Podcast: People Behind the Plans
Philadelphia CIO Mark Wheeler: Web 3.0 and Blockchain Could Bring Transparency to Smart Cities
While it’s hard to have missed the buzz that’s been building around blockchain over the last five years, it’s easy to be confused and overwhelmed by its applications. Cryptocurrency and NFTs have been in the news recently, but less has been said about blockchain’s potential in urban planning and city government. Those were the questions Mark Wheeler, CIO of the city of Philadelphia, wanted to answer when he got interested in blockchain and Web 3.0 technology.
“I thought, we’re in the middle of the pandemic ... We’re all feeling a little burned out, and I need something to re-energize me and excite me and pique my curiosity … I need something that I’m so curious about that I’m going to commit time to this on my own and figure out how to incorporate it into work … And blockchain was it, so I really dove in, and that’s how I started to explore it and take a critical view of what we could do within city governments and government generally.”
- Mark Wheeler, CIO, City of Philadelphia & Director of the Office of Innovation and Technology
With a background in planning, Wheeler is passionate about community engagement and making open data accessible to the citizens of Philly. And he’s been exploring how blockchain can provide transparency to the data collection that fuels smart cities. In this episode, Wheeler shares what he’s learned about blockchain’s potential, his advice for planners, and where he looks for inspiration and innovation.
Courtney Kashima: Learning is a lifelong voyage, and with APA as your tour guide, you’ll never get lost at sea. Set sail today with a Passport subscription, and travel through a world built for planners at planning.org/passport22.
Mark Wheeler: I would very much like to see blockchain incorporated in our smart city work. So if we’re committed as a city with our smart city programs, and we have sensors in the street that are using LIDAR or recording video images, and we’re running AI processes at the edge, at computers running at those sites, at those smart city boxes on the block or the smart city lights with cameras and sensors in them, I want to make sure that we have the privacy around that data. And we could use blockchain to prove that we’re doing what we say that we’re doing.
CK: Welcome to People Behind the Plans, an American Planning Association podcast. I’m your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal of Muse Community Design. APA’s Foresight Practice and 2023 Trend Report identifies Web 3.0 tech like blockchain technology as a trend to watch and learn about. This episode, we’re speaking with Mark Wheeler, a trained planner who’s been exploring this space as the chief information officer for the city of Philadelphia and director of the Office of Innovation and Technology. Under his leadership, Philly released the SmartCityPHL Roadmap and created its first IT strategic plan with public engagement. Today, we’ll ask him to help us peer into the future of planning through a blockchain lens. Mark, welcome to the podcast.
MW: Thanks, Courtney. I’m glad to be here.
CK: Let’s start off on a lighter note, perhaps. You’re a self-proclaimed Marvel fanboy, and superheroes are known for their origin stories. So, tell us about your origin story.
MW: Sure. I think that’s really funny. I get a lot of feedback from that Marvel fanboy post on LinkedIn, so I’m happy that you all picked up on it. I have a super non-traditional route to becoming a chief information officer in a city. I started out as a waste prevention specialist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York, and that meant that I focused on what would later become sustainability. The agency had a GIS lab that focused a lot on open space and natural resource inventories. Because we were in the Hudson Valley, agriculture and open space was a very big deal, and there was encroaching land use development, suburbanization going on. That’s how I got introduced both, I think, to planning, formally, and GIS. So I started to think about what I wanted to do next, and I thought maybe it’s a good time to go back to grad school. But I wanted to test the water, so I started to just take these classes, and I loved it. So, after I finished grad school, my former professor got ahold of me and asked me to join his company, which I did for about nine years. And three of those years I worked for Esri. We were on the forefront of developing the web apps that we were implementing for counties and regional planning authorities and state agencies.
So, I kept working in the planning field. And when that was over, I was out of a job, but I had all of these new technical skills, and I had this background and lens in planning. And it really just triggered a desire to get back into interacting with neighborhoods in the community because when I was a waste prevention specialist, I would do tons of public seminars and workshops. And our agency was involved in all kinds of environmental issues, so I would do charrettes and be part of public meetings over contentious ordinances to regulate wetlands or do conservation zones and deal with zoning where there was no zoning in some of these more rural areas that were being suburbanized. So I learned a lot from the planning perspective, and I just wanted to get back to that public engagement. And I ended up landing a job at the city of Philadelphia’s planning commission as a city planner. And so this is where it takes the turn that I’m at now: I had competency in these technical and data analyst issues. I just kept getting pulled back into them. As much as I wanted to be a community planner, you kind of move where your competency is. And that caught the attention of the CIO at the time, Adel Abeid, and he offered me a chance to create the city’s first geographic information officer role and reimagine what a central GIS team could do.
