3 Highlights from the 2016 Gigabit City Summit

More than 75 city representatives convened at the 2016 Gigabit City Summit in Kansas City, Mo., highlighting do's and don'ts in civic tech.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What will a world of gigabit Internet offer cities? That was the underlying question Tuesday, May 17, as officials discussed and debated the issue at the 2016 Gigabit City Summit.

Held at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, May 16-18, the event drew representatives from more than 70 cities to discuss the trends, strategies and prospects tied to gigabit broadband initiatives in such areas as infrastructure, policy, digital inclusion, education and civic tech — technologies that aid citizens and government.

Here are three civic tech highlights from day two of the event.

1. KC Makes an Open Data Comeback

Launching an open data portal is a milestone for any city, yet for Kansas City’s portal, Open Data KC, Chief Data Officer Eric Roche said success came only after much toil and strategizing. Shortly after its inception in 2013, the site was struggling to attract visitors. It’s content was slim, data usage poor, and it burdened staff with an excessive amount of manual data entry. The low engagement prompted the addition of data sets, such as policy and 311 service information, but to no avail; the incremental updates produced only incremental returns.

“I couldn’t tell you what was going wrong," Roche said. "I just couldn’t figure out the problem of why people were still not visiting the site, why we weren’t having that much of an impact."

Pressure built with each quarterly update, prompting the city to re-evaluate the open data program's entire structure.

“Looking back at the [site’s visitor] chart, there was not that much of a deviation," Roche said. "But at the time, when it’s your program — and you have to report on it quarterly — it sucks."

To turn things around, Roche, under the direction of Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James, instituted an open data policy to prioritize high value data sets, added automated open data uploads into workflows, and established an open data policy to codify best practices for departments. Roche said the city also realized it had to make the data user-friendly and accessible to average citizens, a process it did by inserting open data links into Kansas City’s traditional communication channels, such as emails, newsletters and press releases.

“We’ve really doubled down on our focus into helping our community use this open data,” Roche said.

Thanks to the changes, the site's usage and visitor counts are on the rise. And Roche said the city is building on the success with help from experts at the Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities Initiative, a program providing free tech expertise and collaboration for cities nationwide. 

2. Boston Is a Model for Innovation

Keynote speaker Nigel Jacob paid a visit to break down how the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics experiments with potential innovations.

nigel-newurbanmech.jpgThe office, well known for its ambitious projects, has coordinated a host of civic tech applications since its start in 2010. These include apps that track school buses for parents, locate free flu shots and gamify civic engagement for city feedback. Impact and scalability are the two defining metrics, with learning as the overall goal.

"The process we go through is just as important as the end product you actually build," said Jacob.

This process, he said, begins by exploring potential solutions — whether from the city, startups or a nonprofits — and pairing each solution with a specific population the innovation is meant to assist. A short experiment comes next, followed by a quick evaluation to accept or reject the idea.

If a project is sustainable, scalable and drives impact, Jacob said, it’s handed off to another department or organization to implement. If rejected, notes are made for future reference.

Often, Jacob said, rejected projects can be highly impactful but not sustainable. Yet for those that make the cut, gains are far reaching.

“These applications make government rethink its role with citizens, not to be passive observers in the innovation ecosystem, but to be enablers,” he said.

3. Tips to Jump-Start Civic Tech

Leaders from two volunteer civic tech groups, Code for Kansas City and SmartChicago, listed a few quick tips for how cities and data advocates can seed grass-roots civic tech programs.

Code for Kansas co-founders Jason Harper and Paul Barham advised attendees to first focus on recruiting a stable roster of talent by enlisting help at tech meetups, using hackathons as incentives, and to keep a steady flow of communication among group members. The two encouraged groups to reach out to academic institutions and like-minded organizations after accruing a sizable group of volunteers.

Representing SmartChicago, Project Coordinator Sonja Marziano suggested that cities and organizers avoid attempts to recruit project participants and instead hunt for group members, a practice that prides longevity over short-term engagement. She added that regular meetings and meetup locales with Wi-Fi, ample space and nearby public transit — like libraries — were good picks.

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