This Week in Civic Tech: Analyzing 2016 Presidential Websites, White House Unleashes Wave of IT Initiatives

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / March 10, 2016
Analysis says Republican front-runner Donald Trump leads in Twitter and Facebook followers, but not in online influence. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

Putting Presidential Election Sites Under the Microscope

What do the 2016 presidential election websites say about their candidates?

This was the question posed by Shane Snow, founder of the content marketing startup Contently, in a FastCompany article that analyzed each site. Snow put a magnifying glass on user experience strategies, backlinks, advertising, cookies and the copious array of analytics used for visitor feedback.

A look at homepage design revealed each candidate's voter engagement priorities.

In the Republican field, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz showed a liking for credit card numbers, as a donation form was the first thing to greet visitors; Ohio Gov. John Kasich sought volunteer emails; Donald Trump had an infatuation with himself, spreading his reality TV visage across his homepage; and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio appeared to have a similar infatuation with Trump — asking voters to “Stop Donald Trump” and “Join Marco’s Team!”

Democrats nearly mimicked the priorities of their GOP counterparts. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders initially had a liking for voter emails, but in a recent site update, has — like Cruz — pointed his homepage toward donations. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a home page that grabs at both volunteer emails and donations.

Beyond the front porch, Snow indicated that as far as analytics go, Cruz was a close second to Clinton, who had more tracking and advertising services than any other candidate. Her digital outreach was only bested in the category of email marketing by Rubio, who employed four different types of email management systems.

This tech heavy campaigning may have handed Clinton a slight lead against the competition. Snow said that based on responses to Clinton’s digital content and social media, she boasts a marginally higher amount of online influence. But he also noted that Trump had the most Twitter and Facebook followers, and Bernie had the most website shares.

White House Trumpets a Score of Tech Initiatives

In a Thursday press call, White House U.S. CTO Megan Smith, Chief Digital Officer Jason Goldman and U.S. Digital Service Deputy Administrator Haley Van Dyck announced a series of recent tech initiatives that President Obama will highlight on March 11 at the Austin, Texas, arts and tech event South by Southwest (SxSW).

Broadband
The three, along with Deputy Chief of Staff White House Kristie Canegallo, said civic engagement and connectivity would be at the center of the message, with the president emphasizing his new ConnectALL initiative that sets a goal to connect 20 million more Americans to broadband by 2020. The White House hopes to achieve those numbers with the help of private-sector partnerships and a recommendation, submitted to the FCC March 9, to reform an outdated $1.5 billion phone subsidy program by turning it into a national broadband subsidy for low-income citizens. Smith said the policy shift is supported by a White House study on the economic importance of broadband.

Source Code
To add accountability and streamline the jumble of government software projects, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) drafted a federal procurement policy on March 10 that will require agencies to ensure new coding projects must be reusable with at least a portion accessible to the public as open source code. While seemingly a technical or mundane issue to outsiders, civic technologists know that open source and reusable code is vital for IT project success, longevity and efficiency. Of its own admission, the federal government has seen many IT project fail or become obsolete due to custom or proprietary code issues. The move is part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan, and the OMB is gathering citizen feedback on the legislation at the site Sourcecode.cio.gov. At SxSW, the president will encourage the tech industry to add input.

Tech Jobs, Open Data, Precision Medicine
The White House team went on to underscore a flurry of other recent announcements the president plans to reemphasize. Headliners in this are the White House’s TechHire initiative that, as of this week, has commitments from 15 new localities — now a total of 36 jurisdiction are committed to reducing unemployment by diversifying the technology workforce through public, private and nonprofit partnerships. The president will also talk about the Opportunity Project, a new curated open data portal, and his million-person cohort to propel precision medicine — medicines and therapies tailored to a patient’s lifestyle and genes.

FBI iPhone Issues

Despite openness on a bevy of administration objectives, Canegallo said the president would not be commenting directly on the Justice Department’s attempt to compel Apple to help the FBI hack the iPhone of San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist Syed Farook. Even so, Goldman said that while the encryption issue is difficult, it shouldn’t indicate a general government animosity toward the tech sector.

“The thing you have to start from is, first, that these are very hard problems," he said. "Second of all, the cooperation that exists between the government and the tech sector extends beyond the discussion on encryption."
 
As an example, he highlighted national security officials like Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter who is considering a Silicon Valley Defense Department innovation center to collaborate with technologists, and Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco who, alongside the Justice Department, is reaching out to entrepreneurs and tech sector innovators to combat online extremism.

“I think when you think about how the government and the tech sector need to interact it’s really much more than a single issue of encryption, or even a single case,” Goldman said.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.