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What’s New in Civic Tech: U.S. Senate Tackles Digital Equity

Plus, the U.S. Web Design System 2.0 has arrived; Washington, D.C., launches a new engagement platform for urban forestry; Girls Who Code program comes to Arkansas; a data map for Game of Thrones; and more!

by / April 11, 2019

U.S. Senate Democrats have introduced new legislation aimed at tackling digital equity.

Dubbed the Digital Equity Act of 2019, the legislation was introduced Thursday by a group led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. The main thrust of the bill is that it seeks to foster better digital inclusion across the country, by creating new investments from the federal government in projects that promote digital equity at the state and local levels. A group of nine senators co-sponsored the bill, and in a press release, Murray’s office noted that a companion to it will soon be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill, as presently constituted, would create an annual $125 million formula grant program for all 50 states as well as for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, aimed at the creation of digital equity plans. In addition, there would be another $125 million grant program aimed at supporting related projects undertaken by groups, coalitions and others. The last actionable measure within the bill would be tasking the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with evaluating digital equity work and giving policymakers at all levels of government detailed info about projects that are most effective.

Regardless of whether the bill passes, just being introduced marks a milestone in the fight for digital equity, which means ensuring that all members of a given community have equal access to health care, education and employment through technology. As technology — and the Internet, specifically — has become an increasingly vital part of modern life, digital inclusion efforts have accelerated along with it.

Traditionally, however, these efforts have been the work of organizations and activists at the local level. Public libraries have long been on the frontlines, with local governments in recent years starting to join in as conveners, advocates and even occasionally financers. More major cities across the country have also started to dedicate full-time staff positions to this work.

A support bill being introduced at the federal level brings the nation closer to major steps such as treating high-speed Internet access as a utility rather than a luxury, or placing digital skills training within school curriculums right alongside things like literacy and algebra.  

The announcement from the senators emphasizes the importance of digital equity by citing the Pew Research Center, which reports that one in five teens in the United States have said they have had challenges completing homework assignments due to not having adequate Internet access.

The U.S. Web Design System 2.0 Has Arrived

Technologists at the federal level launched the U.S. Web Design System 2.0 this week, billing it as “a new foundation for the future of our design system.”

They also noted that the main goal of the new system is to make it easier for projects to integrate the U.S. Web Design System (USWDS), ultimately using it to support governmental missions and better serve users.

The USWDS, for the uninitiated, is “a library of code, tools, and guidance to help government teams design and build fast, accessible, mobile-friendly government websites backed by user research and modern best practices.” This 2.0 version is, as the name implies, an update to that system, one that introduces new features.

The USWDS has become commonplace since it was created by the U.S. Digital Service in 2015, crafted by an advisory board of representatives from several government agencies. In less than four years, it has gone on to power nearly 200 federal government websites. This new version of the system, the technologists note, was created over the past two years. During the process, developers spoke with users across the government, interviewing project teams, soliciting public feedback and through GitHub.

Some of the main features that are new in this version include things like easier incremental adoption, practical design tokens, an accessible color system, expressive theming, powerful utility classes, a simplified layout grid, and an overarching framework that has been crafted with adaptation in mind.

Along with the new version, developers have also released detailed information about the new functionalities.

Washington, D.C., Launches New Engagement Platform for Urban Forestry

The Washington, D.C., District Department of Transportation Urban Forestry group has a new urban forestry engagement platform.

The platform was created as part of a partnership with SymGEO as well as other local government agencies such as Open Data DC and the Washington, D.C., Office of the Chief Technology Officer. What it does is give residents information about everything that the urban forestry department does.

“With a long history of caring for the extensive forest canopy in DC, the Urban Forestry group has meticulously assembled data sets and applications to help in their forest management mission and to communicate with a variety of audiences,” developers explained in an announcement.

Having the new Esri Hub technology gives them a digital platform designed to take the disparate things that the urban forestry department does and turn them into a cohesive story that residents can easily read and understand.

This story includes a pretty wide range of information, from the department’s past to its current role and what might be its future. Perhaps most interestingly for those in the civic tech space, the platform also goes on to detail things like the flagship data set of the urban forest group, which is its public tree map, a visualization of info about the city’s vast urban tree canopy. In addition, the platform is rich with interesting statistics, many of which have to do with the number of trees that have been and continue to be planted in the nation’s capital.

Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program Offered in Arkansas for First Time

The Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program, a free seven-week computer science class for girls in the 10th and 11th grade, is now being offered in Arkansas for the first time.

The program, which aims to get young women involved in a field that has long been dominated by men, teaches participants things about computer science, how to find tech jobs, and how to work with the discipline to be a changemaker. Each of the seven weeks covers projects related to computer science, including art, storytelling, robotics, video games, apps and more. There are also guest speakers, networking with female engineers, field trips and a final project to be shared with the class.

The program takes places across the country and has for some years, but this is the first summer it will be available in Arkansas for the participants at the high school level.

More information is available on the program’s website.

A Data Map About Game of Thrones

Finally, the popular HBO show Game of Thrones returns this Sunday for its final season, and in honor of the event, technologists have created a data map about the fictional world it takes place in.

The map, which can be found here, explores the topography of the world of Game of Thrones, with data layers such as roads, rivers, kingdom boundaries, lakes, landscape and more. It also features roads and cities as mentioned in the novels and the show. So, get ready for the big day by spending time in your office playing with this — in the service of civic tech, of course.

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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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