What’s New in Civic Tech: 7 What Works Cities Certifications

Plus, Philadelphia smart city leader is named the Knight Foundation’s local director; Boston makes accessibility updates to its website; and Syracuse, N.Y., celebrates inaugural Tech Week.

by / April 25, 2019
Shutterstock/Pavel Chukhov

What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative that supports the use of data and evidence-based management within local government, has bestowed another round of certifications on cities across the country.

This year, the group gave gold-level certification — which is the highest that has so far been granted — to Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; and Washington, D.C. All three of the cities were silver-level certified last year, making the jump now to the higher tier. Meanwhile, the group placed Arlington, Texas; Memphis, Tenn.; Philadelphia; and Scottsdale, Ariz., on the silver tier. No city in the country is yet to achieve platinum-level certification, which is the highest possible.

These certifications were first launched by What Works Cities last year, when the group named Los Angeles as the lone gold-level city, while also giving the silver accolade to Boston, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.

What Works Cities grades localities based on 45 criteria related to data- and evidence-based governance, including whether they use data to set goals and track progress, as well as their proficiency at engaging the public about their use of data and evidence. Other key factors for evaluation are whether there is dedicated staff for this work, whether contracts are being rewarded based on past performance, and whether meetings are focused on numbers, among other things.

A motivating factor for this system is to create benchmarks for this work, which for many years has been somewhat undefined. The end goal is to motivate and guide local government to make progress when it comes to driving results for their residents. Essentially, this is a structural program that gives awards when this type of governance is used to improve quality of life citywide. The certification program is open to any city in the U.S. with more than 30,000 residents.

Simply applying for certification can also have benefits for cities. After a city completes its certification bid, it gets access to pro bono tools provided by the organization, including online training resources via the What Works Cities Academy. To date, almost 200 local governments have applied for certification and subsequently been granted access to those resources.

Data-driven governance as a whole has really blossomed across the country as of late, with an increasing number of cities not only acknowledging its relevance but also codifying it or creating chief data officer positions aimed at leading related efforts. A central tenet of the practice is that by relying on data and evidence to guide work, government can save time and money, more effectively identifying and serving residents' needs. Much of this work has been made possible in recent years by the advancement of technologies, both in terms of their availability and cost. The prevalence of this work — as well as the number of What Works Cities-certified jurisdictions — seems likely to increase significantly in the years to come.  

This year’s certification recipients were culled from a pool of 90 assessments. More information about certification recipients and their accomplishments can be found here.

Philly Smart City Leader Named Knight Foundation Local Director

Ellen Hwang, who has been instrumental in the leadership and development of Philadelphia’s SmartCityPHL initiative, is the Knight Foundation’s Philadelphia-based local program director.

Hwang, who started in that role on April 22, is tasked with making grant decisions, among other things. She’ll also work with Philadelphia’s leadership and its community to help guide other investment opportunities.

While with the city, Hwang was part of its Office of Innovation and Technology. She was the assistant director there for strategic initiatives, a job in which she led the creation of SmartCityPHL. To put into context the importance of that role, local media noted that between 2014 and 2018, the Knight Foundation has invested more than $36 million in Philadelphia.

Earlier this year, SmartCityPHL also released a Smart City Roadmap, the creation of which was helped by a grant from the Knight Foundation. That document serves in part as a foundation for evaluating the ways technology can improve life for residents. Hwang noted at that time that there had long been a lot happening in Philadelphia around smart city work, and that the city’s role could be helping to foster more collaboration and coordination.

In her new role with the Knight Foundation, Hwang will now be in a position to help decide which of the many smart cities projects in town get support from one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the civic tech, smart cities and local government space.

Boston Makes Accessibility Updates to its Website

Boston’s Digital Team recently made some updates to the city’s website aimed at making it more accessible for all users.

Detailed in a blog post, these updates were motivated by an email from a constituent that informed them of issues related to the site's use of colors. The main issue was that the color contrast issues on the site did not meet the minimum standard, which made some links in a newsletter difficult to read. As developers detail in the post, they worked with the city’s Disabilities Commission to look into and ultimately rectify the issue.

“Thanks to some minor tweaks to our pattern library, we were able to create a more accessible experience for our users,” developers wrote in the post.

This speaks to a larger issue. As municipal websites continue to move toward the customer service-heavy 24-hour city hall model, it means that residents of a city are often able to do more of their important business with the local government online — ranging from getting news about upcoming meetings to paying their property taxes. With this in mind, there is a corresponding increase in the importance of insuring that Web platforms and newsletters are accessible for all users.

Boston happens to house the design specifications for its website in a central location, which enable developers to quickly and easily make necessary changes to the text and colors. Taking it a step further, they also revisited the overall use of colors in the city’s branding guidelines to ensure they were maximized in a way that helped foster digital accessibility for all users.

You can read more about these and future accessibility changes here.

Syracuse, N.Y., Celebrates Inaugural Tech Week

Syracuse, N.Y., is currently in the midst of the city’s inaugural Tech Week event.

Running from April 22 to 27 at a Marriott hotel in the city’s downtown, the week is aimed at celebrating tech and innovation in the city by bringing together hundreds of people interested in the subject. The venue, the event’s website notes, is also in the middle of Syracuse’s burgeoning technology corridor.

The week’s programming features a range of events related to things like drones, robotics, cybersecurity and more. There will also be networking and a job fair.

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.