What’s New in Civic Tech: How Local Gov Can Leverage Texting

Plus, senators introduce AI in Government Act; San Antonio hosts event to help attendees learn about its smart city data sets; Syracuse University announces its Autonomous Systems Policy Institute; and more.

by / May 9, 2019

A new paper from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has detailed how government can better leverage text messaging to bolster public benefits programs.

The paper, dubbed Leveraging Text Messaging to Improve Communications in Safety Net Programs, is part of a series that details knowledge from the Integrated Benefits Initiative, within which civic technologists are using human-centered design to improve access to safety net programs. The idea behind the series is to offer practical guidance to state government and others who build user-centered services within the public safety net. The paper is by Jennifer Wagner, a senior policy analyst with the CBPP.

The crux of this particular paper is, essentially, that text done right can facilitate better communication between government and the users of safety net programs.

“To take full advantage of this communication channel, agencies would do well to identify effective uses for text messages, obtain opt-ins from clients and navigate privacy and security concerns,” Wagner writes.

The paper goes on to note that low-income families who use these programs also have come to increasingly rely on text messaging to communicate, with texting being the most-frequently used functionality among smartphone owners. Text messages being nearly instantaneous, visual and easily used as a record make them a great means of communication in this context. The paper also notes that texting is best used in a supplementary capacity for other more traditional communication methods, rather than as a total replacement.

In other words, texting is a great way to disseminate bits of info such as appointment times, deadlines and approval statuses, but there should always be other means of communicating as well.

The Integrated Benefits Initiative from which the paper draws its lessons is a continuing project that consists of a collaboration between Code for America, Nava PBC, and CBPP. It’s made up of five small-scale pilot projects nationwide, and a mixture of design, technical, product and policy expertise to help states learn to use human-centered design to improve their services for the digital age.

Senators Introduce AI in Government Act

A group of bipartisan senators has introduced the Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Government Act, which is aimed at improving the federal government’s use of AI by fostering access to technical expertise within agencies, among other things.

The legislation was introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. This marks a reintroduction of legislation by the same group. The first time they put the bill forward was in September, when it stalled near the end of the previous Congressional session.

The bill, if passed, would create a Center of Excellence for AI, streamline related hiring within agencies, create a governmental advisory board on AI, and direct the Office of Personnel Management to pinpoint the skills that employees need to be proficient with the emerging technology. The bill is essentially a broad effort to just make the government better at preparing for and dealing with the use of AI.

There seems to be a growing consensus among those in power at all levels that tackling AI, so to speak, is vital moving forward. In fact, earlier this year the White House launched a new website dedicated to AI, dubbed Artificial Intelligence for the American People. This is basically 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 new legislation has some powerful support from across sectors, having already garnered endorsements from the Center for Data Innovation, the Committee for Justice, the Data Coalition, Engine, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Internet Association, Lincoln Network, Microsoft and Facebook, among others.

San Antonio to Help Interested Parties Learn About its Smart City Data Sets

San Antonio is hosting an event on Monday, May 13, aimed at helping attendees learn more about its SmartSA smart city data sets.

Dubbed Datathon Datadive, tickets are available now online. The city will have subject matter experts on hand to field inquiries about the data sets and other information that it has made available online for the public in recent years, specifically the SmartSA data sets. Meanwhile, experts from Google Could and RESPEC will also be in attendance, providing private-sector expertise about the Google Cloud Platform.

The event is free to attend. 

Syracuse University Establishes Institute for Autonomous Systems Policy

Syracuse University has announced a new Autonomous Systems Policy Institute aimed at helping to address questions related to the increasing prevalence of the technology, which includes new innovations such as self-driving cars and drone delivery.

The creation of the institute was announced this week at the school’s inaugural Autonomous Systems Policy Symposium by Chancellor Kent Syverud. It will include research and teaching of the fast-growing field.

“The Autonomous Systems Policy Institute will leverage the policy leadership expertise of Syracuse University’s top-ranked Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs,” Syverud said in a statement. “In concert with experts from across all of Syracuse University’s schools and colleges, the institute will address an urgent societal need while providing opportunities for research and student experiences that cross disciplines.”

The institute is expected to address a range of themes and questions, including whose values should be baked in to the AI that drives autonomous systems, what should the legal definition of a driver be with autonomous vehicles becoming more common, and what new social divisions will be created by the adoption of this technology?

Syracuse’s new institute is a relatively rare thing. The school reported in its announcement that a review it conducted found fewer than 40 such programs, centers or other initiatives at major colleges and universities in the United States. It went on to note that, “few, or none, are focused on the full landscape of autonomous systems and the broader societal implications in the way that this new institute will be.”

Syracuse’s new institute, of course, aims to change that.

Code for Anchorage Updates Bike to Brewery Map

The summer bike and brewery season is back, and, as such, the civic tech group Code for Anchorage has updated its bike to brewery map.

Reminding us once again that civic tech can, indeed, be a lot of fun, this map shows optimal routes for biking between 11 breweries in Anchorage, Alaska, each of which is represented by a cute little orange frothy beer mug icon.

A subsequent investigation by Government Technology into biking conditions in Anchorage (a quick visit to weather.com) shows that today’s high in the city is 54 degrees, which sounds a little chilly but is probably prime biking weather following the Alaskan winter.

Gov Tech Jobs with Philadelphia and the National Park Service

Finally, there are a pair of cool gov tech job openings this week.

The first is a SmartCityPHL director in Philadelphia. That position was recently vacated after Ellen Hwang departed to become the Knight Foundation’s Philadelphia-based local program director. The posting can be found here.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service is looking to hire an IT specialist, based in either Washington, D.C., Reston, Va., or Lakewood, Colo. You can find that posting here. The posting notes that the position is also remote friendly.

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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