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What’s New in Civic Tech: Cities, States Ramp Up Census Work

Plus, Code for America unveils the development process for a text message system for social service reminders in Louisiana; Bloomberg Philanthropies picks 21 European cities for innovation program; and more.

by / January 16, 2020
A U.S. Census worker goes door to door in Norristown, Pa. Shutterstock/Dee Dalasio

With 2020 now underway, city and state governments are ramping up efforts to support the forthcoming U.S. Census, which will determine the allocation of billions of dollars in federal funding as well as political representation at the federal level.

The Census, which is the largest peace-time mobilization of the United States government, is always a complex process. Complicating things more this year, however, is the fact that this effort will stand as the nation’s first high-tech Census, with the onus being on using digital means of being counted rather than traditional methods such as filling out paper forms.

With so much at stake and a steep challenge looming, state and local governments are deploying a diverse range of approaches to supporting the work being done by the U.S. Census Bureau at the federal level. 

Plenty of cities and states are, of course, using tech to help overcome the challenge of executing the high-tech Census. Some concrete examples of this include jurisdiction-specific Census websites, with two of the most prominent examples of that being Michigan and Washington, D.C. Both of these sites, and others like them, are excellent resources for people in those areas looking to obtain more information about the Census at a local level.

Michigan, for example, has a data map of its hard-to-count Census areas, which is a vital resource for activists and nonprofit groups trying to support the count. Washington, D.C., meanwhile, has a well-produced, one-minute video clip that explains why residents should fill out the Census, which is important because not understanding the point of the Census is a factor for citizens ignoring it.  

Many jurisdictions are also holding Census events that essentially serve as rallies for completing the count. New York City had one earlier this week, during which Mayor Bill de Blasio announced $40 million of city support would go to Census efforts. At the state level, Arkansas also held a similar event, live-streaming it online for any who were unable to attend in person. That video is available now on the state’s website

In some parts of the country, Census work is being supported by academics and nonprofit groups, rather than government. In Nebraska, where there has been no state funding allocated to the Census, the University of Nebraska Omaha has stepped up, and that institution is disseminating its own info online about why the count matters

Other online resources currently available for those interested in the Census include a Twitter list of relevant accounts across the country, as well as this list of state member networks put out by the Census Bureau itself. 

The Census will officially begin April 1, with work like this accelerating as the execution approaches.

Code for America Unveils Text System for Social Services Reminders

Code for America, the nonprofit and nonpartisan group that is at the head of the civic tech movement in the country, has launched a new platform that will text social services-related reminders to Louisiana residents.

Dubbed LA’Message, the idea behind the platform is to ensure that residents who qualify for public benefits receive timely reminders when there are tasks they must complete to get access. LA’Message is a one-way text service, primarily focused on contacting residents with reminders as they go through the benefits enrollment and renewal process. 

Code for America developers note that the service was created in collaboration with low-income Louisianans in order to build something with a better understanding of what would make the application process more effective. The group also partnered with Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services, Department of Health, Office of Technology Services and Governor’s Office.

A pilot program for the service was conducted among residents who enrolled in and were eligible for a number of benefits programs, including Medicaid, SNAP, TANF and WIC throughout the state. 

LA’Message “serves as an example of what is possible when users are put at the center of designing and developing a government service,” Code for America wrote on its website. “We are sharing our learnings in the hopes that other states and stakeholders can re-use this work and build upon it.”

That information, complete with the scripts and GitHub code, can be found here.

Bloomberg Philanthropies Picks 21 European Cities for Innovation Program

Bloomberg Philanthropies has picked 21 cities in Europe to add to a new digital innovation program aimed at finding new ways to solve challenges that local governments face across the world.

These cities will now get technical support, access to a network of other city leaders and training from innovation experts about how to best improve services for residents. All 21 of the cities chosen are capitals. The idea is that the lessons learned from these cities participating in this program will be helpful to other cities across the globe. Some of the more noteworthy cities chosen include Amsterdam, Berlin, and London. 

The duration of the program will span two years, addressing a range of issues such as housing, mobility, health, education and employment. The program will kick off with a meeting in London this month, complete with a specialized executive education program to be delivered by Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School faculty, who have often worked with American cities in this capacity

New York Library Data Shows Three Most Checked-Out Books of All Time

Finally, in fun data news this week, the New York Public Library has shared the three books that have been checked out most by its patrons over the years. They are The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, and 1984 by George Orwell.

This is, obviously, not the most actionable data in the world, but it is fascinating nonetheless.

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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.

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