How Austin brought the human touch to smart city planning

What makes a “smart city” and what makes for smart city planning aren’t always the same thing. Just ask Ted Lehr.

“I’ve sat in rooms with a bunch of affluent professionals talking about the importance of increasing bike ridership, the greenness of our trails, and reducing the carbon footprint,” Lehr, a data architect with the city of Austin, told Digital Trends. Put another group of people in a room, he noted, and they’ll say their biggest problems are finding a third job or figuring out how to take their children to the doctor without getting fired.

“Those are the folks that we need to talk about when we talk about smartness,” he said. “And if we’re not, we’re just ignoring them in the way we’ve just been ignoring folks like this forever.”

The Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge spurred a lot of cities to kick off or refine blueprints for becoming more connected, both in terms of technology and mobility. Austin started with a plan to make it easier to access busy and gentrifying areas — a move that’s often the first priority for many cities, but often easier said than done.

Austin is among the most economically segregated cities in the U.S., according to “Segregated City,” a 2015 report from the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “It’s easy to put new sensors and all this crazy stuff in places that are well wired and affluent and where people are receptive to the technology,” Lehr said. “You’re not really solving a problem; you’re making a cushy life cushier.” Instead, the city decided to take a step back and see where technology and other investments could make the biggest impact.


Austin lost out to Columbus, Ohio, for the DOT challenge, but it was one of the winners of the Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge Grant. It’s also hoping to work with several universities throughout Texas as part of a National Science Foundation 5G research grant to explore new technology for healthcare, public safety, and others.

The grant will focus on using “new technologies to meet old challenges of mobility and affordability,” Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement, and put the city “that much closer to creating a comprehensive and inclusive strategy to use technology in a way that benefits communities that are usually left behind.”

Credit: Gavin Hellier/Getty Images

Take infrastructure for example, something that’s crucial to any well-functioning city — and that extends to wireless networks, too. That’s especially true as more Internet of Things devices connect to them. “And as important as these connected devices are, they’re just meaningless gadgets without connectivity,” Chelsea Collier, editor of Smart Cities Connect, told Austin Business Journal. “High-speed connectivity is literally the lifeblood of our current economy and will drive future innovation.” For Austin, it’s important that the network be equally strong throughout the city, not just in the areas closest to the university.

At a recent smart city readiness workshop, some of the suggestions participants had included putting up kiosks in a variety of neighborhoods to get ideas and feedback from people with different backgrounds. Others wanted to use data to connect residents with affordable housing.

In another attempt to gather feedback, the city council made the Smart City Strategic Roadmap available online so staff members could respond to comments about the six priorities it focuses on: affordability, safety, mobility, health, culture, and government works. Anyone can look at the spreadsheet mapping the city’s 81 projects geared at making Austin smarter, tracking the progress each one has made.

The human touch

In addition to soliciting feedback in person and online, some solutions came from data provided by the housing department or energy department. (Austin also has ambitious goals, such as becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.) “The uptake of energy efficiency in one neighborhood, say a poor community, is different from the uptake you’re going to get in a wealthy community, so they have different programs and ways of figuring it out. It’s very data driven,” said Lehr. But relying solely on data without what he calls the “human touch” can lead to disproportionately focusing on wealthy communities. Mimicking Boston’s program for reporting potholes — using smartphones’ sensors to detect when someone’s driven over one — would likely concentrate repairs in areas where affluent drivers have not only a phone but data plans, said Kerry O’Connor, Austin’s Chief Innovation Officer.

Relying solely on data without the “human touch” can lead to problems.

When it comes to the city’s data, the human touch matters in terms of privacy as well. Consider how researchers at the University of Texas used data in 2007 that was released as part of the $1 million Netflix Prize. The streaming company hoped the info would spur people to improve its movie recommendations; instead, graduate student Arvind Narayanan and professor Vitaly Shmatikov found they could identify anonymized users by comparing reviews they published on IMDb. While all that may reveal about you is your love of ‘90s teen flicks, it could also indicate your religion, for example.

Lehr sees it as “an illustration of the problem cities face in putting open data out. Current privacy laws “are based on ideas from the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘40s, ‘70s of what people can do, the slowness, the lack of technology,” he said. Whether to make data accessible isn’t simply a yes or no question, he said, but may first require some additional protection to ensure privacy and security.

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