This Week in Civic Tech: Hillary Clinton Supports 18F and USDS, Obama Signs FOIA Improvement Act

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

by / June 30, 2016
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks about the value of philanthropy in the technology industry at the 2014 Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. Salesforce.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 week for updates.

Hillary Promises Support of 18F, USDS
On Tuesday, June 28, President Obama’s IT innovation teams at 18F and the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) secured a huge endorsement from presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. In a briefing, the Clinton campaign published core commitments to federal IT, among which was a promise for continued support of the two federal agencies.

“Hillary will make the USDS and other digital services a permanent part of the executive branch to ensure that technical innovation becomes an ongoing feature of the American governance,” the campaign statement read.

The two groups were praised for their work fixing the president’s health-care exchange HealthCare.gov, improving the benefits distribution system at the Department of Veteran Affairs, and streamlining immigration applications and college selection for students. If elected, Clinton said she would expand the scope of both groups inside the federal government and out, exploring service options at the state and local levels as well.

Clinton’s endorsement is especially critical for the USDS, which has teams in various agencies and a central branch headquartered at the White House Office of Management and Budget. To safeguard USDS’ work in 2015, the Obama administration coordinated an effort to house individual chapters inside different agencies where they would be less susceptible to changes from an incoming administration. For the USDS group within the White House, however, its presence and structure is entirely dependent upon the next president's approval.

Clinton said she will charge USDS to transform the top 25 federal services that directly serve citizens, redesigning each with detailed performance metrics. Additionally, she said USDS would be responsible for engineering a “Yelp for government” service, a system that would allow citizens to rate services and give public feedback. She did not specify if this initiative was a separate endeavor or connected with the federal government’s current partnership with Yelp, which has created ratings and reviews profile pages for some agencies on its site.

Beyond these commitments, Clinton said staples to her tech policy focus on generating more jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; expanding broadband and Internet accessibility, increasing U.S. tech exports, creating a tech policy that fosters smart procurement; and using open data and cutting-edge technology to improve citizen services.

President Obama Signs FOIA Improvement Act
On June 30, only a few days away from the Freedom of Information Act’s 50-year anniversary on July 4, President Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act, effectively raising transparency standards that agencies must follow for public records requests.

Through the years, FOIA has suffered. Agencies have taken advantage of the law’s exemptions, using them to deny requests without providing a reason or evidence for withholding information. Sometimes requests would take years to complete; other times requests would receive no response at all, frustrating researchers, watchdog groups and journalists seeking access. The new law updates the old with “a presumption of openness,” a term meaning that all nonclassified government documents are open unless an agency can prove their release would cause specific harm.

Despite bipartisan support for the law, it was unclear whether it could be passed. In a post by the Sunlight Foundation, a transparency group that has lobbied for the bill, the final law was described as a successful compromise, “neither as strong nor as flawed a bill as it might have been.”

Ironically enough, the law met heavy resistance — from the agency responsible for its enforcement: the U.S. Department of Justice. Its leader, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, sent a memo to Congress opposing a series of key reforms to the law and had her department actively lobby against the bill in Congress. She argued that the reforms would be burdensome to the staff members who would have to carry them out. The memo went on to say that the reforms “would chill intragovernmental communication.”

Now that the bill has passed, the next steps will require a joint effort to ensure changes take effect. According to Alex Howard, Sunlight's senior analyst of federal policy, increased oversight, new technology, procurement reforms and staff education will likely be needed. Additionally, he called for a continued vigilance by transparency advocates.

“These laws are worth protecting from the inevitable attempts at repeal and weakening by politicians and bureaucrats who would prefer to keep their mistakes, fraud or outright corruption out of the public eye, and reforming when issues with implementation or compliance emerge,” Howard said.

Chicago’s Advances OpenGrid 
Chicago is calling on civic technologists to finish design on OpenGrid, the city’s open source platform that give citizens access to real-time city data.

In a recent blog post by Chicago’s IT department, officials said that starting July 8, it would be hosting open weekly conference calls for interested participants willing to contribute to the platform or who are considering adopting it within their own cities and organizations. Since it launched in January, Chicago has given the platform three updates and hopes to refine it further.

“The aim of these calls is to better engage potential contributors or adopters of the platform,” city IT officials wrote on the blog. “That interaction will allow better planning, road mapping and divvying-up tasks.”

Some of its primary functions now allow users to navigate an interactive map of the city for latest details down to their individual neighborhoods and blocks. This information might include open and closed service requests, closed streets, nearest potholes or where to find restaurants that have passed city inspection.

The post didn’t indicate any specific new features on tap, but if the platform is as robust as its parent system WindyGrid, there are quite few possibilities.

WindyGrid, launched in 2014 as Chicago’s first big data management platform and initially funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, serves as an information hub for every department in real time and gathers more than 7 million rows of data per day. The resource has allowed the city to launch a number of analytics and predictive analytics programs with its features.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

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