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This Week in Civic Tech: Why CIOs are Set Up to Fail, SF Maps Building Data

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.

CIO: A Failing Proposition?

In a Medium post this week, Jennifer Pahlka, founder of the civic tech group Code for America, opined on the problematic job descriptions of chief information officers and chief innovation officers. Her message, aimed at officials seeking digital leadership, argued that most jurisdictions define CIO duties too broadly.

“Both of these jobs are framed in such a way that it can be almost impossible to succeed in them," she said, "and the candidate you want is also the candidate who can see that, and won’t take the job."

Instead of an all-encompassing position, she suggested cities and agencies consider two leaders. The first would focus on digital services that engage directly with citizens, and the other would focus on the internal and back-end management of IT. As long as the two shared the same vision, she said it didn’t matter who reported to who. Examples of this type of split approach are San Francisco, Boston and Asheville, N.C.

Even so, she clarified that shared responsibility did not infer a division between traditional structure and progressive 21st-century practices.

“The one deadly combination is one leader protective of the status quo, and another hell-bent on modernization ...” Pahlka said. “In most cases, you should consider recruiting two top people who have some combination of responsibility across the four domains."

The four domains to which Pahlka refers are:

  1. Digital services: the services residents use to engage and do business with the city;
  2. Back-office software: Day-to-day core services like email, human resources management, budgeting, fiscal and accounting that all departments rely on;
  3. Mission IT: The business applications that run the internal processes of departments and agencies; and
  4. Infrastructure: Network and connectivity, hosting and device management.

San Francisco Maps Building Inspections

To make building inspection permit and complaint data easier for citizens to digest, San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection (DBI) on May 19 unveiled an interactive map to track its troves of public records. The map, provided by the startup “buildingeye,” is a major update for the city’s older online service. The colorful map allows prospective renters to display active complaints attached to residential structures, it gives homeowners and housing contractors status updates on filed permits, and neighborhood groups can track projects under review.

DBI’s partnership is also one of consolidation. The new map is paired with a separate record map from the city’s Planning Department that San Francisco launched in 2015 with historical data going back to 1997. The addition of the building inspection data extends even further, going to the 1960s, and ongoing updates are estimated to total 68,000 records each year.

“Through buildingeye, the public can now easily view online permit applications through an interactive mapping interface that complements DBI’s online Permit Tracking System, which provides 24/7 access to records with a click of a button,” said DBI Director Tom Hui in a release.

The announcement also shows an ongoing relationship between the city and buildingeye that began in 2014 when it participated in the city’s first Entrepreneurship in Residence program. Other cities to adopt the platform are Palo Alto, Calif; Redwood City, Calif., and Adams County, Colo.

Congressional Reports Kept Private

Open data advocates are reeling after an 18-to-32 vote by the House Appropriations Committee against the public release of congressional research reports. The documents — called “Congressional Research Service” reports — are meant to educate Congress on critical issues surrounding policy decisions and are entirely funded by taxpayers. In an article by the Huffington Post, the amendment’s sponsors, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, and Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia, estimated that costs for some of the reports tally in the millions.

“In many cases, here we are, putting out reports that we’re spending $100 million a year on, and we’re telling the public, ‘Oh, you don’t have access to them,’” Quigley said in a debate Tuesday.

Opposition to the legislation stemmed from fears that public disclosure would slow research and stigmatize lawmakers who might not want to be identified requesting information on controversial issues. A second piece of legislation, to just list the titles of the reports publicly, was also voted down by the lawmakers. In both cases, votes mostly fell along partisan lines, with Democrats siding for transparency and Republicans for privacy.

Notwithstanding, the CRS reports are not classified and legislative companies have used this loophole to capitalize, profiting, Quigley said, on the reports by becoming research resellers.

Correction: In a previous version of this article it was stated CRS reports were subject to the Freedom of Information Act; however, for these documents the FOIA public records law does not apply.

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