Internet of Things Op-Ed Smart Cities



The real question we ought to be asking is, how can we fix the DMCA to make the internet of things work for us instead of against us?

Congress has made a lot of mistakes governing the internet over the years. But the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), enacted in 1998, stands above the pack as one of the worst. The age of digital rights management (DRM) it made possible was bad enough in the realm of music and video media. But as manufacturers prepare to extend this regime to a world of connected things, we’re on the cusp of a colossal mistake.

This is, at least according to Cory Doctorow. Speaking at Personal Democracy Forum 2015 on Thursday, he criticized the extension of the “ink jet business model” to the internet of things. Do we really want to have to pay a subscription fee to the manufacturer of every connected device in our home to keep it from shutting down? Especially in a future where life as we know it might not be possible when connected systems fail to keep our homes, cars, and offices cooled, connected, safe, and clean.

Doctorow’s position draws much of its strength from the ethos of the maker movement—that such schemes result in products that are fundamentally “broken out of the box,” and only the valiant, repeated (and usually successful) efforts of hackers to jailbreak them can restore the balance of power between manufacturer and consumer.

Doctorow is fighting an important campaign. Even since I saw the DRM chair, a concept design created by some Swiss students in 2013 that would self-destruct after eight uses, I’ve worried about the coupling of smart infrastructure and these kinds of metering and access control systems.

But I think that things get murkier when the discussion turns to security. Doctorow launched into a scathing critique of the awful provisions of the DMCA that inhibit research on vulnerabilities in DRM schemes—it isn’t just a crime to distribute cracks to rights management encryption, it’s also a crime to distribute any information about potential vulnerabilities. These restrictions have created enormous obstacles to serious and valid academic research.

Now let’s map this over to the internet of things. Now I may be wrong, but it’s one thing for Disney and Sony to stop free culture hacktivists from cracking DVDs; it’s a whole other game if Siemens and GE are stopping engineering professors from exposing holes in the firewall on my power plant. Seeing this in the cards, earlier this year, Doctorow and the Electronic Frontier Foundation launched the Apollo 1201 project (after Section 1201 of the DMCA), which aims to “eradicate DRM everywhere.”

The problem though, is that the consequences of security flaws on the internet of things are much, much higher than anything we faced in the age of Napster. But there aren’t any truly viable schemes for securing the internet of things on the table yet. With a proliferating array of devices, tucked away in every corner of our pockets, our homes, and our cities, with firmware becoming obsolete at various rates, and being probed constantly by an unseen mass of miscreants around the world—even as they sense our most private activities and pull the levers on our most critical infrastructures—this is not something to be taken lightly. If DRM is a part of the toolkit that allows internet of things businesses to bring their products to market in a profitable and responsible manner, despite all of these challenges, we shouldn’t immediately throw out the baby with the bathwater because it didn’t work out the last time around.

No one likes the way DRM currently treats users when they try to
scrutinize and fix its security vulnerabilities—to essentially
consider you as much as an enemy as it would an actual intruder.

But my hunch is that the battle over when fighting DRM does and doesn’t make sense in the internet of things is going to be a lot more complicated than the picture Doctorow paints.

But simply extending the DMCA, crafted in the 1990s by media industry insiders, to the realm of connected objects makes no sense at all. The real question we ought to be asking is, how can we fix the DMCA to make the internet of things work for us instead of against us?

GovTech Smart Cities



What Works Cities will provide technical assistance and expertise to 100 mid-sized cities to help them develop solutions for their biggest challenges through their use of data and evidence.

This interview originally appeared on the Brookings Institution’s TechTank blog.

Cities are gaining momentum as incubators for innovation. There is much excitement about the idea of cities as “laboratories of democracy.” As a result, cities can learn best practices from one another. Sharing this information can build a strong foundation to amplify and encourage experimentation.

Recognizing the power of shared learning, Bloomberg Philanthropies, in partnership with The Behavioral Insights Team, Harvard Kennedy School, Johns Hopkins, Results for America, and the Sunlight Foundation, have recently launched an exciting initiative. What Works Cities is pledging $42 million to target 100 mid-sized cities, with populations between 100 thousand and 1 million, to help these localities develop solutions for their biggest challenges using evidence-based data.

I recently talked with Michele Jolin, CEO and co-founder of Results for America, who’s also the campaign manager for Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities effort. We discussed the opportunities and potential for this initiative:

What was the impetus for this initiative?

From many of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation initiatives, they learned that city leaders are hungry to do more and do better with data and evidence, but they often struggle to access the relevant tools, knowledge and expertise required for implementation. America’s mid-sized cities (100,000-1,000,000 citizens) typically have little support to help them enhance how they use data and evidence, but they are eager to learn from experts and from one another about how to be more efficient and effective. What Works Cities was created to respond to this need and to improve the ability of mayors and local leaders to deliver results for citizens.

How will the cities be chosen?

