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What’s New in Civic Tech: 631 Cities Enter Mayors Challenge

Plus, Boston offers free public transit to test financial incentives’ influence over commuter behavior, San Diego expands its free Wi-Fi program to 300 new locations, and more.

Digital image of the globe surrounded by blue lines.
A record-breaking 631 cities have signed up for the 2021 Bloomberg Philanthropies Global Mayors Challenge, an innovation competition that will see 50 winners receiving a total of roughly $7 million.

Those 631 applicant cities hail from 99 countries, which speaks to the increased scope of the competition — indeed, this is the first year that the challenge has been entirely global. The idea behind the challenge is for the cities to submit proposals for projects related to the aftermath of COVID-19. The 50 winners will receive a value of nearly $150,000 each, with the money going to “test and strengthen their ideas through technical assistance and innovation support,” Bloomberg wrote in its press release.

From that group of the first 50 winners, another group of 15 grand prize winners will be named later this year, with each of them receiving another $1 million to go toward implementing their ideas in a way that will see them eventually spread to help other cities.

Previous Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenges have lacked the word “global,” instead focusing on one region of the world, with those having so far been the United States, Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Along with the announcement that 631 cities had applied to the challenge this week, officials also shared some insights that they had gained from the pool of applications. The cities were of all different sizes, geographies and political affiliations, ultimately representing a combined population of more than 500 million people.

The applications — perhaps unsurprisingly — focused on economic recovery and health after COVID-19. The clear majority of applications from the United States also involved innovations related to racial equity. Of the mayors involved, 332 are serving their first term, while 111 are female. Finally, 270 applications came from the Americas, 149 from the Asia-Pacific region, and 212 from Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The next step within this competition will come in June, when Bloomberg announces the 50 finalists. More information can be found on Bloomberg Philanthropies’ website.

Boston Launches Free Public Transportation Pilot

Boston has launched a free public transportation pilot program aimed at testing the impact of financial incentives on commuters, the city announced.

There are two incentives being offered within this program. The first is a credit worth up to $60 with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), while the second is an unlimited pass with Bluebikes, the city’s bike-share program.

“The goal of the program is to incentivize employees returning to work and workers who currently drive to work to use public transit,” city officials wrote in the program announcement.

Boston, like all major cities, is bracing for an uptick in commuter traffic as more vaccinated residents start to return to offices and other places of employment. The idea behind this program is to potentially alleviate traffic congestion in the city’s small business districts, at the same time also freeing up curb space for local customers within those neighborhoods. The city is also hoping to lessen the environmental impact of the renewed presence of commuters on its streets.

In terms of the specific details, the program will be phased in over the course of the coming months. It will apply to 1,000 workers, some of whom will be randomly selected for the full $60 MBTA credits, while the others will get smaller stipends over time, eventually leading to a value of $60. Bluebikes pass owners will get unlimited rides during the two-month pilot period, provided those rides are completed within 45 minutes.

The Boston transportation program is perhaps part of a burgeoning vanguard of similar innovation trials in cities as life there continues to inch closer to normal in the late phases of this pandemic. Many cities are seeing some increase in typical pre-pandemic behaviors, but not so much as to make pilots like this one complicated in collecting data.

Essentially, having a small group of people starting to live normally is creating some viable conditions for data studies by civic innovators.

San Diego Expands Free Wi-Fi Program

San Diego announced this week that the city’s free Wi-Fi program would be expanding significantly.

The program, SD Access 4 All, was initially announced in September 2020 with a target of bridging the digital divide by expanding broadband access and offering outdoor workspaces.

According to the city’s press release, there are 53,000 households in San Diego without basic Internet service. The new expansion will be funded by allocating $500,000 of the budget for the current fiscal year to improve digital equity.

This funding has provided free Wi-Fi at more than 300 locations, outdoor community labs with free Wi-Fi, hundreds of laptops available for checkout, and 900 new mobile hot spots that can be checked out from select libraries.

Partners involved in SD Access 4 All include the San Diego Parks Foundation and the San Diego Public Library Foundation. The city has also reached an agreement with Cox Communications and AT&T for neighborhood Wi-Fi hot spots and mobile hot spots, respectively.

No Kid Hungry Invests $2 Million in SNAP Efforts

No Kid Hungry, a campaign of Share Our Strength, is investing nearly $2 million in six states to advance Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, the program’s stakeholders announced this week.

Grantees receiving this funding are located in Hawaii, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey and New Mexico. Projects will use data and technology improvements to mitigate systemic barriers and increase equitable access to services.

Projects will occur over an 18-month grant period, supported by the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA). APHSA is a bipartisan national membership association representing health and human services agencies at the state and local levels. No Kid Hungry and APHSA will collaborate with a national advisory committee to provide technical assistance and guidance.

More information about the projects can be found here.


Civic Tech
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.