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What’s New in Civic Tech: Transparency Group Praises AOC

Plus, Code for America details its human-centered benefits administration work in Colorado; Miami releases 30 new data sets for Open Data Day, a new data visualization knows where your cat lives and more.

by / March 7, 2019
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, far right, shared this photo on social media of her with other new U.S. House members, from left to right, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. (Instagram/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for open government, praised U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., this week for the way the freshman congresswoman has used the Internet to communicate with constituents.

The group did so in a blog Tuesday titled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the New Age of Transparency, noting perhaps most relevantly that effective social media and “new political uses for online platforms include movement-building and bringing previously unplugged groups into a lively discussion about what should happen in the capital.” The group specifically cited Ocasio-Cortez using Instagram following her election to clue her growing social media following into life in the capital, detailing everything from her thoughts to her preparations for dinner, all of which was covered by the nation’s paper of record, The New York Times.

The Sunlight blog goes on to note that some have simply dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’s effective use of social media as “typical of a millennial,” missing how powerful it has been in regard to transparency and involving citizens who are often or traditionally left out of the political process.

“While she is not the only Congressperson adapting to our new online reality,” Sunlight wrote, “she has been one of the most vocal representatives for the open government movement among the current freshmen class of Congress.”

As most civic technologists will surely attest, using online platforms like social media to facilitate better communication between government and constituents has in recent years become an ongoing and increasingly vital concern. There has long been an almost intangible quality to effective social media campaigns, one that requires the right mix of personality and professionalism. What sets Ocasio-Cortez apart, Sunlight notes, is a clear commitment to creating a two-way information exchange, portraying herself as one of the people she represents, rather than as someone above them.

Code for America Details Its Human-Centered Benefits Administration Work in Colorado

In recent months, Code for America (CfA) has been working with Colorado to show how user-centered work can help boost a jurisdiction’s safety net programs.

This week, CfA’s Sarah White, who is helping to lead the project, wrote about the work on Medium in a post titled Proof Points for Human-Centered Benefits Administration. As White notes at the start of her piece, part of the idea behind the initiative is that the process and tools that residents use to access human services programs ranging from food assistance to Medicaid should be easy to use. The work in Colorado is currently centered around incorporating actual users into the development process in order to ensure that technologists build better processes for them.

“At Code for America, our product work centers on simple tools to improve access to government services,” White wrote. “Our pilot in Colorado focuses on the client and worker experience of maintaining access to benefits — and specifically the process of change reporting. That’s it. We selected an intentionally narrow challenge so we can iteratively make progress toward our goals without losing sight of key user needs.”

The piece then goes into the specifics of the process, sharing how the CfA and Colorado process has moved forward and worked to start small, foster buy-in across government agencies and other practicalities.

This sort of user-centered project has spread rapidly throughout government in recent years, with varying levels of deployment. Many new tech and innovation projects — from 311 reporting systems to redesigned forms — use components of human-centered design practices. It’s a shift that has come as the public sector has sought to mirror thorough customer service provided by private companies like Amazon and Apple.

Overall, the idea is a simple one: Find out how to make processes work for people and design them in a way that is thoroughly informed by that knowledge.   

Miami Releases 30 New Data Sets for Open Data Day

For Open Data Day 2019, cities across the country hosted events aimed at spreading awareness in their communities about work being done with government data.

In Miami, the Department of Innovation and Technology team released more than 30 new geospatial data sets for the occasion. The city did so via the new open data portal on its redesigned website, which recently transitioned from beta testing to full use. New geographic data sets ranged from trolley routes to plans for future land use. Interested parties can find the sets, as well as the rest of Miami’s new open data portal, on the city’s new website, which is a product of the human-centered design process detailed by Code for America in the item above.

In addition to the data sets, other civic tech-related functionalities on the new Miami site include a tool for visualizations that can be used to highlight spatial patterns, a tool for developing apps using APIs, and a common GIS layers platform. Existing apps include one that connects citizens with elected officials, a localized historic properties map and more.

New Data Visualization Knows Where Your Cat Lives

Civic technologists have created a map that visualizes the location of cats.

Dubbed I Know Where Your Cat Lives, the developers describe the visualization on the site, noting it “locates a sample of one million public images of cats on a world map by the latitude and longitude coordinates embedded in their metadata.” The cats and the metadata were accessed through publicly available APIs from “popular photo sharing websites.”

Why, you may natural ask, did someone do this? In the "About" section, developers say the point was to illustrate more than just the location of cats. Doing this was intended to explore the intersection of two inherent facets of the Internet: sharing funny pictures of cats and having your personal data used and stored by corporations operating in an era of flimsy privacy practices.

“I Know Where Your Cat Lives does not visualize all of the cats on the net, only those public cats that have allowed me to track where their owners have been,” the developers wrote.

The next natural question is: Who did this? You can find the full credits here, but the short answer is the project was led by Owen Mundy, a technologist interested in public space and data concerns. Other members of the team are listed on the site, as are a small set of sponsors, including Ghostery, Domi, and two Florida State University centers.

For folks who don’t want pictures of their cats on the site, the developers advise adjusting the settings of their photo sharing social media accounts. For folks who just want to look at some pictures of cats all over the world, this reporter advises using the “random cat” button, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Kansas City, Mo., CDO Visualizes Pothole Progress with GIF

Finally, would you like to know about all the requests to fill potholes made in recent years in Kansas City, Mo.? Well then, the city’s chief data officer, Eric Roche, has a GIF for you.

Roche has created a GIF that visualizes pothole requests in the city dating back to 2015. It’s super short, but does a great job of data storytelling, illustrating how many more potholes have been reported in recent times than when the program was young and just getting started.

Here's the tweet:

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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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