It was only three people at that time, and I was able to hire deputies and create my own team for the very first time, and it was like having lightning in the bottle. We just tackled all kinds of problems and focused our efforts a lot on property data-related issues, and we focused a lot on data governance and liberating GIS data from the technicians and bringing that business intelligence work to policymakers and people who are semi-technically adept and opened that all up in a web portal. And we ended up launching something called atlas.phila.gov, a vacant property data model, which I think are some real shining outcomes of that time that I was GIO.
And then I was asked to become CIO at the beginning of 2018. I bring that planning lens to my CIO work. You know, my pillars include governance strategies and cybersecurity, smart city innovations, but there’s a very specific component for customer engagement and communications that I rely upon from my years of being involved in planning work and how planners reach out to their communities for information and engagement and closing the loop.
CK: That’s so interesting. I love hearing about winding career paths, and this is one I haven’t heard, so I’m going to have lots of questions for you. So you’ve been CIO of Philadelphia for about four years. What does that look like on a day-to-day or weekly basis? And especially as planners who might be more tech-oriented are considering something like that?
And we built a very robust metadata catalog around all of it. You don’t submit data to our warehouse without telling us what it is, how it’s going to be used and its data structure. And that’s something we enforce and works very, very well for us. I can’t tell other cities and counties enough how important that is. That really is the liberation in the process. We built something called atlas.phila.gov, which takes all of that data; puts it in a very simple-to-navigate user interface; pairs it with current and historical maps, aerial photographs that go back more than ten years now. There’s a service called Pictometry (now EagleView), which I think a number of places are familiar with. It’s that oblique imagery that gives it the three-dimensional look, and then you can actually measure inside of that. We give those tools away to the public, so they can open up that Pictometry tool and do their own measurements. And then we buy a service from Cyclomedia that does the exact same thing on the street view up about 40 feet, and you get this highly, highly accurate view of every front door of every business in the city. And you can zoom in and do measurements around that.
That replaced a dozen separate applications that either planners or inspectors in city government would have open at any one time to get all of that information about a property—its licenses, its past history, any violations, all of the zoning changes and variances, what community organizations had been involved in any of those decisions, and on and on and on—put it all in one place. And within a year of the public’s use of that—we had been using it two years prior to that in city government—our department of records saw a 50% drop in the number of citizens that were coming in just with general questions that they would have to go to one of these dozen apps to get information from. And we worked a lot through our open-data program to educate the public around it.
So we have something called the Citizens Planning Institute, which takes two cohorts a year: individuals who are interested in being, like, a citizen planner for their civic organization. We use that program also to talk about Atlas and talk about all of the other open data and other digital services that we have in phila.gov that citizen planners could be using to help their communities with (vacant property dispositions and organizing around community gardens or any of their street block improvement work that they want to do or advocating for Complete Streets type of programs).
CK: I appreciate hearing about some of the innovation you’ve helped shepherd for the city. I think it’s fair to say the public sector isn’t often known for being on the leading edge of innovation, but you’ve written about applications of Web 3.0 technologies such as blockchain for cities. Can you tell us a little bit about what that even means and how you came to start to consider the use of these technologies in the public sector?
MW: Yes, I think there’s a lot to unpack there. I will do the best I can and try to do it in a way that doesn’t require a diagram, so you can kind of follow this. There’s a way that people speak about Web 3.0 that starts with, “What was Web 1.0 and what’s Web 2.0?” Web 1.0 is publishing of static information that has very little interaction with the reader or the user. And that was the 1990s into the early 2000s. You know, proliferation of millions of web pages. Web 2.0 is the advancement. We get more broadband across the United States. We have significant technology changes, and now we have a proliferation of smartphones, which basically puts the web in everyone’s hands. And that’s when you get the advent of social media, and the interactions with people in those social media groups, and defining themselves as influencers, and defining brands and allowing creators to bring themselves into the space in a way we never really envisioned before. And it becomes highly, highly interactive. And now you’re also enabling an entire economy around mobility and travel—you know, Airbnb and Uber and Lyft. The criticism of Web 2.0 that 3.0 tries to rectify is all of the data—especially if you’re a creator—all of that data gets owned by these central, privately owned operations. It’s the Metas and the Googles. They own your data. Every time they ask you to enroll, that’s information they’re collecting about you that they sell. You get no profit from that. And then there’s all these terms and conditions that when you’re posting images, they now own those images too, and they can use them as they want to, taking liberties with that.
