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What’s New in Civic Tech: Ash Carter Calls for Tech to Align with 'Public Purpose'

Plus, Code for America reaches 10,000 users for; Seattle takes a data-driven approach to firefighting with new FireSTAT platform; and an offshoot of What Works Cities seeks to address economic mobility.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called upon America’s innovators and technologists — in both the public and private sectors — to use their work "with a public purpose," in a written piece published by The Atlantic last week.  

Carter’s piece essentially paints the rapid-fire development of new technology and innovations as a double-edged sword, noting that this progress has "brought immeasurable improvements to billions around the globe" but also that it "now threatens to overwhelm us." Carter’s words are also a bit of a call from on high for technologists to channel the intense focus on public purpose that drove progress for past generations, saying that our own priorities should drive change just as much if not more than market forces.

The piece is notable for the civic tech community, because it serves as one of the most public and prominent declarations of support for their core mission by a powerful voice in recent memory. Carter himself is no stranger to civic tech. In addition to leading the Department of Defense from February 2015 to January 2017, Carter has overseen the founding of the Defense Digital Service, as well as the Defense Innovation Board, which includes major civic tech leaders such as Code for America Founder Jennifer Pahlka.

Code for America Reaches 10,000 Users for

The national civic tech group Code for America has now reached 10,000 users for its site, which is a free service aimed at helping eligible folks in several California counties reduce or dismiss convictions from criminal records.

Code for America announced the milestone recently on its Twitter page, also noting that a future step will see them bring the platform to other states. It’s currently only in use in California, largely in the most populous counties of that state, including Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara and Solano.

Clear My Record is a nonprofit service, and the way it works is fairly simple. Basically, users go to the site and complete a pre-screening form that will be used to help a participating attorney understand their unique situation. The attorney next determines what their options are for clearance, and then after a period — usually within four weeks — the applicant learns what their next steps will be.

The service can be used to clear multiple convictions within California at once. The site has a support team, and it also notes that its application process is easy to understand, only requiring 10 minutes to complete.

Code for America itself is a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that uses technology to help government better serve people. In line with that mission, Clear My Record’s central goal is to help eligible folks get convictions off their records in order to better position themselves for basic needs such as jobs, housing and education.

Seattle Takes Data-Driven Approach to Firefighting with New Platform

Seattle is now prototyping a new platform called FireSTAT, which could help the Seattle Fire Department use data and performance metrics to improve its decision-making processes and ultimately become more efficient.

Richard Todd, a strategic advisor for Seattle’s citywide Innovation and Performance team, detailed the creation of FireSTAT in a recent blog post, saying the platform actually grew out of his team reorganizing its work to focus on three service offerings: results-driven management; use of data analytics in problem-solving; and redesigning existing services and processes to have greater impact. FireSTAT seems to be a solid example of all three focuses.

To develop it, the team worked directly with the fire department, Todd said, noting that it had previously seen a chance to improve its work with its operational data, but a host of obstacles stood in the way. Namely, the fire department found it difficult to access data sets spread throughout 13 systems monitoring performance that were essentially hard-to-read spreadsheets, and a structure that didn’t lend itself easily to using data for problem-solving — an undertaking that was largely only possibly via direct communication from leadership to groups.

These are, of course, problems that many public agencies within cities face, and they are also problems that many innovation teams such as Todd’s are called in to address. In the blog, he details what his team did to work through these problems and how their early FireSTAT efforts have yielded results.

New What Works Cities Offshoot Will Address Economic Mobility

Three mighty philanthropic organizations have come together to fund an offshoot of the civic innovation group What Works Cities, and this offshoot is aimed at helping address economic mobility in communities throughout the nation.

The three philanthropic groups involved are among the most recognized in the country — Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ballmer Group. Earlier this month, the trio announced they would be giving a total of $12 million in the service of analyzing economic mobility throughout America’s communities, as well as ultimately building new ways to help residents bolster their economic prospects. An announcement for the effort said that it “will work to identify barriers to economic mobility, understand the impact of potential interventions, and share what works.”

This is notable for civic technologists as well as those who work for local and state government for a few reasons. In recent years, fostering better economic mobility among citizens has become a bedrock issue for those working to make a difference, one that if solved has a positive impact for an array of other challenges including access to technology, digital skills training, health, housing and education.

“Today, economic mobility is top-of-mind for city leaders around the country,” said Patti Harris, CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies, in the announcement posting. “Through this new partnership, we will follow the data to help communities develop approaches that have the potential to increase opportunity and improve residents’ lives.”

A group of 10 cities in America will work with What Works Cities, which is a long-tenured Bloomberg Philanthropies campaign aimed at helping cities overcome obstacles with the use of data-driven governance. This work will see those cities working to now engage their communities with the use of data-driven governance to measure economic mobility challenges, as well as to subsequently develop, prototype and spread solutions.

The new effort is being billed by organizers as an offshoot of What Works Cities.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.