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.
Image Courtesy of Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker
Getting a speeding ticket in the State of New York can be a traumatic – and expensive – experience.
Drivers convicted of speeding often face penalties and fines, and repeated or excessive offenses can result in the loss of a license. But in some places in New York State, drivers issued a speeding ticket may see a very different outcome than one would typically expect: a smaller fine, the avoidance of long-term penalties, and – oddly enough – additional money in local government coffers.
Last year, I wrote a post detailing some data science techniques that used a data set from the State of New York on traffic violations. This is an incredibly rich data set and it’s awesome that the state makes this available as open data. However, the issuance of traffic tickets only tells part of a larger story – since the release of this initial data set, the state has now released data on traffic ticket convictions. Comparing both of these data sets allows us to see the full picture of what happens when a traffic ticket is issued in the State of New York, from issuance all the way through to adjudication.
An examination of these data sets show that – in certain areas of the state – tickets issued for speeding are much more likely to be negotiated down to a lessor offense that allows drivers to avoid a penalty from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and actually provides a backdoor benefit for local governments.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sayamindu Dasgupta
A few months ago, I dug into the issue of how state and local governments regulate sharing economy companies that operate in their jurisdictions. I argued that open data should play an key role in a new regulatory approach for these 21st century companies.
With a new battle over how the sharing economy is regulated taking shape in the City of Chicago, I’m more convinced now than ever that open data can and should play a central role in how governments regulate this new breed of companies.
In my original post, I argued that one way to use open data to help local governments efficiently regulate sharing economy companies was to require them to submit data to the regulating government, possibly as open data on the government’s very own open data portal.
Thinking about it now, I think sharing data the other way may actually make more sense.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jonathan Khoo.
The centerpiece of any government open data effort is usually a data portal.
Data portals host open data or provide listings for datasets, and typically include things like license information, data schemas, developer documentation and a host of other details aimed at making it easier for end consumers to find and use data. There is a great deal of variation in the degree to which government data portals succeed in making it easier for people to find and use data – some do it very well, others do not.
In some ways, an open data portal can simultaneously represent all that is right with a government open data program – all the potential it has for changing the way government works and how people interact with their government – as well as all of its limitations.
I am not unbiased in this opinion.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nan Palmero
I recently had an opportunity to speak about open data at the annual Joint Education Conference of the Nevada Food Safety Task Force. Not the most obvious venue for a discussion of civic collaboration, but I sometimes go where the open data currents take me. And so it was this time.
Sandwiched in between talks about new technology to measure and collect data on food temperature and hand washing frequency at food service establishments, I made a pitch to those in attendance about the importance (and the power) of open data. A quick initial poll of the audience revealed just a few that knew about open data – what it was or why governments were interested in it. I sometime think these kinds of presentations – though an immediate positive reaction can be less certain – are often more impactful than presenting to groups that are already familiar with open data. They provide an opportunity to create new converts – a welcome idea to an old catholic school boy like myself on the road stumping for government innovation.
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 – 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.
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.
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.
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.