Web 3.0 is supposed to solve for this by making the creators of the content the owners of their content and giving them ability to take the profits from that work. How that is done is through a different form of database structure called a blockchain. A blockchain is essentially just an append-only ledger. Every record that’s written to it is to be unedited again. It’s defensible against editing. This is why the finance world has seen value in this is because, structurally, these blockchains can be used as settlement layers for financial transactions. They’re cemented transactions. They can verify that the transaction hasn’t been altered.
The point of the blockchain is that it’s not run by any central authority. There’s no government, there’s no corporation that controls how it’s designed and how it’s used. It’s done by a community. They have their open-source software. They make decisions using the blockchain, so they can record their votes. And the way that they get people involved in running that blockchain and keeping it secure and expanding is that it creates its own token in the process of writing these blocks. It’s complicated, though. There’s a lot of information on the web about it, and some of it gets very esoteric, and some of it gets very full of itself and promising the world and promising that blockchain solves all problems. And that’s just … it’s just an append-only database with this ability to generate a token economic structure to support itself, if you want it.
CK: I might be one-upping the nerdery, but to me it sounds a lot like the title system or plats of survey, which many planners could relate to. It seems like an incredibly modern version. Those are the things that I thought of when you described it, and this is the first time I’ve better understood it, so thank you.
MW: I got interested in this just because of what you said, Courtney. Cook County, Illinois—I think at the assessor’s office or the register of deeds—in 2018 looked at blockchain as a way to improve the recording process for their deeds and conveyances. And I looked at their white paper. I was very challenged by it. It talked a lot about Bitcoin. I had then researched the Bitcoin white paper. I went to a conference. I reached out to a professor at Wharton here in Philadelphia, and he said, “You know, a lot of this I can explain to you, but we’ve got a conference in a couple of days, our first blockchain conference we’re hosting at UPenn. Why don’t you come?”
MW: Yeah, it was crazy. I went to this conference at the university. Maybe 200-300 people, younger than me—I’m in my 40s at this point—a lot of graduate students. I’m in this auditorium for a conversation about what blockchain as a technology can do, and they’re talking about logistics. They are talking about currency, but also other practical means of even something called self-sovereign identity—it was the first time I had ever heard about it, and that plays into some of this Web 3.0. I get to control my identity on the web. When I create my digital representation of who I am and the information, I control what that is, and that’s a token. And that token could be used in one blockchain continuously. It could be used in the Metaverse—I’m at this conference and they say, “How many people own cryptocurrency?” and everyone—this is 2018—all 300 people in that room raise their hand. I was the only one who didn’t. And I was like, I don’t even know how to get it. I don’t even know what I’d do with it.
CK: How do you spell it? No, I’m just kidding.
MW: Yeah, well, yeah. That was a little eye-opening. I walked away from that and said, well, this is coming down the pike. This is probably something we’re going to need to deal with, and my estimation was within the next five years. And I thought, if it’s currency, then our city government financial operations are going to need to know how to manage it. Are we going to be taking a cryptocurrency in? And I put it on the back burner because I had other issues to solve, and I didn’t see Cook County’s pilot as being applicable to Philadelphia at all. But then we reach 2021, and suddenly crypto’s in the news again. My very good friend Mike Sarasti is CIO of Miami, and he’s starting to tell me about what’s going on in the mayor’s office there. And I’m getting a bit of an insight from him on just how far you could take this, both from an economic development standpoint, recruiting these businesses, what it could be doing inside of government. And I thought, we’re in the middle of the pandemic still. I’m struggling, like many other people, with the waves and waves and waves of problems that we’ve been dealing with in city government. There’s been no end of challenges. We’re all feeling a little burned out, and I need something to re-energize me and excite me and pique my curiosity the way GIS did. Like, I need something that I’m so curious about that I’m going to commit time to this on my own and figure out how to incorporate it into work and keep it in a professional zone. And blockchain was it, so I really dove in, and that’s how I started to explore it and take a critical view of what we could do within city governments and government generally.
