What's New in Civic Tech: AI Compiles Database of Trump's Words, Crowdsourcing App Leads to Policy Change in Chicago

Plus, data storytelling at the Department of Defense and a conversation about civic tech under the president-elect.

by / January 5, 2017
A search for all the times Donald Trump has said the word "technology" on Factba.se. Screenshot/Factba.se

What's New in Civic Tech is a look at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

Tool Uses AI to Compile Database of Trump’s Words

It can be difficult, at times, to figure out how U.S. President-elect Donald Trump feels about certain issues. Take civic tech, a topic on which he has been virtually silent.

Enter Factba.se, a website that has used artificial intelligence (AI) to compile a free, searchable database of the president-elect’s words — including video, tweets, documents and interviews.

“Factba.se does not engage in news or interpretation. Instead, our goal is to make available, unedited, the entire corpus of an individual’s public statements and recordings,” reads the mission statement on the website. “We will locate, transcribe, index and make available this information to the public, linking directly to the originating source.”

According to the website, the makers of the tool trained a neural network to recognize when Trump was talking in videos. This allowed them to create a setup where users can find clips of Trump talking about, for example: “data” — 43 hits; “technology” — 100 hits; or “software” — 22 hits.

The people behind the tool, Virginia-based CantyMedia, hope to sell pro versions for analyzing more than just Trump’s words.

Civic Tech-Inspired Recycling Ordinance Goes into Effect in Chicago

At the beginning of the year, one Chicago resident’s years-long struggle to improve recycling in her city came to victory. And she used technology to do it.

Jan. 1 was the effective date for a Chicago city ordinance strengthening the language of its recycling rules. The ordinance raises fines on building owners who fail to offer recycling to residents, calls for single-stream recycling and includes a tenant education component.

The council passed the ordinance in July after Chicagoan Claire Micklin and the Chicago Hack Night group launched an app called “My Building Doesn’t Recycle.” The online tool basically acted as a 311 service where residents could report buildings that weren’t complying with the city’s recycling requirements. According to a post from Micklin, the city was supposed to be fining those owners all along — they just didn’t enforce the statute that called for the penalties.

The app received local press coverage and led to the passage of the city ordinance.

Data.mil to Feature One “Compelling Data Story” Per Month in 2017

It’s not enough for Mary Lazzeri and Aaron Capizzi to just release the data. They want it to mean something.

So in 2017, they aim to put up one “compelling data story” using historical Department of Defense data per month.

Lazzeri, who works for the U.S. Digital Service, and Capizzi, a program manager in the U.S. Air Force, launched Data.mil in December. The site seeks not only to open up DoD data, but to tell stories with it. On Dec. 29, the pair spoke with the Sunlight Foundation about their aspirations for the year.

So far, the website’s main data set is called the Theater History of Operations, or THOR, which includes aerial bombing data from World War I through the Vietnam War. In February, Capizzi said, the department will release military casualty data as well.

In the future, they hope to convince the department of the value of opening up data and start releasing more data sets that can help guide decision-making.

Civic Tech Leaders to Talk About Trump

A cloud has been hanging over the collective heads of the civic tech community since Election Day. Trump — whose views on the field are less than clear, whose opposition to President Obama’s initiatives has led some to worry that he may cut efforts such as the U.S. Digital Service, whose technology requests may conflict heavily with the political leanings of the very blue Silicon Valley workers tasked with answering the president’s call — has cast a pall on all of it.

The public response from the civic tech community has largely been a call to keep making government better and not focus on who is charge. On Jan. 19, a couple of leaders in the field will gather to discuss that a little more in depth.

Jennifer Pahlka, leader of Code for America, and Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, will host a conversation about Trump at the Applied Innovation Exchange in San Francisco.

“Jen and Tim will discuss the role that technologists passionate about civil service can play in the next four years,” reads a post announcing the event. “How can tech industry professionals serve their country? Will they resist working in Trump’s White House? Should the tech community back out of public service, or deepen its commitment?”

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.