This Week in Civic Tech: Google Fights the Zika Virus, 'City Web' Network to Serve as Civic Innovation Ecosystem

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

by / March 3, 2016
Flickr/Frankieleon

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.

Google vs. Zika Virus

This week, Google joined the battle against the mosquito-borne Zika virus promising to bolster response efforts with $1 million, an additional $500,000 in matching funds and a team of engineers to create an open source predictive analytics platform to map the virus.

Google said that since November, global search results have shown a 3,000 percent increase.

“Our $1 million grant will be used by the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to raise widespread awareness, reduce mosquito populations, support the development of diagnostics and vaccines, and work with communities and governments to prevent Zika transmission,” Google said on its blog announcing the initiative.

The funding are estimated to aid 200 million victims affected in Brazil and other Latin American countries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the disease is particularly harmful to pregnant women. The Zika virus is linked to congenital birth defects like microcephaly — when children are born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development. For most adults, however, the virus has milder symptoms that can produce fevers, rashes, joint pains or conjunctivitis (red eyes).

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus a public health emergency in February on the heels of its rampant growth through Central and South America. The organization noted that the disease is especially difficult to contain because no treatment or vaccine currently exists, and the mild symptoms don’t typically prompt hospital visits.

Rise of the City Web

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has released a 99-page report forecasting the emergence of a national innovation network for cities and recommending federal funding to support it.

The group of advisors, which includes Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren, called the network “City Web” and described it as a coming of age “information-sharing and collaborative development platform” for cities. But the City Web is less of a platform — a term typically implying an app or Web service —  and more of what might be called an ecosystem for civic innovation. With the rise of open data, smart city technology and municipal innovation zones to pilot advancements, White House technology advisors forecast that in the future, cities and federal agencies will look to each other and outsiders for solutions.

Based on the effectiveness of this rising ecosystem of technologies and tactics, the report recommended the U.S. Department of Commerce lead a new effort called the Cities Innovation Technology Investment Initiative (CITII), to pioneer and coordinate new models for technology-enhanced cities. Under the initiative, PCAST called for a blueprint by the end of 2016 that shows how U.S. agencies can foster civic innovation. Further, the CITII would create an independent body — similar to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) — to create standards and best practices to develop the City Web.

As a supporting measure, the group also suggested the White House draft legislation for two financing programs to support City Web’s use of Urban Development Districts — innovation zones in cities that are used to pilot new technologies.

Open Data Attacks Invasive Species

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA’s) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has partnered with Google Earth to build an interactive mapping tool to track invasive species that are damaging habitats.

The tool, which covers 100 million acres across seven western states, was developed as part of the USDA’s Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) to protect dwindling rangelands from the encroachment of conifers. Since fire suppression techniques were adopted roughly 150 years ago, conifer trees have gradually reduced grassland by sucking up nutrients and water from the soils. Ranchers have been especially afflicted by this as they require these rangelands to feed livestock.

To monitor the problem, USDA officials said the first iteration of its tool allows farmers, ranchers, conservationists and academics to analyze data on cheatgrass and conifer encroachment on vulnerable rangelands. The Web app will likewise assist with the identification and removal of younger trees that are easier to eradicate. Another helpful feature of the app is a heat map that highlights a region’s resilience and resistance to encroaching species.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

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