The Future of Civic Tech

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Photo courtesy of flickr user r2hox.

Data is the lifeblood of civic technology.

It is the source of all innovation and advancement in civic tech, and is the basis for developing new ways of engaging with voters and taxpayers so that they may be informed about how government works and – hopefully – to help make it operate more effectively.

Without data, civic technology doesn’t work.

The good news is that more and more governments are opening up their data – adopting new open data policies and standing up new portals to share their data with the public (and themselves). This moves the needle on civic tech but, increasingly, it also highlights the single biggest challenge facing the civic tech community.

We lack well developed, widely adopted standards for data that will enable civic tech solutions to scale.

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Blood, Sweat & Civic Hacking

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Photo courtesy of flickr user Kheel Center.

The recent article “Open Data and Civic Apps: First-Generation Failures, Second Generation Improvements” by Melissa Lee, Esteve Almirall and Jonathan Wareham looks at early efforts to build civic applications through government-sponsored app challenges. 

The article evaluates the outcomes of some of the early government app challenges like the District of Columbia’s Apps for Democracy Contest and offers observations on several new approaches being employed by governments to derive “greater civic benefit” from open data programs.

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Thinking Differently About Data

Right before the New Year’s holiday, the City of Philadelphia released some very important information as open data.

The city released a data set showing outstanding property tax balances for properties in Philadelphia, making the data available as both a static download and through an API.

I’ve always believed that this data was incredibly important – not just because it might be used to help the city improve its dismal record on collecting delinquent property taxes (which help fund both city operations and the School District of Philadelphia), but also because of the potential to encourage people to think differently about how data can be used to reshape city services.

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Open Data and 21st Century Regulation

In early December, Airbnb made headlines by releasing some data on how people are using the company’s platform in New York City.

In doing so, the company has provided an object lesson in the critical role that data plays (and will continue to play) in government regulation of private companies in the 21st century, and highlighted how ill-equipped governments are to obtain and use this data.

Airbnb and the State

Over the past year, the use of Airbnb to rent properties in New York has received intense scrutiny from government regulators because of suspicion that a non-trivial amount of rentals listed on the site were in violation of state or city rules. In late 2014, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a report examining Airbnb rentals in New York that concluded that “most short-term rentals booked [through Airbnb’s service] in New York violate the law.”

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The Bomb, the Pill, and the Shot

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Joe Flintham.

A few days ago, Tom Steinberg – the founder and former director of mySociety – wrote a fascinating piece on power that was meant for people developing civic technology.

In a post on Medium, Tom clearly describes the nature of power as it relates to technology and implored civic technologists to think more directly about how power shifts can be caused by the development and adoption of new technologies. He uses the analogy of a nuclear bomb and the contraceptive pill to describe the different kinds of power shifts that can occur when technology becomes more broadly adopted.

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Thinking Small on Civic Tech

Designing simple systems is one of the great challenges of Government 2.0. It means the end of grand, feature-filled programs, and their replacement by minimal services extensible by others.

— Tim O’Reilly, Open Government

The original idea of Government as a Platform is now almost a decade old. In the world of technology, that’s a long time.

In that time, people working inside and outside of government to implement this idea have learned a lot about what works well, and what does not. In addition, we’ve seen some significant changes in the world of technology over the past decade or so, and the way the we develop solutions (both in the world of civic tech, and outside of it) have changed fairly dramatically.

The power of the original idea for Government as a Platform continues to echo in the world of civic tech and open data. I have no doubt that it will for a long time to come.

But in 2015 what does Government as a Platform actually look like, and what should it look like going forward into the future? What are its component parts? How does it manifest in terms of actual infrastructure, both inside and outside government?

And, most importantly, who controls this infrastructure and has a say in how it is shaped and used.

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Who Uses Civic Tech?

Who uses civic technology, and why should we care?

A new study from mySociety – a non-profit based in the UK that focuses on civic tech – helps us answer these questions and provides some invaluable information for the civic technology community, and for governments.

mySociety surveyed civic technology users in four countries to understand the characteristics of civic tech users and their attitudes toward the solutions they are using. This is an important study that will no doubt be discussed in great detail in the civic tech community, but I see two key takeaways that bear some immediate discussion.

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Density and Destiny

Perhaps no other process of government that has such a significant impact on people’s lives is as opaque and less understood as establishing the rules for land use.

Maybe the redistricting process. Maybe.

How land is zoned – the setting of specific requirements for how land may be used, and even how buildings and structures on land may be designed – is a complex process because discretion for setting zoning rules is generally delegated to local governments. My home state of New York provides a very comprehensive (though somewhat dated) guide for local communities that want to institute zoning rules. It’s a fascinating read.

Land use rules can fundamentally alter the character of communities, and there is an increasingly robust body of research that suggests that where you live – where you are born, grow up, access educational opportunities and job opportunities – helps determine your lot in life. There is also an abundance of information available that details how land use rules have added to the very serious problem of segregation in many communities in this country.

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In a time when our collective attention is focused on higher offices at the state and federal level, it’s easy to forget about local government officials – particularly at the town and village level – and the work that they do. County legislatures, city councils, town councils and village boards all have a part to play in deciding how land gets used – and, by extension, where people get to live.

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Rethinking Residency Requirements

Residency requirements for municipal employees are a contentious topic among local government officials, city employees, and taxpayers.

The idea that city employees will be more invested in their jobs and perform at a higher level if they live in the cities for which they work underpins most of the logic behind municipal residency requirements. Critics of these policies say it limits the personal freedom of city employees and shrinks the pool of potential candidates for local government jobs.

It is interesting for me to note the role that the City of Philadelphia has played in establishing the legal foundation supporting municipal residency requirements—a well known 1976 Supreme Court Case brought by a Philadelphia firefighter upheld the constitutionality of these policies. My own experience with residency requirements also comes from the City of Philadelphia and it  has very much informed my opinion of these policies in general.

I believe that the single most effective way that city governments could improve their ability to recruit and retain talented technology employees is to eliminate residency requirements for IT staff.

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Participation and the Cult of Catalogs

“Anonymous access to the data must be allowed for public data, including access through anonymous proxies. Data should not be hidden behind ‘walled gardens.’”
8 Principles of Open Government Data

In the world of open data, there are few things that carry more weight than the original 8 principles of open data.

Drafted by a group of influential leaders on open data that came together in Sebastopol, CA in 2007, this set of guidelines is the defacto standard for evaluating the quality of data released by governments, and is used by activists regularly to prod public organizations to become more open.

With this in mind, it was intriguing to hear a well known champion of open data at the Sunlight Foundation’s recent Transparency Camp in Washington DC raise some interesting questions about one of these principles, typically considered sacrosanct in the open data community.

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