Building the Smart City from the Bottom-up with Hector Dominguez-Aguirre (City of Portland PDX)

On January 22, 2021, I had the pleasure of speaking with Hector Dominguez-Aguirre. We spoke about his education, his work in Mexico, his experiences in the private sector in the Pacific Northwest, and his current work in the City of Portland with the Smart City PDX team. Hector was trained as a robotics and automation engineer, and he had training in Japan and the University of California. Hector grew up along the Gulf Coast of Mexico with a strong community feeling, so after his education, Hector returned to Mexico to establish a community collective based around collaboration across interdisciplinary fields. Hector especially tried to connect groups that did not have much experience or support with science and technology. In 2013, Hector was drawn to the Pacific Northwest in Oregon and there he began his own startup that built on his knowledge in agriculture and automation to create sensor networks for vineyards. During his time in Oregon, Hector was drawn to the City of Portland and its smart city plans. He eventually joined the team in 2018 as Open Data Coordinator.

Portland’s Smart City initiative, known as Smart City PDX, is an effort to manage networks within the city while exploring civic innovation possibilities always with an eye on social responsibility. The program was created in 2016 when Portland organized to create an entry for the United States Department of Transportation’s Smart Cities Challenge. Portland unfortunately did not win the award, but there was enough positive energy in the city government to create Smart City PDX.

The program stemmed from transportation, but that policy area overlaps with other emerging technologies and the scope of the project has thus expanded beyond just transportation and into issues like surveillance, open data, and privacy. While the Portland Bureau of Transportation is still a main collaborator of Smart City PDX, they have specific needs that Hector and team can address, but also move beyond into other policy domains. Hector commented that much of the smart city dialogue comes from the private sector trying to sell products to government, and Smart City PDX serves partially to pushback and reclaim the space while providing social value.

Smart City PDX lives within the Portland Department of Planning and Sustainability. Framing technology programs as sustainable, Hector says, is a way of coordinating a long-term vision for Portland is both forward looking and inclusive. Smart City PDX also tries to work closely with the Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights (in addition to the technology-oriented departments) which speaks to some of the goals of the program. However, Hector spoke about some of the problems that stem from a silo effect present in the Portland government. Each city commissioner (of which the Mayor is one of) has under them a portfolio of different bureaus, agencies, or offices. This means that many different groups within the city are isolated from each other and have difficulty communicating across siloes if they do not align.

Part of Hector’s job as Open Data Coordinator is working across these siloes to better communicate and develop data projects that can span a diverse group of needs and wants. For example, Hector and the Smart City PDX work with transportation officials about mobility management like e-scooters, but also education officials who need better analysis of school data, the economic development agency that needs data on the business environment, and the housing officials who need data analysis on rental markets. Furthermore, all the data needs of these example groups overlap considerably, and leveraging multi-sector data to provide a positive social value is a challenge.

One of the main goals for Hector and Smart City PDX is establishing a solid foundation of governance, analysis, and privacy for any kind data- and technology-focused policy so that Portland can stay ahead of where civic technology is going and is not always chasing the next big development. For example, the group is establishing a pipeline for cataloging municipal data to make open data publication easier going forward. Additionally, Smart City PDX is doing privacy impact assessments to understand how changing data governance and technology implementations affect residents’ privacy. Part of these assessments is a constant engagement with Portland residents to solicit input and foster co-development of shared principles.

Portland’s community engagement model was inspired by the City of Seattle’s privacy principles and the developments in the European Union around the General Data Privacy Regulation. At the time, Portland had some privacy rights, but the city wanted to develop a less legalistic shared principles with their communities. So, Portland put together different public facing events and engaged with about 30 different organizations to talk about privacy. The “unconference” events were specifically non-formal to try to flatten any perceptions of power differential and to make the city more approachable from historical perspectives of discrimination. Hector and team asked questions like “here is a privacy principle, does this work for you, and why or why not?”, “what can we do to improve and change?” and “what are some challenges that you see?”.

Community engagement was a long process, but now Portland is seen as a model for how to do outreach about privacy policies. I asked Hector why Portland was having such success and while he could not speak about the specific reasons why other cities are not as successful, he spoke about how the events required going outside of your comfort zone and putting yourself in a vulnerable position, especially when interacting with communities who have been historically discriminated against, marginalized, or ignored in the city’s and the nation’s history. The community interface process requires a lot of hard, honest conversations about the biggest challenges. Hector also talked about how it was important to stay conscience that the Smart City PDX team are all highly educated people who are not representative Portland general population. Smart City PDX tried to take advantage of existing social networks and connections to make it easier to facilitate the honest discourse. In sum, incorporating a multitude of voices across diverse communities is key to establishing trust between a city and its residents when it comes to privacy and governance.

Smart City PDX is trying to improve life in Portland and provide residents with positive social value through improved services and a sense of involvement in municipal governance via community engagement. However, smart city programs also give cities like Portland new powers in developing and proposing local law, and new leverage through municipal processes like procurement. Whether or not biometric surveillance is allowed in Portland is a city law, and other technologies that rely on data generated in the City of Portland are subject to Portland law. For example, groups that use Portland data for marketing research or technology vending will need to make sure they adapt to Portland’s privacy regulations. Portland has also created new civic codes of digital justice with privacy guidelines for data collection in general. There are real political power questions around who gets to generate, collect, and use data within a city that municipal governments are starting to wake to.

Our conversation closed with a discussion of the effects COVID-19 is having on Smart City PDX and the city of Portland in general. An immediate concern was the fate of public events and who would have access to virtual events. For example, there is an inequity of access to internet technology. So, after the mayor declared that there would be no more public events once COVID-19 started spreading, public events had to move online, and some people could not access the events at a basic technological level. However, if these digital divides can be bridged (such as through Chromebooks that Portland distributed via CARES act funding), then there is opportunity to engage with the public in a new way. In the long term, Portland is already hurting from budget cuts and will need to adapt its resources and change projects. For example, Portland was going to hire a privacy officer, but this process had to be pushed off.

My main takeaways from talking with Hector are three-fold. One, community outreach is a challenging process for any city, but only through having the difficult conversations that build a basic level of linking social capital and trust can cities introduce smart city programs that truly add positive social value to a city. Second, smart city programs, data, and technology represent a new avenue for municipal political power. In many ways, cities are limited in power, but through establishing local laws on data collection and use, cities can exercise some political muscle. Finally, as I have seen in many cities, the silo effect really slows down urban innovation, and it is a challenge to overcome institutional shortcomings.

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