Building Smarter Cities With Social Technologies

[This post was originally published on ZaGarage by Kuliza on September 5th 2011. You can read the original post here.]

Community, crowdsourcing and mobile initiatives to make cities a smarter place to live

People look for great cities to live in. The Economist Intelligence UnitMercer and others help us out with their annual rankings of the best cities to live in based on – amongst other things – recreation, health care, political, social and cultural environment, education, housing and infrastructure. In the future, determining how good a city is to live in will also depend on how smart the city is. So along with healthcare, education and housing people will also look at how the city utilizes physical infrastructure, such as transport and ICT, and the availability and quality of intellectual and social capital to improve living standards and drive urban growth and competitiveness.

There are three defining characteristics of a smart city:

  • A networked infrastructure
  • Community intelligence to improve urban planning, development and innovation management
  • Social and environmental sustainability through the participation of citizens in city processes

The concept of smart cities has been on the agenda of governments and corporations for the last number of years. Investment is also accelerating. A recent report by ABI Research estimates that the market for technologies related to smart cities projects will grow from $8 billion in 2010 to $39 billion in 2016. This will include spending on e-government initiatives, initiatives to reduce carbon footprints, waste and recycling initiatives, intelligent transport systems, and wireless networks. There are a number of reasons why there is so much investment in smart cities:

  • There is a limit to how much people and businesses can be taxed. Budget crises during the recession of the last few years means that city governments have to look at long-term measures to manage and modernize their services and infrastructure
  • Governments need to cut costs without cutting services so they are using analytics to understand and improve operational productivity and efficiency
  • There is competition among cities to attract businesses to maintain growth and development and to attract people to live and work by improving the quality of the urban environment
  • 50% of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050 the urban population is expected to double, further straining city services and infrastructure
  • Cities are major polluters: they occupy 2% of the world’s geography but account for 75% of the greenhouse gases

Leaving aside the smart city projects that focus on infrastructure and energy management, I want to look at how individuals, communities and governments are using social technologies to harness community intelligence, social capital and improve urban environments and city process. There are lots of projects and initiatives happening around the world and I have included a brief about many others at the end of this post.


There are plenty of enthusiastic people who want to make a difference in their community. SeeClickFix supports hyper-local, community-driven activism to empower citizens, community groups, media organizations and governments to improve their neighbourhoods. Their online platform and mobile apps allow citizens to flag and report non-emergency community issues such as potholes and graffiti, share them on a web-based map for others to view and comment on complaints based on location as well as view the profiles of people who report issues nearby. SeeClickFix also have a Facebook page and an app with game mechanics, giving users Civic Points for performing actions that engage with the app including reporting issues, uploading an image or taking action in order to get an issue resolved.

SeeClickFix doesn’t just crowdsource community intelligence to improve their local environment, but helps to improve city processes by routing complaints to the relevant parties such as local governments and media outlets to resolve them. SeeClickFix provides community groups (neighborhood associations, volunteer groups, business associations) with an online platform to connect and address the needs of their community, governments with a dashboard for tracking and acknowledging issues, and media outlets with a platform to stay up-to-date with events that impact the community. It has been a major success, with over 200,000 users, more than 30 government clients, and 50% of user-reported issues resolved.


In February 2011 BMW created a $100 million venture capital fund to invest in mobile apps that make it easier for people to navigate urban areas by car, bike, public transport or walking. This is part of establishing a new, sustainability-focused sub-brand to integrate the concepts of luxury and sustainability. Non-automotive transport has not been BMW’s interest, but it is to its customers and potential customers, and BMW is branding itself as a solution finder and innovator in making cities smarter and cleaner along with promoting their hybrid and electric cars.

There are three apps that BMW has invested in that use community intelligence and the participation of users to reduce traffic congestion, improve how people navigate their city and life in their cities.


Running only in Munich at the moment, this is a car sharing service that gives users access to a car whenever they need it. After registering with their driver’s license, users can reserve a car online or through a mobile app and use the car at a cost of 29c a minute, including petrol and free parking within Munich city.


It is the largest online parking marketplace connecting owners of parking spaces who want to earn money renting it out to people who need a convenient space to park.


It is a real-time, location-aware suite of mobile apps designed to help users navigate and explore cities. It can be used for connecting with other users, finding a restaurant that allows dogs, locating the nearest wireless hotspot, sharing tips, finding parking ahead of time, and checking live traffic cameras.


