Reports & Briefs

Platforms & Publishers

Reports & Briefs

Tow/Knight Projects

Report: The Responsive Cities Initiative

Project Leader:


Executive Summary


Over the last few months, the Responsive Cities Initiative convened three workshops supported by a planning grant from the Ford Foundation and hosted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. The workshops gathered leading thinkers with the aim of answering the following question: What could a university center do to advance policymaking and planning for fiber-optic networks that provide everyone in the United States with high-speed Internet access and (a) improve local governance and (b) support civic journalism? We invited leading U.S. fiber builders, city officials, and civic journalists to the first two sessions and hosted a large group of Danish utility fiber companies and lawmakers at the third. This paper presents our findings.

We held these meetings at an opportune time. Fiber connectivity to the Internet is now becoming the global standard. Demand for “gig cities” (or those equipped with fiber-optic Internet connections to homes and businesses that can transfer at least a billion bits of data per second) is growing in America and elsewhere. As a nation, however, our percentage of fiber connections as part of our overall high-speed Internet access is low, as compared to some other developed nations. Now is the time to invest in America’s communications infrastructure. Interest rates are at historic lows, many Americans would welcome the construction jobs created by a large-scale upgrade to fiber, and the ambitious plans that many cities have to use data to be responsive to their citizens’ needs depend on fiber being in place. Finally, a fiber upgrade could further promote the role of media in public life. Just as the advent of television and radio were occasions for reflection on how a healthy media ecosystem is sustained, so too might we begin thinking now about how best to support the role of journalism in an age of unlimited communications capacity.

At the same time, many voices—for many reasons—oppose plans to build or ensure the availability of fiber connectivity. States and cities feel cash-strapped, oppressed by soaring pensions, employee health care costs, and deferred maintenance costs that far exceed revenue growth. Income and wealth inequality is growing, making access “for everyone” sound quaint and impossible. As one RCI attendee said about libraries and postal services, “If you were to introduce these ideas now in 2014 and there had never been a library or postal service before, you’d be called totally crazy. We’re just going to socialize the collection of stuff and people can just pick it up for free?” Even some civic technologists (those interested in using data to govern more effectively and collaboratively) are not convinced that fiber is essential.

Meanwhile, incumbent cable providers and wireless companies are more than happy with the status quo and have historically carried out prolonged and difficult fights over city-initiated fiber projects. For data connections over 25 megabits per second (Mbps), more than three-quarters of Americans have just one choice—their local cable monopoly. Cable companies’ control of key sports and other programming further raises the barriers to entry for new fiber competitors. Data about the effects of fiber installations on particular communities, economic and otherwise, is scarce.

Given these constraints and barriers, the long-term planning required for universal fiber access is difficult to accomplish. Perhaps a university could help.

RCI brought in two sets of stakeholders that had not previously been focused on how fiber connectivity could support their initiatives: the “civic data” movement (both inside and outside city halls in the United States) and journalists. Increasingly customer-centric cities will be grappling with huge amounts of data stemming from sensors, outside databases, and data coming from inside existing city functions that, when understood, could be used to improve the effectiveness of government and empower public employees to act with discretion and professionalism. (Professor Crawford’s recent book, The Responsive City, with co-author Stephen Goldsmith, focuses on the intersections between data and governance.)

Right now, though, many cities can’t use this vast trove of data because they can’t put it through their pipes. Even though cities today imagine using data scientists, algorithms, and visualizations galore, the necessary transport infrastructure for this work is often nonexistent. As one former public employee put it during one of the workshops, “The reality is there’s very big data out there, right? And we need to start harnessing that. We’ve solved the idea of platforms and Hadoop and MongoDB and all that, but we don’t have the way to transport it.”

Similarly, few data journalists have engaged with the policy questions involved in getting fiber into cities, nor may they have considered how an upgrade to fiber could be an opportunity for supporting local journalistic functions.

These meetings were a revelation for many attendees. Few had considered the crosscurrents among these disciplines. Many could imagine fruitful engagements and research projects that a university could facilitate. The confluence of civic tech, journalism, and infrastructure studies can happen only at an academic center that pulls together public policy, law, design, urban planning, and other disciplines—and can harness the energy of undergraduates who want to change the world.

