I arrived in Seoul, South Korea at the same time that President Trump was warning North Korea—just 35 miles away—that it may “face fire and fury like the world has never seen.” It gives a special flavor to a research trip to look around and ask yourself, “Are these the people with whom I’m going to be incinerated?” I wasn’t researching nuclear policy, though, but rather something that will be of vital importance if the peninsula doesn’t turn to ash: data. The Mayor of Seoul is taking steps that may be important to the development of more genuine democracy in South Korea.
Susan Crawford is a columnist for Backchannel and a professor at Harvard Law School. She is also the author of The Responsive City and Captive Audience.
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The backdrop for this story of creativity is one of crisis. Having raised itself from rubble over a few short decades, South Korea is looking for new economic and social justice opportunities for its people as China and the US tussle over world domination. It’s not a very big country, but its leaders want to show the world how cutting edge it is. (And it is!) At the same time, like Japan, South Korea is facing a decline: Its birth rate is at an all-time low, college graduates are having enormous trouble finding jobs, and trust in government (so close to the enormous conglomerates that dominate the country’s economy—Samsung’s de facto CEO was recently convicted for bribing the nation’s former president) is not high.
Yet some things coming from the South Korean government are worthy of envy, starting with projects at the local government level. The current mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, is a long-time social activist who won re-election to a four-year term in 2014. He pledged to pursue “a Seoul where people are safe; a Seoul where people are warm-hearted; a Seoul where people dream and create; a Seoul where people and the city breathe together; and a Seoul that is upright and dignified.” According to journalists, he was reacting to the Sewol ferry disaster of April 2014, and the deaths of young people that had been caused by that profit-at-any-cost overloaded, unsafe journey. He was also talking about larger ideas of shared prosperity. And he clearly has his eye on retaining his post after June 2018, when the next election will be held.
I got an advance look at what might turn out to be a powerful tool in his reelection: a visually beautiful data dashboard—its formal name is “The Digital Civic Mayor’s Office”—that is tied to the broad themes the mayor identified in 2014: How safe is the city, how welcoming is it to the very old and the young, how green is it, how open are its operations?
Here is a picture of this top level of data visualization, with Kyung Keun Ma, the talented team leader of the Data & Statistics Division of Seoul’s metropolitan government who built the dashboard, standing in the room across the hall from the mayor’s office, showing me his work. So far, so simple—the dashboard is simply reporting yearly data in a colorful way, counting up outputs: how many sports facilities, how many senior care places, how much public data is being disclosed. The press loves this stuff, but it’s not very operational; it’s a postcard with bright colors.
The real benefit of this 11-foot-wide dashboard, both for management and disclosure, comes in other views—and you can move through it by gesture, touch, or remote mouse. (I was told the hardware cost $100,000, the programming cost about $50,000, and that getting reliable data out of agencies had been a huge challenge.)
As it happened, during our demo, the map of giant, congested Seoul showed an indication of an incident—a fire in the city! Web camera views popped trained on where the fire was.
From his dashboard, the mayor (or anyone else, but I refrained from pressing the button) can launch a video call to talk to public officials near the site. (The man with his back to me is the similarly talented Jeong Joon Ahn, to whom Ma reports; Ahn has a huge range of responsibilities that include getting real-time data from all of Seoul’s agencies into the dashboard. Which is not easy.) Another screen showed, in real time, how long it was taking the fire department to put the fire out. During my time with Ma and Ahn, the fire was resolved.
Particularly satisfying to me—a huge fan of fiber—was that this functionality only becomes possible when you have fiber optic lines everywhere. Luckily, Seoul does have 100 percent fiber optic adoption. Those cameras and many-agency data streams create an enormous flood of two-way interaction across Seoul with which no non-fiber network could cope. The usefulness of all this in a time of disaster is obvious.
Still, other cities have these capabilities as well. A real-time emergency dashboard isn’t new. What’s new is that Seoul is also measuring and reporting on—in real time—a wide range of other indicators of the city’s health and well-being. How expensive are common things people eat, like apples? How expensive are apartments?
Here’s a view showing some of that data. Affordable housing is a huge problem for Seoul, as it is for many big cities; traffic, in my view, is horrendous. So the mayor can look at housing numbers and traffic at any time. The traffic data is next to information about air quality, natural disasters, and crime. This whole setup is aimed at understanding and improving quality of life for all Seoul citizens: These are the categories of things that citizens care about.
And the mayor can track budget spending, easily. Below is the overall budget, on the top left in blue, with figures showing what’s been spent and how (the boxes on the left side below the overall budget number show expenditures).
This dashboard, Ma told me, is “version .9” It was opened for the mayor to view in May 2017, and much of this information will be also made available to citizens by the end of the year. The government is committed to opening up its data.
When I met with Park last year, he told me that he needed to find “new occupations, not just new jobs” for the people of Seoul. He’s worried that Seoul’s driving, vital prosperity is not being widely shared enough. He wants to show citizens that their local government is doing all it can to understand and improve their quality of life. This dashboard seemed like a potential green shoot of democracy—a city doing what it can to show citizens why government should be trusted and that their quality of life, including the quality of the air they breathe, the prices of the apples they eat, and the traffic jams they face daily, is important. It’s just been a few months. The dashboard visualizations haven’t led to actual changes in policy or reallocation of resources—yet. But, in time, they will. And there is no turning back.
And if Seoul can do this, why can’t one of our great American cities do it as well?