We are looking to partner with cities that represent a cross-section of the country, reflecting diverse geographies, demographics, and politics. We also hope to work with cities in various stages of implementing What Works strategies. Most importantly, we are looking to work with mayors and local leaders who are truly committed to enhancing how they can use data and evidence to make their government more effective, improve people’s lives and engage the public.

How can this approach ameliorate some of the current challenges of employing innovation?

There’s already a tremendous amount of forward motion in America’s cities to open up their data, use evidence to ensure services are continuously improving and facilitate innovation, while also enhancing government’s transparency and accountability to the public. This initiative was designed to put additional wind behind mayors’ backs and to define a new level of achievement for American city government. What Works Cities will demonstrate that when city governments across America use data and evidence to drive decisions and engage with citizens, they will achieve more for all their residents.

How do you envision training people who may be less familiar with technology?

Not surprisingly, the level of technological sophistication varies among city governments across the country. Where cities want to advance their knowledge and practice using technology, we will make available significant technological expertise from our partners. The Sunlight Foundation, for example, has extensive knowledge and experience in expanding open data policies to governments at all levels. And the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University has some of the leading minds in open data portals and performance management systems and is ready to work with cities interested in putting in place new systems or improving what they currently have in place. Cities have been partnering with their residents to use data to improve the delivery of services for themselves and their neighbors, and What Works Cities is there to help cities advance their practices and know-how, capitalizing on existing momentum

What does success look like?

At the end of three years, we hope to have accelerated the effective use of data and evidence in at least 100 cities, and supported Mayors in their efforts to get better results for all citizens. We also will point to examples of What Works strategies in cities all across the country, so that every Mayor will have examples and models that can be used for how to successfully use data and evidence to improve the lives of residents.

How can cities apply to be a What Works City?

Cities can find more information and apply for What Works Cities on our website. The first What Works Cities will be selected in mid-June based on applications received by June 1. However, cities will have multiple opportunities to apply over the course of the three-year initiative.

Civic Tech Smart Cities



Though much of our experience of civic tech to date has happened in the placeless plains of cyberspace, the next great frontier will be crafting the relationship between citizens and their connected urban habitats.

To kick off our coverage here at Civicist, we asked our contributing editors to share their thoughts on “What is civic tech?” We’ll publish their answers as they trickle in, and look forward to continuing the conversation in the weeks and months to come.

I recently spent my spring break devouring Red Plenty, Francis Spufford’s 2012 novel set in the 1950s Soviet Union. It is a tale of cybernetic utopia—the dawn of a might-have-been perfectly-planned industrial economy controlled by computers—where the physical world and the digital world are linked together in scientific synchrony. As I read, it became clear to me that the same trends will direct the future of the civic tech movement, bringing both a new scientific sensibility and a decidedly physical dimension to its computations.

Science has been a stranger to civic tech, despite its deep roots in human efforts to deal with the challenge of cities. Take the term “civic” itself. In civic tech, we use the contemporary meaning of “the rights and duties of citizens in relation to their community.” But in the late 19th century, the first urban planners used a different meaning as a call to arms. For them, “civics” described the application of new social science methods to the wicked problems of the industrial city. Civics was about better management, not mass indoctrination.

In the middle of the 20th century, the promise of digital computing breathed new life into these ambitions. Almost as soon people invented the idea of computers, they started fantasizing about using them to predict and control the behavior of society. Early theorists like Vannevar Bush, who oversaw the Manhattan Project, understood that these applications would in fact drive the evolution of the technology. As he wrote in 1945, at the dawn of the information age, “There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.”

Fast forward to the early 21st century and cities and computers are again evolving together. As the pace and scope of global urbanization accelerates, computing is moving off of our desktops and into the buildings, vehicles and streets around us. Though much of our experience of civic tech to date has happened in the placeless plains of cyberspace, the next great frontier lays in crafting the relationship between citizens and their connected neighborhoods. The social web of our cities is about to get plugged into the internet of urban things.

I’m not alone in my hope that new knowledge gained through science can help us build better cities. An archipelago of laboratories spanning the globe has spun up in the last decade, from Boston to Mumbai, to invent the technologies and do the research to understand how cities work, and how to get people to live safer, more productive, more sustainable lives in them. Their approach? Deeply quantitative and heavily computational investigations into the processes of how cities grow, thrive, stagnate, and decline in response to human actions. Behavioral science has made huge strides in public policy recent decades. But we haven’t seen anything yet.

Civic tech will indeed be transformed by the lessons of this new urban science. But it will also push back against its technocratic urges. Civic tech’s pioneers have figured out how to thrive on decentralized participation and collaboration, which will be key to understanding and innovating in a messy and fast-changing urban world. The Soviets tried to create a remote control for the entire industrial economy, to control all the factories from the Kremlin. The smart city’s scientists will need to learn to know when to loosen the reins. The civic tech movement will show them when and how.