, ,

Using Citizens to Make Cities Smarter

You are a critical part of innovation. You have opinions, ideas, and unique perspectives that are necessary to spearhead the technological developments that are being implemented in communities across the nation. You may or may not know it, but state and local governments are using you to develop, implement, and maintain smart city technology in order to make your life more efficient. It’s true. It’s the less creepy version of big brother.

Curious how you are being used to innovate cities? Smart Cities Week brought together thought leaders from across the country to share their best practices in community innovation. There was a particular focus on engaging citizens—this is where you come in.

During the citizen engagement sessions, state and local leaders described how they are building citizen awareness around smart city initiatives and how they are incorporating citizen support into these smart city investments. These elements are key for government leadership because of the intimate relationship local governments have with their constituents. Here are some of the best examples of how state and local governments are working to engage their citizens in smart cities projects:


LinkNYC is citywide Wi-Fi deployment across New York City’s five boroughs. Jeff Merritt, Director of Innovation of the City of New York explained the city converted pay phones into Wi-Fi hot spots to offer free and secure Wi-Fi throughout the city. “We wanted to provide a free and secure program that is rooted in private-public partnerships and funded by advertising revenue,” he explained.

The program started with a beta launch where Merritt solicited feedback from the community. From the feedback, it was clear that citizens were most concerned with the security aspect of the program. As a result, Merritt and his team put a particular emphasis on privacy and security and made sure that the media was a huge part in making their practices transparent and available to citizens. Through citizen input, LinkNYC was able to roll out in a way that maximized the benefits for end users.

AIR Louisville

The city of Louisville, Kentucky is a hotspot for respiratory illnesses. Ted Smith, Chief Innovation Officer of Louisville, took note of this trend and decided to creatively work towards solving it. He started AIR Louisville, a program that uses citizens as sensors, in order to identify the most severe asthma hotspots throughout the city. The program distributes rescue inhalers that are modified to include a GPS sensor that takes a snapshot of where the citizen uses it.

“With the help of the citizen users, we were able to gather data and determine where policy decisions need to be made,” Smith explained. From the data, Smith and his team are working towards developing filtration models that can make cleaner air across the community. Smith emphasized that the program started with citizen needs, involved the citizens to solve the problem, and delivered data driven solutions to ultimately improve the citizens’ lives. Without the Louisville community donating their data, it would have been extremely challenging to work towards cleaner air. 


Chicago has always been a champion of open data however, they recently realized that citizens were facing challenges in going through the data sets to find the information they needed. Brenna Berman, CIO of the City of Chicago, Illinois, explained, “we wanted to help residents of the city visualize the data in a way that was important to them and allows them to make meaning out of the data.” As a result, Berman and her team launched OpenGrid, a platform that allows users to visually explore data in Chicago.

Berman underscored that user testing was critical in order to develop OpenGrid. “We are going through 3 cycles of end user testing over a period of 9 months in order to fully test the development process and refine the product.” 

At the end of one of the sessions, Bill Peduto, Mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania articulated that the most effective way to approach developing smart city initiatives is by looking at them like a three-legged stool. “Smart city initiatives must be supported by the city’s capacity, ecosystem and citizens, you need all three legs for the initiative to stand on its own,” he said. Looking forward it is critical that cities embrace all three aspects of developing smart city programs, with a particular focus on citizen engagement.

Leave a Comment

One Comment

Leave a Reply