Boston and Other “Digital Cities” Visit Internet Week New York

5/21/13Follow @jpruth

A bit of friendly rivalry is healthy for cities with growing technology ecosystems, but sometimes they set aside the hype and find ways to collaborate. At the onset of this week’s Internet Week New York citywide festivities, representatives from 11 cities from the U.S. and beyond spoke about how their administrations are leverage technology to modernize their cities.

Rachel Sterne Haot, chief digital officer in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, introduced representatives who traveled from as far as Beijing, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro to share their stories on stage at Internet Week NY. She pointed out that New York had developed a map that shows the more than 2,000 tech companies across the city, which can be found at WeAreMadeinNY.com along with other information about the local innovation community.

Boston’s Nigel Jacob, co-chair of New Urban Mechanics, came out as well to talk about how his city is putting technology to work, literally, in the streets. A mobile app called Street Bump, he says, is in the works to alert the city to roads that need repairs. Street Bump is expected to have its public launch by the end of summer, he says. New Urban Mechanics looks for ways to marry technology with civic needs on behalf of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration.

After addressing the Internet Week NY audience at the Metropolitan Pavilion, Jacob spoke to me about ways the city is working even more with innovators. In addition to putting public data in tech companies’ hands to create apps that improve city life, he sees more cities interested in working with startups and researchers to make the barriers between public and private institutions more porous.

Boston also plans to launch a civic reputation API (application programming interface) system, Jacob says, called Street Cred. Many civic-oriented apps, he says, tend to be rather siloed, but Street Cred, which is expected to have its beta test in June, is aimed at being more pervasive. “We’re interested in finding ways to connect experiences so individuals and the community can get a sense of what people are doing and how any one particular behavior translates into broader impact,” he says.

Jacob also sees more openness among urban hubs where technology is blooming. “There is a whole new willingness for cities to talk directly to each other,” he says. Representatives from Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco—many of whom came to Internet Week NY—speak to each other every other week, he says, and discuss collaborative projects. “We’re doing one with New York on mining social media data for the public good,” Jacob says.

Rachel Sterne Haot, chief digital officer to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, introducing her counterparts.

Other cities are also eager to make technology more accessible to their citizens—hoping it will nurture innovation. John Tolva, chief technology officer for Chicago, said his city wants to establish a high speed broadband network especially for those who cannot afford it on their own. “For a small business to have gigabit connectivity, it’s between $3,000 and $5,000 a month,” he said. Large businesses might be able to shoulder such a bill, Tolva said, but limited access to such systems can stymie entrepreneurs and startups with new ideas. “We won’t have the next generation of apps and businesses on very high-speed networks if we don’t bring that [cost] down,” he said. Part of Chicago’s plan includes using existing infrastructure such as dark fiber, rooftops, and light poles to build out the network, he said.

Haot put into perspective why it is important for tech hubs to find ways to share ideas as much as they compete. “The success of each individual city is dependent on all of our progress,” she said. “We’re an interconnected world enabled by the Internet.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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