The blog of the Urban Institute
March 5, 2020

Four Questions Cities Are Asking About Equitable Technology

March 4, 2020

Cities in the United States and around the world are applying emerging technology in new ways to improve the lives of their residents.

Simultaneously, cities are making explicit equity commitments (PDF) and applying new citywide processes to combat increasing inequality. Taken together, these two trends could yield innovative technology programs to address entrenched inequities.

But without better tools and data to enable cities to explicitly hardwire equity into technology programs, technology could instead exacerbate inequities.

Over the past few months, with support from the Mastercard Impact Fund, in collaboration with Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, we have conducted interviews with nearly 40 experts from city governments and community organizations to understand the challenges cities face in implementing equitable technology programs.

Our subjects identified that bureaucratic silos separating city equity and technology officials represent a key barrier to innovation in this space.

At the Urban Institute’s recent Expert Roundtable on Technology and Equity, we broke down these silos by bringing together experts across city government, from equity offices to smart cities teams, from six geographically diverse US cities—Austin, Boston, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Portland—to understand how cities are approaching equitable technology. During the discussion, attendees identified the following key questions they are actively engaging with in their own cities.

Do we have a shared definition of equity?

Participants identified that building a shared definition of equity across different city departments—especially with city leadership—is a critical foundation for equitable technology. Without a shared definition, nearly any technology program could easily claim success in advancing equity without actually achieving results for marginalized communities.

Leadership buy-in and prioritization of this shared definition is important to aligning department incentives to prioritize equity. Without leadership buy-in, attendees identified that competing priorities and resource constraints often undermine equity efforts.

How do we identify whether a problem can be addressed by technology ?

Before designing equitable technology, attendees identified the need for criteria to evaluate whether technology can and should be used to help solve a given problem. They identified that such tools are needed to counter the incentives city officials sometimes face to misapply technology to entrenched and complex inequities to deflect from examining and addressing the root causes.

One person shared that their office has been approached by a number of technology vendors claiming their product can help the city solve its gun violence problems. For elected officials under enormous pressure to address complex problems, these technologies can seem like an easy way to publicly demonstrate they are doing something.

Although this person was able to push back on the vendors’ claims, they expressed the need for tools to critically evaluate whether a technological solution is the right solution and to inform their discussions with technology vendors and city officials. Attendees identified that saying no to technology projects that aren’t a good fit for the problem is key to building community trust in government use of technology, but they recognized this only happens with strong equity principles and clear guidance.

How do we meaningfully engage communities around technology?

Attendees noted the need to move community engagement around technology programs beyond checking a box toward a meaningful collaboration that ensures resident goals drive technology programs.

But attendees noted that community engagement fatigue is a key barrier to accomplishing this goal, both on the part of residents from overstudied communities who may feel that engagement is extractive without seeing much benefit, and on the part of government officials asked to spend limited resources on repeated engagement processes.

This fatigue is amplified in the technology sector, where participants pointed to challenges translating technical work to communities. They also noted the opportunity for technology, such as online comment forums, to reduce fatigue by providing new engagement channels and lowering costs.

However, leaders recognized the risk of technology-based approaches mirroring existing biases in complaint-based input systems (such as 311 requests) and being inaccessible to those affected by the digital divide. Although technology may be part of a solution, cities will need to continue investments in offline approaches to ensure the most marginalized voices are heard.

How can we effectively balance transparency and resident privacy?

One key finding from our interviews was consensus that cities should protect resident privacy by ensuring technology collects the absolute minimum amount of data necessary to effectively make implementation decisions and employing data management and security best practices.

At the roundtable, participants discussed different approaches to reducing raw data held by city government, including outsourcing data collection to third parties. One participant shared that they issue data collection contracts to community-based organizations to ensure power over the use of resident data remains within the community.

For the data that cities do collect, roundtable participants expressed the need for guidance on how to evaluate the potential unintended consequences of data transparency. One participant noted that simply removing identifiers in open data is increasingly insufficient to ensure resident privacy, as advances in technology and the amount of available data increase risks of accidental reidentification.

Attendees identified that technology—such as tools for microaggregation or secure multiparty computation—could help them share more data while safeguarding privacy.

What’s next?

These are just four of many questions officials are grappling with as they strive to break down silos and work together to advance equitable technology in their cities. We will capture these questions and the best practices emerging across cities based on lessons from this roundtable and our interview research in a forthcoming technology and equity framework, which provides actionable guidance and practical tools for policymakers designing equitable technology programs, to be released in summer 2020.

DENVER, CO: Volunteer Paul Benevides, veterans specialist with the veterans service center, using a mobile app to gather information at the Pioneer Monument Fountain in downtown Denver during the annual Point in Time survey collecting data that is used to inform HUD and provide a snapshot of Metro Denver on a single night to help communities understand trends and respond to the needs of people experiencing literal homelessness. January 29, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.