The blog of the Urban Institute
November 21, 2019

Projects in Chicago and St. Louis Show How Technology Can Support Inclusion

November 21, 2019

Imagine being able to find the most populated sidewalk for a late-night journey to the train station or knowing the air quality in your neighborhood, rather than your whole city.

Chicago’s Array of Things (AoT) helps residents and local leaders access this information and more. The AoT is a network of sensors that collect real-time data about the urban environment, ranging from carbon monoxide to traffic.

But the AoT’s information could exacerbate inequalities in the city if it weren’t widely accessible and if it didn’t address the needs and interests of residents in neighborhoods that have traditionally been left out of decisions about public investments in technology and infrastructure. Privacy concerns may also be paramount for communities who have been subject to heightened surveillance and data misuse.

As we explore in our new report, rapid technological change can either promote inclusion or widen growing divides along race and economic status. Cities like Chicago can leverage technological innovations to manage infrastructure and improve services, communicate with constituents, and make better decisions.

But we find that unless public investments in technology explicitly incorporate equity goals and engage historically excluded communities from planning to implementation, benefits are unlikely to be broadly shared, or worse, they may further entrench inequities.

One of the principles we lift up in our report is to “build with, not for” affected communities. For technology to deliver on the promise of increased inclusion, design and implementation need to be grounded in the needs and priorities of communities. To do this equitably requires actively engaging and listening to residents throughout the process.

Chicago used the AoT as an opportunity to engage residents about the kinds of innovations they’d like to see and increase government transparency around big investments. The Smart Chicago Collaborative (now City Tech) began community engagement efforts for the AoT in Chicago’s central and south sides in 2016, using strategies that supported a collaborative design process: engaging residents online and in person, using nontechnical language and thoughtfully navigating language barriers, and meeting in neighborhood public libraries.

Through community meetings, partners in the Array of Things project educated residents about sensor capacities and the aims of the project, learned about residents’ needs and priorities, and solicited feedback on privacy and governance policies. These engagement processes can help spur necessary conversations about the opportunities and concerns smart infrastructure investments bring.

As we learned through our interviews and research across several types of public investments in technology, transparency in how data are used and open data platforms can hold project leaders accountable to equity goals and support collaborative solutions.

Data collected by the AoT is open, available, and free to the public. The data are published by Argonne National Laboratory and can be used by community groups and public planners alike to monitor noise and air pollution, track block-by-block climate and weather information, and understand traffic patterns to reduce traffic congestion and improve pedestrian safety.

St. Louis leverages tech to improve fairness in the court system

A few years ago, residents who received traffic tickets in one of the roughly 90 jurisdictions within St. Louis County were left struggling to find court information in disparate systems. The Ferguson Commission (PDF) found major disparities in the issuance of warrants and summons on people of color. For warrants from unpaid traffic tickets, the majority of people affected are those with limited economic resources for whom an unpaid traffic ticket can lead to negative and compounding consequences.

In response to this problem, CivTech St. Louis created a web-based tool, YourSTLCourts, to help close disparities in warrants between residents of color and white residents for nonviolent traffic offenses. Before the tool, residents bore the burden of tracking their information through a complex system; they had to manually and individually contact municipalities in St. Louis County to receive information on their ticket and court date.

This burdensome process disproportionately disadvantaged communities without schedule flexibility, knowledge of the system, and access to resources. To better understand the needs of community users, the CivTech St. Louis team partnered with the University of Missouri–St. Louis School of Social Work to survey court users on their experiences. Building upon the principle of working with community users, the team incorporated feedback into the creation and design of the tool.

YourSTLCourts consolidated court data in St. Louis County through an application programming interface into a digital portal that allows residents to access their traffic ticket information and opt to receive text message notifications with court information.

YourSTLCourts is an example of technology created for a more transparent and centralized system to connect residents with their own court data. To sustain the technology, the team established a nonprofit to continue educating residents, finding champions within county government, and encouraging use of the tool.

These promising projects in Chicago and St. Louis demonstrate how tech innovations can employ more equitable practices and yield broader benefits when inclusion is an explicit part of their design and goals. Our Accelerating Innovation for Inclusion Initiative, supported with a grant from the Mastercard Impact Fund, in collaboration with Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, will build on lessons learned from cities like Chicago and St. Louis and further explore how cities can utilize technology to improve public decisionmaking and deliver services, centering communities at each step.

Charlie Catlett leads a community discussion and demonstration for Chicago's Array of Things project. Catlett is a Senior Computer Scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and a Senior Fellow at the University of Chicago Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. Photo by Daniel X. O'Neil.

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