Frameworks for Citizen Responsiveness: Towards a Read/Write Urbanism

311 street sign service calls by Jane Kelly

Map based illustration of 311 street sign service calls : US census tracts connected by city roadways. Illustration: Jane Kelly

Seeing the City as Software
In the past, I’ve often enough described cities as being “all about difficulty“: about the necessity of negotiating various waits, complaints and fears. Must we accept this, though? Is there anything that can be done about it? Many, many services attempt to address these concerns and inconveniences. Two in particular, New York City’s 311 gateway to non-emergency services and, in the UK, mySociety‘s awesome FixMyStreet, provide good reference points for what I call frameworks for citizen responsiveness. The common essence of both 311 and FixMyStreet is that some issue — say, a pothole, broken street sign or open fire hydrant — is identified by a member of the public and is then raised to the attention of whatever municipal authority is empowered to respond to it. Such frameworks hint at the possibility of a major shift not only in how we design the ways citizens call out trouble spots in the urban landscape, but how we design for the performance of that landscape itself.

311 provides an online point of entry, but its primary form of engagement is a phone call between a citizen with a question and an operator able to point her towards the proper resource or department. But once this connection is made, the caller is deposited right back into the big-city bureaucracy. Similar things are true of FixMyStreet, which collects issues on its users’ behalf and then forwards the aggregated complaints to the relevant department of government.

How might we close the loop? How could we arrange things so that the originator, other members of the public, the city bureaucracy itself and other interested parties are all notified that an issue has been identified and is being dealt with? How might we identify the specific individuals or teams tasked with responding to the issue, allow people to track the status of issues they’re reported, and ensure that observed best practices and lessons learned are gathered in a resolution database?


Van Dyke

This street sign is broken. Who you gonna call? Photo: flickr user bondidwhat.

We can begin to treat urban environments as system resources, rather than a mute collection of disarticulated buildings, vehicles, sewers and sidewalks.

Technology entrepreneur Jyri Engeström has suggested stealing a page from the practice of software development as a way of addressing shared problem spaces more generally. This got me thinking about an issue-tracking board for cities – in which each complaint receives a unique identifier, a space to characterize it more fully, and the name of the party responsible for addressing it.

This kind of urban issue-tracking board would have to be visual and Web-friendly, simultaneously citizen-facing and bureaucracy-facing. The issue-tracking board would provide citizens with a variety of congenial ways to initiate trouble tickets, whether they’re most comfortable using the phone, a mobile application or website, or a text message. It would display currently open cases, and gather resolved tickets in a permanent archive or resource. It would use an algorithm to assign priority to open issues on a three-axis metric:

(a) Scale. How many people are affected by the issue? Does this concern just me, me and my immediate neighbors, our whole block, the neighborhood, or the entire city?
(b) Severity. How serious is the issue? In descending order, will it result in imminent loss of life, injury or the destruction of property? Is this, rather, an aesthetic hazard, or even simply a suggestion for improvement?
(c) Urgency. How long has the tag been open?

Because a great many urban issues are going to crop up repeatedly, perhaps it would offer the kinds of tools content-management software for discussion sites has had to evolve over the years: ways to moderate tickets up or down, or mark their resolution as particularly impactful.

Then, of course, it would apply the usual variety of visualizations to the live data, allowing patterns to jump right out. Which city department has the best record for closing out tickets most quickly, and with the highest approval rating? What kind of issues generally take longest to address to everyone’s satisfaction?



Don’t Walk. Until I’m fixed. Photo: Ingrid Krichter.

As I see it, a contemporary framework for citizen responsiveness suited for big cities would offer most if not all of the following features:

– Two aspects of 311, an easy-to-memorize universal point of entry and a catching mechanism of empowered human operators lying just behind it
– A useful spread of other points of access, including desktop and mobile applications
– The kind of location-specific overview provided by services like Everyblock, with maps as one obvious and logical way in
– An appropriate prioritization algorithm
– Moderation tools
– The accountability, transparency and ticking clock-to-resolution offered by an open-ticket system
– A persistent archive of resolved issues
– Top-notch graphic design, capable of holding its own with best contemporary Web practice
– A layer of data analytics and visualization


Cobblestones - emmapulido

“We could quite literally assign every cobblestone, traffic light and street sign on the planet a few million addresses.” Photo: Emma Pulido.

