This Week in Civic Tech: Congress Voices Concern over DATA Act Pilot, Two Startups Help San Francisco

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

DATA Act Difficulties

Officials attempting to open federal financial data are encountering obstacles after a pilot program was delayed and Congress and data advocates made allegations of mismanagement.

On May 16, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.; Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del, sent a letter to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Shaun Donovan requesting answers about the implementation of a pilot for the Data Transparency and Accountability Act. The law, signed by the president in 2014, is the first national open data law that requires agencies to begin reporting financial expenditures online in a machine-readable format by next year.

Only according to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it appears that the pilot program — that would build the software and data standards for agencies to use — is more than four months behind schedule. Further, the report calls into question whether the pilot can meet its objectives at all. GAO analysts expressed doubt that the pilot could be scalable for other agencies, and also indicated that the OMB had not adhered to good management practices.

Emails to the OMB for comment on these allegations went unreturned.

Despite hardships, transparency advocates in both Congress and the tech sector are determined to see the DATA Act through. On May 26, the Data Coalition, the advocacy group that lobbied for the bill, held its second annual DATA Summit to call for additional funding to implement the act and to gather lawmakers for more dialogue on next steps.

Data Coalition Executive Director Hudson Hollister said the event would examine the two major threats facing the DATA Act.

1. “The danger that OMB and Treasury [the two entities leading the pilot] might continue to maintain legacy reporting systems alongside the new, standardized reporting processes, resulting in a permanent requirement for agencies to report spending information twice;”

2. “And the continued use of the proprietary Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) to identify grantees and contractors.” The registration system is owned by Dun & Bradstreet, Inc., and hinders public sharing through copyright law.

San Francisco Adds Two Companies to its Startup in Residence Program

This week, the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation added two new startups — Binti and LotaData — to its Startup in Residence Program (STiR).

The program, which also includes the cities of Oakland, San Leandro and West Sacramento, embeds entrepreneurs inside city departments for 16 weeks so they can co-develop solutions to challenging civic problems.

Binti, a tech company specializing in adoption services, will join San Francisco’s Human Services Agency (HSA) to create a mobile app for potential foster care parents. The app will guide citizens through the foster care certification process and eventually be a pipeline for prospective candidates. HSA staff will benefit from the app through its management tools that handle education and communication tasks.

LotaData, a platform for spatial intelligence, will provide San Francisco's Recreation & Human Services Department with an analytics app and user ID card that lets staff visualize and track usage patterns for recreational facilities. The analysis is geared to help leaders optimize and improve services.

Both of these projects — and the 13 others that were announced by the cities on April 19 — are scheduled for release in September, when STiR holds a demo day to highlight the innovations.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.