Last week, NBC shuttered the hyperlocal news portal EveryBlock.com, and laid off its few full-time staffers. The decision was a poor one, and a blow for civic activists all over. It's a shame, given how many examples of great civic science there are.
I got interested in the topic after spending some time talking to several activists who showed me the power of some very simple tools, and who are using a range of technology to get more citizens engaged in their communities.
Civic science means many things, but one definition that I like is: The willingness to collaborate and invent open-source and other low-cost solutions using publicly released data to solve challenges relevant to our cities.
Some of this involves actual programming, but a lot doesn't necessarily need it. For example, many years ago I put together the first email list for my synagogue, a list that is still in use today to communicate events and news of interest to the membership. I have started numerous neighborhood email lists since then, and some have been successful, some have become tools of the list owner, and some have died off because people change their email addresses frequently and it's hard to keep up with them.
An email list is a great way to get the word out quickly, and to build a sense of community. One list that I currently subscribe to covers bicycle-related issues in St. Louis. I use a bike for transportation as well as recreation, and I have often heard about closed routes or better routes through this list. I've also met people on the list who share my interests.
A step up the tech food chain is a hyperlocal blog. When I first moved to St. Louis, I wanted to get connected with the community, and spent a lot of time reading blogs by citizen activists. These activists have done some good work in the past several years, revealing secret development plans or showing noteworthy buildings that were in danger of being demolished. A great example is our "flying saucer," which was saved and repurposed, thanks to the efforts of Alex Ihnen's NextSTL blog, among others.
These are things that anyone with basic tech knowledge can do, and I never really thought about them as civic science, but they are. The next step up does require some programming, but not a lot.
Let's look at the efforts of a group of Brooklynites who were part of the Public Laboratory's Grassroots Mapping program. This group put together a collection of maps of the area around the Gowanus Canal by flying kites and weather balloons with cheap digital cameras looking towards earth and snapping pictures. They were able to detect pollutants coming from a construction site (ironically for a new Whole Foods building), and got state regulators on the case.
The photos were so well documented that many of them ended up being included in the Google Earth collection, the first time that citizen-generated aerial photos were included.
Go Fly a Kite
Using a weather balloon to map the effluent in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY.
(Credit: Liz Barry, Gowanus Conservancy.)
This, to me, shows the value of citizen science. There was some significant effort to produce this photo collection: For example, people had had to modify the camera firmware controls and assemble things in just the right way to get good pictures.
Citizen mapping projects are happening all over the world, and some are leveraging open-map software, while others are taking "official maps" from state and local governments and augmenting them with additional layers to illustrate crime patterns or local resources.
I talked with one of the mapping experts in St. Louis County last week, who told me that they specifically remove information about drug and prostitution arrest locations, mainly because people were using this information to obtain these services. You can now find crime maps in many major cities.
And while not citizen-based, one nifty effort is that Google Maps now shows real-time transit information in many cities, so we know how long the wait for the next bus will be.
Perhaps my favorite mapping story concerns a downtrodden area near Nairobi called Kibera. It was a blank spot on many maps just a few years ago, until citizens got together and mapped their own community with open-source software. Now, the maps reflect a vibrant collection of all sorts of resources.
A map of the electric supply densities available in Kibera, Kenya, collected by local citizens.
And more recently, a group of coders got together over a long weekend to produce tourism-related apps for Super Bowl visitors in New Orleans, with one app helping people find available tables at restaurants. (New Orleans is, of course, all about the food!)
Carrying things a step further, HackForChange.org is promoting a National Weekend of Civic Hacking in early June; you can get information from its website on the more than 40 cities that have signed up to support various events.
As you can see, civic science is a rich and varied vein to be mined, and you don't always need to be a nerd to take advantage of it.
— David Strom is a world-known expert on networking and communications technologies. He has worked extensively in the IT end-user computing industry, and has managed editorial operations for trade publications in the network computing, electronics components, computer enthusiast, reseller channel, and security markets.