What’s New in Civic Tech: Pittsburgh’s New Startup Cohort

Plus, New Yorkers are battling bad landlords with open data; the Hard to Count Census map has added new contact strategy data; a grant from the Knight Foundation seeks data for civic engagement stories; and more.

by / November 27, 2019

Pittsburgh has announced its fifth PGH Lab cohort, which is a group of startups that will have the opportunity to pilot products and services within city government. 

The selected companies are Allvision IO, Beamdata and Bestie, and, as the city notes in its announcement, they will focus on aggregating data into useful visualizations that help city employees make data-driven decisions that improve services. That’s a mouthful, but, in short, these companies are going to visualize internal data for City Hall.

The PGH Lab is one of a growing number of programs that aim to bridge divides between startup companies in communities and local government. For example, San Antonio has a similar program called CivTechSA, while the Startup in Residence program that was born in San Francisco this decade has now evolved to be worldwide. The thrust of these programs is generally that the companies get about three months to work in local government, gaining invaluable insights they can use to create products that scale to governments across the country.

This program is a collaboration between the Pittsburgh Department of Innovation and Performance, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Airport Authority. 

Allvision IO is a geospatial analytics company made up of professionals who have experience with lidar, machine learning, and photogrammetry in a way that is strongly tied to autonomous vehicles. Beamdata is a civic tech company that works with data to address social issues, building tools to help foster equitable decision-making. Finally, Bestie is a social recommendation platform with a profile-centered approach. The idea behind Bestie’s platform is that users can find suggestions from friends about useful products, professional contributors or places to work. 

New Yorkers Battle Bad Landlords with Open Data

As an ongoing housing crisis continues to plague the largest cities in the U.S., a new civic tech effort in New York City is using data to tackle bad landlords. 

The effort is coming from JustFix, a civic tech startup company that has been at work for about four years now, capturing a $25,000 grand prize from New York City’s BigApps competition back in 2015. At its most basic level, what JustFix has done is build a means for renters in New York City to take action when landlords are acting improperly, be that by not making repairs or by letting housing fall into such a state of disrepair that it poses health issues.

As local news is now reporting, JustFix has gone on to serve more than 15,000 tenants with grievances, racking up a roughly 60 percent win rate in the last two years. JustFix's approach to doing this comes from having sat in court and watched a number of tenants approach judges with pictures of bad housing on their cellphones. 

So, JustFix has built a mobile-friendly app that tenants can use to document housing issues. It also works to take those documented issues and give users codified next steps, connecting them with local resources and also creating a court filing that can get a court case around the issue into motion. The app even compiles information to create a case history that can be presented to judges as formal documentation in court, rather than just showing off a cellphone screen, almost anecdotally. 

Hard to Count Census Map Adds Contact Strategies

With the 2020 U.S. Census approaching — and with it a risk of losing out on federal funding dollars and even political representation — a data map created by civic technologists has proven to be a valuable resource for community efforts to support the county. 

That map, which is called the Hard to Count Map and was mostly created within academia at the City University of New York, has now added new data, specifically contact strategies and a state-by-state analysis to accompany it. The impetus for this was the Nov. 18 announcement for the U.S. Census Bureau about the different types of mailings they will be sending out. The map’s developers then combined that with other data about non-mailing contact strategies, and they subsequently added the layer to the map.

Finally, developers have also added contact strategies by state, making the results available here.

Knight Foundation Grant Seeks Data For Civic Engagement Stories

How to best put data to work in ways that best serve communities has long been a priority of great importance for civic technologists, the local governments they often serve and the vendors that do business within the space.

It’s also an area that has long drawn support from the major philanthropies in the space, too. Most recently, the Knight Foundation has announced a new Request for Proposals (RFP) related to using data for civic engagement, with a stated central question of, “In what new ways can we transform how data is collected and used to build stronger, thriving and more engaged communities?”

To entice responses, the foundation notes that recipients have an opportunity to share as much as $1 million in funding in the service of their ideas. 

Of note for interested parties is that the successful projects should be located within one of the 26 communities where Knight invests, and that the full RFP with more detail is available to be viewed here. The submission deadline for the RFP is set for Dec. 13.

Along with its announcement, Knight notes that successful projects will do one of the following: find new ways to analyze data in support of civic engagement, find new ways to deploy successful data storytelling, create opportunities that bring residents together for civic data work, or help residents improve their own abilities to use data for engagement. The RFP is, of course, open to projects with other goals that tie to the overall theme of using data to foster better civic engagement.

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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