What’s New in Civic Tech: Did Hackers Exploit the Shutdown?

Plus, meet San Francisco’s Civic Bridge program; New York City’s kiosks feature historical photos of Jackie Robinson; seven design principles for using blockchain for social impact; and more.

by / January 31, 2019
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Following the longest federal government shutdown in the history of the United States, Democratic lawmakers are voicing concern that the country was made vulnerable to cybersecurity threats.

This week, a group of senators asked the Trump administration how furloughs might have negatively impacted ongoing efforts to guard federal IT infrastructure and systems from outside hackers. Another point of concern was whether the shutdown and subsequent period without pay negatively impacted the morale of cybersecurity workers, which is especially relevant given the oft-discussed troubles the government has attracting technologists whose other employment options are in the lucrative private sector.

The effects of the shutdown on state and local government, however, appear to have been relatively minor. Earlier this month, state and local gov leaders said the shutdown had largely only affected their technology work on a one-for-one basis, leading to a few project delays but nothing excessive — certainly nothing outside of the scope they are typically prepared to handle.

In terms of cybersecurity, Georgia Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) Stanton Gatewood noted that in preparation for the Super Bowl, some federal agents engaged with cybersecurity work had been deemed essential and continued their work. Conversely, the state’s normal liaison with the Department of Homeland Security on cybersecurity matters had stopped work and been sent home.

So yes, while concerns about cybersecurity vulnerabilities resulting from the shutdown at the federal level are likely to persist for some time — perhaps throughout much of the coming year as the nation heads toward the 2020 presidential election — it was pretty close to business as usual for tech and cybersecurity personnel at the state and local levels.   

Meet San Francisco’s Civic Bridge Program

Few cities are as closely associated with the work being done to bridge the gap between government technologists and local startup communities as San Francisco.

San Francisco is, of course, the city where the now-international Startup in Residence program (STiR) was born back in 2014, before leaving stewardship of city hall there in 2018. Now, however, the city — which has remained a regular STiR participant — has launched a new internal program that appears nearly identical to STiR in most regards. That program is the Office of Civic Innovation’s Civic Bridge, and it has a project demo day approaching Feb. 4.

That event will take place at San Francisco’s Main Library, just like STiR’s own annual demo day has done for many years. Other similarities include the 16-week length of the program and the overall goal of bridging (it’s right there in the name) the gap between city hall and the private sector.

Projects in this year’s Civic Bridge cohort include an upgrade on public toilets, a street cleaning pilot program aimed at bolstering efficiency, improved access to services for transgender and gender non-conforming communities, a model for medical calls that do not require the use of ambulances, and more. As with STiR, participants work to help the city solve challenges and improve its processes. The main difference, however, is that STiR aims to give companies a direct business line into the government technology market, while work done for Civic Bridge is entirely pro-bono. Essentially, the program enables private citizens to use their skills to benefit their communities, and the participants are a broader group than just technologists, encompassing designers, researchers, communications experts and more. 

While the STiR influence seems apparent, the roots of Civic Bridge date back to 2015, when it was first piloted in the service of solving problems like a surge in 911 calls as well as affordable housing.

New York City Link Kiosks Feature Historical Photos of Jackie Robinson

New York City is honoring baseball great Jackie Robinson by putting never-before-seen photos on its LinkNYC kiosks.

The photos are appearing courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York’s “In the Dugout with Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait of a Baseball Legend” exhibit, which opens Jan. 31. Today would have been the late legend’s 100th birthday. As many as 30 unpublished photographs are liable to appear on the kiosks as part of this initiative, running through the end of February.

New York City has more than 1,750 kiosks spread throughout the five boroughs, part of a joint effort between LinkNYC and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).

This is not the first time the kiosks have been used to display historical photos or convey storytelling to pedestrians in New York City. Perhaps most notably for those in the civic technology space, last year the city used the kiosks in the service of data storytelling. The kiosks were essentially used to disseminate testimonials for open data work in the city, letting passersby know that one need not be a technical whiz or data expert to do or benefit from open data initiatives.  

The photos for this initiative that belong to the museum were largely taken by photographers for Look magazine — a publication Robinson also contributed three autobiographical essays to and announced his retirement through.

How to Use Design and Blockchain for Social Impact

At the heart of civic tech is, of course, social impact, or in other words finding ways to use new and emerging technologies to make life in communities better.

With this in mind, it’s important to note there was a great piece published by Stefaan Verhulst, a co-founder of the GovLab at NYU, this week in Apolitical. That piece is titled “Seven design principles for using blockchain for social impact.” The content of the piece is just what it’s title describes.

In it, Verhulst lays out three broad use cases wherein blockchain can engender lasting social impact, including bolstering traceability of products throughout supply chains; creating verifiable means of identification; and helping to foster automated smart contract processes. Then, Verhulst goes on to detail seven design principles that can be employed in the service of social impact.

These seven principles are: governance legitimacy, ethically sound, not technologies but solutions to real problems, ecological footprint, synchronized with existing initiatives, interoperability and open standards, and securing first block accuracy. The article, of course, goes into detail about each one in greater depth, connecting the ideas to ways that civic technologists and designers can use them to improve life in their communities.

Verhulst also impresses the idea that blockchain itself is still very much “a young and still developing field,” suggesting that being agile and open to new work is vital to the discipline.

Washington, D.C., Extends Free Tech Support to Residents

The Washington, D.C., Office of the Chief Technology Officer is making its technicians available to help residents with their technology woes — specifically by fixing their broken devices for free.

The program aims to lessen the financial burden that sometimes comes with maintaining the many devices one needs for work, school and just general life. To that end, the District launched the All Hands on Tech program through a pilot last year. As part of this program, the city’s own IT technicians hosted repair events in conjunction with volunteer participants from local nonprofit technology organizations such as Byte Back, which itself works toward digital equity.

The work fits into the office’s digital inclusion program, Connect.DC, and its importance is perhaps best emphasized by this statistic: according to recent census survey estimates, about 12 percent of the city’s households have just one device. If that device becomes slowed down by viruses or another issue, it can reap major problems and setbacks potentially so severe they disrupt economic prosperity or other important things like access to health care.

There were two tech repair events for residents held last year, and in a recent report, city officials have said they plan to hold six additional tech repair events throughout 2019.

For its part, the Washington, D.C., Office of the Chief Technology Officer noted on Twitter that last year’s pilot program had the added benefit of providing their technicians with feel-good moments when they saw the difference their work could have for residents in the community.

Alameda County, Calif., IT Moves into New Digs

The Alameda County, Calif. IT department has new digs, and they are — understandably — interested in showing them off.   

You can check out a roughly 7-minute video tour of the facility online. Here are some highlights: the new digs are located at a 1950s-era building in Oakland, Calif., which (as the video points out) looks a lot like a bank because it used to be one. Inside the building, one finds a visceral-modern space, one that looks more at home as the headquarters of a private-sector tech company than it does for county government technology work.

The video also notes that this new centralized facility brings together a department that “for many years has operated in an assortment of far-flung locations.” In the newly remodeled building, the design follows a concept called the activity-based workspace, where there are tons of stylish areas for impromptu meetings, an open layout and an ample amount of modern tech. It all makes sense given that being located in the Bay Area means that Alameda County IT is in direct competition with some of the largest and most successful companies in the world for today’s brightest tech talent.

So, yes, watch the video, and if you feel just a tad bit jealous, that’s OK.

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.