The Changing Role of the Government CDO

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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.

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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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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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Buck the system or work the system?


“Systems are broken because they exist to sustain themselves, and the people who run the system rely on the system to stay the same. Why should they change it? It works well for them.”

Chris Guillebeau

My friends at Technical.ly Philly ran an interesting piece yesterday about the long road to the release of an important data set on property valuations and ownership in the City of Philadelphia. It’s definitely worth a read.

The story is compelling for many reasons. It details the interactions of a small group of people (myself included) moving into and out of government and employing different strategies to win the release of property data – a resource much sought after in the journalism and civic hacking communities in Philadelphia. Throughout the story an interesting dichotomy emerges.

“Buck the system” or “work the system” – which approach works better?

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Civic Tech: Days of Future Past

A new focus on the user

These days, in the world of civic technology, it’s all about the user.

Digital government service redesign, with an enhanced focus on a higher quality user experience, is being institutionalized in the federal governments of the U.K., U.S and Australia. The civic technology community is rallying around a new focus on building solutions that are needs-responsive and community-driven.

“Build with, not for” became the unofficial theme of last year’s Code for America Summit, and the upcoming Personal Democracy Forum in New York will feature a similar theme with talks and panels focused on broader engagement and inclusiveness in the development of civic technology.

Organizations like Code for America have long been focusing on redesigning government service interfaces, but this idea now seems to have permeated every corner of the civic technology movement. This wider embrace of the need to enhance the user experience with government is coupled with a recognition that civic tech solutions are most effective when developed with the full participation of those that they are meant to benefit from them.

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Getting More Civic In Our Apps

Uber is not generally characterized as “civic technology” company. But the recent announcement their request API seems like a real game changer to me.

Today, the Uber API team is excited to announce the public release of our Request endpoint. With the Uber API’s initial launch last August, we made it easy to surface information about Uber products within third party applications, but getting a ride always required deep-linking to the Uber app. With the Request endpoint, you can now build applications that incorporate the entire Uber experience.

There are a number of very practical applications that can be built on the Uber platform which have a clear civic value that are now within easy reach of developers.

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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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Altitude Training for Data

The benefits of treating data like an operational asset are real, and governments that fully embrace open data stand to benefit the most.

When governments open up data that they make use of themselves to improve revenue collections and other aspects of their operations, its like training at altitude.

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Hacking the RFI Process

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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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