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What’s New in Civic Tech: Bipartisan Honest Ads Act Targets Online Political Ads

Plus, Chicago launches redesigned website aimed at being more accessible, NYC Launches New Muni Tech Program and Facebook hackathon uses Seattle’s vast open data for civic tech projects.

The U.S. Senate has introduced legislation that if passed would mark the federal government’s first major effort to increase transparency for online political advertising.

The bill is called the Honest Ads Act, and it is a bi-partisan effort introduced by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John McCain, R-Ariz. A press release from Sen. Warner’s office said the lawmakers introduced the bill in order to “help prevent foreign interference in future elections and improve the transparency of online political advertisements.”

“Online political advertising represents an enormous marketplace, and today there is almost no transparency. The Russians realized this, and took advantage in 2016 to spread disinformation and misinformation in an organized effort to divide and distract us,” Warner said in the release. “Our bipartisan Honest Ads Act extends transparency and disclosure to political ads in the digital space. At the end of the day, it is not too much to ask that our most innovative digital companies work with us by exercising additional judgment and providing some transparency.”

Indeed, Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election has been a topic of much discussion in Washington, D.C., with targeted ads on platforms like Facebook and Twitter constituting one small part of a campaign that also allegedly involved massive propagation of made-up news stories and even meddling with members of the Trump campaign. Russian officials have denied any such coordinated effort took place within that country’s government, and President Trump has downplayed the impact of Russian involvement. Facebook announced in September that it would turn the contents of more than 3,000 ads purchased by a Russian agency over to Congress.

If passed, the Honest Ads Act would strengthen disclosure requirements for political ads online by adding paid Internet and digital ads to the Campaign Reform Act of 2002’s definition of electioneering communications, require digital platforms with at least 50,000,000 monthly viewers to maintain a public file of all electioneering communications purchased by a person or group who spends more than $500 total on ads published on their platform, and online platforms to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence the American electorate.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, companion legislation was introduced by Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Mike Coffman, R-Colo. The Honest Ads Act has quickly drawn praise online by transparency advocacy groups such as the Sunlight Foundation and others.

NYC Launches New Muni Tech Program

New York City launched a new municipal tech engagement program this week that offers the city as a testbed for “local and global” technologists, from startup level to mature, to solve some of its communities' issues.

Called NYCx, it will offer two series of projects: Co-Lab Challenges working with residents on neighborhood concerns; and Moonshot Challenges, which ask participants to "think big" in answering citywide needs.

The first of these challenges, a citywide Connectivity Challenge, asks designers to create a low-cost, quickly-installable, high-speed broadband solution that could be tested on Governors Island and potentially scaled out across the city.

Three winners will each receive $25,000 to build and vet their solutions in collaboration with island and city officials, with the possibility of a city contract for wider deployment.

Chicago Launches Redesigned Website Aimed at Being More Accessible

Chicago has launched a redesigned website that tech officials hope will be more mobile-friendly and also generally more accessible for the public.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the new site Thursday, Oct. 12 in a tweet noting that its purpose is “to improve usability and accessibility." Chicago’s new site is part of a design trend for municipal governments as they move away from text-dense websites to cleaner, easier to navigate designs with less words, more quick links to the most popular services and a prominent search bar.

To strengthen user accessibility even further, the city has also launched an accompanying survey so that residents can tell the city what they like, what they don’t like and features they’d like to see changed. The questions within are largely focused on whether users were able to easily find the information that drove them to the site in the first place.

Chicago CIO Danielle DuMerer had this to say of the new site in a tweet: “We updated  to be mobile responsive and accessible. More changes to come with your input.”

Facebook Hackathon Uses Seattle's Vast Open Data for Civic Tech Projects

Taking advantage of Seattle’s longtime proactive approach to releasing data, the city’s Facebook engineering hub recently held a civic hackathon for its staff and representatives from other local tech companies such as Amazon, according to GeekWire.

The hackathon focused on using the vast open data sets that Seattle has made available to the public in the service of solving civic challenges with machine learning. Winning projects included tech that scans crowded parking lots for available spaces in order to cut down on the time meandering drivers spend searching, as well as another platform that simplifies the process of finding a local building contractor.

These are impressive projects by hackathon standards, made possible by a couple of factors: Seattle’s status as a tech hub; and the local government’s aggressive approach to releasing its open data.

Seattle has taken care to craft an open data policy that works for its residents, maintaining privacy while making the large volume of information it collects accessible in a way that fosters transparency, improves the community, and encourages the many technologists who live in that city to turn the data into civic tech projects. A significant part of these ongoing efforts came in 2016, when the city called for all data to be open by preference, which means after privacy and security have been accounted for, the city’s preference will be to publish all of its data. Every last set is included in this policy.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine
Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.