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What’s New in Civic Tech: Sunlight Foundation Workshop Will Help Residents Understand Open Data

Plus, Boston launches new death certificates Web app, 18F looks to hire a user experience design lead, and the Durham, N.C., i-team works to help ex-offenders re-assimilate.

by / March 29, 2018
Volunteers hold signs guiding people to the location of lunchtime food trucks at the Sunlight Foundation's Transparency Camp 2013, an event that focused on open data and transparent government efforts. Flickr/The Sunlight Foundation

The number of cities who publish large volumes of open data on their municipal websites has grown drastically in recent years, and as it has increased, so too has discussion about how best to get communities to engage with it.

To help cities boost citizen engagement with open data, nonprofit advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation is holding an online discussion billed as “a community workshop and interactive conversation about how to help more residents understand and use” open data. The event will take place on Wednesday, April 18, and organizers invite city open data staff to attend.

The two-hour workshop will involve an online discussion, an idea swap and a presentation on best practices for supporting community data use. Attendees will also have a chance to hear from the Sunlight Open Cities team, who will discuss the lessons that they’ve learned while piloting the group’s tactical data engagement work. Members from city staffs in jurisdictions that have previously had success facilitating community use of open data will also be on hand to share their stories and expertise.

Finding ways to get people to use the open data that cities release has led to new open data portal launches and website redesigns across the country. Some cities have even resorted to taking their open data engagement efforts out into the physical communities, holding short presentations designed to help residents understand the work.

Boston launches new death certificates Web app

Boston’s digital team has launched a new death certificates Web app, which allows users to quickly search for death certificates by providing a name and approximate date.

This tool, one of the first of its kind in any major American city, is just a locator; to obtain actual death certificates citizens must still do so either by mail or in person. In order to explain the tool, as well as the accompanying agile development process that helped create it, one of the project’s software engineers took to Medium to write a post this week.

“We’re particularly proud of the software engineering behind this launch,” wrote Fin Hopkins, a software engineer on Boston’s digital team. “This is the first site that uses our new tech stack and production infrastructure for web applications. These tools have let us build a site that is fast, accessible and (we hope!) maintainable for years to come.”

The post then explains details related to why the team picked death certificates, how they planned to build the tool, and the tools they used for changing the user interface. There is quite a bit of information posted online regarding the development process, and anyone with an interest in how this — and other similar projects in major cities — goes from an idea to an executed product is encouraged to check it out.

18F looks to hire a user experience design lead

The federal tech consultancy 18F is hiring.

The group, which this month celebrates the fourth anniversary of its creation, is looking to bring onboard a user experience (UX) design lead to — according to the job posting — “help us build amazing products for our clients.” In general, 18F’s clients include the many departments and agencies that make up the United States’ federal government.

Key objectives for a successful candidate include demonstrating excellence in the design research discipline, coaching others in UX design, and promoting user-centered design and research practices among clients and team members. That final point — the one about user-centered design — has become an area of emphasis for many technologists within government as of late.

In fact, major cities such as Chicago and Indianapolis recently moved to overhaul digital platforms and install kiosks guided by user-centered design. Michigan, meanwhile, tapped user-centered design to help scale back a massive and unwieldy application for public health benefits into an easier to understand version that saved both applicants and the public servants who process it huge chunks of time. The nonprofit national civic tech group Code for America, which is helping take the work done in Michigan into the digital arena, is also engaged in projects that will help government services become more efficient by utilizing the principals of user-centered design.

User-centered design is, put simply, the hot thing in gov tech right now, and the 18F gig is a chance to help institute it at American government’s highest level.

Durham i-team works to help ex-offenders re-assimilate

The Durham, N.C., innovation team is working to help residents who have had contact with the criminal justice system re-assimilate through getting jobs, going to school and accomplishing other steps such as restoring their driver’s licenses.

The Durham i-team recently celebrated helping one resident get his driver’s license back on Twitter, writing, “We know we’ve got a lot more work ahead, but we are celebrating victories along the way.” The effort in Durham to help ex-offenders reobtain things such as their driving privileges recently garnered attention from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which helps fund a number of i-teams — including Durham’s — across the country.

In a recent Medium post, Bloomberg also helped explain how the Durham i-team has worked to do this, as well as the importance of the task, pointing out that across Durham County there are 46,000 residents who currently have their licenses suspended, and that driving with a revoked license is one of the most common reasons citizens spend time in the county jail.  

The Durham i-team was recognized as part of the Bloomberg program in January, and the city has received a $1.2 million, three-year grant from the foundation to help fund the i-team’s work. The i-team is made up of four members.


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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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