It can be difficult to appreciate radical change when you are in the middle of it, but many RCI participants agreed that we have arrived at a tipping point for life in cities. As computation becomes much faster and storage becomes vanishingly cheap, the addition of unlimited communications capacity could prompt a phase change in urban life.

We emerged with four broad areas in need of further investigation:

  1. Trust and privacy: Cities must focus on citizens’ concerns about privacy and security. Without trust between city governments and citizens in place, many of the exciting developments becoming possible with unlimited communications capacity and data will be threatened. A university could be helpful in pulling together research, convening conferences, and otherwise making progress on these thorny issues—with collaboration from public employees and journalists.
  2. Fiber network best practices and needed policies: Although ad hoc case studies on city fiber networks are emerging, rigorous, hard-nosed explorations of different business models and replicable toolkits for making fiber decisions are scarce. A university could be a source of case studies and comparative data, as well as suggestions for future policy changes. For example, it could help to:
    1. Demonstrate the private and public investment case for fiber using detailed case studies.
    2. Forecast outcomes of planned or proposed policy changes. For example, constraints on the availability of programming (e.g., sports) continue to raise barriers to entry for competing fiber networks. How would unbundling affect the content marketplace?
    3. Serve as a repository for helpful documentation, including pole and conduit policy best practices, ordinances cutting back on the power of landlords to interfere with residential/business choices of fiber providers, and municipal fiber funding models.
    4. Help cities (e.g., members of Next Century Cities) communicate more effectively with ordinary citizens about fiber.
    5. Promote giga-tourism by assisting public officials, libraries, and journalism schools in existing gig cities to attract conferences, conventions, hackathons, and other meetings to their cities. These initiatives would enhance public and government awareness of the “Internet dividend” and build support for new revenue sources for local journalism.
    6. Demonstrate a successful collaboration between municipal fiber and local journalism as a powerful signal. Cities with gigabit networks could work with community journalists to develop projects that show how fiber can support a rich local news environment. Such evidence would ensure that journalism is part of the conversation about the benefits of fiber across the United States.
    7. Demonstrate similarly successful collaborations between local government and civic technologists that depend on the the presence of fiber connections.
  3. Research on spillovers: Research about the economic, cultural, and social benefits of fiber networks is thin. Although fiber enthusiasts may believe that the social benefits and other spillovers of fiber far exceed their social costs, not everyone is on board. A university research function could be useful in connecting students and professors to data and prompting publication of studies examining these hard questions, particularly in these sample areas:
    1. Healthcare. A research project investigating not only how high-capacity fiber could be used but also the possible savings associated with it might convince the healthcare insurance industry of the economic efficiency of supporting high-speed connectivity; insurance companies might become a major source of funding. In this example, the healthcare industry could act as a catalyst, prompting other industries to see what is possible with fiber.
    2. Civic technology. A research center could investigate the intersections among traditional city infrastructure (water, sewage, power) and fiber-connected sensor networks, closely examining expenditures, cost savings, and policy shifts associated with the move to fiber.
    3. Journalism. A research center is the ideal locale for facilitating pilots between journalists and local government by identifying areas of mutual interest. Journalists could effectively translate government data (including streamed video) to inform and involve citizens. On a more intimate scale, this could facilitate storefront, local accountability journalism based on information from hearings and other public meetings.
    4. Infrastructure. A research center has the resources to identify and convene a stable of young economists who are interested in building their careers in infrastructure economics.
  4. Pipeline: It is crucial to build a network of students who want to serve in local government and understand the importance of high-capacity networks in policymaking and urban life. A university center could:
    1. Create supervised work opportunities focused on data-driven innovation and planning inside city hall for students, both undergraduate and graduate.
    2. Convene conferences about privacy, case studies, and spillovers that students and staff run, making students responsible for follow-up and publications; and support Media Lab-like experimentation in connection with the hard, fiber-related problems civic tech and journalism face.


Read the full report here or download a PDF

April 27, 2015