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What’s New in Civic Tech: CfA Shares Clear My Record Tech

Plus, 10 cities form an innovation cohort that is looking for startup collaborators; Code for America evaluates public benefits applications across all 50 states; Virginia digitizes occupational licensing; and more.

Code for America’s (CfA) Clear My Record project, which to date has helped many counties in California and elsewhere clear eligible cannabis convictions more or less automatically, is now available for all of California.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan national civic tech group has released a new software and implementation blueprint that aims to let district attorneys across the state dismiss or reduce scores of cannabis convictions. This may have a widespread impact for the nation’s most populous state, with the California Department of Justice estimating as many as 220,000 convictions potentially eligible for relief in the wake of the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Releasing the software and step-by-step guide builds upon CfA’s five-county pilot program within the state, within which the automatic record clearance project led to 75,000 cannabis convictions being dismissed or reduced. The group has also brought the project to Cook County, Ill., which is home to Chicago. 

CfA bills this project as more efficient and cost-effective alternative to manual means of record clearance, which often involves petitioning and attorneys. Yolo County, which is in the Sacramento, Calif., metropolitan region, is the first in the state to take advantage of the new information that has been made available, which the group is calling the Clear My Record Application and Implementation Blueprint.

There is a July 2020 deadline in the state for all counties to review and act upon all eligible cannabis convictions.

10 Cities Form Innovation Cohort, Look for Startup Collaborators

A group of tech and innovation stakeholders from 10 cities across the country have formed a new innovation cohort, one that is now looking to collaborate with startup partners from the private sector.

This new group is called the Small Places, Big Ideas Innovation Cohort, and it’s being supported in this effort by ELGL and UrbanLeap. This whole concept is one that is rapidly spreading throughout the world of civic tech, and within it, local government and their stakeholders work to bridge the gaps between the public and private sector, ultimately getting help from technologists and others with expertise to solve problems in ways that can scale.

As far as this effort specifically, in its first year the group has announced that it will be focused on two special areas: mobility and civic engagement.

Applications for groups, companies or individuals who would like to work with the stakeholders on creating related solutions can be found here, noting of course that the deadline to submit proposals is Sept. 9, with finalists being announced on Sept. 16 and select groups getting invitations to present proposals on Sept. 23.

The list of local government participants in this program is a diverse one, with members coming from across the country. It includes Portland, Maine; El Campo, Texas; Glenarden, Md.; San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Tompkins County, N.Y.; Grandview, Mo.; a group of cities in North Carolina; and the Altoona, Iowa, public library. 

Code for America Evaluates Public Benefits Applications Across All 50 States

In more-but-different news from Code for America, the group has also evaluated the public benefits applications across all 50 states as part of its work on another program, this one being its Integrated Benefits Initiative.

The program seeks to take a human-centered approach to the country’s social safety net, in large part by building online platforms or applications that make it easier for folks who are eligible for government support to receive it. In a blog post on its website, the group notes that “the first step to changing a system is understanding its status quo.” Then, as it relates to safety net benefits delivery in the United States, that status quo is “complex, time-consuming, and costly …” and that there is “no clear map of the online platforms for benefits across the nation.”

What follows is the map they made and information about it. The map can be found here, and it’s a potentially massive resource for those who inhabit the civic tech space and would like to facilitate access to these programs within their communities. There’s a glut of useful information presented here, broken down broadly as well as in some places by individual states. There are insights into how long things take as well as into user experiences, all of which are things Code for America — and potentially other volunteers, too — is looking to change.

The group sums up why this matters to communities, noting, “We believe this status quo is unacceptable. While some states have made important strides in building better applications, most are far from delivering an experience that meets client expectations in 2019. Clients come to benefits applications at times of immense personal stress, such as after they’ve lost a job or a home. We should hold higher expectations of application accessibility and usability than for commercial websites, not less.”

Those who are interested in helping are asked to contact CfA via email at   

Bloomberg Philanthropies Partners on New Civic Innovation Hub

In a rare bit of international news for the What’s New in Civic Tech weekly roundup, Bloomberg Philanthropies has announced a partnership that will see the scaling of one of its civic innovation programs in Israel.

Essentially, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation will be working to facilitate civic tech within 12 jurisdictions in the country. They will be doing so through the creation of Hazira, a national hub for city innovation. 

The center’s undertakings may be familiar to some who are involved with or aware of the innovation programs that Bloomberg Philanthropies supports domestically. In fact, the work at Hazira will be to scale the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams (i-teams) program to the 12 aforementioned new cities in Israel over the course of the next five years. For the unfamiliar, the i-teams program is one that aims to give local government or other stakeholders the tech and other tools needed to overcome their most complex community challenges. 

“Cities have to find creative ways to address complex challenges with limited resources. Innovation teams help them do that, and our program has had a lot of success working with cities in Israel,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, three-term mayor of NYC and founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, in a press release announcing the new initiative. 

In addition, Hazira will also support existing i-teams in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva. The first two of those have been at work since 2015, and the other since 2017.

This ties into something that was a steady topic of conversation last month at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in New York City, during which experts and attendees noted that many of the challenges and solutions cropping up in local government as of late are shared by jurisdictions in both the U.S. and abroad. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine