April 10, 2014

Watch complete discussion (VIDEO)

Data and technology can solve some “very prosaic problems that end up costing enormous amounts of time and trouble,” said Daniel Doctoroff, the CEO and president of Bloomberg and a former deputy mayor of New York City.

Doctoroff’s remarks came in the keynote at the April 1 SIPA Dean’s Roundtable on Technology, Entrepreneurship, and Urban Innovation. Dean Merit E. Janow convened leading technology entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and experts in urban policy to discuss the application of digital technology and advanced data analytics to improve urban environments around the world.

The event was co-hosted by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale, co-founder of Palantir and founder of Addepar, among other companies, and set the stage for the launch of the Dean’s Public Policy Challenge Grant Program, which is seeking proposals from SIPA and other Columbia students for innovative projects using technology and data to address global urban challenges. The Program aims to integrate problem-solving from different fields such as public policy, computer science, and engineering.

Doctoroff recounted examples of the ways in which New York City’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning — also known as the city’s “geek squad” — used data to solve problems, like how to identify restaurants that were illegally dumping grease and clogging the city’s sewers. By using information about restaurants that were not contracting with waste disposal companies to eliminate grease, the geek squad overlayed a map of those restaurants with geospatial data that identified areas with concentrated grease in the sewage system. The former deputy mayor said this resulted in a 95 percent success rate in identifying and stopping the illegal dumping of grease from restaurants.

This example underlined how data is an increasingly important tool for government, not only to solve problems but also to reduce costs — a sentiment echoed by other speakers at the roundtable.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, alluded to the previous day’s report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and suggested that technology could help address the impact of climate change and other intensifying, urgent problems.

He cited crises in employment, education, healthcare, and energy as problems that needed prioritizing in the United States, and expressed his hope that advanced technology would be used to improve efficiency in those areas. He finally stressed that data and technology should be used for good governance. Open governance should allow for active public participation, said Sachs, who drew laughter from the audience with a quip that he hoped that soon we will be able to eliminate the U.S. Congress.

Along a similar vein, Carter Cleveland, CEO of Artsy, an online platform connecting users to works of art, said he would like to see more open-source information that allowed joint ownership of data between the government and the public. Cleveland said access to information could empower civilians to participate and partner with government to monitor crime and improve urban safety, for example, whereas information asymmetry could erode cooperation between citizens and governing bodies.

Patricia Culligan, associate director of the Institute for Data Science and Engineering and co-director of the Earth Institute’s Urban Design Lab, advocated for the meshing of technology and policy around urban infrastructure. She said more investment was needed to improve infrastructure providing for the safety, lives and needs of cities, and to address manageable challenges like reducing energy consumption. A study she led at Columbia, she noted, found that transparency and sharing data about energy use with residents of a building helped reduce consumption by up to 30 percent.

Panelists seemed to agree that the role of information and communications technology (ICT) and data was increasingly important in helping cities become more responsive, more sustainable, safer, and healthier. The challenge was to catalyze innovations and encourage multi-disciplinary, multi-sector solutions.

However, cautioning that governments don’t work like businesses, Rohit Aggarwala, professor of professional practice in international and public affairs at SIPA and expert on urban sustainability, said the key was to identify areas where there is a lack of timely or useful data and fill that gap where the government already has the mandate and resources to act.

Other participants included James D. Robinson III, co-founder of RRE Ventures and former CEO of American Express and Zachary Bookman, co-founder and CEO of OpenGov. View the full discussion here.

— Doyeun Kim MIA ’14