What’s New in Civic Tech: Federal Government Launches AI.gov

Plus, Michigan to host its first state procurement summit; Boston launches new birth certificate app; and 18F reflects on its first five years of existence in a new blog.

by / March 21, 2019
Shutterstock/Peshkova

The federal government has launched a new website dedicated to artificial intelligence.

Dubbed Artificial Intelligence for the American People, the site is essentially an informational hub for an increased effort toward helping the country stay at the forefront of the technology as it becomes increasingly vital. There are several AI-related sections on the site, including those related to innovation, industry and American values.

The creation of the site comes after an executive order from the White House in February. That order created the American AI Initiative, described on the new site as “a concentrated effort to promote and protect national AI technology and innovation.” It also calls for a “whole-of-government" strategy that involves collaborating with the private sector, academia, the general public and partners in the international community.

The site also features a number of resources, including strategic documents related to federal AI support, a set of fact sheets and other materials that speak to the value of the tech.

The site also features information about last year’s White House AI Summit. That event brought together government officials with AI experts from a number of sectors to hold breakout sessions in the service of furthering the country’s efforts as they relate to research and development, workforce development and several other areas.

Finally, the site links to the federal government’s current strategic plan relating to AI, which dates back to October 2016, noting that given the rapid pace of AI-related technology, a refresh of that plan is currently taking place.

Michigan to Host its First State Procurement Summit

Michigan will host a summit in May related to procurement. The event will be held at Ford Field in Detroit, where the Detroit Lions play.

A number of relevant state officials will attend, including the state’s Chief Procurement Officer Jim Colangelo, who will be giving the opening remarks, as well as participating in breakout sessions with other purchasing professionals from a range of state agencies. Organizers note on the event’s website that they have also extended invitations for a number of officials from local governments in the area.

“This will not be a boring lecture about procurement!” the event website notes.

There will also be a question and answer session with Michigan’s chief procurement officer and senior leadership team. This is all likely to be of interest to technologists because if there is one area that repeatedly comes up as a major barrier to government innovation, it’s procurement. This event is essentially a concentrated day during which companies that wish to work with government can attend, show off their products and even get some clarity on how best to work with/sell to government.

This is the first time that Michigan has held such an event, but the wording on the website already dubs it as an annual occurrence, likely indicating that the procurement summit stands to become a regular tradition.

Interested parties can find more information about attending on this RSVP page. The event is being sponsored by the National Association of State Procurement Officers (NASPO).

Boston Launches New Birth Certificate App

Boston has launched a new app that residents can use to order copies of their birth certificates.

This comes roughly a year after Boston launched a similar app that allowed people to order copies of death certificates online. In a medium post announcing the new app, Boston’s developers noted that the death certificate apps was a useful “jumping off point” to build the similar birth certificate app. The post then goes on to describe the development process.

Essentially, the creation of the app involved using human-centered design methodology such as researching the reasons people get birth certificates to better understand who the end user would be. This effort, the post notes, quickly determined that there were too many reasons to count in any way that would prove useful to the development process.

“It didn’t take long to figure out that our audience was basically everyone,” the developers wrote.

The post also runs through the benefits of moving the birth certificate request process online — a list that includes rising demand for birth certificates due to the Real ID Act. That piece of legislation was passed by the federal government in 2005, and it mandates an enhanced driver’s license or passport that will soon be required to do things like enter federal buildings or fly with an airline.

Another key reason for creating the app was to save residents the time it takes to make a trip to city hall to get a certificate themselves. The latter point places this app firmly among a growing number of local government efforts to do a better serving constituents, essentially mirroring the high levels of customer service provided by the private sector.

The post is interesting for anyone involved with civic, proceeding as it does to detail more facets of the research and development process. It also notes what the next like-minded process stands to be: an app to order marriage certificates.

What’s Next for 18F?

It’s been about five years since the launch of the federal tech consultancy 18F, and to celebrate the group took to its blog with a post discussing some of its chief accomplishments, the lessons it’s learned along the way and where it plans to go in the future.

The agency, which now has a team of 118, notes that it has worked with 22 different federal agencies as well as three states in the last year, with projects that range from modernizing schedulers for the Air Force to bolstering security for background investigations across the country. Other accomplishments for 18F include helping their partner agencies build a number of products, the most notable among them being the website managing tool Federalist, cloud.gov and login.gov, which is a single sign-on platform.

The group also notes that over the course of the past year alone it has wrapped up significant projects with the Federal Election Commission, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue and the National Science Foundation. Those projects have now been transitioned to the care of the home agencies they were designed for, where staffers are continuing to develop and maintain them.

The post also goes into detail about what has been learned during 18F’s first five years. They cite specific examples to support each, but in summation the key lessons have been that delivery isn’t the only strategy; trusts starts with humility; it’s not their role to try to do everything related to their projects; and they need to write down what they’ve learned.

Finally, the last section of the birthday post addresses the agencies future and plans to concentrate on three key initiatives. The first is that will have assisted acquisition authority, which will allow them to buy products and services on behalf of the agencies they partner with, thereby increasing their ability to achieve agile or modular contracting within government. Second, the group is now working to hire career track positions, rather than the four-year terms it has hired for during its early days. Lastly, 18F will be creating new portfolios aimed at better defining its areas of expertise for its partners.

“Today’s 18F is different from the 18F of 2014,” the group wrote in the blog. “We’re a little quieter, a little more pragmatic — and we can take that approach because previous 18F staff blazed a trail for us.”

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.