This Week in Civic Tech: HHS Open Datafest Highlights Innovation, Nonprofit Launches New Urban Practice Toolbox for Cities

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

by / March 17, 2016
Damon Davis, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services director of the Health Data Initiative, rallies California officials about open data initiatives at the 2015 Open Datafest. Jason Shueh

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.

Open Datafest Highlights Innovation in California

Data advocates and health-care officials converged in downtown Sacramento, Calif., this week to discuss the latest open data initiatives and public health projects at the third annual Health and Human Services Open Datafest. The two-day event, held March 16-17, was led by the social impact organization Stewards of Change. It highlighted, among other announcements, updates on the nation’s progress to put agency expenditures online through the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act). Since the law’s passage in 2014, the Treasury Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have undertaken the weighty task of standardizing how agencies report spending data. Damon Davis, director of HHS’ Open Data Initiative, said the work has united agencies as they add the data into the beta site for USAspending.gov.

Other news included updates on California’s work to pilot a statewide open data portal, San Francisco’s use of open data for decision-making, and the work of Waste Not OC, which uses data to redistribute excess food in Orange County to residents in need. If the event follows like last year, footage and updates from the sessions will soon be available on the Stewards of Change website.

California Refurbishes Campaign Finance Data

California’s Secretary of State Alex Padilla and state Sen. Bob Hertzberg introduced a bill earlier this week to overhaul Cal-Access, California’s database for campaign finance and lobbying information. The legislation, SB 1349, would refresh the antiquated system with easily accessible data gathering tools, dashboards and search options. Hertzberg and Padilla hope to fund the work with a $13.5 million request to the Senate Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review.

In a release from Hertzberg’s office, Padilla said the redesign is desperately needed, calling the current database “outdated, unreliable” and “long overdue for a complete rebuild.” His sentiments are echoed by Gov. Jerry Brown and state voting transparency groups like the League of Women Voters and Voters Right to Know.

Earlier this month, Phillip Ung, the legislative and external affairs director at the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), said the undertaking had multiple goals. Open data would be a major component in the redesign, as it would reduce the thousands of record requests by journalists, companies and researchers. At the same time, Ung said that for easy lookup, much of the engineering would consolidate FPPC information on officials' investments, monetary holdings, conflicts of interests, gifts and travel expenses.

Toolbox to Aid Low-Income Communities

The social impact group Living Cities has just released a set of  digital tools to help cities assist low-income residents. Branded as the “New Urban Practice Toolbox,” the package offers guidance on seven focus areas: data, civic tech, investment, civic engagement, leadership and racial equity.

Simple to search through, Living Cities has bundled everything into a clickable — and colorful — checkerboard of Web apps, articles and play books. In a few clicks, officials can simply rifle through the assortment of tools that were produced both by Living Cities and like-minded organizations such as Code for America and the innovation charity Nesta. According to its site the tools are the result of Living Cities' 2015 annual report that investigated a host of methodologies and tactics to help low-income and disadvantaged communities. The vision for the toolbox is that it continues to expand with additional contributions.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

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