The civic tech industry has sought, and often craved, to be harbingers of social change. It’s the unspoken credo at every hackathon. It’s a rubric that separates good apps from the great. And in Boston and St. Louis, the credo has moved beyond mere aspirations and transcended into two data projects that clear obstacles for low-income residents.
Fueled with $200,000 each and an opportunity to raise 1:1 matching funds, Boston plans to generate hundreds of jobs as it streamlines its youth jobs program, and St. Louis officials hope to engineer a platform that guides citizens through a complex criminal justice system — a change that may reduce bench warrant arrests for missing court dates from minor violations.
Both efforts fall beneath the umbrella of the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative, a joint venture led by the social equity advocacy group Living Cities with grant funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The collaborative is dually supported by a string of both local and national partnerships that include the Urban Institute, a social policy research group, and Code for America (CfA), that will use part of the funding to deliver tech talent from its brigades of civic coders. Other partnerships involve a set of government departments and community groups associated with the solutions.
“What we’re doing in this project is something that almost never happens,” said Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge. “You have the CIO of a city, you have the head of a local volunteer coding organization and you have a lead from a community institution that helps provide external support for a city, all sitting down at the same table with business partners and saying how can we collectively solve this problem — that’s an incredible opportunity.”
Franklin-Hodge said the Boston partnership is in the preliminary stages as staff and community partners conceptualize technical ways to consolidate and simplify the city’s youth summer jobs program. The undertaking currently generates a robust 10,000 jobs per year, but the city wants to streamline its laborious application process overseen by three distinct groups: the city, the Boston Private Industry Council, and Action for Boston Community Development.
“The process from a young person’s perspective is difficult and confusing. The applications are not only numerous, they're [also] not necessarily easy to fill out on a mobile phone” Franklin-Hodge said. “This represents an opportunity to get a whole new set of practical skills.”
Boston has set an official launch for a possible program application Web app sometime near the end of 2017 with iterations to follow. Early estimations forecast the project could produce more than 1,000 jobs per year as officials have more time for youth outreach and spend less on administrative red tape.
Within the two- to three-year time frame, St. Louis will design a Web app to let citizens look up their court cases by last name, connect with officials, and pay citations online. While seemingly rudimentary, Tamir Novotny, Living Cities’ senior associate in public sector innovation, said the tasks are critical when considering St. Louis’ proximity to Ferguson, Mo., spotlighted nationally for its history of abuses imprisoning low-income and minority residents for minor offenses.
“When we first started talking to St. Louis, they were really still in the furrows of the aftermath of Michael Brown’s passing. And since we’ve started, there have been a lot of reform efforts around the court systems.”
Novotny said officials intend to repurpose an Atlanta app called ATLCourts, first engineered in 2014 through a CfA fellowship to serve citizens in Atlanta with an easy-to-use and mobile-friendly service.
Long term, it could be said that community problem-solving is the overall goal of both projects. Within the collaborative there’s a push to install a lasting architecture for the two communities to answer social challenges in a holistic and data-driven way.
For years, Novotny said Living Cities initiatives were geared toward a primary objective of creating affordable housing. Yet after about 15 years of trial and error, the organization observed social equity issues — affordable housing or otherwise — were invariably linked. Education, the criminal justice system, economics, health care — they all affect social mobility in their own way. Each had government and non-government organizations affecting outcomes, and yet there wasn’t a unified mechanism for systemic change.
“Often when people are trying to change systems, they're trying to change government,” Novotny said. “But government and these folks are often not necessarily working together.”
It’s envisioned that such projects will inspire governments to work jointly with outside organizations on common problems.
“We’re going to be devoting a lot of effort to making sure that what’s done in these places can be learned from in others,” Novotny said.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.