CK: Wow. No, honestly, that was very helpful because I keep hearing the terms but have not been able to fully comprehend. So, what’s happening right now, either in Philly or other cities, and what might we look ahead to? Like could this be a revenue source for cities?
MW: I don’t have the finance background, and so I shy away from that: how we accept a cryptocurrency, whether we can manage a cryptocurrency, whether a token economic model is valuable to the city. Crypto wasn’t the thing for me. It was what was the blockchain doing that a relational database system and Web 2.0 wasn’t doing? And that’s what intrigued me. I looked at processes like licensing that we might benefit from a token and how these wallets that were already set up for people to own their NFTs— which it may have been artwork, may have been music, may have been some kind of object in the real world that the NFT was referencing—I was thinking about NFTs or something similar as ways to replace some of our licensing processes. It’s called verified credentials. In Europe, they’ve been experimenting with verified credentials. Universities can issue a digital token for a student that completed their bachelor’s or their master’s degree. It’s on a distributed blockchain network, so anywhere in the world, if I travel, the proof that I am a graduate of that university in a planning degree is available to anyone who checks that blockchain. And all I do is present them a token from my wallet or a QR code that gets generated from my wallet that then looks back up on the blockchain.
So now you have this transnational use of the tool that could enable people who are immigrants coming over from other countries to prove that they have the certifications that they say that they have. I would very much like to see blockchain incorporated in our smart city work. I think that that’s a level of transparency—there’s that immutability factor, and we call it transparency and audibility. The blockchain is designed to be self-auditable. It’s a trail of one transaction change to another. Very easy to see that. There are companies that have already set themselves up to do auditing and make reports. So if we’re committed as a city with our smart city programs, and we have sensors in the street that are using LIDAR or recording video images, and we’re running AI processes at the edge, at computers running at those sites, at those smart city boxes on the block or the smart city lights with cameras and sensors in them, I would want to be able to prove to the public—and have this run on an open blockchain that then someone could have a nice user interface and look at—that when we say the data isn’t kept (we process it, and it gets deleted) that we have a record that it got deleted. And what we maintain is only the counts.
Let’s say the sensor is for the street right of way, and we’re counting vehicles, we’re counting pedestrians, and we’re doing analysis on how cars are clustering, where people are clustering. And that’s very helpful to our economic development models and our use of the pedestrian space. I’m very interested in people who have disabilities and how they have access to the sidewalks in Philadelphia because we have so many uses for our sidewalks here. We have cafés encroaching, we have signage, we have businesses doing deliveries. And if you’re in a wheelchair or a walker or something else that needs to give you assistance, you have a very hard time navigating. And I think having data around this that’s 24/7, that helps us then propose thoughtful policies that we can reach a “yes” to everyone’s needs: the delivery trucks, the businesses who want to have a café and have outdoor seating, and the citizens who want to enjoy that, and the people who have to use the sidewalk for no other way to get around the city. I want to make sure that we have the privacy around that data, and we could use blockchain to prove that we’re doing what we say that we’re doing.
CK: It sounds like it’s the latest toolbox around evergreen issues in local government like efficiency, transparency, perhaps fighting fraud. What’s maybe the coolest example you’ve heard that exists or is proposed—even if it’s wild? I just like to get the imagination going.
MW: Well, at the federal level, they’re looking at credentialing to speed up our customs process. As materials come in and out of the country, there’s paper lading, there’s digital versions of that information. From what I’m told of the pilots that are being run, they have seen a significant increase: like from six weeks down to six days and from six days down to six hours, that type of gain. At the city level Reno, Nevada, has a pilot project where they took a paper process for their certificate of appropriateness—which is the approval process for an alteration to an existing historical property—they worked with a company out of Brooklyn called BlockApps. They built out an interface where the register is now putting in that information. It’s sequenced, so they get a trigger when the next step in the process needs to be done, when the next person in the approval path needs to sign on. And it takes that signature and makes it immutable. And that’s all done in what they call a smart contract. And I can always make the argument that I could have done it without a blockchain. I could have used a customer relations management tool to do this with some very simple configurations about who can sign and when can they sign. They’re experimenting with it to see if it brings some value.
