Commentary: Students are a low-or-no-cost resource that can help cities solve problems and ignite efforts to make governments work more efficiently.
Cities today are being pulled in two different and contradictory directions: They’re being told to work smarter but to not spend any more taxpayer dollars doing it, a modern variation of the age-old paradox of “doing more with less.”
In response, cities are increasingly looking to federal grants — like the federal Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge — and other funding sources for help. But one, perhaps overlooked, resource cities can tap is its students: They are cheap (or free) labor, offer fresh perspectives, and can devote significant time, whether through a class, fellowship or thesis project, to evaluate an essential government service that otherwise would not be prioritized.
And the timing is right — we see students increasingly shifting their focus to the intersection of data analytics and government. In many ways, this can be traced to Healthcare.gov’s spectacular failure and the dream team of wunderkinds that the Obama administration brought in to help save it. This “geek squad” provided a band of big data superheroes for young civic-minded technologists to aspire to become. It also highlighted the impact that young people can have on government.
After Healthcare.gov was overhauled, many members of this small cadre of tech all-stars then stayed within government and helped to create programs like the U.S. Digital Service, General Services Administration's 18F tiger team, Presidential Innovation Fellows, and innovation labs, all of which are providing more opportunities for young people to have an impact in government and will be expanded if the Clinton campaign wins in November.
Finally, the explosive growth of massive open online courses (which doubled in users to 35 million in 2015, and didn’t even exist five years ago) means that eager and self-motivated nontraditional students are able to go online and take computer science or programming classes (which grew from 7 to 17 percent of all classes offered in just one year) for free. All of these trends point to one thing: Students now have more opportunities than ever to acquire and apply skills to help government in a meaningful way.
So how are students already helping government?
Some universities are incorporating it directly into their curriculum. For example, NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress requires students to complete an Urban Science Intensive, a two-semester project working with a city agency to address a current urban challenge. At other universities, student groups focused on urban systems, data analytics, Internet of Things, and civic engagement provide a bottom-up approach to create opportunities for students. Finally, some places are creating new employment opportunities, such as the recent announcement by the Harvard University Ash Center that it will provide yearlong fellowships for students to work in local government.
Working smarter means to “eat that frog,” or to do the most difficult task first. In most cases, such tasks involve updating legacy IT systems, reviewing outdated procedures, and changing the way things have always been done. Working smarter also means taking stock of the resources and partners that a city has and bringing existing data together to extract new information.
In this vein, cities are beginning to recognize the value of their unique city-owned assets — the thousands of miles of paved streets, light poles, bus stops, parking garages, street lights, phone booths, and sidewalks, to name a few. Together, these assets are the building blocks of the city and provide an opportunity for a positive interaction with its residents.
Some cities are already using data to capitalize on these assets. In Chicago, a group of Data Science for Social Good fellows from the University of Chicago brought together data about building records, census data and blood tests to identify the houses most at risk for lead contamination. In Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University is working with the Department of Public Works to optimize snow plow routes, to clear the streets of snow and return service as quickly as possible. There is one unifying resource that both of these cities have successfully tapped: students.
The idea of being “smart” is not about how many sensors are embedded in a city’s streets, it’s largely about how well a city uses its unique assets to build partnerships and “expand the pie” without spending more taxpayer dollars. Students, driven by a desire to work for a cause that they believe in, can play an important role in helping cities work smarter, helping to reimagine essential government services in the 21st century.