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What’s New in Civic Tech: Bloomberg Philanthropies Holds Hundreds of Idea Accelerator Workshops as 2017 Mayors Challenge Ramps Up

Plus, disaster relief is the dominant focus of TechCrunch's Disrupt SF 2017, Indiana taps Amazon Alexa to enhance state government, and five new participants join Bloomberg’s What Works Cities initiative.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, which funds innovation teams aimed at improving government in cities throughout the world, recently sent facilitators to hold workshops in more than 300 jurisdictions across all 50 states.

In a Medium post, organizers with Bloomberg described these events as an “unprecedented series of innovation workshops,” noting that they garnered participation from more than 3,000 city leaders. Organizers also estimated that the series included 2,000 hours of skill-building lessons, all of which were aimed at prioritizing the most pressing challenges facing cities, coming up with solutions to best them and implementing realistic initiatives that could be spread throughout other cities.

Those objectives are the same ones at the heart of the Bloomberg Philanthropies 2017 Mayors Challenge, which the series of events was a part of. The Mayors Challenge is a nationwide ideas competition in the arena of civic innovation that incentivizes participations and success with millions of dollars in prizes. This year’s edition drew participation from 555 total cities that are home to a combined 100 million people, roughly. The travelling workshop series concludes as the Mayors Challenge heads toward its end game.

In October, five cities will be selected based on the ideas and visions they crafted. Of those five, one will eventually win the $5 million top prize, while the other four will receive $1 million to implement their own projects. In January, 35 other cities will receive $100,000 each to continue work they developed during the challenge.

This is the first time that Bloomberg Philanthropies has held the competition in the U.S. since 2013. In 2014, it took place in Europe and in 2016 it happened in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Of the 102 total companies that participated in the Disrupt SF 2017 hackathon, about 30 of them focused their work on projects related to emergency and disaster relief, according to a report from TechCrunch, the event’s organizer.

This comes in the wake of a series of damaging hurricanes that have pounded Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Cuba and other countries in the Caribbean. Much has been made of the role that tech and gov tech, specifically, can play before, during and after storms such as these reach land. That nearly a third of the companies participating in this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt event were also thinking about the topic is a testament to technologists’ will to make what they do an asset in the face of crippling natural disasters.

The range of apps and other projects presented at the event proposed a diverse group of functionalities, often citing Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma during their pitches, TechCrunch reported. Some participants asserted that tech could and should be used to better pair victims, resources and emergency responders with each other, thus streamlining their efforts. Other work addressed topics that included emergency ridesharing and drone rescues.

While former officials with FEMA have noted that more efficient use of technology will never be an immediate cure-all for problems like flooding, destroyed houses and tainted drinking water, they have said that communication channels and accurate damage mapping are areas where technology could provide great benefits to the folks who are suffering on the ground.


Add Indiana to the growing list of state and local governments using Amazon’s Alexa to better serve their citizens.

In fact, Indiana’s set of skills — the term used for the platform’s varied functions — have been available to Alexa users for several months. With these, citizens of Indiana can easily locate contact info for more than 20,000 state employees. Alexa will read the information aloud to users while also creating a card in its mobile app that allows users to call or send an email easily from there.

Indiana officials, like those in most of the states that have begun to offer information about government services through Alexa, note that creating the skillset has helped them get a better understanding of the platform, which they plan to use regularly moving forward, ideally to better streamline government and citizen interactions.


In other Bloomberg Philanthropies news, five new participants have joined the organization’s What Works Cities initiative, a nationwide effort to encourage municipal government efforts to use data to improve the lives of residents.

The cities are Baton Rouge, La.; Cary, N.C.; Fayetteville, N.C.; Hayward, Calif.; and Winston-Salem, N.C. They were announced as new additions to the program on Sept. 26. The assistance that the jurisdictions will receive will be varied and based on individual need, all sharing a common emphasis on using data and improving life for constituents.  

Baton Rouge, La. has announced in a press release that it will receive technical help from world-class experts as it works to track housing recovery efforts related to devestating flooding that took place there in August 2016. The city also plans to hold a dialog as it develops an official open data policy and explores the ways that residents can use the data that the municipal government makes available to them.

The addition of these five participants brings the total of jurisdictions involved with What Works Cities up to 90, which now encompass 28 million people in 37 states and have annual budgets that combined exceed $96 billion. The initiative’s ultimate goal is to partner with 100 cities on a rolling basis through 2018.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine