I wrote this paper in April, 2016 for a course titled: Smart Cities Context, Policy, and Government. The task was to define the "Smart City" and then assess a city of your choice based on this criteria.

From Chocolate City to Smart City?
An Assessment of Washington, DC as a Smart City

A Constellation of Computers

The term "smart city" is a bit anthropomophoric in nature, implying that the city is alive, thinking, and has a level of intelligence which can be deemed smart, or not smart. This is not too far from the current reality of cities, which have become a "constellation of computers," sensing, storing, and synthesizing data (Batty, 1997). The data of concern is created mainly by people, the residents of the city. According to a 2013 estimate, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created each day (, 2013), a number that is most certainly far out of date in 2016. This data comes from many sources, including social media, purchase transactions, environmental sensors, public transportation tap-ins and tap-outs, and GPS signals. Smart cities integrate this data with other systems to improve the efficiency, equity, sustainability and quality of life in cities, often in real time (Batty, 2012).

Information and Communication Technology, or ICT, is central to this approach. The smart phone is the current epicenter of citizen engagement with the smart city, but in the future it may be something more instantaneous such as Google Glass (Hudson-Smith, 2014). Technology literacy and smartphone penetration are therefore also intrinsically necessary for a city's population in order to be able to engage with this system. Therefore, the well-being and social characteristics of a population are very important to consider when assessing the ability for a city to be deemed smart. As Batty states: "cities that are smart only with respect to their economy are not smart at all if they disregard the social conditions of their citizenry" (Batty, 2012).

Specifically defining what makes a smart city "smart" is a somewhat ambiguous task open to interpretation, however a few aspects stand out as especially important.

  • Open Data: Availability of extensive, useful open data that is backed up by strong open data government policies
  • ICT: Use of ICT to integrate data into systems that work to make the city more efficient and equitable
  • Citizen Engagement: High levels of engagement of citizens, and from all segments of society
  • The remainder of this paper will explore these aspects of the smart city as they apply to Washington, DC within its specific historical, political, and socio-demographic context. For Washington, attention to this context is exceptionally important in assessing the city's level of "intelligence." As the seat of the federal government, it is well-positioned to have access to an educated, innovative population working for the many federal agencies, private contracting firms, and tech firms in and around the city. Although FastCoExist ranked DC number 4 on a list of the smartest US cities in 2013, the term is rarely used to describe the city (Cohen, 2013). For a listing of organizations and initiatives in the DC area, see Appendix 1.

    History of Self-Government: No Taxation without Representation

    License plates in the District of Columbia are tagged with the line made famous during the American Revolution: "No Taxation Without Representation." From the beginning of its existence, the District of Columbia has suffered from a lack of control over its laws and finances. In 1790, the capital of the United States was established along the Potomac River. Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution described the parameters for such a capital, stating that Congress has the power to "exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever." Until the Home Rule Act of 1973, the local government of the District consisted of various councils, the members of which were appointed by Congress. DC did not even have a mayor until 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson established the congressionally appointed position. Worse yet, citizens of DC were not able to vote for President until 1961 due to the fact that the District is not a state. The irony here is that citizens of the District, living in the seat of the federal government, were not (and still are not) represented by a voting member of Congress, and thus had no control over who governed them. The Home Rule Act gave the citizens of the District the right to finally elect their own local government, as well as more control over its own budget. Just recently, on March 18, 2016, the DC Superior Court upheld the Budget Autonomy Act, giving District lawmakers authority to control the 90% of locally raised funds (Alexander and St. Martin, 2016). Previously, Congress had control over how DC tax-payer dollars were spent, requiring approval of the local budget by the federal body.

    In short, in the District of Columbia today:

  • Citizens are not represented by a voting member of Congress. Eleanor Holmes Norton serves as a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, but there is no representative in the Senate.
  • Congress has power to review and approve or deny the passage of local legislation. In the past, this fact has been ignored as an act of protest by the local government, enacting laws which Congress has attempted to block (NBC, 2015).
  • This ironic situation has created massive frustration (Fenston, 2015; Hauslohner, 2015). It also creates an opportunity and a motivation for residents to participate in local smart city initiatives which allow them to shape their city outside governmental control. is a collaboration between the DC Council, Mayor's Office, Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), and OpenGov Foundation's Madison legislative co-creation platform which allows individuals to contribute to local draft legislation (, 2016). Users can leave comments, annotate specific parts of the text, and engage in discussion with other users. They can also choose to simply support or oppose the legislation by clicking on a button. One of the drafts open for comments earlier this year was the District's Draft Open Data Policy. It is unclear how citizens' suggestions will be incorporated into legislation, or if and how lawmakers will engage with commenters (Chappellet-Lanier, 2016). Also uncertain is how many and what type of people will participate in this process. The Draft Open Data Policy has 37 collaborators. DC has over 525,000 residents who are 18 and over. However, this platform is in beta, and has great potential for using technology to make the lawmaking process more accessible and efficient. It is a direct reflection of the sentiment expressed by Batty et al. in their article Smart Cities of the Future: "It is likely that participation in formulating policies might be very different from the past when futures were dictated by the elite, primarily because of its access to information" (2012).

