhood.

Other companies see opportunity in the density of urban markets and the small marginal cost to acquire new customers through technology versus having to open a physical storefront. Chariot, for example, a crowd-sourced network of vans that solves last mile problems people face in getting to work, is actively serving people in low, moderate and high income neighborhoods.

Connect Low-Income People to Each Other and To Power

Isolation is one of the biggest contributors to poverty and powerlessness. A recent study not only found that socially isolated individuals are more likely to be in poverty than those with larger circles of friends, but that individuals who are part of mixed (ethnically, geographically and income-wise) social networks reduce their risks of being poor. The possibilities for using technology to connect low-income people to each other, expand their social networks and give them a voice are greater than ever before.

Some of the most promising progress can be seen with the evolution of social networks. Organizations like Latinas Think Big Community, a group of 13,000 Latina professionals on Facebook, use the network for mentoring and support. WorkHands is looking to make a LinkedIn for the blue-collar workforce of carpenters, machinists, electricians, welders, pipe-fitters and others around the country.

But we are also seeing technology being used to give voice to those traditionally isolated or ignored. In cities as diverse as New York, Detroit and Boston, smartphone applications are increasing the responsiveness of local government to citizen complaints. The app, Improve Detroit, helped the city resolve 10,000 complaints in six months. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has said the app signals “a new era of customer service and accountability in city government.” Similarly, within hours of Verizon announcing a two dollar “convenience fee” for paying bills, the company canceled the charge when more than 130,000 people signed an online petition against it on Change.org.

Technology is not the answer to inequality and diminishing economic opportunities, but it is a huge ally in the fight. By allowing us, in ways never before possible, at a nominal cost, to know more about our problems, understand if solutions are working, and connect people to markets and power, it is a uniquely powerful accelerant and essential part of the “New Urban Practice.”

Published: February 4, 2016
Category: Blog
Contributors: Ben Hecht