Traffic management systems are one of the major features of smart city projects, and are offered by companies like IBM as part of their Intelligent Operations Center. There are plenty of mobile apps that try to improve travel by facilitating carpooling, notifying public transport travel times and connections, or by route planning to avoid traffic jams.

One (future) app that sounds promising is SignalGuru. It was developed by researchers at Princeton and MIT to reduce congestion and fuel consumption in cities. It uses GPS enabled smartphones mounted on car dashboards to estimate traffic light patterns. The app informs the driver how long until the signal turns green and suggests the driving speed to prevent stopping at a red light. So far in early testing in Massachusetts the app has successfully predicted red lights to within 0.66 seconds and reduced petrol use by 20%.

With so many developments in this space, cities need a vision for the type of environment they want to develop and a masterplan of how they will achieve this that incorporates both large scale solutions and community-led initiatives that bring together experts and individuals. As exciting as these projects are, there are some concerns and questions that will need to be debated:

  • Each initiative creates a huge amount of user information and data, which naturally leads to questions about privacy and how governments in some countries choose to use the data to exert control over their citizens
  • Who owns the brains of a city? Is it the community and services like SeeClickFix, or large companies like IBM and Cisco with their ‘smart city in a box’ solutions?
  • What happens when the interests of a large company and the city and residents are no longer aligned?

Further examples of smart city initiatives

There are numerous smart city initiatives and projects underway around the world. I couldn’t cover every one so I’ve listed some others that I find interesting:

  • Songdo in South Korea – the first city to have developed the smart city concept from the ground level up
  • IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center to monitor and manage city services
  • Amsterdam Smart City – a collaboration between people, businesses and government to create sustainable, large-scale programs that reduce CO2 emissions
  • Austin’s budget allocator to determine which urban projects to invest in
  • City Sourced – a mobile civic engagement platform that allows residents to report issues to the local government for resolution
  • San Jose Mobile City Hall – a mobile engagement tool to allow residents to report issues to the San Jose government for resolution
  • Betaville – a collaborative platform for cities in which ideas for new works of public art, architecture, urban design, and development can be shared, discussed, tweaked, and brought to maturity in context by individuals and experts
  • Cooltownbeta – a crowdsourcing consultancy
  • Reset San Francisco – an online community that brings locals together around ideas and solutions to improve San Francisco.

The Evolving use of Social Media for Political Campaigns

[This post was originally published on Social Media Today on 17th August 2011. You can view the original post here.]

Campaigns and social media have been in the news a lot this year – Republican primaries and London riots in just the last week – and the exposure will increase as the US heads into election year in 2012. I want to look at how political campaigns have evolved in their use of the internet and social media, and see what possibilities exist in the near-term. For this purpose I’ve looked at two types of campaigns:

  1. Campaigns that are centrally organized by the political party or the candidate’s team. Here I will look primarily at Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008
  2. Campaigns that are organized bottom-up. Here I will look at how groups used social media during the Arab Spring

Centrally Organized Campaigns

Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004 had many of the features of successful campaigns: press coverage, successful fundraising and exciting people. He achieved this not just through traditional campaign strategies but also by extensive use of the internet. He used his official blog and to bring people together and organize fundraisers. This was cheaper than traditional fundraising and resulted in a hug number of small donations, allowing him to avoid fundraising limits. However, his team missed the crucial element of converting enthusiastic participants into active voters. As Clay Shirky points out in Here Comes Everybody [link], Dean created a movement that strongly appealed to some people, but which participation became more important than voting.

Some of the same strategies Dean used were taken up by Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign. Barack Obama was called the King of Social Networking by the Washington Post as he became the first social media President. His campaign team was the first to fully understand and harness the potential of social media to communicate his message and energize supporters to donate and vote.

Barack Obama’s campaign team didn’t invent anything new but strategically used social media, the internet, SMS and emails to establish his candidacy and win the elections:

1.       Build his political brand

Obama used social media to lower the cost of building a political brand. This was essential because there was very little brand awareness about Obama compared to his major competitors Hilary Clinton and John McCain, apart from 2 books (admittedly best sellers) and his 2004 convention speech.

