Urban Management's Abundant Technology Toolbox

In a world of interconnected systems, there are plenty of platforms that can help decision-makers see the big picture.
December 22, 2015
By Janae Futrell  |  Contributor
A senior principal planner at the Atlanta Regional Commission

It's an exciting time for urban management. A multitude of new tools is at the fingertips of decision-makers, with more on the way seemingly every day. But while terms such as "open data" and "smart cities" have become ubiquitous, many decisions about urban issues remain informed hypotheses, since nothing can be predicted with 100 percent certainty. Evidence-based and data-driven approaches indicate a growing awareness that the decisions that managers make require verification. They require testing and tweaking. Performance measurement is a venue to monitor, evaluate and pivot based on incoming information.

Some call for urban managers to approach cities as complex systems, or a system of systems, while others emphasize the balance of sustainable development -- economic, equitable/social and environmental. Both are reminders that each seemingly small decision is connected to other issues, involving tradeoffs and, sometimes, unexpected costs.

With so many diverse approaches, it can be challenging for urban managers to see the big picture. As local governments encounter a steady stream of technological options that don't always make sense as a group, these approaches are in danger of being seen as no more than buzzwords or one-off methods. But collectively, they form a useful toolbox. While the tool mix must be specific to local needs, three driving concepts should be kept front and center: fluidity, interconnectivity and technology.

In what ways are cities more fluid and interconnected than in the past? The rise of information technology during the past few decades has allowed person-to-person, person-to-machine and machine-to-machine communication to become increasingly faster, easier and more prevalent. Information is expected, by both the public and urban managers, to be more fluid and "real time." As for interconnectness, a pull here and a tug there to solve one problem starts a ripple effect, sometimes with unintended consequences. One cannot work on transportation, for example, without seeing its cascading impacts on job access, economic development and public health.

What are some of the tools that can help urban managers make sense of all this complexity? Software such as Gephi, Lumify and Vensim helps to visualize systems and networks, structuring data accordingly. Business-intelligence software, such as BIRT and Pentaho, supports performance-measurement functions, connecting data and evidence to inform sound decision-making. Dashboard tools, such as Dashing, facilitate clear displays of metrics to various audiences. Other professional-facing tools, such as Madrona, Envision Tomorrow and UrbanFootprint, enable an understanding of tradeoffs and sustainable-development impacts across subject areas during strategic planning.

Meanwhile, public-facing tools such as CrowdGauge help educate users on these tradeoffs for informed "voting," involving them more directly in decision-making. Civic tech, as a movement, has generated a range of tools for public engagement and data collection, such as Shareabouts and Loomio.

Many of these platforms are able to leverage diverse sets of open data, big data, and geographic data to make comprehensive decisions. And nearly all of the platforms are open source, freely available for use.

What the range and diversity of these tools reminds us of is that cities are never stagnant places. They are perpetually in motion, in a constant state of change. The elements of a city are not isolated, but function as a united whole. Technology is gradually enabling professionals to think about cities as they actually function -- fluid and interconnected places for people.