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What’s New in Civic Tech: STiR Launches Academic Component

Plus, Philadelphia launches a new contracts hub aimed at simplifying vendor procurement processes, and Philadelphia also announces a new PHLConnectED program to foster remote learning for the fall.

by / August 6, 2020

City Innovate, the organization behind the Startup in Residence program (STiR), have now also launched STiR Labs, which aims to foster government and academic partnerships in the service of communities. 

STiR Labs, the group announced this week, is being sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and it will leverage the STiR program’s track record and existing network of more than 40 government partners. The sponsorship is being made possible by the NSF’s EAGER grant, which awards plans like this one that have the potential to support “transformative research and research methodologies,” according to the press release.

“City Innovate’s STiR Labs is a new and exciting project which will utilize a new approach for linking researchers with communities, and unlock potential benefits to researchers who gain access to personnel and resources to address pressing community needs, communities who benefit from impactful research-based solutions, and funding entities who benefit from a set of well-developed, user-inspired research ideas,” said NSF Program Director David Corman in a statement.

This idea to foster collaboration between local government and academia is one that has grown considerably of late in the U.S., supported by groups with similar aims, including the MetroLab Network. Like MetroLab, STiR Labs will support government and academic partnerships, helping connect academia’s expertise with community needs that can be met with improved government services. 

There is, however, a more concentrated structure to STiR Labs efforts, and that is a 16-week project period for the program, during which government staffers and researchers from public universities will work together to create insights and solutions that help participating state and local governments.

The deadline to apply to be part of this first cohort is August 31, with more information about the application process available on the program’s website.

“STiR Labs is a model for civic innovation and local collaboration,” said Jay Nath, former chief innovation officer of San Francisco and Co-CEO for City Innovate, in a statement. “This program is a unique opportunity for government agencies and academic institutions to think creatively about how we can all work together to improve government to benefit residents.”

Like the original STiR program from which STiR Labs derives its name, the idea is to apply a lean startup approach to government-university partnerships, doing so by incorporating tenets of the startup world such as design thinking, lean project management and efficient procurement methodologies, which in this case will now be applied to research contracts.

STiR has now worked with more than 40 government entities, ostensibly connecting them with gov tech startups. The ideal STiR success story is perhaps Binti, a startup that partnered with the San Francisco Human Services agency when the program was still housed in that city’s local government. Binti, which works on streamlining foster-care applications, created a product that spread rapidly through California government agencies and is now doing the same throughout the country.

The STiR program has remained strong of late, with its most recent cohort including 22 government entities and 39 startups, which ultimately led to the creation of 43 new products that take innovative approaches to solving shared community problems.

Philadelphia Launches Contracts Hub to Simplify Procurement

Philadelphia has launched a new contracts hub aimed at simplifying its procurement processes, which essentially means there is a new website designed to make it easier for vendors to do business with the city. 

In the online announcement for the hub, city officials note that it was born out of complaints that “it’s difficult to locate and learn about the city’s opportunities.” With this in mind, Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology worked with its Office of the Chief Administrative Officer to fix the issues, leaning on feedback from vendors in their community to do so. 

The result compiles information from multiple sites to display in a single, streamlined list. The list is intuitive and searchable, allowing potential and existing vendors to conduct a keyword search, filter results by a number of fields and connect directly via the website to applications for opportunities. 

The applications will be filed through pre-existing sites in Philadelphia, depending on the nature of the opportunities. Those sites are PHLContracts and eContract Philly, both of which have groups of vendors who are already familiar with them. 

In addition, the creation of these new sites means the elimination of some older sites. For example, the city previously had a location for business opportunities valued at less than $34,000, but that site will now be shutting down. Those smaller contracts will all go to the new hub. In addition, Philadelphia’s dedicated Request For Proposal (RFP) site will be getting a new look and eventually a new URL, all while still being kept separate from the Contract Hub because RFPs have different requirements for applicants. 

The new contracts hub is part of a larger project called the Local Business Purchasing Initiative, which has the same goal as the hub — to make working with the city an easier and more efficient process for vendors in the community. Part of this means raising the threshold at which it is required to do a formal bid or RFP from $34,000 to $75,000 for all businesses and $34,000 to $100,000 for certified business entities. That move is aimed at increasing the diversity of the businesses with which the city works.

PHLConnectED Program Seeks to Connect Students to Internet for Fall

Finally, Philadelphia this week also rolled out a new program called PHLConnectED, which aims to hook up more students to the Internet at home in order to foster remote learning this fall.

Philadelphia is one of the school districts across the country that has announced an all-remote learning reopening plan for this coming fall in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. With this in mind, the announcement for PHLConnectED notes “students need to get connected to reliable Internet quickly to be able to fully succeed and thrive.” To make this possible, Philadelphia is collaborating with business and civic leaders in its community who have a desire to help students learn online. 

Officials estimate that PHLConnectED will connect up to 35,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade to the Internet at home, doing so by offering eligible student households as much as two years of high-speed Internet service that does not require out-of-pocket expenses or installation costs. 

There are three key components to the program: providing wire high-speed Internet via Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, making sure the students have necessary devices and offering outreach in the form of digital skills training to the students with the greatest need — "greatest need," in this instance, meaning families without any Internet access, or families who only have mobile phone Internet.

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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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