Civic Tech Fundamentals

If you want to learn more about how design thinking is changing the way that digital public services are being built, you’d be wise to check out the latest issue of Civic Quarterly. It’s full of great insights from some of the best thinkers on this topic.

The idea of building civic technology “with, not for” was a prominent and consistent theme at last year’s Code for America Summit. I think this is a natural evolution in the way we build civic applications and how we can make them more effective. As groundbreaking and revelatory as the first generation of civic apps was, we now have insight into how we can build better, more inclusive civic tech solutions. This is exciting to see.

But as our thinking on civic technology evolves and as we develop new ways to collaborate with governments to build civic tech solutions, it is more important than ever that we pay attention to the fundamentals.

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Civic Tech Fundamentals

Command Line Data Science

When it comes to deriving useful results about the operation of government from open data sets, we have an enormous array of tools at our disposal that we can make use of. Often, we do not need sophisticated or expensive tools to produce useful results.

In this post, I want to use command line tools that are available on most laptops, and others that can be downloaded for free, to derive meaningful insights from a real government open data set. The following examples will leverage *nix-based tools like tail, grep, sort, uniq and sed as well as open source tools that can be invoked from the command line like csvkit and MySQL.

The data used in this post is from the NY State Open Data Portal for traffic tickets issued in New York State from 2008 – 2012.

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Command Line Data Science

Pursuing Change by Finding Balance

The recent crash of a quadcopter drone on the grounds of the White House has drawn attention to the absence of final rules from the FAA governing unmanned aircraft – rules that have now been in the works for years.

This one incident almost perfectly encapsulates the difficulty that governments have with keeping pace with changes in technology. Technology can change in a matter of months or even weeks, quickly making it easy and affordable for almost anyone to buy a drone. The process that the government uses to adopt new rules and regulations, that can govern how these newly affordable drones may be used, can take years to become final.

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Pursuing Change by Finding Balance

On Barriers to Adopting New Technologies

Interesting story in the Washington Post describing a survey of federal government technology managers.

The big takeaway from this survey seems to be that the majority of IT managers are enthusiastic about new technology and can see how it helps them do their jobs more effectively, but they question the government’s ability to keep pace with the private sector.

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On Barriers to Adopting New Technologies

Hacking the RFI Process

rfi

The Seattle Police Department recently held a hackathon.

When the event was initially announced, there was a fair bit of skepticism in the civic technology community with more than a few people stating that the event would likely not be a productive one, for either the Seattle Police or those that chose to attend. I was one of those skeptics – I thought the event was too narrowly focused and that the problem that attendees would be working to help resolve wouldn’t appeal to a broad enough audience for it to work as the organizers probably hoped.

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Hacking the RFI Process

Data is Law

“…[U]nless we understand how cyberspace can embed, or displace, values from our constitutional tradition, we will lose control over those values. The law in cyberspace – code – will displace them.”
— Lawrence Lessig (Code is Law)

In his famous essay on the importance of the technological underpinnings of the Internet, Lawrence Lessig described the potential threat if the architecture of cyberspace was built on values that diverged from those we believe are important to the proper functioning of our democracy. The central point of this seminal work seems to grow in importance each day as technology and the Internet become more deeply embedded into our daily lives.

But increasingly, another kind of architecture is becoming central to the way we live and interact with each other – and to the way in which we are governed and how we interact with those that govern us. This architecture is used by governments at the federal, state and local level to share data with the public.

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Data is Law

Unexpected Satisfaction from Falling Short

When 2013 closed out, I made a bold prediction.

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 3.20.35 PM

As it turned out, I came nowhere near writing and publishing my targeted number of blog posts, though I did write more on this site in 2014 than the year before (17 posts in 2013 vs. 25 in 2014). Adding up the number of posts for all of the other sites that I have written for this year (there are several), I’d say my total is around 50 original posts. Not bad, but well short of my original goal.

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Unexpected Satisfaction from Falling Short

Realtime Open Data

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about data being collected about cities through remote sensor networks.

iot-tweet

It’s never been easier to build DIY sensors, and some cities are starting to look seriously at how sensor data can inform better policy decisions and better investment of public resources.

It strikes me that this is a very relevant issue for those in the open data movement, as the data generated by urban sensor networks is likely to be mashed up with publicly available data from cities on crime, land use, service requests and a host of other things to drive better decision making. There’s a natural connection between the kinds of data we find in open data portals and the kind of data that is generated by emerging sensor networks.

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Realtime Open Data