What’s New in Civic Tech: Participants Reflect on Code for America’s Brigade Congress Event

Plus, NYC Economic Development Corporation RFP aims to create city’s first cybersecurity accelerator; Startup in Residence Program unveils civic challenges for first nationwide cohort; Harvard’s Ash Center restructures flagship award program; CincyStat collaborates with local police on interactive crime dashboard; and Philadelphia picks internal departments for its new customer-centric design lab.

by / November 16, 2017
Code for America Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka introduces the Tech Awards at the CfA Summit on Sept. 30, 2015. The civic tech awards honored startups governments, and citizens innovating in their communities. Government Technology

Several attendees at Code for America’s (CfA) first Brigade Congress reflected on the experience this week, blogging about the event and the ideas it gave them for moving forward in civic tech. 

The Brigade Congress happened last month in Philadelphia, drawing members of Code for America (CfA) brigades from across the globe. Code for America is a nonpartisan and nonprofit group that works on tech projects to make governmental services simpler and easier to use for constituents. Its brigades are a national alliance of organizers, technologists and designers, all of whom volunteer time for civic tech projects that support CfA’s mission within their own communities.

Dubbing the three-day event an “unconference,” organizers from CfA welcomed participants to share stories about projects that have worked and projects that have failed, as well as thoughts on how lessons learned could lead to future wins. Members from brigades in Toronto and San Jose, Calif., reflected this week via posts on medium, as did CfA founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka.

Pahlka noted that the event was CfA’s first, but not last, Brigade Congress in a lengthy post that elaborated on a presentation she gave. While Pahlka’s writing was deep and nuanced, a pair of central questions seemed to guide her thinking: How did CfA get to this point and where does it go from here?

The group was established back in 2009 and has remained dynamic, taking evolutionary steps such as aggressively growing its brigades back in 2012 before restructuring last year in the midst of funding challenges. Pahlka goes on to discuss the history of the group, the precision of the language used to describe its core principals, and her desire to continue an ongoing discussion with members of the brigades.

Members of Code for San Jose identified common themes that emerged at the event, such as how to build sustainable leadership, how to improve gender equity in brigades and how to attract and include non-coders.

The San Jose post then ended with a quote from Pahlka: “We can save us. Efficiency in government is absolutely a matter of social justice.”

NYC Economic Development Corporation to create city’s first cybersecurity accelerator

The NYC Economic Development Corporation has released an RFP seeking proposals from academia and the private sector to partner with the city on a range of initiatives — all of which seek to position New York as a leader in cybersecurity jobs and innovation.

Dubbed Cyber NYC, the new effort seeks to foster community and cross-sector collaboration in cybersecurity, grow New York’s pool of cybersecurity talent and spark related innovations. The most tangible request is for a new cybercenter that would serve as the city’s first physical hub for cybersecurity, a space that would host community programs as well as a startup accelerator with a focus on scaling related startups, while at the same time giving entrepreneurs access to potential customers, investors, mentors and other resources.

Other priorities within the RFP include strengthening partnerships through an applied learning initiative to compliment the city’s upcoming cybersecurity boot camps, and an academic innovation exchange capable of pairing ideas with funding.

“Cybersecurity presents both a threat and opportunity to New York City,” said James Patchett, the president and CEO of the NYC Economic Development Corporation in a press release. “The [Mayor Bill] de Blasio Administration is investing in cybersecurity to both fuel innovation, and to create new, accessible pathways to jobs in the industry. We’re looking for big-thinking proposals to help us become the global capital of cybersecurity and to create thousands of good jobs for New Yorkers.”

A key goal of this effort is growing New York’s cybersecurity industry and thereby supporting de Blasio’s existing New York Works plan, which was announced in June and aspires to create 100,000 good jobs in the city over the next decade.

Startup in Residence Program unveils challenges for first nationwide cohort

The San Francisco-born Startup in Residence Program (STiR), which announced this week that it would be expanding to 12 cities across the country in 2018, has now opened applications for its next class.

Along with the announcement, program organizers have posted a list of 37 challenges compiled by public servants. As part of the application process, startups will review this list and choose obstacles that their work can help local governments overcome. The challenges cover a wide range of subject matter, from parking management to data security to resident engagement. If a startup is selected to participate, it will then spend 16 weeks collaborating with public servants and building projects that serve the community while at the same time giving the startup a product to potentially sell to agencies in other jurisdictions. The application for next year’s program, which begins in January, will remain open until Dec. 10.

To help interested startups, program organizers will also be hosting a webinar for prospective applicants on Nov. 30, during which attendees will hear from past participants such as Yeti and Appledore, which will detail how the program helped them break into the gov tech market.

