What’s New in Civic Tech: Gilbert, Ariz., Launches Open Data Portal with Guiding Avatar

Plus, Philadelphia’s fire department looks to hire a senior lead GIS analyst to create an analytics team; Facebook civic hackathon participants share winning ideas with Seattle; Platteville, Colo., adopts use of nonprofit’s video archive software; and Minnesota IT launches new employee intranet.

by / December 7, 2017
Meet Alex, a friendly guide for the new data portal launched by Gilbert, Ariz.

Gilbert, Ariz., has launched an open data portal. And to guide its residents in using this new platform, it also created Alex, a chatbot designed to humanize the site and its features by giving tours of its content, helping users search for information and also smiling and waving in avatar form on its homepage.

Gilbert built the portal over the past 10 months as part of its engagement with Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative, which also helped the city establish an open data policy. The portal is designed to host data sets from a wide range of municipal departments, including community safety, growth and development, recreation and culture, finance and operations and transportation and facilities. Establishing an open data portal to host this sort of information is becoming increasingly prevalent.

What sets Gilbert’s platform apart, however, is Alex. A character that city officials said in a press released “will help connect the dots on how to use our data on your own websites, applications or research.” Alex was named after the Library of Alexandria, one of the largest libraries in the ancient world. Alex is designed to assist with both searches for and use of data.

Gilbert also noted in its launch announcement that the portal is an extension of the public records department, and will usher in the proactive release of more data aimed at increasing transparency of government and ease of informational use for residents, local business and public staff.

Philadelphia’s fire department looks to hire a senior lead GIS analyst for an analytics team

Philadelphia’s fire department is hiring a senior lead GIS analyst to help create an analytics team, noting in the job posting that the department “is moving toward increasing its use of data in day-to-day operations, and GIS and analytics will be a large part of this initiative.”

It stands to be a small team — one to two lead or associate analysts within the fire department — with grand ambitions. In fact, the posting stresses that the ideal candidate will be one who can handle daily and special projects related to GIS, while also helping the Philadelphia Fire Department grow and expand its GIS and analytics team “to become a model for all fire departments to follow.”

The use of gov tech to help fire departments protect citizenry seems to be a growing segment of the industry. The private company BuildingEye has launched a map of San Francisco that can be used to look up fire information about structures dating back to 1963. The New York City Fire Department has been using a risk-based inspection system to better anticipate when fires might start, and New Orleans has developed a data-intensive predictive fire risk model that draws from U.S. Census Bureau data to identify households that are the least likely to have a fire alarm.  

It’s always difficult to say when something is a first in gov tech, but Philadelphia’s push to develop a data and analytics team operated by its fire department certainly seems to be a pioneering move that could soon take hold in other cities.

Facebook civic hackathon participants share winning ideas with Seattle city staffers

In October, Facebook held a civic hackathon at its engineering hub in Seattle, inviting its employees and those with other local tech companies, such as Amazon, to develop projects using the city’s vast open data sets to solve municipal challenges through machine learning.

Two projects were picked as winners, and the responsible teams presented the concepts at a monthly city breakfast that includes more than 40 municipal staffers who act as open data champions across all city departments. Detailing the event in a recent blog, staffers wrote “the aim was to spur new ideas for future uses of machine learning within the city and for the relevant departments to connect directly with winning teams.”

The blog also emphasized that these presentations led to questions and discussions between public servants and winning teams, taking the projects from abstract ideas to tangible applications that the open data champions could see were ripe for quick development.  

The first project was dubbed Find ‘n Park, and, acknowledging that Seattle is one of the hardest places to find parking relative to other major U.S. cities, it used deep learning vision models to quickly show users how many cars were parked in a given lot, displaying the real-time availability of spaces. The other winner, Contractor 5, estimated prices within $5,000 for residential construction and remodeling projects by using open data about permitting along with natural language processing that compared similar projects.

Platteville, Colo., adopts use of nonprofit’s video archive software

Platteville, Colo., a town of 2,600 people about 45 minutes north of Denver by car, has adopted use of the Open Media Foundation’s video archiving software without notifying the nonprofit organization, which is the exact sort of low fanfare use the developers were hoping for when they built it, according to a local news report.

This program will allow the municipal government in Platteville to post videos of town board meetings online with minimal cost to taxpayers. The Open Media Foundation, the nonprofit in question, actually offers this software free to the governments of jurisdictions with fewer than 5,000 residents. The software also stands to benefit residents, creating an easier way for them to search the town’s video archives by using keywords that apply to agenda items as well as speeches given during the meetings.

Previously, Platteville’s meetings had been televised via a local access channel, but that service was recently discontinued. The move to online video archiving stands to cut costs, and while it doesn’t include a livestreaming capability, it does allow for access to the content in perpetuity. Platteville is the first city to start using the software without contacting the Open Media Foundation, which is exactly what leadership of that groups says it wants: small towns who can set it up on their own and break down any misconceptions that you have to be a tech wizard to use it.

Minnesota IT launches new employee intranet with blog series detailing its creation

Minnesota IT has built and launched a new employee intranet, subsequently sharing a blog series to let staff know the best practices that went into this and the lessons leadership learned along the way.

Part one and part two of the series have been online for a little while, with the former detailing the project management aspects of the work and the latter delving into how developers took inventory, migrated content and got to know the audience for whom they were designing the intranet. Part three — which tackles information architecture, design, development and how to add content — went live this week, and part four is scheduled to come next week, promising a look at how leadership communicated changes to the system with its employees.

This blog series is essentially a start-to-finish account of the work, which involved creating a new system to replace an existing intranet, a dense and cumbersome project by any metric. The posts are woven throughout with insights into the decision-making process that stand to benefit other states undertaking similar work, as well as best practices for designers and developers involved in similar undertakings. 

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.