Democracy Is Messier than Big Data

In the Rush to Quantify Urban Policy, We Can’t Neglect What Makes Us Human

August 7, 2014

Principal, NBBJ

I recently attended a panel discussion on “open source urbanism” — led by representatives of the City of Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, academia (Northeastern University) and private consultants — that tackled the hot topic of open source technology in urban planning. The panelists described how mobile apps such as SeeClickFix or others, designed to help parents track the tardy school bus or find the right school for their kids, can help residents become better informed, more engaged and more satisfied with city services.

What particularly struck me, however, was a general, and rather universal, disdain for the current, even historic, methods of public communication, discourse and debate. The “town meeting” was particularly derided as a negative model of collecting input or reaching consensus. Even written materials were considered too daunting for many citizens to comprehend, or too time-consuming to engage with. Instead, various forms of digital data-gathering, interactive applications, or gamed engagements were presumed superior methods for both collecting information and finding solutions.

Don’t get me wrong, I am no great fan of the traditional public meeting, especially as it is practiced in fractious Boston. The usual advocates show up to speechify, many citizens complain about something not even on the agenda, and at least a few crackpots feel a need to present their pet proposals by waving drawings around or passing out a handwritten URL. But I couldn’t help thinking that the inevitable side effect of technologically mediated civic interaction, as envisioned by the panel, could serve to dumb down the public debate rather than elevate it.

Clearly the collection of information can be enhanced with technology: either through crowd-sourcing or other methods. And what public process isn’t better served by better information? Yet these methods are frequently, perhaps inevitably, backward looking: they show where people went yesterday, rather than help us imagine where they might want to go tomorrow. By their nature, programmed interactions can lead to highly scripted public engagement, which risks limiting the public dialogue to checking a box, rather than expressing complex ideas in an open forum. If we replace the public meeting with scripted online surveys, we’ll receive quantifiable information, sure, but limited information that could steer us wrong — binary inputs leading to binary solutions, when reality is much more complex.

In that sense the “town hall” format illustrates democratic public dialogue precisely because it is not scripted, mediated or otherwise constrained, by either anonymous technology (at best) or hidden censors (at worst). Is not the “town hall” the essence of a democratic — although occasionally tedious — responsibility? What would a national presidential election be without unscripted and unpredictable debates? I don’t believe that Americans, even young ones, have given up on voicing their ideas in a public setting; in fact, learning to do so is the responsibility of every citizen.

Indeed my greatest hope for technology is also my biggest fear. I worry that the kind of data that is quantifiable will become more readily, perhaps exclusively, considered because it’s easier to digest and present, compared to nuanced, human data that requires more subtlety of understanding. Our public dialogue, with all its nuances, could simply be overwhelmed by “conclusive” digital data: collected, curated and valued for its easily codified results. Who wants to take the time to deconstruct complex sentiments, much less the emotions they convey, when the digital data seems so cut-and-dried?

Digital data is extremely powerful and important, even vital to the future of our cities. But it’s only half of the conversation. We can’t just quantify the public process — we have to qualify it as well.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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