Civic-Tech Movement Uses Data to Make a Real Difference

At the fourth annual Big Data Summit, it was also discussed how this movement faces issues of discoverability.

by Ben Zigterman, News-Gazette (Champaign, Ill.) / November 14, 2016
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- CHAMPAIGN — At the fourth annual Big Data Summit, several speakers shared why they believe technology and open data can be used for everything from helping end world hunger to informing citizens about sewage in the Chicago River.

"We stand at the beginning of this new era of technology-driven transformation," said Adam Hecktman, Microsoft's director of technology and civic innovation for Chicago.

He told a crowd of 400-plus Thursday at the University of Illinois Research Park that he believes the civic-tech movement can use this technology and data to make a real difference.

In Chicago, a community of programmers and designers have built apps that use the city's open data to enact change and inform citizens. This includes istheresewageinthechicagoriver.com, which tracks when raw sewage is released into the Chicago River and notifies its users.

Other projects include a zoning map designed to look like the video game Sim City and another that tracks legislation in the Chicago City Council.

"We work with the local civic tech ecosystems to use technology to enable solutions and partnerships that are created by regular people, created by everybody for everybody," Hecktman said. "It ensures solutions that are meeting the needs of a diverse array of people and a diverse array of issues that face us."

The civic-tech and open-data movements have grown with the ubiquity of personal technology. In 2009, the Obama administration launched Data.gov with 47 data sets and added to that over time. (It now has more than 190,000.)

Illinois also has a data portal at data.illinois.gov, which the city of Champaign has contributed to. And several cities, such as Chicago, have launched their own open-data portals.

In 2015, Urbana launched its data website at data.urbanaillinois.us, and IT director Sanford Hess said it has helped city employees, council members and others easily access financial and police data.

"We focused initially on helping people know, where's my budget stand. And I do see people using it for that," Hess said. "And in terms of some of the policing discussion, it's been helpful for people to bring facts to the discussion, and council makes the decisions from there."

The city spends about an hour or less each week uploading the latest data to the website, Hess said, and some of that has been automated.

To make the data more accessible, Urbana created its own "Open Expenditures" web app that lets visitors view the city's spending charted by month, department, vendor and expense category.

But the city hasn't seen a community form that works with the data to create tools, as has happened in Chicago.

"In Chicago, you have enough people. People have engaged with that data and started doing interesting things with it," Hess said. "That's done by people extending from what the city has done. That's where I hope things move here."

Hecktman, a UI alumnus, said he is optimistic that Champaign-Urbana could foster a local civic-tech movement.

"Champaign-Urbana has a bunch of things going for it. Number one, the university provides that automatic youthful group of people that want to get experience and skills," he said.

"And number two, the cities themselves host a lot of forward-thinking companies that also have employees that want to get engaged with their cities. It has everything that you need in the foundation to start an active civic tech movement."

Cities should identify their civic priorities, he said, and reach out to the tech community because "I can almost promise you they'd be able to get more people that are interested than they ever would've imagine."

While Hecktman is optimistic about the role of technology and data, he and others at the summit expressed some caution and explored some of the challenges.

"With that opportunity also comes challenges," he said. "It is possible to imagine a much darker future, in which automation drives millions of people out of the workforce, or income inequality goes from being an issue to becoming an unbridgeable chasm."

At a panel on data visualization, while not directly addressing civic tech, the panelists warned about potential privacy issues and urged conference attendees to consider diverse backgrounds when handling and presenting big data sets.

Panelist Manny Najera, a software engineer at Jump Trading, cited an app that discouraged people from entering "sketchy" neighborhoods based on user ratings and various data sets. The app is no longer available and was roundly criticized as a tool for helping people avoid black neighborhoods.

"You need diversity in the room to be the voice," Najera said. "Big data isn't just this anonymous thing. It's always presented by somebody."

The civic tech movement also faces issues of discoverability. While many organizations and governments publish open data sets, they don't publish all of them in the same place.

Furthermore, some government entities aren't on board with open data.

"You still see a lot of suburban, exurban and rural areas that, if they're putting out their data at all, it's in PDF, and it's not very useful," Hecktman said in a panel discussion on civic tech innovations.

And on the international level, Jaime Adams, senior adviser for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said many countries aren't willing to give up their agriculture data, which she believes could help researchers find ways to end world hunger.

"Many countries around the world still protect their national agriculture and nutrition data as a national security asset," Adams said.

Hecktman and Adams were keynote speakers at the Big Data Summit, which was hosted by UI's Research Park and sponsored by Capital One and John Deere.

More than 400 people were registered for Thursday's event at the I Hotel, many from Fortune 500 companies, Research Park associate director Laura Bleill said.

"Champaign-Urbana, not just because of the university, but also because of the Research Park, is seen as a thought leader in the area of big data," Bleill said. "Through industry, academia, plus the collaboration of the two, plus the startup community, (big data) is a major force driving the growth of the tech industry here."

That is part of the reason Hecktman came to the summit to speak about civic tech.

"We're problem-solvers looking for fellow problem-solvers," he said.

"When I came down here to meet with (Research Park director) Laura (Frerichs) and her team, I was really looking for what kind of problem-solvers do we have here in Research Park, and it turns out, they're ample."

©2016 The News-Gazette (Champaign, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.