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What’s New in Civic Tech: U.S. and U.K. Sign AI Agreement

Plus, major cities deploy virtual town halls over the summer amid pandemic, the government transparency organization Sunlight Foundation closes, and Denver’s Peak Academy pivots to a broader mission.

by / October 1, 2020

The United States and the United Kingdom have created an official pledge to conduct government-to-government dialogue about artificial intelligence as well as cooperation in related research and development.

Officials from the two countries did so via the signing of a joint statement with a very unwieldy title. The officials who signed the statement were the U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. For the other country, the joint statement was signed by the U.K. and Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Alok Sharma in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as well as Oliver Dowden, who is secretary of state in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport.   

The statement actually builds on a separate agreement that the two countries signed in 2017, listing the following steps: taking stock in using existing bilateral science and tech cooperation; recommending priorities for future cooperation; coordinating activities in related areas; and promoting research and development with the potential to benefit both countries.

The creation and signing of the agreement stems from the second convening of a task force named the Special Relationship Economic Working Group, which held a meeting at the White House between the two countries last month. This comes after the U.S. and the U.K. were part of a 13-country group that discussed potential partnerships for using artificial intelligence for defense.

In recent years, the United States has undertaken a concentrated effort to position the country as a leader in the field of artificial intelligence.  

Major Cities Deploy Virtual Town Halls Over Summer

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a number of cities have turned to virtual town hall events to communicate with residents and solicit constituent feedback, and now they’re reporting tangible results from these efforts.

The cities that have turned to virtual town hall events are wide-spanning, both in terms of size and geographic location, ranging from Denver to San Diego to Washington, D.C. The way they have conducted these virtual halls also varies, depending on the jurisdiction. They did all this, as well, with several of them keeping an eye toward climate action.

For example, Denver used to create a new website where residents were able to share feedback and input on ideas related to the city’s climate action task force. San Diego, meanwhile, used Mentimeter to garner real-time reactions and policy priorities from more than 175 attendees of the city’s first virtual forum, which had its own climate action plan as a central topic. 

But climate action was not the only topic for which major local governments deployed virtual town hall approaches over the summer. The nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., was able to collect more than 300 public comments via a microsite dedicated to a new civic project on southeast Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Finally, Boston and the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., all held virtual meetings with residents that were translated into four other languages, during which plans for electric vehicle mobility networks were discussed. 

Sunlight Foundation Officially Ceases Operations

The Sunlight Foundation — a nonprofit organization founded in 2006 with a mission of advocating for open government — announced this week that it was ending its work via a letter from Michael R. Klein, the group’s board chairman and co-founder.

A key thing to note within this is that the activities and staff related to the group have been transferred in some cases to other organizations.

“Over the past months, virtually all of the activities and staff of Sunlight have been transferred to other engaged institutions, or closed,” Klein wrote. “What remains, Sunlight’s name, IP and it’s records have been transferred to the Internet Archive and to the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard, one of the stellar organizations continuing to assess and address the more important societal implications of information technology.”

In the nearly a decade and a half of its nonpartisan work, the group and its staffers have done investigative journalism, lobbying, activism and software development via Sunlight Labs, which was an open source community that collected and organized public data. 

Denver’s Peak Academy Pivots From Efficiency to Broader Mission

Denver’s Peak Academy — which was created in 2012 with a mission of teaching public employees to spot any waste and help the city bolster efficiency — is now pivoting, going from in-person to online courses during the pandemic and also extending its focus to more topics, including fiscal constraints, race and equity, and how to rethink efficiency now that so many people are working from their homes.

This is notable in part to the civic tech community due to the prominent national position in the sector that the Peak Academy holds. To date, 9,250 Denver employees have participated in Peak Academy training, with more than 200 other cities and nonprofit groups sending their own employees to take part in the academy. Some other localities have also participated with an eye toward creating similar academy programs of their own.

Officials report that the Peak Academy has resulted in city workers deploying more than 4,000 innovations that have saved an estimated $46 million in taxpayer money.

The pivot with the Peak Academy is perhaps encapsulated by the reconfiguring of the program’s signature class, nicknamed Black Belt. Black Belt was previously a five-day training that dealt heavily in basic principles of change management for local government. In it, participants learned eight tools that could be used to identify waste and another eight tools to eliminate that waste. 

Now, the class will retain many of the key tools, but additional pieces will be added to address crucial issues of the moment, including considerations of race and social equity, as well as increase usage of the virtual space due to the pandemic.

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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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