What’s New in Civic Tech: Data from USASpending.gov Contributed to Reporting that Led to Cabinet Secretary’s Resignation

Plus, Code for America searches for data engineer to work on its flagship effort, San Jose’s smart city lead says city’s broadband ‘significantly lags’ behind U.S. peers, and GeorgiaGov Interactive becomes Digital Services Georgia.

by / October 5, 2017
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Open data about government spending was a foundational element of reporting that led to the September resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, according to a detailed account from Politico, the news outlet that broke the story that ultimately led to his departure.

Price resigned his position as of Sept. 29, noting in a letter that “recent events have created a distraction” from the important work he’d been appointed to conduct. What Price was almost certainly referring to were widespread reports of private jet travel funded by taxpayer money for personal reasons, reports that were sparked by the stories in Politico.

“We matched the dates of Price’s trips to contracts for charter air service on USAspending.gov, the government database of all federal outlays,” the Politico reporters wrote. “And we established the precise times of Price’s departures and arrivals through an exhaustive search of data we gathered from airports across the country.”

Making government spending transparent in order to tamp down on malfeasance or waste is a concept that can often seem abstract, but it is becoming less so. Price’s resignation is perhaps the most prominent example to date of how open spending data, if used properly, can give citizens the power to hold their officials and elected representatives accountable.

USAspending.gov was first unveiled in 2009, praised at the time as a groundbreaking means of tracking federal government spending while also creating an example that could be emulated by states. Since its creation, Ohio and West Virginia have built variations, while the DATA Act from 2014 now requires federal agencies to publish detailed, standardized spending information on the site.

Currently the federal digital consultancy 18F is working closely with the U.S. Department of the Treasury on creating a beta test for an upcoming overhaul of USASpending.gov, one that is slated to officially launch soon, while the private company ClearGov has built a nationwide tool for comparing state and local governments’ financials against each other.

Overall, within the past decade spending transparency platforms and dashboards have become increasingly ingrained in the cultures of many governments at all levels throughout the country.

CODE FOR AMERICA SEEKS TO HIRE DATA ENGINEER FOR FLAGSHIP EFFORT

Code for America is searching for a data engineer to work on GetCalFresh, a free nonprofit service to help Californians apply for the state’s food stamps program.

GetCalFresh stands as one of Code for America’s flagship efforts, in many ways embodying the ways in which the group seeks to bridge the tech gap between the public and private sector. GetCalFresh, the initial version of which was created by CfA nearly two years ago, is the fastest way to apply online for food assistance in California. It takes a process that once took on average about 45 minutes to complete, and reduces that time frame to less than 10 minutes, and its core set of tools to date has helped to enroll nearly 2.5 million Californians who were previously eligible yet not receiving assistance.

“Code for America is seeking a data engineer to architect and implement data infrastructure and tools for logging, storing, analyzing, visualizing and reporting on data related to our users’ journey through the food stamp application process,” according to the job posting.

Code for America is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that works to bridge the tech gap between the public and private sector. GetCalFresh was one of three products specifically cited as a point of emphasis in the vision for the future CfA laid out in March. The other two were Clear My Record, which gives people a way to reduce or dismiss criminal records for better access to jobs, housing and voting; and ClientComm, a platform that facilitates communication between clients and caseworkers helping to navigate pre-trial, parole or probation issues. 

SAN JOSE SMART CITY LEAD SAYS CITY'S BROADBAND ‘SIGNIFICANTLY LAGS’ BEHIND U.S. PEERS

San Jose, a city that promotes itself as the capital of Silicon Valley, must improve work on broadband availability and digital equity if it’s going to live up to that title, according to Dolan Beckel, San Jose’s smart city lead who wrote a Medium post on the topic.  

Beckel provided data visualizations, statistics and other evidence to emphasize his point, ultimately calling for the city to make great financial investments in the areas. He noted that high-quality fiber-optic broadband connections are limited to just 2.7 percent of San Jose, which places it significantly behind many of those on its list of peer cities.

SpeedUpSanJose.com, which crowdsources info about Internet speeds in the city, also shows that residents often experience poor mobile download speeds of 6 Mbps; Beckel points out that the national average is more than three times that number, coming in at 22 Mbps. Beckel’s last major point was about digital equity, specifically that nearly 100,000 citizens of San Jose lack broadband connections in their homes, a problem that is most severe in low-income communities.

“Results from digital inclusion third-party surveys, focus groups and interviews determined that broadband Internet subscription cost, device cost, safety concerns and process barriers were main issues for households accessing quality digital services,” Beckel wrote. “Given San Jose’s income inequality, not only have people become lost in the statistics  —  they have lost practical opportunities to participate in this intensely connected world for learning, jobs, public and commercial services, and civic engagement. Thus, it is vital that San Jose continues to make a strategic investment to improve broadband for all of San Jose’s residents and businesses while making the city more inclusive for our digitally under-served communities.”

GEORGIAGOV INTERACTIVE TRANSITIONS INTO DIGITAL SERVICES GEORGIA

The state agency previously known as GeorgiaGov Interactive has now become Digital Services Georgia, and along with a new name it now has an increased scope of mission, Georgia CDO Nikhil Deshpande wrote in a release.

Deshpande also wrote that Georgia has retained the core of the GeorgiaGov Interactive team while adding “a few new members with industry experience over the last few months to prepare for the transition.” Deshpande, who was the long-standing director of GeorgiaGov Interactive, continues in a leadership role with Digital Services Georgia, serving as CDO.

The goal of this new group is one shared by many state and local governments: deliver the same level of digital sophistication as the private sector. This goal is largely being driven by citizens who get a high level of tech functionality from private company sites like Amazon and expect the same from public agencies.

“[Digital Services Georgia] will help state agencies devise an organizationwide digital strategy that meets citizen expectations and requirements in harmony with agency goals, strategy and objectives, while adapting to customer behavior and emergent technologies,” Deshpande wrote. “That is, we will focus on helping agencies provide a frictionless citizen experience through all their digital touchpoints.”

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.