Beyond Trouble Tickets, Towards Public Objects
No issue-tracking system, even the best-designed and most cleverly devised, is going to quash the frustrations of city life completely. I believe, though, that the system I sketch out here would give cities a supple and relatively low-cost way to close the loop between Jacobian “eyes on the street,” and the agencies that serve and are fully empowered to respond to them. What I’ve described here is, if nothing else, a way to harness the experience and rich local expertise of ordinary citizens.

But what if we took a single step further out? What if we imagined that the citizen-responsiveness system we’ve designed lives in a dense mesh of active, communicating public objects? Then the framework we’ve already deployed becomes something very different. To use another metaphor from the world of information technology, it begins to look a whole lot like an operating system for cities.

Then we can begin to treat the things we encounter in urban environments as system resources, rather than a mute collection of disarticulated buildings, vehicles, sewers and sidewalks. One prospect that seems fairly straightforward is letting these resources report on their own status. Information about failures would propagate not merely to other objects on the network but reach you and me as well, in terms we can relate to, via the provisions we’ve made for issue-tracking.

And because our own human senses are still so much better at spotting emergent situations than their machinic counterparts, and will probably be for quite some time yet to come, there’s no reason to leave this all up to automation. The interface would have to be thoughtfully and carefully designed to account for the inevitable bored teenagers, drunks, and randomly questing fingers of four-year-olds, but what I have in mind is something like, “Tap here to report a problem with this bus shelter.”


Bus shelter - Ralph Hockens

“Tap here to report a problem with this bus shelter.” Photo: Ralph Hockens.

In order for anything like this scheme to work, public objects would need to have a few core qualities, qualities I’ve often described as addressability, queryability and even potential scriptability. What does this mean?

– Addressability. In order to bring urban environments fully into the networked fold, we would first need to endow each of the discrete things we’ve defined as public objects with its own unique identifier, or address. It’s an ideal application for IPv6, the next-generation Internet Protocol, which I described in Everyware as opening up truly abyssal reaches of address space. Despite the necessity of reserving nigh-endless blocks of potentially valid addresses for housekeeping, IPv6 still offers us a ludicrous freedom in this regard; we could quite literally assign every cobblestone, traffic light and street sign on the planet a few million addresses.

– Queryability. Once you’ve got some method of reliably identifying things and distinguishing them from others, a sensitively-designed API allows us to pull information off of them in a meaningful, structured way, either making use of that information ourselves or passing it on to other systems and services.

We’ve so far confined our discussion to things in the public domain, but by defining open interoperability standards (and mandating the creation of a critical mass of compliant objects), the hope is that people will add resources they own and control to the network, too. This would offer incredibly finely-grained, near-realtime reads on the state of a city and the events unfolding there. Not merely, in other words, to report that this restaurant is open, but which seats at which tables are occupied, and for how long this has been the case; not merely where a private vehicle charging station is, but how long the current waits are.

Mark my words: given only the proper tools, and especially a well-designed software development kit, people will build the most incredible ecology of bespoke services on data like this. If you’re impressed by the sudden blossoming of iPhone apps, wait until you see what people come up with when they can query stadium parking lots and weather stations and bike racks and reservoir levels and wait times at the TKTS stand. You get the idea. (Some of these tools already exist: take a look at Pachube, for example.)

– And finally scriptability, by which I mean the ability to push instructions back to connected resources. This is obviously a delicate matter: depending on the object in question, it’s not always going to be appropriate or desirable to offer open scriptability. You probably want to give emergency-services vehicles the ability to override traffic signals, in other words, but not the spotty kid in the souped-up WRX. It’s also undeniable that connecting pieces of critical infrastructure to an open network increases the system’s overall vulnerability — what hackers call its “attack surface” — many, many times. If every exit is an entrance somewhere else, every aperture through which the network speaks itself is also a way in.


Bus stop in Astoria - Nino Modugno

“What’s a public object? A sidewalk. A building facade. A parking meter. Any discrete object in the common spatial domain, intended for the use and enjoyment of the general public… which is de facto shared by and accessible to the public, regardless of its ownership or original intention.” Photo: Nino Modugno.

We should all be very clear, right up front, that this poses a nontrivial risk: cyber-sabotage, casual vandalism, the risk of cascading failures. But as my architect friends say, this is above all something that must be “verified in field,” validated empirically and held up to the most rigorous standards.

