What’s New in Civic Tech: Philly Releases City Payments Data

Plus, Illinois Gov. Pritzker sets April as Innovation and Technology Month; Washington, D.C., forges new ride-share partnership; national civic tech leaders urge support for Digital Service Act, and more.

by / April 4, 2019
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Philadelphia has released a new data set that makes available almost a quarter-million lines of payment information from nearly 60 city departments, commissions, boards and government offices, the city announced this week.

This release of city payments data — which Philadelphia’s former chief data officer described as “the most complex data set we ever encountered” in a tweet — covers Philadelphia’s fiscal year 2017 and includes totals 238,894 lines representing $4.2 billion in payments. This heavy lift of a data release was made possible by a partnership between multiple departments: the Finance Department, the Law Department’s Right to Know (RTK) Division and the Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) open data team. The work, officials noted in the announcement, took place over the course of the past year and involved nearly every department within the government, all of which were asked to review data and ultimately better understand the types of payments that they make.

This sort of comprehensive spending data is, of course, a big deal for civic technologists, especially when presented in a framework that enables ease of exploration. Through the city’s website, users can look at and interact with transaction-level data via a visualization. If they prefer, they can also use an aggregate data visualization created by the city. Or, they can simply download the payment data set.

When dealing with data of this sensitive nature, privacy is, of course, a concern. To that end, the city notes that confidential data has been removed; it cannot be compared with other reports; and, the data does not include salary information the city provides to fund the First Judicial District.

Prepping this type of complex data for release is hard work. The project team worked closely with the Law Department to both understand what data was sensitive and how to flag it for any future releases. These special data sets included: payments for social services, payments that could harm public safety efforts if made public, and any other payments required to be confidential by law.

The project had to walk the often tricky line between maximizing information made public and protecting any and all privacy interests. The city also notes that while this project required a lot of time and effort on the part of the local government, it’s an investment of sorts that will ultimately lead to faster reviews and release of data moving forward.

Illinois Gov. Pritzker Makes April Innovation and Technology Month

Newly elected Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has declared that April is Innovation and Technology Month, the state announced this week.

The move is designed to “recognize the increasing importance of the tech industry for the state’s growth and delivery of services,” officials wrote in the announcement. Pritzker noted that 1 out of every 10 computer science degrees in the United States comes from a college or a university located in Illinois. The governor also voiced an ongoing commitment to establishing his state as a competitive startup and tech ecosystem capable of attracting tech talent and entrepreneurs.

This declaration comes after Pritzker named veteran technologist Ron Guerrier as the state’s new CIO and acting secretary for the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT). The state did not release any other details about Innovation and Technology Month, however, the announcement did say that more information as well as some events will be scheduled during April, “highlighting a variety of Illinois innovation and technology topics.”

Washington, D.C., Forges New Ride-Share Partnership Related to Microtransit

The Washington, D.C., Department of Public Works announced a new partnership this week with Via Transportation that will support ride-sharing and invest in microtransit.

The partnership involves using a system that will allow government employees to book rides for city business through Via. The costs of those rides will then be billed electronically directly to the employee’s agency. Via Transportation reports that more than 10 government departments have enrolled in this new program, with more to come still this week.

Via has explained to District employees how the program works with a frequently asked questions page. To participate, staffers must download the Via app to their phones, create a profile using their government email address, get a letter of interest from their agency head to ensure their department has joined the program and be traveling somewhere within city limits. The program, it notes, is to only be used for official city business.

Benefits of using the program include point-to-point transportation, great accessibility, and better efficiency stemming from not having to get to a car or find parking. Via Transportation uses an algorithm that also matches multiple passengers headed in the same direction, which makes the rides more affordable and has the added benefit of reducing both traffic congestion and carbon emissions on the city's streets.

Via has created a video tutorial that includes more information about the system.

National Civic Tech Leaders Urge Support for Digital Service Act

Last month, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, introduced legislation that contained a Digital Service Act that would bolster government technology efforts across the country, and now some of the nation’s foremost civic tech leaders are urging voters to support it by asking elected officials to co-sponsor the bill.

At the forefront of the calls for support is Code for America (CfA), a national nonprofit and nonpartisan group that is already engaged in the work that the Digital Service Act would bolster — finding ways to use technology to help the government better serve its constituents. CfA has even set up an easy-to-use page with benchmarks that individuals can use to support the act by asking their senators to co-sponsor it.

“Today, the vast majority of government technology is overpriced and under-delivers,” states CfA on its web page. “Too often, government programs spend millions of taxpayer dollars but don’t actually help constituents because the systems they rely on are built to comply with hundreds of obscure regulations, but not to actually work for the people who are supposed to use them. And these failures have huge consequences: veterans who die waiting for their benefits, families who can’t feed their children despite the availability of food assistance, and people stuck in the criminal justice system because of administrative failures instead of major crimes. This Digital Service Act changes that by bolstering the US Digital Service and empowering states and local governments to establish similar teams. It challenges the status quo in service delivery, saves taxpayer dollars, and puts the power of user-centered design to work on behalf of the American people.”

Other individuals and groups in the civic tech space have been sharing a link to the page online this week, ranging from a North Carolina civic tech event series called NC Open Pass to the Minneapolis-based convening body Software for Good.

As currently proposed, the Digital Service Act would be housed under the United States Digital Service (USDS), and its key points include giving state and local governments a pool of $15 million in annual grant funding, allocating at least half of its money to attract top tech talent, establishing federal grants to cover 80 percent of the program’s overall budget, and authorizing $50 million a year to help the USDS advance and continue its work.

It should be noted that while Sen. Harris is campaigning to be the next Democratic nominee for president, this sort of govtech-related legislation frequently garners bipartisan support. Indeed, there’s something about using tech to enable the government to do its work better and for less money that tends to appeal to the vast majority of the tax-paying population.

National Digital Inclusion Alliance Publishes Startup Manual

This week, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) hosted its annual summit in Charlotte, N.C., and while it was going on, the group also published an online version of its Digital Inclusion Start-Up Manual, which is a guide for anyone “looking to increase access and use of technology in disadvantaged communities through digital literacy training, affordable home broadband, affordable devices and tech support.”

This new manual was authored by NDIA staff members Angela Siefer, Bill Callahan and Tianca Crocker, with help from local digital inclusion practitioners and advocates who participated in the manual’s working group. These participants helped by both contributing several key sections of the manual’s narrative as well as by authoring practitioner advice columns from their own experiences.

The new manual has eight chapters, which aim to accomplish a wide range of objectives, from defining basic terms and concepts, to giving advice on related topics, to imparting info about existing successful community approaches to the work, which includes digital literacy training and more. The creation of the manual was supported by a grant from Google Fiber.

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.