Theses Doctoral

The City as Data Machine: Local Governance in the Age of Big Data

Baykurt, Burcu

This dissertation is a study of the social dimensions and implications of the smart city, a new kind of urbanism that augments the city’s existing infrastructures with sensors, wireless communication, and software algorithms to generate unprecedented reams of real-time data. It investigates how smartness reshapes civic ties, and transforms the ways of seeing and governing urban centers long-plagued by racial and economic divides. How do the uneven adoption of smart technologies and data-driven practices affect the relationship between citizens and local government? What mediates the understanding and experience of urban inequalities in a data-driven city? In what ways does data-driven local governance address or exacerbate pervasive divides? The dissertation addresses these questions through three years of ethnographic fieldwork in Kansas City, where residents and public officials have partnered with Google and Cisco to test a gigabit internet service and a smart city program respectively.
I show that the foray of tech companies into cities not only changes how urban problems are identified, but also reproduces civic divides. Young, middle-class, white residents embrace the smart city with the goal of turning the city’s problems into an economic opportunity, while already-vulnerable residents are reluctant to adopt what they perceive as surveillance technologies. This divide widens when data-driven practices of the smart city compel public officials and entrepreneurial residents to feign deliberate ignorance against longstanding issues and familiar solutions, or explore spurious connections between different datasets due to their assumptions about how creative breakthroughs surface in the smart city. These enthusiasts hope to discover connections they did not know existed, but their practices perpetuate existing stereotypes and miss underlying patterns in urban inequalities.
By teasing out the intertwined relationships among tech giants, federal/local governments, local entrepreneurial groups, civic tech organizations, and nonprofits, this research demonstrates how the interests and cultural techniques of the contemporary tech industry seep into age-old practices of classification, record keeping, and commensuration in governance. I find that while these new modes of knowledge production in local government restructure the ways public officials and various publics see the city, seeing like a city also shapes the possibilities and limits of governing by data.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2024-04-25.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Schudson, Michael S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 30, 2019