Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Making Civic Technology Transparent and Accountable with Jackie Lu (Helpful Places)

This blog post is part of our ‘Data, Privacy, and the Future of Trust in Public Institutions’ series, which is penned by Garrett Morrow, who was MetroLab’s Experiential Research Fellow during Fall 2020. To learn more about this series and to access other posts in this series, check out our first post here.

I had the joy of speaking with Jackie Lu of Helpful Places on December 16, 2020 about public facing data- and algorithm-based programs, and how cities, organizations, and business can best inform the public on how these technologies are being used. Jackie is an ecologist by training and began public work in the massive New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks). In municipal government, she began to see that you can only go so far in government work, especially in a city as large as New York, before you begin to run into issues of data collection and sourcing. For example, as an ecologist Jackie spent time wrangling and merging Geographic Information System (GIS) spatial data with non-GIS data.

In 2015, NYC Parks began a citywide participatory street tree mapping project, working with more than 2,200 volunteers and 60 community groups to map over 600,000 street trees. While working on this project, Jackie quickly saw that public data use is not just about top-down decision making, but about collaboration between the public and its local government. For example, Jackie also worked on a smart bench pilot program where she realized the challenge of informing the public about how data was generated by activity, what the data was being used for, and how that usage would benefit the public good. Cities struggle with engaging communities about data- and algorithm-based policies at all levels of government and most of the public will never attend a community feedback meeting, but everyone in a city will be using public spaces. At the time, data and algorithm transparency issues were not necessarily at the fore of government thinking, so cities were far away from thinking about what a physical sign about data in a public space would look like and what that sign would say.

From New York, Jackie moved to Toronto and joined Sidewalk Labs, where she led the development of an open-source communication standard known as DTPR. The goal of DTPR is to communicate technologies quickly and clearly in use in the public realm in a way that is more transparent, more accountable, and with mechanisms for public feedback. The standard features a taxonomy of data-related concepts to facilitate visual public communication. The project is still in active development and seeking partners, and one city that has partnered with Helpful Places is the City of Boston.

Creating a publicly acceptable and widely understood taxonomy is a challenge and Jackie spoke about some of the issues the DTPR projec is facing both in terms of communication standards and design aesthetics. Current communication about technology use is inadequate for public signage. For example, many technology products have terms of service and end user license agreements that detail how the parent company will collect and use data but trying to translate the legalistic language of those documents to a sign would be unwieldy if not impossible. Jackie spoke about a tension between notification and legibility. In other words, there is a transparency paradox between how much information you give and how useful it is. You can have a very legible sign, but it may not relay that much useful information about a highly technical piece of technology. However, if you start adding more information to that sign, it becomes less legible, and thus less useful to the public.

To figure out these issues, Helpful Places has been doing testing designs and concepts with focus groups during prototype development to experiment with different signage forms and information transmission styles. The current model is a hexagon-shaped schema with a variety of iconographies to indicate technology purpose, data collection style, and other characteristics of the technology implementation. Additionally, the schema includes QR codes that people can scan if they want to learn more about the technology system in their public space. Jackie’s group hopes to implement prototype labels in partner cities to get public feedback.

COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to technology generally across the board. The urgency of public health has been paramount and the focus of public discussion, but we must also look forward to how technologies like contact tracing, testing, and health checks will be deployed in public for long-term benefits. When currently remote workers begin to return to workplaces en masse, we need to consider how much data collection is necessary for public health benefits. However, there is a reason to be optimistic about the possibility of technology to facilitate safer returns to public spaces and interact with one another again. Technology and information communication techniques can better give people the information they need to leave their home safely and comfortably.

One reason for spending resources on public signage for technology applications is to better inform the public on how data and technology are being used in city spaces to show how municipal technologies can benefit the public good including, but not limited to, public health applications. Jackie believes that transparency is not sufficient in and of itself, but transparency is a necessary precondition for accountability. Cities must really point out the benefits of their technology policies to get the public on board. Right now, the trade off between the public giving up data to a city and the benefit the city provides the public for that data is unclear. Through better, more user-friendly communication styles, a city can make the causal chain between data collection and public policy application clearer which helps get crucial public buy in into a program and improve its chance for success.

Garrett Morrow is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Northeastern University. His dissertation looks at the politics and public trust of smart city policies, data, and algorithms. During Fall 2020, Garrett was also an Experiential Research Fellow with us here at MetroLab. His work was funded through the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern. Garrett can be reached at morrow.g@northeastern.edu.

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