What’s New in Civic Tech: NYC Data Analytics Year in Review

Plus, Baton Rouge, La., launches new open checkbook; Twilio.org announces $1.4 million in grants for nonprofits using tech to strengthen communities; NYC launches The Grid network aimed at growing its urban tech ecosystem; Deloitte and Georgetown University collaborate on CDO playbook for local gov; and Arc GIS app uses data to create artsy sketches of cities.

by / February 7, 2019
Shutterstock/Marharyta Kuzminova

New York City has released its Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics 2018 Year in Review and Look Ahead, which essentially serves as a state-of-data work in NYC.

As the city’s chief analytics officer, Kelly Jin, noted in the medium post announcing the report, it “highlights key projects from 2018 and opportunities on the horizon in 2019.” Jin, who started with the city roughly four months ago, goes on to note that a big part of her early work has been dedicated to both hearing and understanding what New Yorkers want from data analytics efforts in the city.

Other accomplishments noted include helping enrollment specialists for the city’s new Universal Pre-K program prioritize outreach efforts, assisting city leadership with assigning resources during a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Bronx, and determining where city inspectors should look first within a concentrated campaign to find bad landlords.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Jin notes that in December, New York City’s office of data analytics was written permanently into the city’s charter, which all but guarantees its work will evolve and grow long term, continuing long into the future. The city notes that doing so marked the first time a major American city has codified this sort of analytics work.

New York City, given its size and prominence, is a leader when it comes to the direction of city government in the country. Previous efforts that range from data storytelling to use of certain algorithms have long been emulated by smaller jurisdictions. In other words, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this move to codify the work there, is emulated elsewhere soon.

Baton Rouge, La., Launches New Open Checkbook

Baton Rouge, La., launched a new open checkbook platform that allows residents and other visitors access to spending data for municipal departments and services.

Dubbed Open Checkbook BR, the platform launched last year, marking the city’s final open data release for 2018. In a press release accompanying the launch, city officials noted that Open Checkbook BR “allows users to easily understand all levels of City-Parish departmental spending down to the ‘check level’ in a manner that is consistent with open data standards used across the nation and around the world.” Essentially, residents of the city can now do things like see where a department is spending its budget, down to individual transactions.

These types of financial transparency initiatives are increasingly popular in local governments looking to bolster their open data work. They hold additional appeal for municipalities hoping to foster increased trust in government through embracing such thorough financial transparency. Another notable point about Open Checkbook BR is that the information within is updated every night with any new transactions, which might range from new checks cut by the city to wire transfers to card payments made to municipal vendors.

On top of Open Checkbook BR, the city has a full open data portal, dubbed Open Data BR, which provides additional access to data sets related to public safety as well as to more niche areas such as animal control, public salary info and even 311 requests. In a broader sense, this all speaks to the accelerating pace at which mid-sized cities across the country are embracing deep open data work.

Twilio.org Announces $1.4 Million in Grants for Nonprofits Using Tech to Strengthen Communities

Twilio.org, which is home to a cloud-based messaging platform, expanded its grant-making to now include up to $1.4 million to support nonprofit organizations using tech to strengthen their communities.

Twilio made the announcement this week, noting that it had awarded the money to 15 nonprofits, marking its all-time largest round of grants. Twilio made the grants through its Twilio.org Impact Fund, which in the past has doled out upward of $3 million to similar organizations that have fostering social impact as part of their core mission. The organizations that have received these grants are quite varied.

Benefits Data Trust, for example, works to create better access to essential benefits and services, and it plans to use the grant money to expand its SMS engagement in a way that serves more and features increased efficiency.

DoSomething, meanwhile, is another recipient, and that group is billed as the largest tech organization working to get young people engaged with social impact campaigns. DoSomething previously received a grant from Twilio in order to help get out the vote among underrepresented organizations in the 2018 midterm elections. This time around, DoSomething is planning to use the grant money to build participation in their DoSomething Clubs, which is a new program spread across high school and college campuses all over the country.

In announcing the expanded grant round, Twilio noted that all recipients are working to use tech and innovation to foster better connections in communities. This sort of social engagement is not unprecedented for Twilio, which also started Voices for Democracy, a nonpartisan initiative aimed at improving those engagements between constituents and the individuals or groups who represent them in the political process.

NYC Launches ‘The Grid’ Network Aimed at Growing Urban Tech Ecosystem

New York City has launched The Grid, which sounds like a big budget sci-fi film but is actually a membership-based network for the urban tech community in America’s largest city.

The Grid is the result of a collaboration between the New York City Economic Development Corporation and CIV:LAB, which is a nonprofit organization that actively works to foster better connections between urban technology leaders. The Grid is essentially a clear manifestation of CIV:LAB’s mission, intended as it is for connecting tech groups, academic institutions and municipal tech leaders. The ultimate goal, of course, is to promote collaborations as well as to share information and resources.

The Grid made its debut to the world this week with a launch event at the New York Academy of Sciences, during which organizers announced more than 70 member organizations from all throughout New York that would be participating. All of the groups went through an application and screening process as well.

The Grid’s launch fits into the ongoing UrbanTech NYC program, which has previously worked to help create other innovation efforts in the city. Along with the network, the groups are also debuting The Grid Academy, which will be an academic group that helps to foster research and development partnerships between academia and the private sector.

The Grid’s first meeting is currently slated for Feb. 19 at Samsung NEXT’s New York HQ. Those interested in applying for membership can do so via this UrbanTech NYC website. Applications are now being reviewed on a rolling basis.

Deloitte, Georgetown University Collaborate on CDO Playbook for Local Gov

Noting that — as we discussed above in the Baton Rouge note — more local governments are making data publicly available, the private company Deloitte and the Georgetown University Beeck Center have now launched a CDO Playbook, with CDO standing for chief data officer.

The playbook is aimed squarely at CDOs involved with local government, and it features seven articles intended to help officials improve both the social impact and the service delivery of their open data work. Some of the topics explored by the CDO Playbook include overcoming common obstacles related to data-sharing, making the best possible use of data storytelling work and deploying public data in a way that serves the public good.  

In addition to the seven chapters that are currently available within the playbook, Deloitte notes in a press release that in the future more chapters will be added, with forthcoming topics such as data ethics, data lakes and how to best craft an effective open data strategy.

This effort is tied to Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights, which conducts researched that helps government solve complex problems. Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation hosted a series of meetings that brought together leaders from both the public and private sector, some of which were actual chief data officers.

Arc GIS App Uses Data to Create Artsy Sketches of Cities

Finally, here’s an interesting use of mapping technology: a platform that allows users to sketch cities with ArcGIS API for JavaScript.

It’s pretty artsy tech work, one that looks more at home in a video about computer animation than as an open platform anyone can just use. There are currently five cities mapped with the application: San Francisco, Paris, Berlin, Washington, D.C., and New York City’s Manhattan borough. Users can toggle between chalk and pencil renderings, moving through the cities and checking out various views.

The only major warning is that playing with this thing, which is powered by Esri, is a bit addictive. Esri has a nifty little how-to about the platform as well.

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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