What’s New in Civic Tech: City Gov Tech Leaders Protest as FCC Prepares to Repeal Net Neutrality

Plus, Connecticut’s chief data officer ponders value of network for state CDOs, Philadelphia releases police complaints data set, Code for America adds Sacramento to list of counties eligible for its food assistance app, and newly launched 500 Cities Data Challenge asks for cross-sector project ideas.

by / November 22, 2017

Government technology leaders throughout the country have once again condemned a plan to repeal net neutrality regulations proposed by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai.

New York City Chief Technology Officer Miguel Gamiño is one of the loudest voices decrying the rollback, while Seattle’s IT Department has released an oppositional statement and technologists in city governments from Detroit to Cincinnati to Kansas City, Mo., have taken to Twitter to urge the FCC to reconsider. The effort is concentrated and fierce, and it's been going all year.

In July, mayors and technologists from 50 jurisdictions penned a letter advocating against the removal of net neutrality protections, and in September, tech leaders from six cities — New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Washington, D.C., and Boston — visited the nation’s capital to voice concerns over a potential rollback.

The efforts began in response to a statement then-FCC Commissioner Pai made in December 2016 suggesting a need to “fire up the weed whacker and remove” current net neutrality rules instituted under the Obama administration, which forbid carriers from intentionally slowing down Internet speeds or content delivery. Pai, who was appointed FCC chairman by President Donald Trump in January, argues that net neutrality limits the growth of private industry. Gov tech leaders say removing the rules weakens the egalitarian nature of the Internet, limiting creativity, innovation and free speech. Essentially, without net neutrality, they warn that massive Internet service providers could charge users more to see certain content or websites, reserving bandwidth for corporate partners or the highest bidder.

Opposition has accelerated following Pai's release of a specific plan Tuesday to dismantle net neutrality. The New York Times has reported that this plan is widely expected to be approved during a meeting on Dec. 14. That hasn’t stopped gov tech leaders from fighting.

“Net neutrality is necessary to protect Seattle’s consumers and ensure all Internet content is equally accessible,” Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller said in a Wednesday press release.

Mattmiller’s words are largely a summation of feelings shared by many of the CIOs, CTOs and CDOs who shape how local governments are using tech to make service more efficient.

Connecticut’s chief data officer ponders value of network for state CDOs

In a recent Medium post, Connecticut Chief Data Officer Tyler Kleykamp pondered the benefits of establishing a collaborative network of chief data officers who work in state governments, one that would be similar to the Civic Analytics Network, which serves in the same capacity for city CDOs.

As Kleykamp notes in his post, “there’s no blueprint for being a state chief data officer.” The position is a new one, both at the state and city government level. It was nearly non-existent as recently as five years ago. While the position has become more common, its relative youth suggests a collaborative network could help define the role, facilitate sharing of best practices and generally enable states to offer better and more efficient services to residents. That’s certainly what the Civic Analytics Network seems to be doing for cities, Kleykamp noted.

He was inspired to write the piece after attending the Summit on Data-Smart Government at Harvard University earlier this month, where the Civic Analytics Network held a day and a half of private meetings before making educational and illustrative presentations for a limited number of attendees from the public. One of Kleykamp’s key takeaways was that “it’s easier to be the first to have a job alongside a group of other first-timers than it is to do it alone.”

Philadelphia releases police complaints data set

Philadelphia continues to add new data sets to its OpenDataPhilly portal, including complaints against police in 2017.

The info was released as part of the Philadelphia Police Department’s accountability process, and it includes civilian complaints against police misconduct as well as details about the demographics of officers involved, the allegations, the department’s internal affairs investigations and subsequent findings.

The city's Office of Innovation and Technology has been somewhat prolific as of late in releasing open data and creating tools. In fact, it recently built a property info tool called Atlas that revamps searches and mapping, bringing together relevant info in a singular visual application. With Atlas, users can now get the history of permits, licenses and inspections for a given address; research real estate info such as values, zoning and document archives; view recent activity near an address such as crime and 311 service requests; and explore historical imagery.

Using open data to create tools like Atlas is a fast-rising trend in many cities. Whereas for years cities worked to release info en masse to foster transparency and facilitate civic tech projects, municipal governments are now seeking to make it easier for residents who aren’t tech or data savvy to improve their lives.

Philadelphia recently had a major success in this regard after roughly 3 million users viewed a simple visualization it created of the Philadelphia marathon, presumably without breaking a sweat, unlike the runners.

Code for America adds Sacramento County to food assistance app

One of Code for America’s major focuses as of late has been GetCalFresh, a free nonprofit service to help eligible Californians apply for the state’s food stamps program. Developers announced this week that they have expanded the breadth of the service’s availability to Sacramento County.

Adding Sacramento is significant for a few reasons. It brings the total number of California counties using GetCalFresh up to 21 out of a total 58, and while Los Angeles County is not yet eligible, most of the state’s other major population centers are, including San Francisco and San Diego. Sacramento is also a significant add because one of Code for America’s goals in developing GetCalFresh is to make sure that everyone who qualifies for food assistance gets it, and the group estimates that 87,000 Californians in Sacramento County are entitled to help but have not signed up for the program.

Code for America, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group, is partnering with the state government to develop GetCalFresh, the initial version of which was built more than two years ago. The platform facilitates easy and mobile access to CalFresh, California’s food assistance program, sometimes known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). With GetCalFresh, it takes an applicant about eight minutes to apply for the program, a vast improvement over the previous average of 45 minutes.

Newly launched 500 Cities Data Challenge asks for cross-sector project ideas

A pair of philanthropic organizations is offering $1 million grants to 10 projects that seek to do cross-sector work combining the 500 Cities data set with digital tools in order to improve health outcomes in communities.

The money will be distributed as part of what has been dubbed the 500 Cities Data Challenge, launched by the Urban Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The 500 Cities data set includes info from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and provides city and census tract-level small area estimates for chronic disease risk factors, clinical prevention services and other health outcomes for the 500 largest cities in the United States. The stated goal of the competition is to encourage local governments and other community stakeholders to dig into the 500 Cities data set and then develop innovative and analytical solutions to address social factors that influence health, factors such as housing, education and transportation.

On the competition’s Web page, organizers strongly encourage submissions to focus on rural and low-to-moderate income communities. The deadline to submit interest in participating is Dec. 1.