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This Week in Civic Tech: Philly Releases Salary Data, John Oliver Uses Open Data to Attack Congressional Fundraising

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

by / April 7, 2016
Last Week Tonight Host John Oliver lambasted Congress for squandering their time in obsessive fundraising activities. YouTube/Last Week Tonight

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.

Talk Show Host Uses Open Data to Skewer Congressional Fundraising

“Washington is like Rod Stewart’s haircut,” quipped John Oliver of Last Week Tonight, “party in the front, party in the back — frankly too much party — and no business to be found.”

The HBO pundit, and former Daily Show anchor, lambasted Congress for 20 minutes on April 3 for its excessive — and what some might call obscene — amount of time spent on campaign fundraising activities. One of Oliver’s weapons was the Sunlight Foundation’s Political Party Time database, a crowdsourcing site that tracks congressional fundraising events. Digging into the data, Oliver dissected more than 2,800 of these gatherings during the 2013 to 2014 election cycle, an experience he described as shocking.

“The sheer amount of time that politicians take for fundraising is not just embarrassing, it’s horrifying,” Oliver said. “Some say that Congress members can spend from 25 percent to up to 50 percent of their time on it.”

As proof, he went to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that compels its congressmen with minimum DCCC funding contribution quotas. The lowest he reported was $125,000 and the highest reached $800,000. To hit these numbers Congress members have to spend, on average, four hours of their day soliciting for donations.The situation is the same on both sides of the aisle. In 2014, such efforts by congressional candidates raised more than $1.7 billion.

“Is it any wonder politicians are hitting up their customer base harder than a Girl Scout with gambling debts?” Oliver joked.

He also noted that 948 “breakfast fundraisers” had been held at Johnny’s Half Shell, a crab shack near the nation's Capitol, and that congressmen were reselling Taylor Swift concert tickets at $750 to $2,500 a person.

Philly Releases Salary Data

On April 5, Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski released salaries of city employees, searchable by name and title, on Philly's open data portal. As far as top earners go, the data lists Sam Gulino, the city medical examiner, as the highest-paid staff member at $260,730 per year — or about 11.5 times the city’s per capita income. Gulino is followed by Deputy Mayor and Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr. at $240,000; Deputy Medical Examiner Albert Chu at $231,505; Mayor James Kenney at $217,820; and Airport CEO Rochelle Cameron at $215,000. The release represents salaries as of March 22, according to the city, but will see a refresh every three months.

The site is also connects the city's 30,000-plus annual salaries to departments, gross overtime pay and a set interactive analytics tools. These visualizations show the Philadelphia Police Department as the dominant salary consumer with staff taking home $492 million, a sum that dwarfs the Philadelphia Fire Department — the second-highest consumer — at $171 million.

In an interview with Philly, Kenney said he supported the added transparency, and that “there’s no reason why [city employee] salary information shouldn’t be available.” Even so, the new financial info comes after much toil. The decision to publicize the data required a few years of internal consideration, with former Chief Data Officer Mark Headd reporting that discussions dated all the way back to 2013.

18F Source Code Giveway

The federal government’s tech team at 18F has pitched 35 open source apps, tools and templates to anyone who wants it. In a post Wednesday, 18F Content Designer Britta Gustafson advertised the free code as the agency’s way of scaling its custom development across sectors and all levels of government. The group pulled the projects from hundreds of coding repositories it's created since its launch, compiling them by applicable uses and degrees of development.

“This list is part of our New Year’s resolution to be more open,” Gustafson said. “Following up on those goals, we’ve also been working more on identifying parts of our work that are generic.”

Some of the projects include code for the group’s popular site, which publishes Web statistics online for visitors; Tock, a project time time tracker; and the 18F Feedback Widget, which gathers user input. For government — and especially the many U.S. cities still struggling with old websites — 18F’s “Draft U.S. Web Design Standards” are apt to be incredibly valuable as they offer advanced Web features and modern Web page design templates.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

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

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