CK: Any pitfalls that planners, in particular, should be aware of?
MW: Well, I think the pitfalls are apparent around some of the token economics. There’s a lot of hot air in the room. There was a lot of pumping up companies with very bad, frivolous ideas around blockchain, and those are all evaporating now that the VC dollars are pulling out of startups. But that’s how these things happen. When there’s a bubble, it needs to burst, and then we need to shake out the good ideas from the bad ideas. So to be wary of that, to be wary of blockchain being proposed as a panacea for all things. It’s a database that’s append-only. I’ll say that over and over again. It’s hard to break into.
But here’s the thing, it doesn’t store the amount of data that you’re used to storing. If someone says, “Let’s do a blockchain for your business licensing or your building licensing and your zoning program,” the question to ask is, how does that improve upon what we currently have, upon the permitting, the case management systems you have? Let’s talk through this. It can’t be permissionless. You need to know who’s entering that data. The citizens need to interact with it either by read-only anonymously or as an applicant. You need to have my information online, and it needs to be stored properly and secured. Blockchain’s not going to do that. KYC, or know your customer, isn’t something that they typically do.
Blockchains are small amounts of information, and their transaction speeds are not very fast. If you need sophisticated database triggers—I’ll come back to calendars. You have to do something within 30 days, and only certain people can use this information—the current case management systems handle that really well. If you need those records editable. I mean, I know of many instances where a case is constantly being built. Not everything in the database can be pre-populated and then made immutable. You need editing control. If you need that, you can’t use a blockchain. If you need multiple tables, if you need to store PDFs and images and other legal documents, like in Word documents or other formats, you’re not going to use a blockchain. You may use a blockchain for a component of this. And then the standard cloud, Web 2.0 technologies on everything else.
So there’s an overselling about what it can do, and you just need to be very wary about that and the criteria that need to be applied to it. So I’m actually growing a lot more skeptical of where it has value and where it doesn’t in government until there’s a greater evolution of this Web 3.0 technology. And it’s got to get to a place where the user design is as good as what we have now, and the ability to service it and have a support model and a sustainable model needs to be there. And governments need to see longevity around that. We can do pilot projects with startups. You can’t bake in a lot of assurances when you’re new to this field, and you have no prior experience. And this is a brand-new technology.
There’s the digital divide, too. We start to get further and further away from processes that people without digital skills or constant internet connections can use some of these tools. And I think that some of these conversations about blockchain and Web 3 leave those people out. And in government you’re going to have to have a paper-based process because someone needs to be able to come to the counter at some point. Not everyone’s going to be able to do this through an app or a website.
CK: Where do you turn for inspiration? Where do you look for examples of best practices and innovation in city services, perhaps, more generally?
MW: I’m lucky that as CIO, who has advocated and supported smart city programs and innovation, I’ve been looped into a couple of programs that are specifically for CIOs in those areas: innovation, smart city technology. One is the Cities Institute, and they produce a website called Cities Today that documents many of the advances or experiments, proofs of concept that are being done around the world around innovation in government. There’s a number of smart city websites that do some of the same things, but I think that they take a more in-depth approach. And they allow me to access a network of people across the United States. I can talk to them and get details.
So the city of LA tries a lot of things, especially around mobility. My friends in Louisville take innovation very seriously and have some good examples also on mobility, how they’ve looked at it and how they’ve solved for some digital divide issues by investing in their own community Wi-Fi work or equipment. The digital services side, a lot of municipalities and counties in Florida, actually, were leading there. I’ve learned a lot from city of Orlando. And Miami-Dade County had invested a lot in user design for their public websites. I think Philly is top of our game, though. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to our team. There’s also the US Ignite Group around the smart cities and also the digital divide. A lot of pairing of folks up from small communities and large communities there as we tackle those problems.
CK: Well, Mark, I appreciate your time and helping to break down what these emerging technologies are and their potential applications for the field of planning. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.
MW: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
CK: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of People Behind the Plans, an APA podcast. For more episodes, subscribe to the APA podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’re enjoying the show, please rate us on iTunes. And to listen to past episodes, visit planning.org/podcast. Until next time, thanks for listening.