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What’s New in Civic Tech: Washington, D.C., Forms New Data Science Team

Plus, Bloomberg Cities offers 10 tips for innovators, Syracuse launches city’s first open data portal, and Boston’s City Hall lobby renovation features self-service kiosks.

Washington, D.C., has formed an in-house data science team aimed at using data to help inform the decisions made throughout the city’s government.

Dubbed Lab @ DC, the team is being lauded by Mayor Muriel Bowser as the first of its kind. It is located in the City Administrator’s Office of Performance Management and led by David Yokum, a long-time advocate of data scientists in government. The Lab, which is supported by a $3.2 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation that runs through December 2018, is made up of 17 members with diverse backgrounds that include academia, the public sector, the private sector and the military.

“By standing up a network of scientists inside DC Government, we are infusing pragmatic, scientific thinking into our day-to-day operations,” Bowser said in a press release announcing the initiative. “The Lab at DC allows us to know how well our policies and programs are working, and provides us the opportunity to learn while we act.”

To be sure, having a team of data scientists on staff is a rarity in municipal governments, with many smaller jurisdictions lacking even a single such expert and instead making data sets available in the hopes that citizens and activists will be able to work with the info provided.

The Lab is already at work on creating a rigorous randomized controlled trial study of how body cameras impact police interactions with residents, the design and subsequent testing of a flexible rent subsidy program, and an evaluation of whether a nurse triage line can safely divert 911 callers away from non-emergency ambulance rides, leading to healthier outcomes and more cost efficiency.

Bloomberg Cities Offers 10 Tips for Innovators

Bloomberg Philanthropies 2017 Mayors Challenge, which awards $5 million in prize money to municipalities that propose inventive and shareable ideas aimed at solving the most urgent problems in American cities, is officially underway. And to help spur success, organizers have posted a list of 10 tips for innovators, complete with examples of how they were put to use by previous challenge winners.

The 10 steps were laid out in a post by Bloomberg Cities on Medium along with an accompanying video. The tips, which range from glaringly obvious — experienced matters — to more nuanced fare — test, learn, adapt — are laid out in simple, clear language, along with a paragraph detailing how a previous winner used that exact advice.

The winners span the globe, with advice coming from as nearby as Chicago to as far away as São Paulo, Brazil. And while that advice is aimed at accelerating the work of local governments vying for the prize money in the challenge, the info within can be applied to innovation work being done in cities that aren’t competing.

Last year’s grand prize winners were São Paulo; Barcelona, Spain; and Providence, R.I., and their work aimed to grow farmers’ income while shrinking urban sprawl, create collaborative care networks that foster better aging, and use tech to prepare children for success in school, respectively.

Syracuse Launches First Open Data Portal

Syracuse has launched DataCuse, the city’s first open data portal.

Citing reasons that include transparency, the crowdsourcing of ideas, and breaking down silos within the city, Syracuse technologists announced the portal's launch with a blog post Wednesday, July 27. In addition to data available through spreadsheets, the site also includes tutorials that show less data savvy users how to download info and create simple charts and maps.

“We have created these visualizations to give a high level view of what is going on in the city, so you can see number of potholes filled, or where vacant housing exists, or just what council district you live in,” wrote Syracuse Chief Data Officer Sam Edelstein in the blog post.

In addition to data that comes directly from the city, the portal also includes links to other organizations and levels of government that provide the public with data about Syracuse. The blog post announcing the launch goes on to promise that the program will continue to build and add new info, providing a place at the bottom of every page on the site for residents to give recommendations.

Syracuse hired its first chief data officer in March 2016, charging him with creating a process and a platform for releasing data to the public. This effort was completed through a partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities. To measure the success of the work, Syracuse partnered with a public administration graduate class at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, receiving a set of suggestions for the best ways to spread the word about the portal and then subsequently measure how people are using the data within.

Renovated Boston City Hall Lobby Features New Self-Service Kiosks

Boston unveiled this week its renovated City Hall lobby, which now features self-service kiosks designed to make visits to the central local government building faster and more efficient.

The kiosks are touchscreen, and visitors to the building can use them to get info on the city’s most asked-for services. Data available on the kiosks will be synced up with Boston’s municipal website in order to create a seamless interaction. This system is easy for city staff to update, which means it will be kept current, and the available information will come in six different languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Creole/Cape Verdean, Portuguese and Vietnamese.

The self-service kiosks are part of a larger effort to overhaul the lobby, which included an enhanced welcome desk, sustainable and cost-effective lighting, improved security measures that benefit staff, and four new murals. Renovation work began in June and the total cost was $2.1 million. In a press release, city officials said that both the lobby and the kiosks were part of a “plan to make City Hall Plaza a more activated, inclusive space for all.”

This is not the first time this year that Boston has used tech to make information more readily available to its citizens. Through an open data portal overhaul dubbed Analyze Boston, the city has expanded the number of available data sets while simultaneously making all the info within the portal more accessible and easier for the average resident to decipher. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.