The most resilient cities are the ones that listen

A couple wearing a face mask rides an electric scooter along a Navigli canal in Milan on May 8, 2020. (Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

I have spent the better part of the past 10 years working with cities across the world, helping them to become more resilient – in many cases to the impacts of climate change, but also to other disruptions such as earthquakes, financial crises or disease outbreak – by analysing the underlying causes to their most pressing challenges, and developing strategies to tackle them. A common thread throughout my experience is that cities can only succeed in achieving their goals of becoming more sustainable, resilient or inclusive if they listen and respond to their citizens’ needs and have a trusted relationship with them.

Covid-19 has forced local governments to quickly shift the way they use data and technology. Technology will form a critical part of the recovery process, but this doesn’t just involve investing in more smart city solutions or technological capabilities – the process of involving citizens in this effort is arguably more important. Creating a trusted environment and embracing bottom-up approaches will enable cities to harness the power of citizens’ ambition to drive change and allow governments to better serve their needs.

We have seen how quickly local innovators and entrepreneurs have stepped up in the crisis and mobilised to contribute their resources and ideas to address all areas of the pandemic. From making face masks and delivering groceries and medical supplies to vulnerable citizens, to developing creative solutions to address loneliness and connectivity during self-isolation, crowd-sourced and open-sourced solutions have been co-created by communities around the world. Innovators within local communities and from across universities and industry have been quick to pool their knowledge and create useful resources and tools to respond to the most pressing needs emerging from the crisis. Plenty of this has happened without government support or coordination.

Local governments need to understand, encourage, and work alongside communities so that we can not only recover from this major crisis, but also become more resilient, no matter what disruptions occur in the future.

Since 2015, we at the Greater London Authority have been leading Sharing Cities, a collaborative European project of 34 partners across the public, private, and academic sectors, including the local municipalities of Lisbon, Milan, and the Royal Borough of Greenwich in London. The project demonstrates how thoughtfully designed, integrated, open source solutions can be developed to improve the wellbeing of citizens and reduce our collective impact on climate change. The programme is built on the three principles of People, Place, and Platform: engaging effectively with citizens to implement sustainable, low-carbon technologies in local neighbourhoods, using shared platforms to manage data-driven solutions. From designing electric and shared mobility schemes, to conducting building retrofit works, Sharing Cities developed and applied co-design approaches to ensure that citizens have been engaged from the very beginning of the design process.

So, what can cities do to fully harness citizens’ ambitions and mobilise local action? Here’s what we’ve learned:

Democratize data and enable collaboration

Data is a city’s greatest asset when it comes to planning for the future. Sharing data through open data platforms empowers local communities to take solution development in their own hands and has been done successfully for years now. Citymapper is one of the most well-known examples, using data from the London Datastore, London’s pioneering open-data platform which turns 10 this year. Citizens want to contribute, and many governments have realised this potential and have taken co-creation with communities to the next level during the pandemic, with Hack the Crisis-type events being held all over the world – Estonia, Tel Aviv, New Zealand, just to name a few.

One-time events like Hackathons and Challenges are valuable in establishing a connection with citizens, but in order to have sustained impact, locally driven solutions need to be supported with tangible action and investment, and this requires local governments to maintain a trusted relationship with citizens.

(Re-)Build and maintain public trust

It is important for local governments to listen to citizens before taking action. Citizens experience the impact of disruptions in different ways – this has been made painfully obvious by Covid-19. The pandemic has shown that those already disadvantaged are disadvantaged further during times of crisis. But cities have been using tools and technologies at their disposal to actively engage with communities, to understand their lived experience in a way that informs the development solutions and policies and to maintain trusted connections with citizens.

Milan’s SharingMi is a citizen engagement platform that seeks to encourage residents to adopt sustainable behaviours in exchange for rewards that can be spent in their local communities. Connections on the online platform are rooted in the real physical community, established when the platform was launched last year, with residents from the neighbourhood of Porta Romana. SharingMi was co-designed with residents, and the municipality partnered with local organisations to hold events and challenges such as #MilanoPlasticFree and My Food Revolution, to challenge people to actions such as reducing waste and supporting sustainable food ecosystems. As the pandemic took hold of Northern Italy in early March, the city quickly pivoted and used the platform to help residents maintain their connections to their local community, while at the same time not losing sight of the tool’s foundational aims of encouraging people to adopt sustainable behaviours, all while staying at home.

In Belfast, the city council quickly established, an easy-to-use platform, working with government, universities, and the third sector to support a coordinated contribution by the innovator community to solve local Covid-19 challenges. With this platform, they have been able to mobilise their local civic and business community to donate and match resources and specialist skills. Technical infrastructure and hardware, such as laptops, have been requested by local charities to enable those who don’t have access to technology to work remotely. Data analysts and software developers have been matched to develop digital solutions to help solve challenges such as managing the distribution of food packages to vulnerable individuals.

Good listening needs to be followed by tangible action and clear communication. In a design sprint recently run by the London Office of Technology and Innovation and Sharing Cities, one of the key challenges experienced by participants from industry and local government alike was that they often found it difficult to explain how smart cities technologies, such as the internet of things (IoT), 5G, and artificial intelligence, could benefit citizens in a simple way. The instinct to hide behind jargon and technical language is tempting, but can be harmful, placing a barrier between the solutions and the people that stand to benefit from them, ultimately leading to distrust between communities, industry, and government. The answer is straightforward, although by no means easy: local governments need to explain what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why, plainly and simply, in ways that are relevant and accessible to citizens. In a recent webinar hosted by Reuters, London’s Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell described how citizens were more willing to share their data “provided that you spoke clearly to people about it, told them what it was for and instituted some governance around how it is used”.

Building and maintaining a trusted relationship with citizens is a difficult task, and one that requires continual investment from the start. Smart cities aren’t smart if people are left out of the process. The recent news that Sidewalk Labs is pulling out of Toronto’s Quayside project demonstrates the importance of trusted relationships with communities and the need for local governments and developers to listen and respond to the needs of their citizens. While some have reacted more quickly than others in dealing with Covid-19, the reality is, some local governments have lost some degree of trust with the public. However, things need not remain this way – times of crisis often brings out the best in people, and this has held true during this difficult time. We have also seen really positive examples of local governments working together with communities, and making the best of the technology we have to co-create solutions and support those most in need, and ensure that we all recover together.

Sandy Tung is based at the Greater London Authority and is the Programme Manager for Sharing Cities, a pan-European programme that tests out innovative smart city solutions across major European cities, replicating and scaling what works through new business and investment models.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor. 

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.