What’s New in Civic Tech: 324 Applicants Vie to Win Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge

Plus, the Sunlight Foundation is changing its U.S. City Open Data Census, the Sacramento Urban Technology Lab aims to accelerate civic innovation, Syracuse, N.Y., creates a data-driven pilot program to enhance code enforcement and Boulder, Colo., becomes the latest city to launch an accountability dashboard.

by / November 30, 2017
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks to an audience of mayors and civic innovators who attended the 2014 CityLab Summit in Los Angeles, Sept. 29-30. Jason Shueh

Bloomberg Philanthropies has fielded 324 applications for its Mayors Challenge competition, which offers a $5 million grand prize to the city leader with the best idea to solve an urgent problem that local governments face across the country.

The money is for practical and shareable development of the winner’s proposal. In addition to the grand prize, four finalists will get $1 million for their own ideas. Bloomberg Philanthropies reports that this year’s pool represents nearly 25 percent of eligible cities.

“There’s no question that cities are confronted with mounting pressures, including everything from income inequality and homelessness to failing infrastructure and climate change,” organizers wrote in a blog post. “What was less clear was — if presented with the shot at $5 million to help them tackle their top concern — what America’s mayors would target.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies reports nearly 40 percent targeted health, youth or citizen engagement. The exact nature of these projects was influenced by individual qualities such as city size and location. Cities out west, for example, most often targeted climate change, while the Midwest focused on job growth; cites with fewer than 100,000 residents tackled infrastructure, while those with between 100,000 and half a million took on housing.

Most noteworthy for those in gov tech circles, however, is that nearly a third of applicants proposed using digital and mobile tech to improve their communities.

The next step is to narrow the field to 35 cities, which will be announced early next year. These cities will have an opportunity to win as much as $100,000 to test and refine ideas over six months, creating what Bloomberg Philanthropies described as “a coast-to-coast civic solutions laboratory.” Winners for the larger prizes will be chosen in the fall.

The contest also recently announced its selection committee.

Sunlight Foundation Works to Change its U.S. City Open Data Census

The Sunlight Foundation, an open data advocacy group, is working to improve its U.S. City Open Data Census, an ongoing and crowdsourced measure of the state of access to open data sets in cities nationwide.

Sunlight, which became the primary administrator of the project last year, announced its intention to improve the census on its website. In January 2018, another data advocacy group, Open Knowledge International, will make upgrades to the census’ technical platform, which will then be able to only show submissions from 2018 and beyond. Citing a resulting need to repopulate, Sunlight is taking this opportunity to coordinate with municipal data leaders to ensure the census accurately captures their work.

“Is there a way we could change the census questions to better capture what’s happening in your city?” Sunlight asked. “If so, send us your ideas.”

The census is a crowdsourced effort that anyone can contribute a data set assessment to, with all submissions then undergoing peer review by a volunteer team of census librarians coordinated by Sunlight. Developers have described it as “a benchmarking tool which people can use to ignite conversations with their government about open government data.”

This overhaul of the census joins a developing infrastructure of nonprofit projects designed to bolster open data in municipal governments. Another recent example includes GovEx, a gov tech think tank with roots in academia, which recently created a set of international data standards that cities can use to find a consensus for the best ways to format the info they release.

Sacramento Urban Technology Lab Aims to Accelerate Gov Tech Collaborations

California's capital city launched the Sacramento Urban Technology Lab this month, with a goal of bringing together a collaborative group of government, academic and private industry stakeholders interested in improving local quality of life.

The aim of this group is to do that “for all Sacramentans through data-driven testing and experimentation,” according to its website. The site also includes a link to a form one can use to partner with city innovators, as well as a list of seven distinct focus areas: mobility; clean tech and sustainability; health IT and life sciences; food systems; Internet of Things (IoT) and cybersecurity; gov tech and civic tech; and workforce development.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg introduced the lab earlier this month at a launch event held at California State University, Sacramento. In conversations with local media, Sacramento Chief Innovation Officer Louis Stewart has described this effort as a rallying cry for the city’s tech and innovation sector.

Syracuse, N.Y., Creates Data-Driven Pilot Program to Enhance Code Enforcement

Syracuse, N.Y., has created a pilot program designed to use tech and data-driven approaches to make code enforcement work better for tenants, property owners and inspectors.

The initiative, dubbed the Tenant-Owner-Proactive (TOP) program, is taking place in the city’s Northside neighborhood through Dec. 15. This program is made up of seven separate initiatives that Syracuse recently detailed on its website. In terms of gov tech, the most notable effort involves the city using data to better identify and prioritize for inspection properties most likely to have code violations.

A data-driven approach will also be applied to deciding whether to continue the pilot and possibly extend it citywide. Syracuse will be using more than two dozen metrics to determine whether the pilot is successful and to pinpoint what areas need improvement. These metrics include the number of properties that receive code violations, the number of health and safety violations found at properties, and the percentage of proactively-identified properties that end up having code violations.

In announcing the program, organizers noted that combining a data-driven evaluation with a limited pilot is new to Syracuse, a city that has traditionally gone all in on new programs by fully deploying them citywide.

Boulder, Colo., Becomes Latest City to Launch Civic Accountability Tool

Boulder, Colo., has recently launched an accountability dashboard called Boulder Measures, joining a trend of jurisdictions across the country that have done the same.

Boulder Measures is an interactive platform that gives the public information about the status of city programs, organized based on Boulder’s Sustainability Framework, which is essentially a list of the city’s long-term priorities. The site color-codes and lists goals such as raising the crime clearance rate to 68 percent or better. It then marks these goals with a bright green checkmark if they’re on track, or an alarming red exclamation point if they’re not (the crime clearance rate goal in Boulder is currently green).

Users can then click on the checkmark or the exclamation point to get detailed data about why the goal is or isn't on track. The dashboard also asks for feedback, and links to Boulder’s open data catalog.

Transparency about progress toward city goals is a growing trend across the country, one that has led to the creation of similar online metrics in larger cities such as Boston, New Orleans and Cincinnati. The benefits of such dashboards, however, go beyond transparency. They are also viewed by many in gov tech as a means for keeping public servants accountable, gauging the efficiency of programs and fostering citizen engagement and public discourse. 

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.