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Interview with Michael Lake, Founder, Leading Cities; and Jess Beutler, Program Associate, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team

When you walk through Impact Hub Boston, you notice the systems and infrastructure that help make the co-working space sustainable and community-friendly. Trash cans are clearly labelled for recyclable, compostable, and inorganic materials to ensure responsible waste disposal. Communal tables and gathering areas build opportunities to mingle and collaborate, while quieter desk spaces allow for focused work. 

As society continues to centralize and urban areas grow, thoughtful design of offices and cities is becoming more important than ever. Within the walls of Impact Hub Boston, two organizations (Leading Cities and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) work to ensure that we build “Sustainable Cities and Communities” aligned with United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11. 

Tell me about Leading Cities. Why did you start this nonprofit and what is its value proposition for society?

Michael: “I started our working in policy at the White House during the Clinton administration and Impact Hub Boston coworking space member Mike Lake holds a sign with the SDG 11 symbolthereafter was working on other campaigns in Massachusetts. I also spent time as the Director of Development at the United Way of Massachusetts Bay. Then Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs reached out to me to be on their board. The Dean asked me to join to create a network for Northeastern to share existing research on urban policy. The hope was to use the research and collaborate across sectors to implement it. I became increasingly interested in lifting cities up by creating a framework to compare them, without creating a culture of ranking. Otherwise, ranking creates a zero-sum game where cities are disincentivized to work together.”

“In 2014 we ended up spinning off the Northeastern initiative to become an official nonprofit, to become what today is Leading Cities. Now we have numerous programs that follow our philosophy of open data and cross-sectoral alliances. We want cities to identify best practices and adapt them to improve their sustainability and livability.”

“The result is a culture of inter-city collaboration and open data through a variety of programs, such as our Partner Cities Network and Member Network, our Leading Cities Rating system, and one of our newest programs, AcceliCITY. AcceliCITY is a Global Smart City Startup Competition that we piloted in 2018 to challenge innovative thinkers to design solutions for cities. We knew that cities are adopters of innovation, so it made sense to offer a platform for them to pose their challenges to startups and universities. AcceliCITY was a huge success in its first year–identifying 14 finalists from among more than 550 applicants to compete for $100,000 in funding and paid pilot projects–and is now one of our signature programs.”

What is the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team? What is its value proposition for society?

Jess: “Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) started in response to the earthquake in Haiti in Impact Hub Bost Coworking Member Jess Beutler holds a sign with the SDG 11 symbol2010. For disaster relief workers to respond they needed detailed maps to know where there were households in need, sources of water, and the many other resources that we keep track of on a map. Using the OpenStreetMap platform started in the UK, a group of Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross, and other disaster-response workers began mapping in Haiti to manage the ensuing cholera outbreak.” 

“Today HOT has expanded to create maps in support of all of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and provides maps to organizations around the world including nonprofits, governments, and multilaterals like the United Nations and the WorldBank. We’ve learned that maps can be used reactively to reach people in a crisis, or proactively to increase resilience and reduce the risk of disaster. For example, my most recent work has been on The World Bank’s Open Cities Africa project. The project brought together 11 cities from across the continent and trained community members to create locally-developed maps. These maps are being used to improve flood resilience and the inclusion of community voices in government decisions.” 

There are many targets within SDG 11; which of them does your organization focus on?

Leading Cities: 

  • 11.3 By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.
  • 11.7 By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team: 

  • 11.1 By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.
  • 11.B By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters, and develop and implement, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, holistic disaster risk management at all levels.

Both Leading Cities and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team: 

  • 11.2 By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.
  • 11.5 By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations.
  • 11.6 By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management.

What is your second-favorite SDG and why?

Michael: “Affordable and Clean Energy. Sustainable Cities of the future will need to integrate affordable and clean energy into their structures in order to be successful.”

Jess: “SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being is my second-favorite SDG. While working with HOT on projects in Botswana, Tanzania and Guatemala, I have been able to witness how accurate maps can dramatically increase the effectiveness of community health workers in areas where maps have never been available. These hyper-local maps are essential for getting the right people to the right place, at the right time. The impact we have in this regard is a constant motivation for me.”

Any calls to action? How can our readers make your work more impactful?

Michael: “Leading Cities is strengthening a global ecosystem to increase the sustainability, resilience, and equity within cities worldwide. Last week, we launched our AcceliGOV program that will allow folks to nominate their city to compete for a free pilot deployment of a cybersecurity solution. This will protect a city and its residents, workers, and visitors from cyber attacks, data privacy threats, and mitigate the risk of city services like public transportation or the 9-1-1 system from being held hostage.” 

“Take 30 seconds right now to nominate your city for this powerful solution by visiting Additionally, if you know a Smart City startup, please stay tuned for the launch of our 2020 AcceliCITY Applications (coming in April 2020) at”

Jess: “In the Global North we can locate ourselves within seconds and easily share that location with others. However, over a billion people around the world are not represented on any map–their homes, places of work, even their entire town or village, are missing. Many of these people are also the same 200 million impacted by disasters each year. That has huge implications when an emergency responder is trying to reach their building, or when the government decides to distribute public services.”

“You can actively volunteer to support these efforts by becoming a remote mapping volunteer. Through the Missing Maps initiative, you can learn to map the most vulnerable communities and collaborate on international mapping projects.”