A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech, and a few upcoming civic hackathons to note.
This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.
Civic tech company SeeClickFix is attempting to market an app for employees to report terrible employers. Buzzfeed’s Caroline O'Donovan writes about the app, which is still in the design phase and doesn't yet have a name, but will be launch soon through the Workers Lab, a labor rights group based in Oakland, Calif. When released, the app will retrieve a user’s location and connect them with a list of local labor authorities.
When making a complaint, the app simplifies labor codes by walking an employee through a short questionnaire that identifies the grievance and shoots it to correct authority. SeeClickFix CEO Ben Berkowitz said his team of engineers is harnessing the same framework used by the company’s well-known 311 apps to let citizens report potholes, graffiti and other non-emergency issues.
Despite good intentions, the app's success or failure for hinges on whether it can ensure workers are safely guarded against reprisals. Berkowitz said SeeClickFix is investigating how best to handle privacy issues, a task he told BuzzFeed was not “unsurmountable” and something he was confident his team could achieve.
Even so, privacy among a user, a company and other users is one thing; privacy between a plaintiff and defendant (in this case, the employer) is another. The pursuit for anonymity complicates itself further when considering the fact 89.6 percent of employers, according to 2012 U.S. Census figures, are small businesses with less than 20 employees.
But this isn’t to say the app can’t provide a meaningful service. In higher profile cases that deal with sexual harassment, discrimination and workers comp issues, it could be a go-to app to decipher the complexities of labor codes while holding employers accountable. Further, if enough complaints are submitted against a company, it might prompt the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate or serve as a springboard for a class action lawsuit.
Data and data visualizations may seem a perfect pairing, but for many cities and states, the two often "mix" like oil and water. In a company blog post, MySideWalk CEO Nick Bowden unraveled the issue as he revealed his team labors to provide government agencies and departments a solution.
“Many of mySidewalk’s usersâ — âurban planners in the tiniest Midwestern towns to principals at global architecture firmsâ — âdon’t lack data,” Bowden said. “But a good number are swimming (or, more often drowning) in data by the time they come to us.”
The problem, he said, isn’t in the data gathering, but knowing which datasets to gather to create a meaningful discoveries. With this in mind, the company has gone to great lengths to construct a series of interactive graphic templates, what it calls its Template Library, for its citizen engagement platform.
“In addition to a data-enriched map, each template includes charts, layers and/or filters aligned to a theme,” Bowden said.
The templates offer insights for uses in U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant applications, housing affordability studies, transportation, emergency response, and economic development plans.
Exploring a template to gauge location affordability for median income residents, Bowden said that by inserting data sets like rental occupancy, home ownership and commuting statistics, officials could easily estimate the average percentage that income earners pay on transportation and housing — typically, the two biggest expenses.
Here's a quick shout out to a few notable hackathons in the coming months at each level of government:
Hack4Sac Civic Tech Challenge
What: In partnership with Code for Sacramento; the Center for Digital Government, owned by Government Technology's parent company e.Republic; and the Sacramento Area Council for Government, Sacramento County launches Hack4Sac to develop new solutions that improve customer service and help residents and businesses.
Dates: March 1 - April 12
Prizes: First place $5,000, Second $2,000, third $1,000
More details: hack4sac.saccounty.net
Make North America Trade Again
What: For the first time ever, the Department of Homeland Security, Commerce Department, State Department, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Dickinson-Wright and Northof41.org have come together with the tech community in Chicago to develop APIs, which allow entrepreneurs to develop software solutions to simplify the importing and exporting process.
Dates: Feb. 26-28, 2016
Prizes: $15,000 for winning teams
More details: crossborderhackathonchicago.splashthat.com
What: The first installment of the 2016 Hack Indiana Series pits developers, coders and designers against challenges from state government agencies to hack for the greater good.
Dates: Feb 26 – 27, 2016
Prizes: $1,500 Cash Prizes
More details: incapitolhack.devpost.com