the nerds and the community organizers

(Amtrak) I’m on my way home from a meeting with my friends at Cities of Service and their network of mayors and city officials. I’m struck by how many of these people are uniting two traditionally opposite strands of government reform, not only in their important work with Cities of Service but in their other projects as well.

One strand is all about efficiency, transparency, measurement, and data. It goes back to the Progressive Era and agencies like New York City’s Bureau of Municipal Research, founded in 1907. Its ambition is to bring science and/or business practices into municipal government. That basic impulse has been constant for a century, but the tools and techniques have grown more sophisticated.

When you consider how much good you can do for people and the environment by measuring and tracking, it’s clear that this agenda remains essential. For instance, we heard a great presentation by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Minor about my hometown’s use of remote sensors to identify where water is leaking and pipes are about to break, thus saving the city millions. Searching for her work, I instead came across a 1922 article entitled “Measurement of Water Supply by the Pitot Tube in Syracuse, NY.” The author, a Mr Starbird, begins by lamenting the failure to install measurement tools in the city’s intake pipes, which would allow Syracuse “quickly to detect any considerable loss that might occur in the conduits between these points.” Nearly a century later, Syracuse is dropping censors into water pipes and sending the data into “the cloud.” The agenda is the same; the need remains urgent.

The other strand of municipal reform is more populist, little-“d” democratic, and concerned with diversity. It begins with the recognition that many of the people who are most affected by city government and urban issues aren’t asked what they think about these issues, let alone empowered to address them. Teenagers struggling in high school, seniors in retirement communities, and homeless mothers are just some of the groups who lack voice and power. So the municipal reformer seeks to consult them, or better, to engage and empower them.

These two strands tend to appeal to different kinds of people. Metrics sound exciting to nerdy people who often have backgrounds in business or science, who are comfortable with math and technology, and who typically have attained advanced education. Popular engagement sounds good to community organizers, grassroots leaders, and some elected politicians who have roots in the marginalized neighborhoods of a city.

But the two impulses can go together. The great populist, democratic educator Jane Addams was also responsible for Hull-House Maps and Papers, a compendium of rigorous, plot-level data, subtitled “a presentation of nationalities and wages in a congested district of Chicago, together with comments and essays on problems growing out of the social conditions.” According to the title page, the authors of the book were “Residents of Hull-House.” Maps and Papers was a sophisticated presentation of data produced by, as well as for, the poor residents of a 19th century slum in partnership with some college-educated women who lived with them.

Indeed, these two impulses must go together. Efficient, data-driven management will do little good unless the public supports the city’s use of data. Municipal governments can’t solve problems unless they get help from other organizations and from active citizens. Data can help autonomous organizations in civil society to coordinate their efforts.

Besides, all data is value-laden, and people have the right to make judgments about what to measure and how to interpret the results. Data also confers power, and unless you trust the government implicitly and permanently, you should want diverse citizens to produce and use data so that they share power over it.

At the same time, because data is power, grassroots organizers and networks need it. They can’t afford not to be efficient, effective, responsive, and cognizant of precise costs and benefits. Strengthening democracy is not about replacing data and businesslike practices with raw popular voice. It’s rather about sharing the power of data.

See also this post on “smart water“; the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracywhat would Jane Addams say?empowering citizens to make sure the stimulus is well spent

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.