How Civic Tech Can Address Urban Inequality

Cities shouldn't just work for their neediest citizens. They also should work with them.

BY STEPHEN GOLDSMITH | OCTOBER 5, 2017

For all of its best intentions, civic technology has long struggled with an inclusion problem. Data dashboards, web-based tools and mobile apps are typically built by relatively homogenous teams of developers for audiences that tend to share similar, relatively affluent demographic characteristics.

The acute growth of inequality in many of America's largest cities makes this problem even more pressing. As the urbanist Richard Florida put it in a blog post a few months ago, the "clustering of talent, business, and economic capability in large, dense, knowledge-based places ... carves deep divisions into our cities and society." According to Florida's research, growing inequality in cities is positively correlated with the urban agglomeration of high-tech jobs. Indeed, attracting and retaining the technologists needed to produce civic tech often comes hand-in-hand with the urban conditions, such as soaring rents and gentrification, that define the inequitable city.

Yet civic tech can play an important part in understanding inequality, formulating policy responses and delivering the necessary calls to action. Digital workers help address the economic divides of our cities when they create tools that better diagnose structural inequalities and amplify the voices of the underserved. And in the long run, we need to bring underrepresented groups themselves into the field of civic tech so that they can have an equal hand in designing solutions.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has worked with his staff and his Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded innovation team to begin unpacking the service imbalances that have long divided his city and many like it. Together, they are mapping residents' access to good schools, jobs, safe streets and other basic necessities critical to enabling upward mobility. Additionally, they are measuring the geographic distribution of wealth, income and economic activity to understand how the city's initiatives impact the livelihoods of residents.