What do we get in return for embracing this nontrivial risk? We get a supple, adaptive interface to the urban fabric itself, something that allows us not just to nail down problems, but to identify and exploit opportunities. Armed with that, I can see no upward limit on how creative, vibrant, imaginative and productive twenty-first century urban life can be, even under the horrendous constraints I believe we’re going to face, and are perhaps already beginning to get a taste of.

Stolidly useful, “sustainable,” justifiable on the most gimlet-eyed considerations of return on investment, environmental benefit and total Cost of ownership? Sure. But I think we should be buckling ourselves in, because first and foremost, read/write urbanism is going to be a blast.

This essay is adapted from two posts that appeared previously on Greenfield’s blog Speedbird. Read the originals here and here.

Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware and the forthcoming The City Is Here For You To Use, is managing director of Urbanscale LLC, an urban systems design practice. He lives in New York.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Fred Scharmen July 7, 2010

This is an outline for a very interesting set of proposals, Adam.

I can’t help but think that there’s another outside context here: the social, political and economic factors. I understand that you’re deliberately limiting the scope of the system as sketched, but it’s worth examining the underlying assumption: that all problems have (before the application of the 3-axis multipliers; scale, severity, and urgency) the same priority, and that city agencies would want to fix all problems in the first place.

This is not to argue that an operating system like this one misses some kind of unquantifiable set of “realities on the ground”, more so to say that issues like budgeting, political will, long term development strategies, and selective enforcement as carrot/stick are all at play from the start.

What I’m trying to suggest here is that there is no pre-existing neutrality or vacancy with regards to these ‘public objects’, they are already used (and contested) instrumentally by city councils, development agencies, community groups, and simple constituents. Adding a new layer of inputs and outputs to this already contested field will surely make things more interesting, in ways that few can predict, and it will surely be resisted by those who already adept at a very different kind of read/write urbanism.

AG July 7, 2010

You know I agree with you, Fred. All of the points you raise are more than valid, and I acknowledge them severally and collectively.

The risk I take in even pushing this piece out onto the board is opening myself up to accusations of naiveté, techno-determinism, techno-utopianism…you name it, really. In the end, though, my concern is with citizen agency (and just as importantly, perceived agency), and I really do believe that a framework such as the one sketched out here would enhance same *if designed correctly*.

This is obviously a rich design challenge — certainly rich enough to absorb my own efforts over the next several years. If my gut is right, we will have offered people a fundamentally new way to engage and co-author the environment they inhabit, and at the very least we will have made things a little less predictable.

Fred Scharmen July 7, 2010

I’m with you, here and elsewhere, I know it’s a theme of yours that the tools exist, and must be picked up and used, not in spite of, but because of, the danger that they will be picked up by someone else.

I’m just thinking out loud about it now, because it’s something I’ve come back to again and again, that the (apparently broken) state of things exists for a reason. That it is, in fact, a product of some deranged style of design …

You just have to get an evil grin when you think about the disruptive power of new agencies and affordances, because yeah, things will get a little more unpredictable; especially when words like *transparency* are used to trojan-horse the technology into the existing game: “What’s the matter, DOT, aren’t you interested in *transparency*?”

Enrique Ramirez July 7, 2010

A very compelling read. I have some questions, however.

What kind of urban subject are you talking about here? Exactly what kind of users are being considered in this scheme? You mention “ordinary citizens”? But is this really the case? Are you talking about programmers? iPhone/Android users? I think one of the many challenges that will be faced will be this: how can this be an *inclusive* model for citizen responsiveness? Until that is addressed, I think that this scheme reads more as system-oriented than citizen-oriented.

Also, what is it about this system that is specifically urban? Is this something that can be applied to non-urban situations? What about deploying such a system along offshore platforms or windmills out in the middle of the Øresund? Could a rancher can use a similar (if not identical) system to take stock of water-well levels, windspeed, location of cattle, etc.

And one more question: what do you mean by responsiveness? Is this a vision for better urban living? Does this create more responsible urban subjects, or a more responsive system? What is the price that non-participators have to pay for their inability or refusal to take part in such a scheme. Surely its graver than not having “fun.”

I know that you are only proposing a framework, and that you acknowledge that there are plenty of details to be fleshed out. But such questions remain nonetheless.

AG July 8, 2010

Fred, w/r/t the seemingly intractable brokenness of things, the framing I keep coming back to is Stafford Beer’s famous proposition that “the purpose of a system is what it does.”

Without wanting to endorse conspiracy theories or anything similar, I read this to mean that a system that provably generates undesirable outcomes and is allowed to persist in doing so over significant periods of time must also be working for someone (individual, institution, class or community) in some way.

