What’s New in Civic Tech: Can You Make Art from Data?

Plus, San Antonio’s CivTechSA program returns; the Cities of Service Engaged Cities Award deadline approaches; the new Indy.gov website goes live; the world might be choking on digital pollution; and more.

by / January 17, 2019

Technologists in Boulder, Colo., want to know: can you make art out of open data?

This is the question at the heart of The Art of Data Infographic Contest, which is set to wrap up with an awards show at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 31 at the Boulder Public Library. The contest is being hosted by the local Code for Boulder civic tech group and the local government.

Organizers have picked out some key data sets from the local open data offerings, including crime locations, fire unit response times, fire response areas, and active business licenses. The challenge for participants is to “tell a story using any and all of the data sets ... in a new way using imaginative and original infographics and visualizations.”

The contest is open to all interested parties, with a prize on the line of gift cards from local businesses in downtown Boulder, totaling $100 for one first prize winner, $50 for those who finish from second to fifth place and $25 for the rest of the top 10.

The city is hoping that the art projects will provide new perspectives, enabling the city to answer questions about its programs while at the same time fostering better understanding of the city among its residents.

The deadline for submissions is 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 27. Finalists will present their infographics at the contest awards, and the event in a broader sense is part of the public library’s Art of Data exhibition, which runs through Feb. 3.

San Antonio’s CivTechSA Program Returns for Second Class

San Antonio has brought back CivTechSA for a second year.

CivTechSA is a 16-week residency program that is essentially a localized version of the now-international Startup in Residence program. It’s a program that, at its core, seeks to facilitate collaborations between tech startups and public agencies, introducing entrepreneurs in the Central Texas community to government work while at the same time forging tech-based solutions to problems faced by the local government. It launched with its first class in 2018 and organizers recently announced it would return to welcome a second round of participants in 2019.

In the announcement, organizers also emphasized one of the success stories from last year, namely a collaboration between San Antonio’s Department of Human Services with Reckon Point and Kinetech Cloud. That project saw the group work with the San Antonio Airport on improving the experience for travelers, working to use tech to facilitate better access to many existing services such as parking availability and rewards programs.

This year, CivTechSA has selected eight challenges they would like startups to help them with, ranging from a new online system to manage boards and commissions applications to a new online central entrepreneurship resource navigator for the economic development department. Other challenges involve historic preservation, homelessness, civic engagement and affordable housing.

The program is currently in an informational stage. The application process to participate will go live on its website on Feb. 15. Anyone with questions about the program is invited to email its organizers at civtechsa@geekdom.com.  

The Cities of Service Engaged Cities Award Deadline is Tomorrow

In other application- and deadline-related civic tech news, Cities of Service's Engaged Cities Award application deadline is tomorrow, Jan. 18.

For the uninitiated, Cities of Service is a group that works to help municipal government leaders harness community talents, skills and abilities to solve public problems. The Engaged Cities Award, which is now in its second year, is aimed at boosting efforts by cities to engage in its mission of solving public problems. The award is open to cities with populations of more than 30,000 residents located in either the Americas or Europe. Each winner receives a minimum prize of $50,000 and an announcement at the annual Engaged Cities Award Summit.

There were three winners in last year’s contest: Bologna, Italy; Santiago de Cali, Colombia; and Tulsa, Okla.

The nature of the contest is such that while tech-based projects are not required, the work often involves tech all the same. Tulsa, for example, had a project aimed at bolstering data-driven governance in the city. It worked with its performance strategy and innovation team’s Urban Data Pioneers program, which convenes cities and public staffers to collaborate on data analysis and informed decision-making. All told, the project and the programs involved were able to help the local government in Tulsa use data to help solve challenges involved with a wide range of topics, including traffic and blight.

For potential participants, there is an Engaged Cities video online now, along with a link to the program’s application.

New Indy.gov Website Goes Live

Earlier this year, the Shift Indy tech program announced that it was coming to an end; now, one of the program’s main works — the new Indy.gov — has officially gone live.

The launch of the new site marks the culmination of two years of work by Shift Indy and others. It’s more than just a website, though, it’s essentially a digital city hall built with tenets of user-centered design for Indianapolis and Marion County, Ind. Like many jurisdictions, Indianapolis and Marion County have now created an online platform that puts user needs first.

It’s evident from the moment one opens the site. Instead of a wall of dense governmental text (essentially a public-sector standard for many, many years), users are now greeted with a search bar set atop a sharp photo of downtown Indianapolis. From there they can type in whatever they’re looking for, or scroll down just a bit to find clearly labeled blocks for the local government’s most popular services, including bid opportunities, paying property taxes, applying for homestead deductions and others.

There are more than 50 digital services on the site in total, as well as overhauled content for every governmental agency. In addition, there’s also a section for popular information topics such as moving to Indianapolis, government records, tax deductions and more. Below that, there’s info about the elected officials that currently hold office in both the city and the county.

In a press release, officials noted that roughly 60 percent of ancillary content has now been removed from the site, and in a concluding letter for the Shift Indy tech program earlier this month, CIO Ken Clark described the launch of and full transition to Indy.gov as the last major achievement for the work. The full text of that letter is available here.

Is the World Choking on Digital Pollution?

If you haven’t yet heard the term "digital pollution," chances are that’s likely to change fairly soon.

Digital pollution is a term that is maybe inherently familiar to anyone who spends large chunks of time online — be it for reasons professional or personal. It means, essentially, low-quality, unnecessary, false, damaging or outright reckless content. A report in Washington Monthly magazine — a nonprofit bimonthly publication based in Washington, D.C. — recently took a deep and nuanced look at the concept, including the potential damage it may be reaping on not only our institutions, but also our mental and emotional well-being.

This is perhaps of great interest to civic technologists for a couple of reasons. The first is that the work they create is often antithetical to the low-quality content that constitutes digital pollution. So much of civic tech involves facilitating access to visualized data or helping those who need them get efficient access to governmental services. It is, essentially, the exact opposite of cluttering the Internet with unnecessary content. Secondly, this is possibly of interest to civic technologists because some of the key philanthropic organizations in the civic tech space — the Knight Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation come to mind — have upped funding for firming up local journalism and adjacent causes, and it stands to reason that civic technologists will be in demand for those efforts as well.

At the very least, from a personal standpoint the Washington Monthly piece, titled The World is Choking on Digital Pollution, is well worth a read.

Chicago and Chi Hack Night Publish Joint, Peer-Reviewed Article on Open Data Project

In other publishing-meets-civic-tech news, municipal technologists in Chicago and the local thriving civic tech group, Chi Hack Night, have published a joint peer-reviewed article on a recent open data project.

Titled Predicting E. coli concentrations using limited qPCR deployments at Chicago beaches, the paper is dry reading (no pun intended) to be sure, but it adds even more credence to a fantastic example of civic tech at its best: Chicago’s recent use of data analytics to make its beach water safer.

It was published by the ScienceDirect journal and co-authored by a large group that included former Chicago Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk and members of the Chi Hack Night civic tech group, which recently incorporated as an official nonprofit organization.

The publication introduces the ways Chicago developed to improve water quality predictions, an item likely to be of interest to many cities with waterfront areas.

Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.