In late 2014, I had a chance to present on the main stage at the annual Code for America Summit in San Francisco. To the surprise of very few people, I was there to talk about cities and data.
Earlier that year, I had finished up my term as the first Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the country. But my focus that day was not on big cities like Philadelphia—but rather on smaller cities that had not yet started down the road of leveraging data to spur innovation and inform better policy decisions.
In 2014, the delta between what large cities were doing with data and what small and mid-sized cities were doing was pretty stark.
Image courtesy of Flickr user antonymayfield. View license here.
I’ve had the opportunity recently to talk to people in several different city governments that are facing a common challenge — how to liberate operational data from a legacy system.
This is a challenge that lots of city governments face, and it strikes me that there are some common lessons that can be derived from cities that have gone down this road already for those that are still trying to figure out the right approach.
The following suggestions are crafted from my own experience as a municipal government official charged with making data more widely available, and those of people in similar positions that I’ve had a chance to speak with.
Late last year, I wrote a book devoted to civic hacking based on my experience working in state and local government, and inside civic tech communities.
It’s a book meant for public servants and people working inside government who want to connect with innovators and technologists outside of the bureaucracy. The premise is simple – governments need to find more effective ways of collaborating with members of their local civic tech communities:
Governments must develop strategies for engagement that can help direct the efforts of outside technology experts to issues or challenges that will have the broadest impact and the largest potential payoff. They will need to learn how to rally people with special talents to a particular cause or challenge, and then to turn those outside efforts into tangible outcomes for government agencies. They must learn to view the technology community as a potential talent pool from which they can draw a new generation of public servants who possess unique expertise in digital service creation.
It’s open source and available on Github. If you have a suggestion for how I can make it better, send a pull request or open a new issue.
I hope you enjoy it.
Flickr image courtesy of Flickr user bitterbuick
We live in a time when people outside of government have better tools to build things with and extract insights from government data than governments themselves.
These tools are more plentiful, more powerful, more flexible, and less expensive than pretty much everything government employees currently have at their disposal. Governments may have exiting relationships with huge tech companies like Microsoft, IBM, Esri and others that have an array of different data tools — it doesn’t really matter.
In the race for better data tools, the general public isn‘t just beating out the public sector, its already won the race and is taking a Jenner-esque victory lap.
This isn’t a new trend.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Richard Cahan
The title of “Chief Data Officer” – once an uncommon one in state and municipal governments – is becoming less uncommon. And that’s a very good thing for public sector innovation.
As recently as a few years ago, Chief Data Officers were found almost exclusively in big city governments like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Municipal governments provide services that touch citizens’ lives in more intimate ways than states or the federal government, and big cities have a critical mass of data that is attractive to the growing community of users with powerful tools for mapping and analyzing data. So it’s no surprise that cities have led the way in creating new, data-focused positions like CDOs, and in releasing open data to the public.
But increasingly, state governments and small to midsized cities are appointing Chief Data Officers, and creating new positions that focus almost exclusively on data. For example, earlier this year the City of Syracuse (a city of approximately 145,000 in Central New York) appointed it’s very first Chief Data Officer. It’s worth noting that this is not a stand alone position as in some other cities. The CDO position in Syracuse was deliberately made part of the city’s internal innovation team (which is funded through the Bloomberg Philanthropies iTeam program) and plays an integral part in the city’s efforts to use data internally to provide services more efficiently.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Oliver Hine.
Last August, a study from the Century Foundation identified cities in Upstate New York as places with some of the highest concentrations of poverty for African American and Hispanic populations anywhere in the nation. The problem is particularly acute in the City of Syracuse which holds the distinction of having the highest level of poverty concentration among African American and Hispanic populations of the one hundred largest metropolitan areas in the U.S.
