Fortune magazine has posted the latest piece branding our region a SoCal version of Silicon Valley. Trading on that genuine article’s well-earned reputation for bootstrapped innovation, the ‘Silicon Beach’ concept summons our history of space-age imagination while edging into the glow thrown off by the Bay Area cauldron. Beverly Hills wants some of that new-economy gloss too, of course. We call ourselves the ‘smart city’ after all. But are we really a player in the Southern California technology economy? Are we as smart as we think we are?
Yes, we fancy ours a ‘smart city.’ We’ve got ‘flex-pay’ parking meters, online utility bill and parking ticket payment, ‘smart irrigation controllers,’ and our favorite bids for smart city status, iPhone apps like the ‘Ask Bev’ online reporting tool (aka “a high-tech citizen request system”). Over the past few years, City Council has also backed creation of an ‘E-Gov portal’ and implemented ‘smart traffic management.’ We’ve experimented with an “expansion of wired and wireless networks” and even flirted with laying broadband fiber.
All of it came under the umbrella of this high-technology priority*:
Expand the use of technology to improve efficiency in all initiatives including communications infrastructure and safety programs. (Priorities 2011-12 & 2012-13)
These ‘smart city’ initiatives have been ongoing for nearly ten years, but have they delivered on the promise of a smarter city?
The Visionary City?
We like to talk about ‘vision’ here in Beverly Hills. But our vision is relatively short-sighted. We’ve not gazed to the horizon of possibilities but instead focused on what we can get done today, before the staffers head back to the suburbs. Let’s take a look at some ambitious initiatives that really didn’t meet the vision.
We’ll start with fiber. City Council has talked about bringing fiber broadband to the masses for years. Indeed it is all the rage because cities from Santa Monica to Chattanooga find some competitive advantage (lower costs, freedom from proprietary control) in providing municipally-owned broadband services.
But our city has taken no step toward fulfilling the promise of broadband via fiber. Even our brief flirtation with outsourcing fiber broadband to Google fizzled, leaving our ‘smart city’ committee wishing we could catch up to the likes of Chattanooga.
While we gave up on fiber rollout, what about municipal Wifi? We have only a very limited public network according to the city’s map:
The larger map shows the only hotspot in the hot South Beverly Drive area while the inset map shows hypothetical coverage, which should – but doesn’t – extend through the 200 block.
If there’s anything that today’s tech-minded folks for granted it is the omnipresence of WiFi. But Beverly Hills does not deliver on this crucial leading-edge pubic infrastructure. Our system hardly covers the entirety of the business triangle, much less service the commercial districts beyond. Even for these relatively few hotspots the connectivity isn’t very good. Let’s just say that our system is no threat to Time Warner.
What about E-Government? To civic engagement folks it’s a precondition for governing in the 21st century. But real ‘E-Gov’ (as we say) doesn’t play much of a role in governing in Beverly Hills. We’re an old-school institution that doesn’t even count online as a designated posting place for public meeting agendas. (Check the bulletin board at the library, staff say, when we point out that some or other meeting wasn’t even noticed on the city’s website.)
And the initiatives that we have put in place simply tinker at the margin. We’ve got the online bill pay, sure, and our ‘Government Efficiency 2.0′ effort “streamlines” development by allowing us to pull development permits remotely. But these are transactional tools. What about real public engagement?
Consider the city’s website. It should be our gateway to E-Government. But our site lags far behind other cities in design and functionality. (It was beyond its shelf-life even years ago when it was last upgraded.) Check out these nested menus!
And while we hear about City Hall efforts like “electronic presentation of agenda materials,” the truth is that we still like our paper: just last month a city committee elected to keep receiving the thick paper packets. Moreover, the electronic agenda materials that are posted online are often PDFs scanned from paper documents anyway (rather than generated from native files) and they are sometimes are not searchable because there’s no OCR layer.
Other city efforts we see as distinctly small-ball too. Our so-called ‘smart traffic management’ scheme? Council priorities perfunctorily touch on “demand/flow models or other tools” but what does that mean in practice? Evidently not much: vehicular congestion is as bad as ever. Heck, the city has not even re-striped faded pavement markings, and those are the foundation of traffic control. When was the last time you saw a newly-repainted lane marker or crosswalk in Beverly Hills?
Mobile is very hot these days, of course. Some cities use mobile apps to engage the citizenry and encourage participation. But the city falls short of a ‘smart city’ promise here too. Our explorer-type Mobile Beverly Hills app feels like a proof of concept: it is slow, buggy and the listings are incomplete (none of the city’s smaller parks are listed for example). It hasn’t made much progress since we first reviewed it in 2012. Some cities have found mobile apps to be a valuable means of helping people report problems (potholes, etc.) but our own Ask Bev Mobile requires password sign-in every time you open it. That’s sure to dissuade reporting.
Worst, neither app has been updated in the last 18 months; and neither is tuned to take advantage of the newest iPhone operating system (iOS 8). When the apps were announced, though, there was ‘smart city’ promise wafting through the air!
