What's New in Civic Tech takes a look at highlights and recent happenings in the world of civic technology.

NYC Releases RFP for First Publicly Funded Virtual Reality Lab

New York City has released a request for proposal for a virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) lab to create a centralized space for that industry to take hold in the city. 

The RFP was put together by the New York City Economic Development Corporation as a collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Media Entertainment. In a press release, officials said they hope to create a physical space that will house programs related to VR and AR, making NYC a worldwide leader in the emerging industry. Proposals are due April 7, 2017.

The release lays out city’s hopes for the project, which include: 

supporting early growth-stage VR/AR companies with space, infrastructure and resources; providing VR/AR entrepreneurs with affordable, shared access to tools and technologies; convening New York City’s academic, startup and business communities to increase funding, fellowship and grant opportunities, and create a platform for companies and entrepreneurs to attract investors; and strengthening the local talent pipeline and creating training opportunities in VR/AR technologies and content creation. Officials involved with the project estimate that over the past year, NYC’s VR/AR industry has seen more than $50 million in investments and a 125 percent increase in job demand. The industry, however, is fragmented. The expectation is that a central hub would will help early stage companies find better resources, as well as access to affordable technology or related training.

According to a 2016 report from Citigroup, the VR/AR industry has seen almost $3 billion of investments across the country in the past two years, and it is projected to grow a massive $2.16 trillion by 2035. Interest this year in VR/AR has already been high, as Intel announced that virtual reality would be a significant part of its long-term future.  

This sort of lab is especially relevant for NYC, as a separate 2016 report from Goldman Sachs listed six of the city’s economic anchor industries as likely to be disrupted by VR/AR soon. These industries include health care, education, real estate, retail, live entertainment and video entertainment. 

“In addition to seeing increased investment and job demand in VR/AR, many of New York’s anchor industries like health care, real estate, entertainment and education are integrating VR/AR technologies into their products and services,” said Kate Daly, senior vice president of initiatives at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “This cross-pollination presents an incredible opportunity for New York City to harness VR/AR growth to create an entirely new segment in our economy.” 

Initiative Commits to Powering 100 million connections between politicians, constituents

An initiative launched by Twilio.org aims to facilitate 100 million connections between politicians and their constituents as part of an effort called Voices for Democracy that seeks to foster better discourse and more representative democracy. 

Twilio hopes to accomplish this by organizing a number of like-minded projects under the Voices for Democracy banner, including a trio of platforms designed to put activists in touch with elected officials. These platforms are Mobile Commons, which allows activists to easily send texts to a mass audience; Call Congress Hotline, which citizens can call to be connected to representatives based on the area codes they’re calling from; and CallPower, which allows users to text their ZIP code and phone numbers before receiving a briefing on relevant issues as well as a connection to their representatives.     

In an email statement, Josh Levinger, the founder of CallPower, wrote that in the past three months, his platform had helped to connect more than 300,000 calls to Congress. 

“Calls seem to be the only way to reach the people in power,” Levinger wrote.

This effort is not the only one. In the months since the election of President Trump, there has been a major uptick of activism tech, including new apps and websites that seek to simplify, focus and facilitate opposition to the president’s agenda. Their functions range from providing mobile alerts suggesting daily topics to bring up in phone calls with senators to aggregating job listings for tech-sector talent interested in working directly against Trump.   

New Yuma County, Ariz., Website Emphasizes Customer Service

Yuma County, Ariz., has launched a new website, every page of which features an option to live chat with a county staffer, similar to what users might find on more customer-service-oriented sites like those of private businesses.

This is no coincidence. In a release, officials involved with the Yuma County project said the development team used research throughout the redesign process to determine what Yuma’s roughly 200,000 residents wanted from a new website. This project is part of a trend in local government to create Web presences that have customer service touches at their centers, a trend that has manifested places from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Miami. 

Kevin Tunnell, Yuma County communications director, led the redesign of the site along with County Administrator Susan Thorpe. 

"Our previous website was designed around internal perceptions of what citizens want," Tunell said in the release. "We had made a series of compromises to satisfy internal stakeholders and the result was that 90 percent of site visitors ended up viewing just 10 percent of the content. Analytics like these gave us the user experience information to demonstrate more clearly why we were making certain decisions about design and navigation."

The analytics helped Tunell and the design team create a site wherein each individual county department page has a widget that leads to its most popular services. The Yuma County site launched last year, and Tunell said that more than 2,500 chats with users were registered in January alone.

The research-based approach for the site was developed by Vision, a Southern California-based company that specializes in assisting government clients.