What’s New in Civic Tech: U.S. Justice Department Launches New FOIA.gov Site

Plus, prominent Chicago civic tech group invites Illinois attorney general candidates to sign open data pledge; Bloomington, Ind., teams with a civic tech group to create an animal shelter Twitter bot; multiple cities create “Adopt-a-Drain” apps to encourage care for storm drains; and Boulder, Colo., works to turn data into art.

by Zack Quaintance / March 8, 2018
Courtesy U.S. Department of Justice

In news that will surely be of interest to the civic tech and open data crowds, the U.S. Justice Department has launched a new FOIA.gov site, redesigning the online portal through which citizens can request information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Transparency groups have praised the redesign, which was mandated by Congress in 2016, describing it as a significant improvement over the previous FOIA.gov. The Sunlight Foundation, an open data advocacy group, noted that while the new version of the site won’t fix all of the nation’s transparency law issues, it is a “modern, responsive website based upon open standards and open source frameworks.”

Sunlight also notes that the new site was built by 18F, a federal tech consultancy housed within the General Services Administration, with funding from the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy. Transparency groups are likely to most appreciate the developer resources available through the new FOIA.gov, including an API.

This redesign was mandated by the FOIA Improvement Act, which directed the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Justice Department to “build a consolidated online request portal that allows a member of the public to submit a request for records under subsection (a) to any agency from a single website.”

In a post on Sunlight’s website, the group’s deputy director, Alex Howard, writes “FOIA.gov is a sterling example of what people can build together, over time, when Congress mandates action in the wake of an agency not following through on an open government commitment.”

All indications are that technologists in the federal government intend to continue enhancing the site with input from the public. In fact, a banner on the new site describes it as “the first iteration of the new FOIA.gov” and also implores users to send feedback to National.FOIAPortal@usdoj.gov.

Prominent Chicago civic tech group invites Illinois attorney general candidates to sign open data pledge

In the past year or so, prominent Chicago-based civic tech group Chi Hack Night has invited candidates in races for governor, county state’s attorney and county clerk for the circuit court to sign open data pledges, and now it’s extending the invitation to candidates for state attorney general.

The group did so on Wednesday, March 7 via a blog post on its website, and it has already garnered a response from a likely frontrunner in the race, former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who announced that he would sign the pledge on Twitter while posting a picture of his signature on the form.

The pledge, which organizers have noted in the past is largely symbolic and non-binding, simply implores candidates to “commit to open data practices for the benefit of all constituents, including citizens, organizations, journalists, and other government entities.”

At present, 10 candidates have announced their intentions to run for Illinois attorney general, and Quinn was the first to announce an intention to sign the pledge. Chi Hack Night, which meets in Chicago every Tuesday and features speakers from the local government and technology ecosystem there, has had mixed results getting candidates in other races to sign, with some declining to do so and others failing to respond to the invitation. Perhaps most notably, incumbent Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner did not respond to the request.

The group has, however, also had a high-profile win for its pledge efforts, specifically as it pertains to the 2016 Cook County state’s attorney race, during which candidate Kim Foxx signed the pledge. Foxx then went on to win the race and make good on her promise to create a new chief data officer position within her office, as well as to release new data sets that were previously unavailable to the public.  

Bloomington, Ind., teams with a civic tech group to create an animal shelter Twitter bot

Bloomington, Ind., has teamed up with a local civic tech group to create a Twitter bot that will automatically tweet animal profiles from the local animal shelter’s database when new pets come up for adoption.

The feature is live on the Bloomington animal shelter’s feed now, and the civic tech group that implemented it was BMG Hack, according to a press release from the city. The inspiration for the bot came from a civic tech group in Philadelphia that completed a similar project, and with it, users can essentially learn in real time which animals are available for adoption.

BMG Hack, which is a member of Code for America’s brigade program, worked with Bloomington Information and Technology Services Department staff. The impetus for the work was a high level of traffic on the animal shelter’s webpage for adoptable animals.

Multiple cities create “Adopt-a-Drain” apps to encourage care for storm drains

To reduce flooding on their streets, some communities are turning to tech, creating what they’re calling “adopt-a-drain” programs that will function through interactive mobile apps.

With these apps, residents can coordinate volunteer efforts to keep local storm drains clean and clear of debris, thereby logging every time they clean one so that other community members don’t duplicate their efforts. So far, an adopt-a-drain pilot program is live in Norfolk, Va., specifically in that city’s Fairmont Park area, which encompasses nine neighborhoods and an estimated 2,300 homes, defined as it is by the Lafayette River to the south and Wayne Creek to the north.

According to local news reports, an adopt-a-drain app for Norfolk grew out of a partnership between the local Code for America brigade, Code for Hampton Roads, and the municipal government’s office of resilience. The program has been live for two weeks, and in that time 15 people have used it to adopt drains.

Meanwhile, in Durham, N.C., local civic technologists are working to build a version of adopt-a-drain for their area. They recently held a hackathon aimed at completing a Durham adopt-a-drain.

Boulder, Colo., works to turn data into art

Boulder, Colo., has put out a call for artwork for an upcoming exhibition called “Art of Data,” which will consist of art made by the community from the city’s open data work.

The exhibition will be held from Dec. 14 to Feb. 3 in the Canyon Gallery of Boulder’s Main Library. The exhibit is a joint collaboration between Boulder’s city manager’s office, its information technology department and its public library. In addition to being on display, accepted artwork will receive a $250 honorarium. A list of criteria for the work is available here, with the main qualifier, of course, being that it has to have been inspired by the city’s open data.

The deadline for submissions is May 31.