What's New in Civic Tech takes a look at highlights and recent happenings in the world of civic technology.
The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at making government more accountable and transparent, continues to voice concerns over the availability of information under the young Donald Trump administration, citing an erasure of transition data as the most recent cause for concern.
The impetus for the objection, the exact nature of which Sunlight Foundation Deputy Director Alex Howard detailed in an April 13 post to his group’s website, dates back to March 2, which is when Howard first noted that the transition’s official Twitter account might have been removed. Howard’s post also notes that the transition’s Facebook account is now gone too.
The Sunlight Foundation has flagged this issue with the U.S. House Oversight Committee, and while the group notes that social media accounts are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, it also emphasizes that such content represents on-the-record and official statements by the president’s administration, meaning it must be preserved and available to the public.
“We’re alarmed that the @Transition2017 and Facebook accounts have been removed from public view entirely, with no evidence of archiving nor public notice,” writes Howard. And then, “In 2017, social media has become part of the public record. We hope that Twitter, Facebook and Congress work together to restore the accounts and save these accounts for history to judge.”
This is not the first time open government groups and media have voiced concern over the Trump administration’s attitude toward data and transparency. Earlier this week, accountability advocates and reporters noted that after President Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the U.S. was less forthcoming with information than China, a country long criticized for its lack of governmental transparency.
San Francisco has posted a job opening for a project lead to build a replacement voting system, which the city hopes will bolster the “accuracy, transparency, security and auditability” of its balloting system.
While the project description is not a final statement on the development of such a system, according to the job posting, the city ultimately is looking for someone to lead the development of San Francisco’s own voting system -- one that would replace its current system with open source components. The posting sets a timeline that calls for submitting a report to the mayor’s office by the end of 2017.
This comes after a contentious election and questions about hacking spurred an interest in overhauling the technology used for voting across the country, a great majority of which has not been updated in a decade. In the months after the 2016 presidential election, renewed efforts to develop better models of digital election equipment began to emerge across the country.
Some of these efforts also aimed to accomplish the higher levels of security and auditability that San Francisco mentioned in its post. Project leaders involved with those efforts spoke in December 2016 about the difficulty and necessity of such development.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. It's taken years and years to get it done," said Dana DeBeauvoir, Travis County, Texas, clerk and leader of the voting machine project at Rice University, in December 2016. "Now that we've had this election, there's renewed interest."
San Francisco, with its wealth of regional tech innovation, often acts as a bellwether in civic tech innovations, which makes it notable that the city is undertaking an effort to build new voting systems.
Hawaii has launched a new Geospatial Data Portal, which makes available for general use a collection of topographic maps, new data sets that now include more than 300 layers, imagery, historical maps and developer features.
The portal, which was announced Tuesday, April 11, in a news release, includes support for non-geospatial data files, an overall cleaner look, improved layout of data attributes, and application program interface tools for developers who want to create filtered data set URLs for apps, among other improvements, the majority of which aim to better site and content management. This release is the work of the Office of Planning’s Hawaii Statewide Geographic Information System.
“Our state is applying recent GIS advancements to the improvement of programs and services,” said Gov. David Ige in the release. “We recognize that the state’s challenges are often complex with no easy answers, but we believe in the potential of the innovation of our state employees.”
This upgrade mirrors an open data trend across the country in which cities are trying to make information easier for the public to find and digest. Both Boston and New York have undertaken such efforts. While the work in Hawaii is more specific, state officials did note that one of the first apps the new data portal is featuring is an affordable housing and homelessness story map, which uses information in an accessible narrative form.
In 2016, Hawaii also completed an upgrade to its open data infrastructure that enabled server-based GIS and cloud services, in addition to better data sharing and accessibility. The prior upgrade was made possible by collaboration between Hawaii’s Office of Planning and its Office of Enterprise Technology Services.
While building a governmental website is part of Indianapolis and Marion County’s tech initiative Shift Indy, officials stressed in a recent news release that their efforts to provide better public service through tech expand much further.
Although it is not live yet, My.Indy.gov is the projected culmination of the Shift Indy initiative — but a statement from CIO Ken L. Clark emphasized that the effort had broader aspirations, including “re-imagining how you, the constituent, connect with your local government.”
Clark went on to say that the plans to accomplish this involved applying modern, efficient tech solutions to manual processes that have become outdated. The idea is to invest taxpayer monies in apps that make government simpler, easier to navigate and available to those who need it 24/7.
“We are digitizing your local government and building you a digital city hall,” Clark wrote.
How, though, will Clark and those he works with be able to tell if they’ve succeeded? One concrete metric indicated by the CIO was a reduction of in-person visits to the city-county building. Officials are well aware of the hardships that occur when residents have to take paid time off because certain governmental services are available only in person and not on the Web.
This sort of approach — improving all government services by using a new website as a catalyst for a cultural evolution — has been spreading through municipal agencies, from Miami to Grand Rapids, Mich. The timeline for Shift Indy indicates that the new digital city hall under development will be ready in 2018, with ongoing improvements to follow.