    DC 311 App

    In April 2012, Washington, DC released a smart-phone app to allow citizens to easily submit 311 requests for services to the city government (, 2016). The app allows users to submit the type of service needed, the location of the problem, and relevant photos. Users can create an account, allowing them to track the progress of their requests and view their request history. All 311 requests are open public data, and can be downloaded for further analysis by anyone. Citizens who are uncomfortable using the app can still submit requests by phone or on their computer. This app allows citizens to easily influence their environment by reaching into their pocket, and to hold the local authorities accountable by tracking their requests and grading their performance. The citizen participation aspect of this platform gives it more of a bottom-up style, but given that the application was developed and launched by the local government, there is a top-down aspect to it as well.

    Past Corruption of Local Government

    In 1979, shortly after Washington, DC won the right to elect its own mayor, civil rights leader Marion Barry was voted into the position. He served as mayor until 1991, one year after he was filmed smoking crack cocaine at the Vista International Hotel in downtown DC (LaFraniere, 1990). He managed to be re-elected as mayor in 1995 after serving six months in federal prison. Barry earned the nickname "Mayor for Life" due to his seemingly never-ending term of service. In the beginning of his time as mayor he was considered very popular by a wide majority of DC residents, starting the Summer Youth Employment Program which gave many residents their first jobs, and fighting consistently for the betterment of the black population of the District. His legacy, however, became tainted by massive corruption, government waste, and personal scandals. Transparency was not only actively discouraged, but also nearly impossible given the poor record keeping that plagued the administration (Jaffe and Sherwood, 2014).

    Successive mayors have either made a point of fighting this legacy of corruption, or participated in corrupt behavior themselves. Six people involved with the election of Mayor Vincent Gray (2011-2015) plead guilty to federal crimes to do with illegal secret funding for his campaign (Marimow, Hsu and Alexander, 2015). The former mayor was never charged. The reputation earned by local DC government has traditionally been one of corruption and lack of transparency. Again, this has been a point of frustration for District residents, but one that has spurred smart initiatives to keep local government agencies in check.

    The current Mayor, Muriel Bowser, elected in 2015, has thus far been a champion of open data, transparency, and promotion of Washington as a city with a burgeoning inclusive tech industry. The mayor traveled to the annual SXSW festival in Austin, TX this year as well as last year to promote the District's inclusive tech industry and tell the world that "DC is open for business" (Schmidt, 2016). Just before her trip this year, she broke ground on the inclusive innovation hub in collaboration with Luma Lab at Howard University (DC Executive Office of the Mayor, 2016). The involvement and support of the local government in promoting the tech industry, transparency, and open data in DC demonstrate a relatively strong top-down approach to smart city system implementation. The following are a few examples of this style of implementation which stand opposed to the city's corrupt past. and

    Introduced under Mayor Vincent Gray in 2012, is a collaboration with DC based social market intelligence firm newBrandAnalytics. The platform uses text analysis to formulate grades for local DC agencies based on comments from local blogs as well as social media posts (Howell Jr., 2012). Residents can also contribute feedback directly on the website. is a platform which allows citizens to monitor various elements of an agency's performance and expenditures. Users can see if the agency met its Key Performance Indicator goals, view the number of vacancies, review its budget, and explore visualizations of almost every aspect of the agency's finances. This level of transparency is a huge step forward from DC's local government's notoriously corrupt past.

    Segregation, Inequality, and Gentrification: "Chocolate City" No More

    The District has long-suffered from residential segregation (Urban Institute, 2014). A look at the 2014 American Community Survey 5-year estimate data reveals that two thirds of census tracts have a location quotient (LQ) of 1.5 or greater for percentage white or percentage black population (approximately one third of tracts each). A look at the histograms of these measures for both races in Figure 2 shows peaks on the extremes and a dip in the middle, meaning high rates of over and under representation, which can be an indicator of segregation.

    Figure 1: Pink area is "East of Anacostia River"
    Figure 2: Location Quotient for Black and White Populations per Census Tract

    A 2014 report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute found that the average income of the top 5% of District households is 54 times higher than the income of the lowest 20%, the fourth largest gap in equality in the US (Rivers, 2014). According to this same report, the average income of the bottom 20% of households covers only 12% of a basic family budget for one parent with two children, which amounts to $85,019. This is part of the explanation of why the poorest residents tend to stay poor while the rich get richer.

