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What’s New in Civic Tech: Could Better Design Have Prevented the Hawaii False Alarm?

Plus, Bloomberg’s What Works Cities program achieves 100-city milestone; CivTech St. Louis expands YourSTLCourts to include all of St. Louis city; NASA tool allows users to estimate population size for any area; and CincyInsights lets users check out past winter storms.

by / January 18, 2018

Over the weekend, the news was full of headlines about an erroneous alert that went out suggesting a ballistic missile was approaching Hawaii. In the aftermath of this false alarm, it was determined that a public servant clicked the wrong link, with a media outlet in Honolulu later posting a photograph of the screen.

On the screen there are a number of blue hyperlinks that seemingly run together. State officials in Hawaii said the screen was just an example of the type of interface used by the employee responsible for the false alarm. Upon viewing this example, however, somewhat of a chain reaction ignited within the gov tech and civic tech community, as prominent leaders noted that a cleaner, easier-to-use design would have likely averted the false alarm from ever happening.

Many pointed to a thread of tweets by Cyd Harrell, an alum of the civic tech group Code for America. Harrell pointed out that it’s not surprising that a government system would not have better design.

“Our public servants work with software that is bad to the point of abusiveness every single day,” Harrell wrote, “and do the best they can. This is a HUGE mistake.”

This seemed to be a popular sentiment among those who work with technology from government, a sector in which designing tools with employees in mind has become an increasingly urgent area of concern.

Perhaps the tweet that summed it up came from Code for America’s brigade in Philadelphia, which simply wrote, “Why does #CivicTech matter?” with an arrow point down at Harrell’s thoughts.

Bloomberg’s What Works Cities program hits 100-city milestone

What Works Cities recently added five new participants, bringing its total number of participating cities up to 100, thereby satisfying a milestone goal for the initiative.

What Works Cities was founded by Bloomberg Philanthropies in order to help cities with between 100,000 and 1 million residents do a better job using data and evidence-based practices to deliver high quality local services that improve people’s lives. The five newest cities to join are Columbia, S.C.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Irving, Texas; Long Beach, Calif.; and Honolulu.

Now that What Works Cities is partnered with 100 participants, it includes jurisdictions that are home to more than 31 million residents across 39 states. The annual budgets for the members total more than $104 million.

“The future of what works is becoming a reality today in cities across the nation,” said Simone Brody, executive director of What Works Cities at Results for America in a press release. “Over the last three years, working with our partners and learning from each other, our cities have adopted sustainable practices for using data to meaningfully improve how they serve residents.”

What Works Cities was launched in April 2015, and at the time it included eight cities: Chattanooga, Tenn.; Jackson, Miss.; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; Mesa, Ariz.; Tulsa, Ariz.; Seattle; and New Orleans. It is one of the largest-ever philanthropic efforts to enhance the ways that cities use data and evidence. The work that the program seeks to support has become increasingly prevalent as more city halls across the country add data-centric positions and programs specifically designed to make government more efficient.

CivTech St. Louis expands YourSTLCourts to include all of St. Louis

Eight months after CivTech St. Louis piloted a site that puts municipal court records online for free, the group is expanding the reach of the program.

The site, which is, was originally only available for unincorporated St. Louis County. Now, however, CivTech St. Louis is partnering with another local nonprofit, Rise Community development, and with Regional Justice Information Service (REJIS) to expand the easy access to personal traffic ticket info via a free, digital tool. As a result, YourSTLCourts now provides information from 30 municipalities within St. Louis and St. Louis County, encompassing nearly 75 percent of residents in the metropolitan area.

In a press release announcing the expansion, developers described this as bringing together more independent municipal court databases than any other system in the country.

“We are glad to see more-and-more municipal courts in St. Louis County working with YourSTLCourts to get more information to those who are involved with their municipal court,” Douglas R. Beach, St. Louis County 21st Circuit presiding judge, said in the release.

YourSTLCourts puts records from the municipal courts into a centralized, no-cost online portal that is designed to be mobile friendly. With this portal, users can access ticket information, outstanding warrants, court contracts, information and procedures. It also features a text message notification system to remind residents of upcoming court cases.

The reason for creating this is to benefit both local governments and the people. Users get a better understanding of the judicial process and their rights, while municipal courts get the tools they need to increase transparency and access. The team is currently working to bring access to 100 percent of area residents.

NASA tool allows users to estimate population size of any area they choose

NASA has created a new tool that allows users to estimate the population size of any area of the world that they choose.

Now, admittedly, this might not fit strict definitions of civic tech, because it’s not directly concerned with state or local government, but it’s an example of a intuitive map that does great things with data. Plus, it’s really, really cool.

NASA’s new tool looks like a map of the world, and all users have to do is open it up, draw a circle on the map, and wait as it estimates the total land area as well as the population there in 2015. In other words, users can quickly get an estimate of how many people live in a certain place without having to download or analyze a ton of spatial data. The new tool is called the Population Estimation Service, and it’s available to use for free.

CincyInsights lets users check out past winter storms

Do you ever find yourself waxing nostalgic about the bygone snow and ice that was dumped on you while you were trying to get to work on some awful morning in the past?

Well, now you can relive those days with a new tool from CincyInsights — provided, of course, that you live in Cincinnati. With the Snow Plow Tracker, residents of that city can check out past winter weather events from the winter season, using it to visualize where the streets were covered in ice or snow and when.

The tool is young, as is the winter, and so currently the only winter storm available is the one that happened earlier this week, but the tool has the capacity to catalog all storms moving forward.

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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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