What’s New in Civic Tech: NY Civic Techies Take on Bad Landlords

Plus, Kansas City formalizes commitment to data with departmental name change; Indiana works with Google to expand digital skills training; 18F opens up about what it’s like to work there; and more.

by / December 6, 2018
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A civic tech effort is making headlines this week, with The New York Times writing about an effort in which coders are working to build data-driven ways for tenants to overcome problems with bad landlords.

These efforts have essentially existed in disparate iterations for some time. Examples include Heatseek, which primarily built a sensor that monitors whether landlords are meeting minimum temperature requirements set by the city, and the Displacement Alert Project, which was created by affordable housing advocates to visualizes areas where residents are at risk of being displaced. What made recent headlines, however, is a brewing idea that civic technologists involved in such work should band together into a formalized group.

As the Times reports, coders concerned about landlord accountability have started to meet monthly in Brooklyn to focus and discuss their efforts, dubbing themselves the Housing Data Coalition. These meetings have already yielded one active project, specifically Who Owns What, which tenants can use to learn more about their landlords or their property management companies, including finding information about the other properties they own and whether they have committed past violations.

That platform has a simple front end — just enter your address into the space — and a somewhat complicated backend that involves culling data from a number of siloed government agencies. According to the report, that database has already seen more than 4,500 unique users enter more than 20,000 searches. In other words, this is work with much demand.

Kansas City, Mo. Formalizes Commitment to Data with a Departmental Name Change 

Kansas City, Mo., made a visceral commitment to open data this week, changing the name of its Office of Performance Management to DataKC.

A name is just a name, sure, but this actually feels significant for a couple of reasons. The office formerly known as performance management has spent nearly a decade working on data-driven governance culture change in that city. To change the name to actually include the word "data" is a small thing, perhaps, but it also suggests that work there has evolved to the point that much of city hall understands what data is and why it's needed. Second, being able to tell simpler stories about data work — stories that non-technologists can easily grasp — is a priority for municipal governments nationwide. DataKC, simply put, is way less wonky than the old name, to the point one assumes this shift will do wonders for users searching for the department.

In addition to the name change, DataKC also announced it was implementing a scope of service that includes four areas in which they plan to partner with other public agencies on continued data work. The first area is customer feedback, which stresses the importance of taking resident-centered approaches to government work. The second is managing with data, which essentially urges public services to embrace data as a valuable tool. The third is continuous improvement, which is exactly what it sounds like, and the fourth is telling easy-to-understand stories with data, so that data isn’t just something that government is throwing out into a void that no one notices.

Indiana and Google Announce Expanded Digital Skills Training Program for the Incarcerated 

Indiana and Google are teaming up to expand a technology and business training program called The Last Mile, which works specifically with the incarcerated.

Indiana Gov. Eric J. Holcomb and Google announced a grant aimed at expanding the program this week, noting that the money will in part go toward establishing a coding training for juvenile inmates. In addition, part of the $2 million grant will help pay for new computers and other technology for learners at Indiana’s women’s prison.

A testimonial from a past participant in The Last Mile program can be found here.

Pittsburgh’s PGH Lab Returns with Fourth Cohort

Pittsburgh is now working with 15 local startup companies to test projects that could eventually lead to contracts for the companies and effective digital solutions for the local government.

The companies and the city are being brought together by a program called PGH Lab, which announced the new group of startups recently on its website. This is far from the first time the city has worked with its local private-sector talent.

“PGH Lab is coming back with a fourth cohort constituted by local startups and small businesses proposing solutions ranging from impact hub pop-ups, smart lots, smart facilities management, composting and environmental sustainability, IT network security, and business consulting,” organizers wrote in a recent announcement.

While participants are not guaranteed a city contract, in the past two companies have gone on to secure one, and the PGH Lab lends quite a bit of support for the development of ideas. Resources associated with the program include training from experts in the face, chances to test their product ideas in real situations and unique insight into the machinations of local government.

This sort of program — one aimed at facilitating better cooperation between municipal government and the local private sector — is not unique to Pittsburgh. In fact, it’s actually one that is increasingly taking hold in cities across the country. One such program, Startup in Residence, has gone from local to international over the course of the past five years or so, growing from taking place strictly in San Francisco, to this coming year including 31 agencies, one of which is a state. Meanwhile, regional approximations continue to spring up in places like San Antonio

18F Launches Blog Series About What It’s Like to Work There

The federal tech agency 18F has launched a new blog series, detailing what it’s like to be a product manager for 18F.

The first part went live this week, and it details the role of product manager within the relatively new federal agency, which was first founded in 2014 and is far less well-known than the vast majority of older government work. Indeed, what this blog series seeks to do is give would-be government technologists a glimpse into its innerworkings, both describing the agency’s role as well as that of the product manager. This is certain to be an especially relevant series of blogs for those considering moving from the private to the public sector.

Want to Work in Gov Tech for Philadelphia? Now Is Your Chance

Speaking of finding new work in the public sector, Philadelphia is looking to do some hiring.

The city, which recently did some reorganizing of its tech and innovation departments, now has some vacancies it’s looking to fill. Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski will step down Jan. 1, and as such the city is looking for a replacement. Responsibilities for that role include working with open data and GIS projects. In addition, Philadelphia is looking to hire a director of software engineering to help with modernization projects, organizing the tech team and other duties. Finally, the city is also looking to hire two senior engineers.

Microsoft President: Rural Broadband Divide Can Be Bridged by Public-Private Cooperation

Also this week, Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote a piece about the rural broadband divide, describing it as an “urgent national problem” and suggesting it can be solved by a cooperative effort that specifically includes private sector investments and accompanying regulatory support from the government.

Find that piece here.

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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.