What’s New in Civic Tech: Top 10 Most Popular Types of Open Data

Plus, Next Century Cities releases best practices for leveraging civic engagement with tech; Louisville, Ky., continues to embrace Amazon’s Alexa by offering mayoral podcast through the platform; and Baltimore Innovation Team’s First Assignment is Police Recruitment.

by / September 14, 2017

An open government advocacy group conducted an analysis of 21,000 open data sets from 141 city and state agencies nationwide as part of an effort to determine the types of information that are of the most interest to the public.

This analysis was conducted by the Sunlight Foundation, which used data from Socrata, a leading vendor for government open data platforms. Socrata hosts tens of thousands of government data sets and keeps public information about Web traffic, views and downloads from such sites. To view it, Sunlight used Socrata’s Discovery API, which opens up the company’s massive cache of data for access and aggregation (Sunlight notes that it chose Socrata for logistical ease and not out of any sort of preference for its services).

The analysis went beyond simply counting total views and downloads, which would have favored the interests in mega jurisdictions like Los Angeles and New York City. To control for those large population centers, the study took traffic totals and ran them through an algorithm.

Findings were about what one would expect, at least at the top of the list, where police and crime data reigned. Incident reports, jail bookings and crime stats were all found to be among the most popular throughout the country. The list is a bit more nuanced as it descends from the top spot.

Transportation finished second, with information that included taxi licenses, transit data and road infrastructure, among other sets. Third was emergency calls, which included response times. Development and building safety were fourth and fifth, respectively, while finance was sixth. Finishing up the list were elections, businesses and licenses, inspections and service requests, and education.

Next Century Cities Releases Playbook on Tech-Powered Civic Engagement

With next generation high-speed Internet connections such as gigabit Ethernet and fiber optics starting to take hold in cities across the country, a nonprofit group has created a playbook for using such tech to power civic engagement.

Dubbed 5 Lessons for Tech-Powered Civic Engagement: The Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award Playbook, the effort includes lessons learned by three cities that have won awards for such work: Austin, Texas; Louisville, Ky; and Raleigh, N.C. It was produced by Next Century Cities, a national nonprofit group that works to help local governments understand and harness higher speed Internet connections as tools for development.

The five key lessons were as follows:

  • Build With, Not For: Communities must actively engage stakeholders in the early phases of next generation high-speed Internet projects.

  • Partnership Breeds Results: Collaboration across sectors brings in expertise and promotes widespread support.

  • Civic Technology is a Spectrum: There is no universal way to engage citizens, and as such, cities should develop unique approaches aimed at achieving their specific goals.

  • The Multiplier Effect: Civic tech progress begets more civic tech progress.

  • Changing Communities for the Better: Engaging citizens effectively through tech leads to increased feelings of empowerment, ownership and attachment in communities.

This playbook also includes a checklist designed to guide municipal government leaders through the implementation of tech-powered civic engagement and other digital inclusion projects.


Louisville, Ky. Continues to Embrace Amazon’s Alexa

Louisville, Ky. has continued to embrace Amazon’s voice-activated platform Alexa, adding Mayor Greg Fischer’s podcast and enabling residents to activate it by simply saying, “Alexa, play the mayor’s podcast.”

Louisville also has been an early adapter of something called If This Then That (IFTTT), a free Web-based service used to create chains of simple conditional statements called applets. An example looks something this: If it snows overnight, then have Alexa tell me how much in the morning.

While IFTTT is compatible with a wide range of websites and platforms, including Spotify, Dropbox, Twitter, Google and Instagram, many of its functions are rooted in uses through Alexa. While discussing IFTTT in June, Matt Gotth-Olsen, a developer in the city’s Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation, said that the hope is that by embracing IFTTT, Alexa and other emerging platforms, Louisville will be able to do a better job making government work for citizens.

Fischer’s podcast is another recent effort to engage citizens through tech, having just launched in August with a pair of episodes, one about race and equity, and another about immigration. These podcasts are also available to download via iTunes.


Baltimore Innovation Team’s First Assignment is Police Recruitment

In January, Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team added Baltimore to its roster of cities. In March, the city’s young innovation team launched a search to fill four new positions, which officials said help take on systematic civic issues. Now, Mayor Catherine Pugh has given that team its first challenge: Help the city do a better job of recruiting and retaining police.

The director of the Mayor’s Office of Innovation in Baltimore, Dan Hymowitz, recently told The Baltimore Sun that the team would spend six months exploring this issue, doling out suggestions, holding focus groups and reviewing exit interviews with departing police officers. The Sun's reporting goes on to detail staffing tumult that the city’s police department has faced in recent years.

Ongoing staffing issues in a police department is the sort of issue that the Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team program seeks to alleviate through tech. The Bloomberg program stands to award Baltimore with as much as $500,000 annually for the next three years for this endeavor.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is a charitable organization led by New York City’s former billionaire businessman mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

"Mayors must always be looking for new ways to improve the critical services that people depend on," Bloomberg said in a statement announcing Baltimore’s initial addition to the program. "Our Innovation Teams program helps mayors do that by giving city governments around the world the capacity to make their innovative ideas reality."

The program lets mayors fund in-house innovation teams, dubbed i-teams. There are currently more than 20 cities participating in this program, including Boston, Seattle and Los Angeles, as well as smaller cities such as Peoria, Ill.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Jersey City, N.J.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 15, 2017 to reflect that the Sunlight Foundation did not collaborate with Socrate on the analysis, but rather used Socrata's data for its own analysis.

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.