Economist 3/28/15

  1. CityScore, launched last October, reflects a growing trend among city governments in America. Led by Boston, Chicago and New York, they have started to use the ever-increasing amounts of data they collect to improve planning, offer better services and engage citizens.It combines 24 different metrics, from crime to Wi-Fi availability, energy consumption and grants for the arts. A value above 1 means that things are going better than planned.In some ways Boston has been a digital pioneer. In 2006 the previous mayor, Tom Menino, hired the city’s first cabinet-level chief information officer. He was behind the launch of an app called “Citizen Connect” which made it easy for people to report problems, for instance by taking a picture of graffiti.However, this sort of thing is not going to make much difference if the bureaucratic structure of city governments remains the same. Most are collections of departmental silos that do not communicate much with each other, held together by complex hierarchies and rules.
  2. Yet the biggest change will be of another order: cities need to play a more active role as broker of urban data.Some cities are beginning to take on this role. An early example is Boston’s data-sharing partnership with Waze on reducing traffic congestion. In return for some of the service’s data, the city is giving it early warning of any planned road closures.In New York the Centre for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) has launched a project called “Quantified Communities” to work out how people could use data generated by increasing numbers of sensors in their neighbourhoods.Seattle, for its part, has discovered that citizens will insist on stringent protection of privacy. A few years ago it began using a wireless police network that could track smartphones, along with automatic licence-plate readers. The programme was implemented without much public discussion or thought about how the data would be managed. That led to a backlash from residents and a hasty about-turn.The big political question is whether data will simply make city government more efficient—which in itself is a worthwhile goal—or whether they will also empower citizens.
  3. IT IS MORE than half a century old, but Mancur Olson’s book, “The Logic of Collective Action”, is still hugely influential. In a nutshell, the late economist argued that large groups of people will organise only if they have some particular incentive: many will simply “free-ride” on the efforts of others.One prominent attempt is a book called “The Logic of Connective Action”, by Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg. The authors contend that when people express views online, they do not need to be part of a formal organisation. By sharing links or posting comments, they are already engaging in political activity. But this diffuse political energy has to be bundled to become effective.None of this refutes Olson’s basic premise that people do not automatically collaborate, even if they have a common interest. But the internet makes such collaboration much easier.
  4. Data collected by Moviepilot suggest that since Batman first appeared in feature-length films 50 years ago, Mr Adam West has been the closest in physique to the Gotham crusader as specified in the comic books: 6’2″ (1.88m) tall, and weighing 210 pounds (95kg). Yet few would name Mr West’s portrayal as the best. It is hard not to scoff at his unflattering spandex getup (the moulded Batsuits were only introduced with Michael Keaton’s 1989 version).By contrast, the muscled-up Batman of the Christopher Nolan trilogy—played by Christian Balewas lauded by critics, despite being a little undersized.Mr Affleck is certainly physically impressive and achieves his goal of looking “like a superhero”, but lumbers around like a human bull in a Gotham china shop. In the past 50 years, Batman has foiled evil plots by using his brain as much, if not more than, his brawn.
  5. Political scientists have long pointed out that social media make it easier for interests to organise: they give voice and power to people who have neither.But research into another effect has only just begun: social media are also making politics and collective action more “chaotic”, argues a new book called “Political Turbulence”.Mobilisation often explodes, seemingly at random, according to the authors, most of whom work at the Oxford Internet Institute. Most online petitions, for instance, attract only a small number of supporters. Success does not depend on the subject matter—similar ones often fare quite differently—but the personality of potential participants. Extroverts, for instance, are more likely to act because they are sensitive to “social information”: seeing that others have already signed and knowing that their endorsement will be seen too. As a result, if a petition’s initial audience includes enough people with the right mindset, it can quickly take off

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