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What’s New in Civic Tech: A New Map Visualizes Civic Innovation Networks

Plus, National Digital Inclusion Alliance maps frequency of home Internet based on census tract; Denver looks to hire its first chief data officer; North Dakota hosts an inaugural statewide coding hour in its schools; and more.

A nonprofit organization has built a heat map that visualizes the growing civic innovation networks across the United States.

Dubbed Networks and American Renewal, this map is the work of New America, which is a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on public policy. The map is essentially a visualization of 25 innovation networks currently working to help communities solve social challenges in more than 270 locales nationwide. The map includes groups ranging from What Works Cities to Data-Driven Justice to the MetroLab Network.

Visitors to the map can use it to zoom in on communities to see which innovation networks are connected to certain areas. It can also be used to identify cities that have become hotbeds for such networks, as well as to find places potentially in need of more civic innovation work.

Users browsing the map can also click on each network to learn more about it, including what it does, information about participating and the resources that the groups offer. For example, I was able to click on El Dorado County, Calif. — near the Government Technology office — and learn that the Alliance for Innovation is active there, which is a group that works to improve local governments.

This map is simple yet valuable, especially given the rate at which civic innovation groups, philanthropies and networks have proliferated in recent years. That local governments can use technology to solve increasingly complex community concerns is no longer a question. It has now become how best can local governments use technology to solve their issues. This map has the potential to help civic technologists, donors and concerned citizens find the groups active in their areas.

National Digital Inclusion Alliance creates maps of home Internet frequency based on census tract

In other mapping news, this week the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) published six maps that illustrate the prevalence — or in some cases the lack thereof — of high-speed Internet connections in U.S. households based on census tracts.

Maps like these are nothing new. Where this effort stands out, however, is that these maps were created for all of the different census tracts. To do this, the NDIA used data from the 2017 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-Year Estimates, which were released earlier this month. In a statement announcing the publication of the maps, NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer noted that while the ACS has collected survey data about computer ownership and Internet access for half a decade, the data had previously only been published for communities that were home to more than 20,000 residents, and even then it was only published at the community-wide level, rather than more specifically.

“This is an incredible new resource for people in city neighborhoods, small communities, rural and tribal areas to understand and address the broadband divides in our own diverse communities,” Siefer said in a statement.

What makes these maps so important is that those areas she mentioned are the same ones that are most often cited by experts — including Siefer — as badly lacking in access to technology, digital skills training and high-speed Internet access, which are essentially the three main factors considered when evaluating digital equity.

Digital equity has become a pressing issue for many state and local governments as everything from public services to private businesses migrate increasingly online, raising the stakes when it comes to ensuring the entirety of the population is able to handle technology.   

Denver looks to hire its first chief data officer

Within municipal government, chief data officer is perhaps the position that has the most direct bearing on a community’s civic tech efforts, tasked as that office often is with disseminating data to the public.

While the position has become more common than it once was, with a fair number of major cities adding it to their ranks, it’s still not standard. Denver is the most recent local government to add the position, posting an opening for a chief data officer earlier this week. The position is within the city and county of Denver, which consists of 50 governmental agencies, 12,000 employees and a jurisdiction of more than 650,000 residents. The chief data officer will be housed in the technology services department, under the direction of Denver CIO David Edinger.

The job description involves shaping the local government's performance and innovation program, as well as leading the city’s broader data strategy. The deadline to apply is Jan. 1.

North Dakota schools host a statewide coding hour

Nearly 100 schools in North Dakota held a coding hour last week aimed at teaching students valuable skills and at bolstering professional development for the educators involved.

The event, dubbed the Hour of Code, was statewide, and this was the first year that North Dakota held it. It was organized by state CIO Shawn Riley, as well as the governor and the superintendent of public instruction, with more than 30 volunteers from Microsoft as well. North Dakota billed the event in a press release as the first of its kind in the nation.

The state estimates that participating schools involved as many as 5,000 students, all of whom were given a one-hour introduction to computer science that aimed in part to make coding less intimidating by showing students that anyone can get a pretty decent handle on coding basics. The training and professional development for teachers involved preparing them to help students learn those skills.

North Dakota schools have previously held coding hours, but this year marks the first time so many schools made a concentrated effort to organize it simultaneously. The event is a noteworthy one in that it touches on so many areas tangential to the civic tech movement, including digital skills training, preparing for the modern economy and making a governmental investment in the tech workforce.

Tulsa, Okla., reduces court-issued warrants via text

Tulsa, Okla., was recently able to reduce the number of warrants issued by its court system through the use of a new text message program.

The municipal court in Tulsa has long struggled with something called Time Pay Order, which is designed to give residents extensions on payments for court fees related to criminal cases. In fact, the city reports that it issues 22,000 such extensions per year. Even so, 70 percent of those extensions still end up going unpaid, which spark the issuing of a warrant.

In February, however, Tulsa moved to fix this by using a script developed by the local civic tech group Code for Tulsa. What that script does is simple: it just sends a due date reminder to those who owe money via text. A pilot project this year saw the program used on a randomly selected group of people who had received payment extension, running from March until September.

A report this week notes that during that time, 63 percent of text recipients ended up paying the entirety of their fines, representing a marked improvement over the 48 percent rate for a similar group during that same period that didn’t get text message reminders. Public servants now estimate that the text message program has the potential to nudge an extra 320 residents each year to pay their fines on time, which would yield an extra $187,000 in annual revenue for the city while also reducing consequences related to lack of payment warrants by 15 percent.

For any governments interested in their own annual revenue boost — which is likely all governments — the recent report on the project includes tips for replication.

New report from PEW Charitable Trusts offers counties advice on evidence-based policymaking

A new report offers county governments advice on how to better use evidence-based policymaking to better serve their residents and communities.

The report, titled How Counties Can Use Evidence-Based Policymaking to Achieve Better Outcomes, is a collaboration between the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative and the National Association of Counties (NACo). It was released this week and is available now for download. It notes that county governments are an essential part of the national fabric, and that they invest more than $550 billion annually in U.S. communities. It also notes that county leadership faces challenges in their work, and that advancing technology has the potential to help, particularly when used to collect and compile data in the service of evidence-based policymaking.

Broad advice within the report includes how to build internal support for change, how to start small and later scale innovation upward, how to work with outside partners, and how to leverage the existing data that counties have.

The report is fairly extensive and is available now for download.

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Associate editor for Government Technology magazine