This is the lens I’m looking through when I consider the state of neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Tenderloin, or the seeming inability of New York City-area transit agencies to propose thoughtfully-meshed regional transportation solutions. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything that can be “done” about it but painstaking institutional analysis and mapping of the relevant systemic flows, which might help pinpoint optimal points of leverage for those interested in change. And that is definitely something which I think frameworks like the one sketched here would address.

Enrique, also excellent points, as usual. Your point about the distinctive urbanity (or lack thereof) of frameworks like this is something I generally answer in two ways, hopefully neither of them too glib. My first observation is that you can deploy these *technologies* anywhere you please, whether that happens to be Mumbai or McMurdo Station, but that only in those dwelling places we recognize as “cities” will you get a sufficient density and velocity of inputs and outputs to animate a supple, living informational fabric. The other thing I’d point out is that, however clichéd it might already be to say so, humanity has become a decisively urban species. In the regime we now inhabit, and will certainly for the rest of our days, to address the urban is to address the human — and to a significant degree, vice versa.

As to just who the subject is that I’m imagining picking up these tools: it really is everyone. The design challenge inheres in developing tools that have sufficiently low barriers to entry that everyone feels comfortable using them, tools that don’t feel like “information technology.” Having watched a centenarian and a three-year-old (and, for that matter, a cat!) use iPads with ease and delight, I know this can be done; it’s just a matter of developing the appropriate interfaces, metaphors, conventions and linguistic cues. (I’m not suggesting this is at all trivial: look at the titanic problems Microsoft and Nokia have with this. But sufficiently skilled interface designers *can* do it.)

To your final question, my answer is “yes.” As I see it, this is both and simultaneously a tool for better governance and a stage set for permanent ludic urbanism — again, hopefully designed in such a way that it excludes no one who does not by choice want to be excluded, but is rather a utility that is there to serve a boundless multiplicity of individual ends, just like the power or the water. You do with and make of it what thou wilt. The city is here for you to use.

Weeels July 9, 2010

Great piece Adam. I think our mobile cab sharing application, Weeels, fits right in with treating the things and contexts we encounter in city life as usable system resources to modified and built upon in new ways. You can check out our own blog ( and also a recent piece about the project in the Huffington Post that addresses the issues of social and political will for change that you raise here too (


Team Weeels

omnivore July 10, 2010


I sent an email to what I believe is your address, but in case you’re watching the comments here and it didn’t get through:

urbanistica is my startup – we’re moving to our first round of VC, after bootstrapping and some angel help, and we’re very involved in this space. Our approach shares several features with what you’re suggesting, including a map-based system of areas that act as broadcast and catchment areas for messages. These areas are the addressable, queryable objects you’re talking about, and as objects can have other qualities that address some of what you put into the “scriptable” category: ie as objects they can be subclassed and given new characteristics that build on basic qualities. For instance, an area that is created when someone reports a problem is created as a class that always knows to look at areas that overlap it, or locations that are defined inside of it, to see if they are new reports of what might be the same issue.

Someone reporting a pothole sends a message, and our system can create an area surrounding the reported location that defines the area most affected by the pothole. If another report of a pothole comes in, that object tries to disambiguate the status of this new report. The same idea can be applied to epidemiological problems – a person has yellow fever here, the area created around it can watch for new reports of yellow fever, and help decide when certain critical mass of reports constitutes as different level of public health response.

Anyway, i’d love to talk about it all. Drop me a line at the email supplied if you’ve got time.

Dan Donaldson, Urbanistica

AG July 14, 2010

This is you, Dan?

Leni Schwendinger July 14, 2010

Great photos – interesting that 4 out of 5 are during nighttime or dusk and three out of five display “found lighting” – the vernacular is powerful. Please refer to

Kurt July 23, 2010

Interesting post and discussion. I know I’m late on this conversation, but … what is the potential for these systems to actually incorporate some of the political questions about urban governance that Fred raises above? In other words, could systems be designed that not only allow citizens to report potholes, but also facilitate discussions/debates among citizens about which reported incidents should be prioritised?

There’s a kind of precedent here with what the City of Bristol is now doing with regards to graffiti removal from its property. Citizens are invited to report graffiti … but the Council has gone one step further, and citizens are also asked to vote on whether graffiti should be preserved if it’s any good. Here, citizen involvement is not only a matter of sensing and reporting, but also arguing over priorities, aesthetics etc.