This Week in Civic Tech: Chicago Launches Civic Tech Startup 101, U.S. Department of Commerce Data Service Completes Major Projects

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

by / March 24, 2016
U.S. Department of Commerce hosts its first Commerce Data Advisory Committee (CDAC) meeting in April, 2015. The group that includes representatives from Google, Intel and LinkedIn guides department data projects and initiatives. U.S. Department of Commerce

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 Friday for updates.

Meet the Commerce Data Service

The launch of the U.S. Department of Commerce Data Service (CDS) is one story that slipped through the digital cracks last November. But with a few major projects completed — and more underway — the group’s mention was a near inevitability. In a March 15 blog post, department Chief Data Officer Ian Kalin, the first to hold the role, highlighted CDS as one of his primary accomplishments after a year in the position.

“We came up with the big idea that building a centralized team of data experts would create a critical foundation of talent within the department and empower the 12 bureaus of the Department of Commerce to better achieve their missions,” Kalin wrote.

Like the White House’s U.S. Digital Service and the General Service Administration’s 18F, the team’s roster is a mashup of top tech-sector recruits. Its leadership consists of Kalin; Deputy Chief Data Officer Tyrone Grandison, a former IBM research manager; and Jeff Chen, a former NASA innovation fellow and data expert for the New York Mayor’s Office, acts as the department’s chief data scientist. Kalin said it was quickly apparent after an initial analysis that a data team was needed to modernize services. Currently, the CDS has launched five interactive open data Web apps through the Commerce Data Usability Project, an open data site meant to spotlight insights for American businesses.

According to a recent article, the goal of CDS is to hire a team of more than 100 software engineers and data experts by the end of 2016 to support the department’s more than 45,000 employees. The article also notes that 15 open data projects are slated for completion by August, one of which includes a partnership between CDS and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to shorten the patent applications to just three hours.

Chicago Creates Civic Tech Startup 101

Propelled by the rise of civic tech, the University of Chicago and venture capital fund Urban.us have teamed up to create a class for civic tech entrepreneurship. In an Inc. article, AppCityLife founder Lisa Abeyta writes about the inception of the coursework that aligns industry and government thought leaders with startup fundamentals.

With the guidance of Urban.us Founder Stonly Baptiste, Professor Abbie Smith at UChicago’s Booth School of Business has structured the class, called Entrepreneurship: Urban Opportunities & Solutions, to be more like a startup incubator than a typical university course. Students must create a product and business model that solves a social or urban problem. Just like the many small groups of entrepreneurs in startups, this pursuit places them in teams that are mentored weekly with government and tech industry panelists. Contributors to the class have included speakers like Chicago CIO Brenna Berman; Palo Alto, Calif., Development Services Director Peter Pirnejad; and civic tech startups and nonprofits like MuniRent, NextDoor, SmartProcure and CityMart — to name just a few.

Smith said the concept for the class is part of a larger civic innovation focus that’s led by UChicago’s President Robert Zimmer. Outside the school, the program also underscores a growing trend in civic tech education that is seeded by both governments — who are educating through entrepreneurial fellowships and startup collaborations — and civic tech accelerators like San Francisco’s Tumml and Washington, D.C.’s 1776. Those looking for a more expansive academic program might head to the California College of the Arts, which launched its first MBA in Civic Innovation last year.

Apps.Gov Returns

After a four-year hiatus, the White House is re-launching Apps.gov. Originally built in 2009 as a site for agencies to purchase modern software, it was quickly abandoned in 2012 after new technologies outpaced its offerings. This month, however, the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows took up the site's rebirth in an alpha release.

It is hoped that the site will sidestep previous shortcomings with a number of new advances, such as an open source build that allows the private sector to interact and update the site alongside officials. A fatal flaw in the original platform was the inability for vendors to advertise their products. In the updated version, any company can list its services even if it hasn’t jumped through all the federal hoops to be a company approved by the General Services Administration, one of the primary organizations that oversees federal procurement contracts. Other additions are stronger adoption of cloud solutions and heightened transparency of contracting and security requirements so companies can meet regulation standards. As with its first iteration, Apps.gov seeks to reduce and optimize the governments $80 billion in IT spending each year.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

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