What a Real ‘Smart City’ Should Do
We see thoughtful civic innovations like ‘open data‘ rolled out in other cities. We should copy their lead. Open data, a tech movement that has revolutionized the way some local governments keep the public informed, make public information more, well, public. Crime data helps everyone better understand the safety of the environment in which we live and work, for example. But it also informs City Hall by providing fodder for tinkerers who want to put the voluminous information we collect to use. Armchair analysts come up with new ways of looking at urban problems that were likely never envisioned by staffers.
Citizen analysts sift the policing data to examine the effectiveness of police resources management, for example; or use it to surface social factors that affect public safety. In that same vein we see ‘hackathons’ wherein open data evangelists come together to incubate civic projects. City of Santa Monica does it:
From the event announcement:
You are invited to join us as we make available new real-time data for Big Blue Bus scheduling (GTFS-rt), real-time on-street and lot parking, Fire Department Calls for Service, and citywide water usage data. During the meetup, you will be provided with the opportunity to learn about all aspects of the City’s open data program, including providing input to help shape future events.
Why isn’t there a place for open data and hackathons in Beverly Hills? Well, for one thing our departments make very few datasets public. Maybe you want to use budget data to illustrate change in departments’ funding or staffing over time. How would you do it? Today you would scrape annual budget reports (PDFs) to get those numbers because the structured finance data isn’t available. Though we boast about our ‘transparent’ budgeting process, the city has never even posted its final FY 2014-15 operations budget, so you’d have to request it.
The data that we’d most like a crack at working with is BHPD crash data. As Beverly Hills-based bike advocate, Better Bike would map bike-related injuries and analyze the factors that contributed to them. But the police won’t release collision information to the public; they also claim there’s no automated way to even search it by criterion.
The police department does tally crash injuries monthly for our Traffic and Parking Commission, but city analysts don’t chart the data so policymakers have no idea how injury rates are trending.
Turns out they’re trending mostly upward. We scraped the data from seven years of department reports and plugged them into a spreadsheet. And we found pretty much zero progress over time in reducing the number of crash injuries. Worse, bike injuries, in fact, are way up since 2008. We presented these general findings to our Traffic and Parking commissioners (who likely had no idea about those trends) and received a polite ‘thank you’ but no follow up for our charts. Imagine what we could do with data on crash locations!
The city’s water tracker is fine for checking your own wastage, but not much help in shaming your neighbors.
But wait, there’s more we would like to do. We want to take a crack at displaying water consumption data by household to map the biggest water wasters. We would also assess its consumption pattern over time. But Beverly Hills City Hall isn’t interested in these measures. For good reason, the data searched through the ‘water tracker’ tool is available only to an account holder. So there is no bigger picture of consumption that any of us can piece together.
If we’d had that data years ago we could have charted the trends to guess how little progress the city would make on conservation. And maybe saved the effort of regular exhortations and instead moved right to sanctions.
City of Santa Monica is making their water usage data open and available to the public for civic hackers and whomever. Why not Beverly Hills?
Will We Ever Become a Technophile’s City?
Few startups will form here and few established firms will see an incentive to relocate if they don’t regard Beverly Hills as leading-edge or even competitive with other areas in the realm of technology and innovation. Just check out Fortune’s ‘Technologist’s Guide‘ map. We see branch offices of the best-known technology firms – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook – and high-flying app-makers like Snapchat, Tinder and even Whisper. Where is Beverly Hills represented here?
Fortune Magazine maps plenty of tech action, but none of it is happening in Beverly Hills.
Of course it’s not. We have no major tech firms here except an outlier: a small frontier outpost of YouTube. We’d like some of that tech gloss to be sure, but let’s face that we’re just not that hip to tech folks. We’re so ‘old economy,’ in fact, that our budget is practically shackled to industries like retailing, hospitality, and medical, law and finance. Tourism and commerce run this city.
Even if we don’t suck in the smarts, boy do we attract the capital! Fortune notes that Beverly Hills is a bedroom community of choice for the richest of the ‘Silicon’ elite. Jeff Bezos paid $24 million for his home here. Minecraft’s founder bought a $70 million spread. Irrational exuberance has evidently been great for our real estate sellers and city coffers, but we aren’t seeing the trickle-down in tech jobs and knowledge workers. Capital just doesn’t lend the same glow as a critical mass of technologists. It smells alright, but it doesn’t have the same luster.
Will Beverly Hills bask in the glow of the tech economy? Or are we consigned to be the bedroom community for elite who prefer to work in Santa Monica and Los Angeles? Those cities are investing in broadband fiber and WiFi networks as well as life-enhancing safe-streets and alternative modes of transportation because it appeals to today’s techies. Will we ever roll out those innovations here? Bike lanes and the like?
That’s the only way we’ll drag our city into the 21st century. Living up to our self-assigned reputation will take a much more visionary City Council than we have today.
*Notably, Beverly Hills has delivered another kind of ‘smart city’ too: we’ve installed an extensive system of automated license plate readers (currently a focus of ACLU lawyers nationwide) and CCTV cameras that capture our every move. These aren’t delivering increased governmental efficiency and better public communications; today’s ‘smart city’ has a darker side too.