2.       Created

A full-fledged social network, allowed users to create their own profile complete with a customized description, friends list and personal blog. They could also join groups, participate in fund raising, and arrange events. This was the centre of his social networking strategy and all pages on other platforms brought users here

3.       Present across multiple social media sites

Obama didn’t use just one platform but ensured his message was spread across multiple sites that complemented his message of change. He engaged people, listened and used not only the major sites like Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter, but also more specific sites like Glee and BlackPlanet

4.       Donations

The majority of Obama’s donations came from donors giving just $200 or less. He achieved this by ensuring that on each site there was a donation widget

5.       Encouraged participation

Traditionally campaign teams and spin doctors exerted as much control over content as possible. However, keeping with his change message, Obama allowed and encouraged supporters to participate by posting videos, photos and testimonials.

The effectiveness of Obama’s online strategy to engage and mobilize people can be seen in some of the numbers [reference]:

  • 6.5 million online donations
  • $600+ million campaign funds raised, most of it online
  • 13 million email addresses
  • 1 billion email sent
  • 2 million profiles on
  • 200,000 offline events planned
  • 400,000 blog posts written
  • 35,000 volunteer groups created

Image credit cqpolitics

Bottom-up Campaigns 

These are campaigns that are not initiated by a political party or a candidate / politician. They are characterized by groups of people who have new found political power because of the ability to use social media to mobilize large numbers of like-minded people. The most recent large-scale campaign was earlier this year in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), especially Tunisia and Egypt.

There have been a lot of debates on the importance of otherwise of social media to the Arab Spring. People make revolutions, but in this case social media played an integral role as a community builder and communication tool. Control over communication is vital as uprisings gain momentum to provide a common purpose to the community, keep them mobilized and updated. Typically during a coup or revolution the first buildings that are targeted by the opposition are TV and radio.

Image credit gaitri59

In the case of the Arab Spring, social media allowed protestors to both communicate across the community and determine the media output beyond their country without having to control the stations. People were able to instantly self-broadcast events, information and ideas, unrestricted by media and news deadlines and editorial controls. This contributed to the speed at which the revolutions moved and the momentum they maintained, and allowed news networks, especially Al-Jazeera, to continue spreading information and news across the region.

I think there are two major lessons from the Arab Spring that political parties and candidates can leverage:

  1. Citizens and communities of like-minded people have political clout because of social networks
  2. Democratic movements are about political change driven by social networks rather than by elites. This is where social media and social technologies are going to have the largest impact in the coming years.

What Next?

Obama was the pace-making politician in using social media but things have changed since 2008. One of thehallmarks of his 2008 campaign was how email, text messages and the internet were used to reach voters for organizing and fundraising. Since then Twitter and Facebook have increased hugely in popularity and smartphones and apps are far more common. In 2012 it looks like Obama will be more expansive in how he uses social media to mobilize funds and supporters. Community will still be at the heart of his campaign, but additionally he will look at making email, website, texts, mobile apps and social networks work together in harmony to communicate his message – “Are You In”.

Here are three things that he and other parties and candidates will need to do to run successful campaigns:

1.       Control communication using social media

No politician can control how the media uses and spins his message. One way around this is using social media channels to distribute the message. Also, with a large community eager to listen it is important to speak directly to them. Obama used YouTube to announce his reelection campaign. Twitter is a far more popular tool now than in 2008, and Obama’s campaign team have given it more importance by setting-up separate Twitter accounts for all 50 states to target state-relevant messages to supporters

2.       Adapting to the increasing social integration and sharing features

Obama’s campaign team have included social features on, allowing users to log into the site with their Facebook accounts, making it easier to invite friends and share updates. The campaign team has also added an official Facebook app “Are You In”.

3.       Smartphones and mobile apps

The official White House mobile app is a crucial element in building his community and communicating directly with supporters with alerts about speeches that can be watched live from the app, behind-the-scenes photos and videos, and updates from the official blog

Recently, a great example of using social media to communicate directly to a community and leverage sharing features was by the Social Democratic party in Zurich. Rather than only broadcast their policies, the party used Facebook as a platform for voters to suggest ideas and vote on ideas that they would like to be put into practice. Once the candidates got elected they took the most popular ideas from Facebook and passed them as legislation. The video is below. Hopefully this inspires other parties to try similar campaigns.