This Week in Civic Tech: Google Leads Voters to Polls, San Rafael Reveals Digital Plans

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / August 18, 2016
Hacker activity affecting the vote count in a few key districts in a small subset of states could swing a tight election race in one direction or the other. Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

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 Friday for updates.

Google Search takes on voting

Google is famous for its ability to bring people to information, but now it’s attempting to bring voters to polling stations. The Mountain View, Calif., company has updated itsrobust search platform with a feature that informs users how and where they can vote in the presidential election on Nov. 8.

Web visitors type “vote,” or other types of voting keywords into the search bar, Google will display the tool that provides details based on a user’s geographic location. At a glance, the voting feature is styled much like Google’s quick reference help section. Answers are brief, bulleted, and filled with hyperlinks for additional resources. Key information consists of requirements for in-person or mail-in voting, acceptable forms of identification, voting deadlines and how to register to vote online. All of this guidance is specific to a user’s state, then drills down into specific counties. The only service Google can’t provide directly is information about the polling places since it doesn’t have access to the home addresses of its users.

Yet, as an added highlight to the Web app, Google said it will offer nonprofits, academics, journalists and others data from both its “how to vote” app and its “how to register to vote” app — a tool released last July — via a request form.

A map depicting voting search interest between 2012 and 2016 notes an increase in all states except Oregon and Kansas, while California, West Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine boast voting keyword search increases of more than 200 percent.

It should be noted that this is not Google’s first venture into voting. In 2012, Google had a Politics & Election site for political news, a live Election Hub to watch party conventions, and an online voter guide to assist citizens. There has also been an experimental program called Google Votes that empowers employees to vote on company decisions based on a system that categorizes issues and allows staff to either vote themselves or award their vote to a fellow voter they consider an expert in the category.

San Rafael, Calif.’s, plan for digital transformation

This month San Rafael, Calif., has released a beta site along with a new strategy to modernize its digital presence. The Bay Area city just north of San Francisco plans to revitalize its outreach and citizen services with a number of digital upgrades.

“We are reimagining the experience our residents, businesses and visitors have with San Rafael,” said City Manager Jim Schutz. “This means a new focus on our digital approach to civic engagement and government operations, especially as more and more of us rely on the Web to communicate and get things done.”

With its new site as a starting point, the approach calls for exploration of open data, digital feedback, analytics, transparency and civic engagement. In a release, the city said future digital initiatives might include open financial Web apps and economic development tools for local businesses.

San Rafael Senior Management Analyst Rebecca Woodbury, who is spearheading the work, has collaborated with officials to establish a set of values the city will adopt when partnering with vendors and selecting projects. These attributes emphasize transparency, accessibility, “continuous improvement and learning,” in addition to “authentic and responsive [citizen] engagement.”

The site, that is in the middle of a beta testing period before it launches early next year, will offer residents a mobile-friendly design, security and privacy features as well as a new content management system for staff. The startup ProudCity has provided the technical skills for the site while the startup Romulus is assisting San Rafael with its customer relationship management system to connect officials with citizens.

“We’re excited to approach the future of San Rafael digital from this foundation and quickly expand to other online service offerings,” Woodbury said.

There's more to smart cities than apps

Using Boston’s honking car horns and congested side streets as a backdrop, Julian Agyeman and Duncan McLaren remind would-be civic innovators that great apps often demand equally great policies. The two co-authored the book Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities, and from their experience, proffered technologists and "intrapreneurial" government types a constructive reality check. (Intrapreneurs are employees within a company assigned to work on a special idea or project, and they are instructed to develop the project like an entrepreneur would, according to Investopedia.)

In an article by the Boston Globe, McLaren, an independent researcher, and Agyeman, a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy & Planning at Tufts University, said there are many scenarios where IT innovation just isn’t enough. Often, the two argue, the tech industry’s assumption that ingenuity can outmaneuver politics is flawed thinking.

“[This assumption] encourages the belief that there’s always 'an app for that' — that we can address deep-seated, structural urban problems through business-led technological innovation and somehow sidestep the messiness of inclusive politics,” McLaren and Agyeman said.

To illustrate their point, they point to “Boston’s perpetual traffic problems” and the city’s partnership with the traffic app Waze. The 2015 Super Bowl in Boston led to a partnership to update drivers and the municipal Traffic Management Center with real-time traffic conditions. While a remedy, the two said real impacts required more.

“This may seem like a great idea, and it makes people feel good about a public-private partnership based on information technology,” they said. “But as with much crisis-driven policymaking, it merely represents a Band-Aid slapped over a problem that still requires brave new political thinking and much-needed infrastructure investment.”

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.