Big City, Bigger Data

Fordham’s Urban Law Center talks big data and urban government at the U.N.

Fordham Law School’s Urban Law Center hosted its annual Urban Law Day on April 21 at the United Nations, bringing together scholars from the realms of law and urban planning to discuss pressing urban policy issues.

Entitled “Governance, Data, and the New Urban Agenda,” this year’s symposium favored scholars whose work related to the use of Big Data in forging fresh approaches to urban governance. The attendees framed their discussion by referencing the New Urban Agenda, a working document published in late 2016 by the United Nations that describes standards for sustainable urban development.

“Now that we actually have the New Urban Agenda in writing we’re really looking forward to seeing how that develops and what projects we can pursue in the future,” said Gilberto Vargas, associate director and urban law fellow at the Urban Law Center.

The day’s first panel, moderated by Fordham Law professor and faculty co-director of the center Sheila Foster, included Clayton Gillette, Max E. Greenberg Professor of Contract Law at New York University School of Law, and Fordham Law alumna Rose Gill Hearn ’88 of the urban planning firm Bloomberg Associates.

Gill Hearn explained how Bloomberg Associates had incorporated data into its work with governments in municipalities such as Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, and Mexico City. In Rio, her team helped the government use data science to streamline the method it issued to business licenses. “The law is the canvas that is the basis for all our development programs,” she said.

Gillette spoke about the delicate balance between centralized and decentralized governance, emphasizing the need to balance democratic “inputs” with top-down decision-making.

A second panel offered competing perspectives on the use of data in forging urban policy. Moderated by Fordham Law Professor Nestor Davidson, who serves as associate dean for academic affairs and faculty co-director of the Urban Law Center, the panel included Jocelyn Drummond, research associate at CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governance, and Frank Pasquale, professor of law at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey Law School.

Drummond described her work with the Institute, where she is using the NYC Open Data platform to develop a series of equality indicators for the city.

Pasquale, after praising Drummond’s work, offered a summary of his own research regarding data and governance, which struck a more cautionary tone. Building off scholarship presented in his book The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information, Pasquale described the internal tensions between citizens’ desire for privacy and the government’s desire for information.

“The larger worry that I try to get into in The Black Box Society builds on Fordham Professor Joel Reidenberg’s idea of ‘the transparent citizen,’” said Pasquale. “Reidenberg worries that all this data collection could eventually make us transparent to authorities and corporations. And then the question becomes, ‘What do we know about them?’”

Drummond and Davidson echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the importance of balancing privacy for the individual citizen with the larger social good.

“In several of the areas where the law is instrumental to advancing the New Urban Agenda, data is instrumental as well,” said Davidson. “I think it’s really interesting seeing both the potential for transparency that’s coming from that, as well as the possible downsides.”


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