The Startup in Residence program was created in 2014 as a pilot in San Francisco. In 2016, it expanded to three other cities in Northern California: Oakland, San Leandro and West Sacramento. Houston and Washington, D.C., are the most noteworthy of the participants added for this year.

While the size and scope of the program are larger, the focus remains the same: make it easier for tech startups to break into government while helping to solve public problems with private-sector innovation. This type of mutually beneficial cooperation has long been a problem, albeit one that STiR has a growing track record of solving.

Harvard’s Ash Center restructures flagship award program

The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School is restructuring one of its flagship programs, the Innovations in American Government Awards.

In a press release, organizers said the award program will now seek applicants that are “focused on a single, intractable problem in American society today.” In addition, there will now be a streamlined application and evaluation process, and the award will be offered annually. The focus of this year’s award will be initiatives aimed at improving economic and social mobility. Applications are due by Jan. 12.

Billed by the group as “the nation’s preeminent program devoted to recognizing and promoting excellence in the public sector,” the Ash Center’s Innovation in American Government Awards offers a $50,000 top prize, and it is open to programs from all levels of government within the United States. The award was created in 1985 and has since fielded more than 27,000 applications and subsequently recognized nearly 500 government initiatives.

Past winners have spanned a wide range of services provided by the public sector, from the municipal budget process to economic development, and honorees have come from across the country, with recent winners such as the state of California, the city of New York, and King County, Wash.

Cincinnati launches new reported crime dashboard

CincyInsights, which is Cincinnati’s public-facing open data portal, has created a new dashboard dubbed Reported Crime, which visualizes police data by neighborhood, date/time and demographics.

The city’s data people collaborated with the police department on the new portal, which draws from the Cincinnati Police Department’s records management system, a depository for agencywide data about law enforcement operations. Through this map, users can access information about anything classified as reported crime, a designation that does not include service calls, arrest info, final case determinations, or other broad incident data.

This platform seems likely to draw significant interest from the public, as crime has been identified as the most popular type of open data. This interface allows residents of Cincinnati to search crime records by street, which will no doubt be a popular function. In other words, someone who lives on Oak Street can type in their address and see all reported crimes on Oak Street. Data will be updated daily.

The Reported Crime dashboard joins CincyInsights' other public safety data efforts, which include a police calls service dashboard and another dashboard that visualizes shootings. Cincinnati is one of many major American cities working hard to create tools that make the public more likely to engage with open data. In fact, Chief Data Officer Brandon Crowley spoke about the work taking place in his city at a gathering of municipal CDOs at Harvard University earlier this month.

Philadelphia picks Department of Revenue and Homeless Services as first agencies for design lab

Philadelphia’s PHL Participatory Design Lab, which uses human-centered design methods to make it easier for the public to interact with municipal agencies, announced this week that officials had selected the first two departments to benefit from its work: the Office of Homeless Services and the Department of Revenue.

The lab plans to use social science and service design techniques to help residents use the homeless services department’s intake system and the revenue department’s owner-occupied payment agreement, which helps homeowners who are behind on real estate taxes and provides protection from enforcement. Officials noted in a press release that both departments help ease the city’s housing crisis.

The design lab was made possible by a $338,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Knight Cities Challenge, which Philadelphia won earlier this year. The money is projected to support an 18-month design lab initiative. Service designer Devika Menon of Baltimore and social scientist Nathaniel Olin of Washington, D.C., have been hired as the lab’s fellows and are moving to Philadelphia this month, where they will work with other team members and community stakeholders.

The press release announcing the selection of the departments noted that Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is broadly committed to using data-driven practices and evidence-based approaches to drive sustainable outcomes — an increasingly common priority in major American cities. Using citizen-centric design and engagement techniques is also something governments at all levels have been more frequently working toward as of late, with many public servants saying citizens now expect a level of functionality and service to rival that of private companies like Amazon.

Tulsa, Okla. seeks data analytics specialists

The data people are coming, infiltrating city governments across the country like a horde of analytical, pragmatic invaders. They are pretty good with numbers and devoted to public service, perhaps even hell-bent on helping municipal agencies make better, data-driven decisions.

The latest jurisdiction to be overrun is Tulsa, Okla., which is now looking to hire a data analytics specialist to work within the city government’s office of performance, strategy and innovation. An ideal candidate will be excited to recognize the data requirements of various internal departments and other enterprise units, producing and maintaining data dashboards “to distinguish opportunities for improvement and to enhance efficiency,” among other tasks.

Earlier this month, the Civic Analytics Network, a group of municipal chief data officers who have already successfully enshrined themselves in city halls from Boston to San Diego, met at Harvard University for a conference to discuss the growing impact of the work they do. Your town could be next, potentially using predictive analytics to identify potholes before they happen — provided, of course, that available data over a sustained time period shows it would benefit from such work after being compared to a control set. 

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.