Driving Innovation Beyond The Big City

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.

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Operation Data Liberation

jenga

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.

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Read My Book

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.

book-picture

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.

Building the Government Data Toolkit

tools

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.

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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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Civic Tech Organizing: A Tale of Two Cities

Civic Hack Day in Baltimore - February 12, 2011

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.

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Philly’s New Mayor is Serious About Open Data

The big news recently in Philadelphia open data circles is the release of city employee salary information.

For the first time ever, the City of Philadelphia will make public – in easily usable formats – salary information on every city employee, including elected officials. This data is now available for anyone to download freely from the city’s open data portal and it will be updated quarterly.

Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall – photo courtesy of Flickr user Michael Righi.

No doubt about it – this is a major victory for journalists, good government advocates and open data enthusiasts in Philadelphia. But it’s also a victory for everyone that lives or works in Philadelphia. A fuller discussion of why this benefits everyone may be a key to understanding how the tenure of the city’s new Mayor may differ from the last one, particularly with respect to how the new administration engages and interacts with the public.

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Civic Onboarding

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chuck Simmins

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chuck Simmins

Tomorrow, the President will speak at SXSW and issue a call to action for people inside and outside government to collaborate and solve the hard problems facing our country. This is a call to action that governors and mayors should echo – our communities are filled with people that want to help.

Reading about the Community Diaper Project and other efforts to get affordable disposable diapers to low income families got me so excited about recruiting those from outside government to work on hard problems that I forgot I have written about this before. I missed a lot in my first post.

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Shoveling for Civic Tech Gold

Snow removal

Photo courtesy of flickr user SalemSaugusNPS

Unshoveled sidewalks during the winter months are a persistent problem for cities in the snow belt.

For places with significant snowfall, unshoveled sidewalks pose a challenge to public safety and mobility for those that rely on walking (or public transit), and present an especially acute problem for those that have physical impairments. Uncleared snowfall on other kinds of public infrastructure – like fire hydrants – also poses dangers for city residents and public safety workers.

This is a sometimes daunting issue for cities that government officials, community groups and civic technologists perennially struggle with. Over the past several years, a number of civic technology projects have been initiated with the goal of mitigating the problem of uncleared sidewalks and other public infrastructure in cities. Few have been widely adopted, and – if we’re being honest – the impact of these efforts on reducing the problems associated with uncleared snowfall has been minimal.

Certain aspects of the problem seems relatively straightforward, and would appear to be a pretty good fit for a properly designed civic app. But despite several different efforts, there is not yet a widely adopted civic tech solution that most people would agree has had a meaningful impact on the problem.

In many ways, unshoveled sidewalks help highlight both the potential and the limitations of civic technology.  For those that care about civic tech, this issue is worth understanding more fully.

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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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