This problem isn’t Syracuse’s alone – the study shows that Rochester and Buffalo also have serious problems with concentrated poverty. But the Salt City is an unfortunate standout in this report. In addition to have the highest concentrations of poverty among African Americans and Hispanics, when looking at concentrated poverty among non-Hispanic whites “…Detroit, Fresno, and Syracuse are the only metropolitan areas on all three lists.”
The Century Foundation’s findings echo those of an earlier study with a similar scope conducted by CNY Fair Housing, Inc. which found that the Syracuse area is “one of the worst scoring cities in the country when looking at equality of opportunity based on race and ethnicity.” Given what we know about how concentrated poverty affects the life outcomes for people who live in it, it’s hard to imagine a more serious drag on the growth and well being of our region than deliberately forcing people to live in places where they are surrounded by poverty and given them few options of getting out.
But that’s exactly what we do.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bart Heird.
The term “civic tech” gets used a lot, and it often means different things to different people. To me, this has always meant that the work being done in this area is dynamic, growing, and evolving rapidly – all good things that suggest the impact of civic technology will ultimately be broad and durable. I’ve never been prone to excessive handwringing.
I believe very firmly that the most important thing about civic technology has nothing to do with technology at all. Real people – with empathy and a desire to make their community better – are the most important kind of civic technology. A recently released report on civic technology by Omidyar Network entitled Engines of Change underscores this idea, and helps emphasize that the connections between people – both inside the civic tech community and outside it – are what’s most important to its future growth.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Spiterman
There’s an interesting piece on open data APIs on GovTech that echos a lot of the things I’ve thought and said about government APIs over the past few years. It’s worth a read.
APIs are an increasingly important way that governments make their open data available to outside users. Typically, when we talk about open data APIs (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) its almost always with a focus on either the technical underpinnings and data on one side, or the benefits that citizens will ultimately reap from the data being made available on the other.
There are far too seldom discussions of what lies in the middle of these two ends and how this critical piece ultimately helps make government open data APIs better and citizens better off.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user fallsroad.
The most important thing about civic technology has nothing to do with technology at all.
The term “civic technology” gets used a lot, and it may mean different things to different people. I think this highlights the fact that the work being done in this area is dynamic, growing, and evolving rapidly — all good things that suggest the impact of civic technology will be broad and durable.
For me, the term civic technology is inextricably related to the world of civic hacking. I began my career in government in what I would describe as the “old fashioned way”: graduate school to study public administration followed by work on political campaigns. Having now worked for three different state and local governments in both the legislative and executive branches, I consider civic hacking and civic technology to be the future of how governments will deliver services.
Civic Hack Day in Baltimore – February 12, 2011
In early 2012, I had the opportunity to present at the annual South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, TX. The focus of my presentation was the lessons learned from two civic hacking events in late 2011 that I had helped organize in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
This was an exciting time for me professionally. After leaving government to become a professional software developer and technology evangelist in the early 2000s, I had been drawn back into the world of government a few years prior through the open data movement. By 2011, I was working regularly with budding civic tech communities in two different but geographically close cities. I was able to collaborate with groups of people who cared deeply about the future of their cities and who were committed to making a difference.
It was also an exciting time for civic tech—Code for America was launching its Brigade network at the 2012 SXSWi conference and while there I had a chance to meet and talk with Jen Pahlka, Tim O’Reilly, and Kevin Curry (who went on to build out the Code for America Brigade program and scale it nationally). I was so moved by Jen’s vision for civic tech that I ended up leaving my job with a telecommunications startup and joined Code for America myself a few short weeks after SXSWi ended.
Thinking back on this time, it strikes me that the experience of the two cities I got to talk about then can tell us a lot about what it takes to build and grow a civic tech community. I think it’s exciting that there are places where leaders have essentially figured out how to nurture and sustain civic tech. But I would argue that there are many places where this issue has not yet been resolved, and even some places where civic tech groups once flourished by have have since gone dormant.
Of interest to me personally, there are also a great many places—particularly small and mid-sized cities—where civic tech organizing has not yet begun.