Janae Futrell, AICP, LEED AP — Civic Technology
My Career in Civic Technology
Janae Futrell, AICP, LEED AP
In 2017, I founded a small business, Civic Sphere, which is focused on leveraging techniques, software, and subject matter expertise to improve decision-making processes for urban and rural areas.
That same year, I also founded a nonprofit, ComplexCities, to educate those involved in decision-making processes in urban and rural contexts, such as engineers, elected officials, and community members, on the intricacies of particularly complex issues, assisting them with a deeper understanding to inform their awareness, advocacy, and voice.
Tell us the “why” and “how” you got to the creation of Civic Sphere and ComplexCities Nonprofit.
After working as a city planner and architectural designer for 12 years in the nonprofit, private, and public sectors as well as in a number of countries including Haiti, Netherlands, Philippines, and the U.S., I could see a number of patterns emerge.
The approaches devised to improve urban conditions often have a complex decision-making process behind them. There are funding agents and leaders of various agencies with priorities, private sector consultants assisting with technical work, staff completing analyses of various types, elected officials, and depending on the level of bottom-up involvement, there are members of the public, advocacy groups, and others.
What I began to notice is that individuals often see an issue through one “lens,” their own frame of reference or professional expertise, or perceive it to be simpler than it is. However, many issues in the urban environment are incredibly complex, such as gentrification and geographic displacement or how we provide the best transportation options for various populations such as people with disabilities, older adults, and those with low income.
I noticed that while some aspects of the issue were clear to those involved in decision making, many aspects were not. In this time of sound bites, instant messages, and expedient contact, I fear we are not seeking a deep understanding of complex urban issues. This is dangerous because the decisions we make today impact our places for generations.
On the other hand, I think there are many viable solutions to this problem.
First, decision makers need to be able to see how urban environments work as a system of interconnected and interdependent elements. A tug here and a pull there impacts other issues. A housing development decision is not isolated to housing — it impacts the functionality of transportation, job access, income and affordability, school access, health care access, availability of trails and exercise, and the list goes on.
Second, people need to be able to clearly see and actually visualize these interconnections with clarity of the tradeoffs involved, externalities, and potential unintended consequences. The solution is part education and training, part communication, and part visualization.
The nonprofit focuses on education and awareness. It has a "let us teach you" approach, while the business has a "we'll take it from here" approach applying a consulting model. Together, they form a two-pronged strategy to meet decision makers where they are, working towards the goal in complementary ways. The nonprofit is composed of projects that tackle specific issues such as Human-Centered Transport and Balancing Housing Affordability and Economic Growth.
What are your areas of expertise?
My expertise areas include environmentally sustainable building, technology and smart cities, public transit, and emergency management.
At the City of Atlanta, you were a planner, but your programs were housed in the IT department. What was that like? (Kind of unusual for a planner to be in the IT department ...)
Personally, I think of Smart Cities in its broadest sense — the intersection of technology and cities. We are at a turning point in cities; our understanding of "infrastructure" is changing. The connectivity backbone of broadband internet and fiber will become increasingly important as more assets are connected to this backbone for data collection purposes and data backhaul for storage.
These "assets" range from video cameras capturing video feeds and extracting various types of data to sensors harnessing data on sound, air quality, visible light, and other forms. The Information Technology (IT) department is typically tasked with facilitating the connectivity backbone, data capture, data storage, and data transfer and availability across all city departments. It also works on behalf of all the other departments in terms of subject/work area, so it is a neutral place to decide how various technology elements support work across the entire city as opposed to serving one department only.
At the City of Atlanta, they decided it made sense to house the Smart Cities program in the IT department but were well aware that a professional who understands how cities work more broadly, regardless of technology, was needed. Therefore, when they hired the SmartATL Program Manager, they were open to various backgrounds such as city planning and public administration. I was very fortunate to be chosen for the position.
What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on related to smart cities and civic technology?
With the City of Atlanta, I had the opportunity to work on a portfolio of projects focused on environmental sustainability, multi-modal transportation, public safety, and other topics to further outcomes in operational efficiency and improvement of the quality of life.
One of the most exciting and potentially impactful projects was with the Atlanta Police Department (APD). One of the main data resources police departments have is the incident report, which is what an officer writes up after an incident for documentation purposes. From a data standpoint, it is typically difficult to analyze. It is comprised of free text, so parsing is a challenge. The APD partnered with Georgia Tech experts in Machine Learning, applying what is called Natural Language Processing (NLP) to the incident reports to detect potential crime correlation.
Criminals typically continue to commit crimes until they are caught, resulting in a sequence of crimes. If an investigator can gain clues into which crimes are potentially related (i.e., committed by the same criminal), they can have more details about the criminal to aid in solving the crimes, solve multiple crimes at the same time, and even stop the sequence of potential crimes earlier in the pattern by solving them more quickly.
NLP aids in this situation by identifying phrases in the incident reports that have high relatedness or correlation. For instance, a criminal may have a particular type of weapon, say a certain phrase, wear an item of clothing, or have common ways of treating victims that show up again and again across incident reports when victims relay their stories. Tracking all these data and relating them across the entire APD system pinpoints insights that would be been impossible without machine learning. In fact, one of ComplexCities projects, Machine Learning for Proactive Cities, is devised to scale up such successes.
What has been the best surprise in your career?
I have been pleasantly surprised that my seemingly meandering career makes complete sense at this stage. I received a Bachelor of Business Administration from Lambuth University, an M.S. in Architecture from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and an M.S. in Urban Development and International Cooperation from the Technische Universität in Darmstadt, Germany.
I’ve never gotten a degree on the same topic, and I’ve never accepted a job that was similar to the job before it. That does not jive with conventional wisdom, but it has served me well by providing me with a range of subject matter expertise and a deep knowledge of how the nonprofit, private, and public sectors work. Living and working in many different countries has helped me to see similarities and differences for how cities are being developed so that I can target improvements internationally, and I’ve gained a respect for how people live and how similar we all are at the core.
Since 2012, my jobs have been focused on technology aspects that benefit an improved quality of life. With the Atlanta Regional Commission, I completed a Human Services Transportation Plan focused on the needs of people with disabilities, older adults, and those with low income as well as the “Simply Get There” software and website to assist these populations with seeing all their transportation options, including services that don’t show up on Google maps — sometimes operated by senior citizen, veteran, medical, and disability service groups.
From 2010–2012, I worked in Haiti after an earthquake on housing needs with Caritas Germany, in the Philippines on planning proactively for earthquakes and other disasters with the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative, and with the International Federation of the Red Cross on regulatory barriers to post-disaster shelter.
What advice do you have for planners interested in civic technology?
For anyone entering the planning field, including those with a civic technology focus, I suggest focusing on projects and initiatives that really improve lives on the ground. That can be easier said than done with projects that sound great but don’t work well in practice, funding that does not necessarily align with the way the world is moving, and a marketing engine that wants to project an image of success regardless of what has actually been achieved.
My life has been significantly affected by growing up with a father who was a wheelchair user due to childhood polio. I grew up with an awareness of how life can be significantly more difficult for someone due to a single incident or one characteristic of his or her being, and how unfair that can be.
I’ve had many opportunities and privileges, and I try to direct them towards helpful services that truly improve quality of life for people. I always remind myself that my "boss" and my "client" is the public, and I do my best to consider the needs of those populations that have historically not been served as well as others.
If planners can continue to strive towards a mentality of the public as boss and client, we’ll have the right foundation for progress.