    This gap in wealth is not mitigated by the gentrification sweeping the city. After steadily decreasing from the 1970's until the early 2000's, the total population increased from 565,230 to 658,893 between 1998 and 2014 (US Census). From Figure 3, you can see that a fairly large contiguous area of census tracts experienced an increase in white population alongside a decrease in black population from 1990 to 2012, one of the most universal stereotypical effects of gentrification in the US. A glance at Figure 4 shows that the overall white population increased while the overall black population decreased.

    Figure 3: Change in Black and White Population from 1990 - 2013. For larger version see Appendix 2.
    Figure 4: Percent Change in Black and White Population by Census Tract 1990 - 2013

    While gentrification certainly means much more than an increase in white people and a decrease in black people, these figures demonstrate that this trend is certainly occurring alongside growing inequality and gentrification in DC. For a place nicknamed "Chocolate City" due to its large black population, this shift is of particular interest. It influences perceptions of racial dynamics in the District, and has certainly left many residents feeling frustrated and left behind by DC's new prosperity.

    Vision Zero

    Vision Zero is an international movement to eliminate all traffic-related injuries and deaths by 2024 through more efficient use of data, education, enforcement, and engineering (DC Vision Zero, 2016). In conjunction with the District Department of Transportation, General Assembly, and Open Gov Hub, Vision Zero DC hosted a civic hackathon in February with newly released data regarding traffic violations and injuries at various points in recent years. This is a great example of various public and private sector groups coming together with citizens to use open data to make the city more efficient and safe for all residents. It nearly reaches the pinnacle of smart city-ness. While a cursory glance at the teams who participated in the hackathon show a decent amount of diversity, and at least a couple of the projects that came out of the weekend show thoughtfulness and utility, one aspect of the Vision Zero Project slightly derails the smart city utopian dream status of the project.

    The Vision Zero Safety map ( allows citizens to add points of concern onto an interactive map. Reportable issues include intersections with poor visibility, cross walks without enough time to cross, speeding, and drivers blocking bike boxes. The data set of citizen inputs is available for download from In theory, this is another wonderful facet of the project. In practice, it is clear from some simple data analysis that the application is only used by certain demographic and geographic segments of the population.

    Figure 5: Reporting rates by Census Tract characteristic for Vision Zero Safety Map

    Figure 5 shows that the blacker and poorer a census tract becomes, the lower the number of reports on the Vision Zero Safety Map. The clearest spatial manifestation of this issue is evident in the fact that tracts "East of the Anacostia" (see Figure 1) have the lowest average reporting rate: 5 per tract. Is this because citizens of these tracts find their local traffic patterns and behaviors safe, or because investment in this area's traffic infrastructure is satisfactory? On the contrary, this area is one of the most deprived in Washington. Clearly, there is a failure to connect with people living in this area on the same scale that is occurring with other populations. This is an example of how an otherwise well-conceived initiative can fail to reach its full potential.

    One initiative mentioned briefly earlier is positioning itself to be a solution to this issue. Clearly Innovative CEO Aaron Saunders started Luma Lab, a STEM education program which he runs at middle schools, colleges, and summer schools in disadvantaged areas. He emphasizes the fact that children need to have instructors who look like them, and "to a lot of black kids growing up, Mark Zuckerberg doesn't mean anything" (Clozel, 2015). Luma Lab was chosen as the partner for the inclusive innovation hub at Howard University, one of the initiatives by DC's Innovation and Technology Inclusion Council. Hopefully one of the outcomes of the effort to strive for an inclusive tech scene in DC will be a more even distribution of tech savvy throughout all 8 of the city's wards. If this happens, then initiatives like Vision Zero can reach their full potential.

    Conclusion: Smart DC Beta

    It is clear from the context outlined above that Washington, DC is a city that has massive potential to succeed as a smart city, but some equally dangerous potential to leave portions of the population behind. This danger may be DC's most major disadvantage in truly becoming a full-fledged smart city. Luckily, there are initiatives in place making an effort to level the playing field for future generations of disadvantaged populations in order to discontinue the growing inequality.

    One challenge is that these inclusion initiatives are targeting an historical and permanent population which is very disconnected with the transient population moving in and out of the city for higher education, internships, jobs associated with changing political administrations, and short-term defense contracts. In recent years, more of this more transient population has settled down in DC, and tends to be on the "wealthy newcomer" side of the gentrification situation and have little understanding of the aforementioned historical and socio-demographic context of the city. It is not just the responsibility of the government to implement inclusion initiatives. Citizens who are moving to the city to engage in the ICT sector, and who will likely be contributing to the planning and technical development of many of the smart initiatives, need to be educated in some manner on the historical and geo-demographic context of the city in order to avoid a San Francisco style dynamic (NPR, 2013).

    Otherwise, Washington is well-positioned with a supportive local public and private organizations, strong open data availability (which was used for the data analysis in this paper), and fairly wide variety of smart-leaning applications and initiatives. For this reason, one can consider DC as a smart city in "beta."


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    Appendix 2