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What’s New in Civic Tech: Google and Boulder, Colo., Team Up

Plus, Sidewalk Labs shares its Digital Innovation Appendix; Minnesota rolls out a plan to reduce bench warrants via text; Miami shows off new website upgrades; Pittsburgh uses innovation to support the Census; and more!

Boulder, Colorado
Shutterstock/randy andy
Google and Boulder, Colo., are teaming up to create a new eligibility calculator, which residents of that city will be able to use to determine if they qualify for public programs, discounts or rebates.

The idea behind the work — which is being supported by Google’s philanthropic organization, — is that residents of Boulder will have a single, streamlined tool to learn what public benefits they have access to, ranging from discounted access to recreation centers to eligibility to participate in affordable housing programs.

As Google recently noted on Twitter, eight Fellows have “stepped away from their day jobs” to spend half a year working on the project with Boulder. Boulder was one of the first cities in the country to be selected for this Fellowship last month. News of the nature of the project came this week from a local outlet.

8 Fellows will be stepping away from their day jobs at Google to spend the next 6 months working full-time with the City of @bouldercolorado to improve online access to its city services and programs. Learn more �� — (@Googleorg) October 14, 2019
Also of note is that two other projects may receive funding through this program too, both of which involve tech. The first is a permitting process navigation tool, and the other is a project aimed at helping boost engagement for residents of all abilities, including non-English speakers.

The calculator fits into a mosaic of civic tech work being done across the country to help ensure that lower-income and underserved residents get the public benefits they qualify for. These programs are happening at the local level in places like Boulder, as well as statewide, like the work being done around food benefits by Code for America in California.

Sidewalk Labs Releases Digital Innovation Appendix

Sidewalk Labs, which is a company started by Google’s parent Alphabet, has released a Digital Innovation Appendix (DIA).

The concept behind the DIA, which can be viewed in full here, is that it was built by Sidewalk in order to easily convey the digital and innovation components of Toronto Tomorrow, a 12-acre land use master plan that Sidewalk is pitching to the city, one that essentially involves a data-driven, mixed-use smart community development along Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront.

The DIA is likely to be of interest to stakeholders within the gov tech space because the components it details have all been formed with a wide and extensive range of public feedback. So, while this resource is inherently one specific to this exact project, it also possesses insights that are potentially useful to any engaged in data-driven community development of urban spaces, especially those that seek to be conducted responsibly without alienating existing communities.

A big part of what’s at stake here is that — like many smart cities projects worldwide —  Toronto Tomorrow is being heavily enabled by tech from a private company, which has sparked prior controversy about privacy and data management related to it. These concerns are nothing new. In fact, last month at City Lab — a pre-eminent annual gathering of urban leadership that was held this year in Washington, D.C. — many public-sector officials and employees reminded attendees that responsibly addressing the collection, storage and use of smart city data is paramount for the public sector.

In that context, Sidewalk’s DIA is perhaps one of the most extensive efforts ever for a private company to be transparent about smart cities tech and associated data. As Sidewalk notes in a blog explaining the DIA, this has been a concern throughout the life of the project, to the extent that the company initially suggested the formation of a government-sanctioned Urban Data Trust to provide oversight. After public feedback, the project has now pivoted away from an independent entity to a set of Intelligent Communities Guidelines, which “will apply to private companies deploying digitally-enabled services.”

It’s all in the blog and DIA, but what that really means is that this is resulting in an extensive effort to create processes around privacy impact assessments, de-identification of data, and more. In the context of this project, they would be applied to all companies Waterfront Toronto works with, but it’s clear too that these guidelines could eventually be applied to plenty of other work in North American cities. 

There is a lot more information about the project past that, and as such, perhaps the best place to start is with this explainer blog.

Minnesota Rolls Out Statewide Plan to Reduce Bench Warrants by Text

Minnesota’s new statewide plan aims to reduce bench warrants with a new system that reaches residents via text.

What this program does is simply send an email and text reminder to residents about upcoming court dates. It’s a simple concept, but it’s one that is beloved by digital equity proponents who often point out that text can reach more of the population because it doesn’t require wireless Internet access to function. The program in Minnesota was piloted in one county, where it yielded a significantly reduced number of bench warrants being issued to residents who fail to appear in court.

People can opt in and out of this program, and it’s designed in a way that simply sends them messages with the date, time and location of the courthouse, but not with any other identifying details. 

The new system went live across the state last month.

Miami Shows Off New Website Upgrades

Miami has worked diligently to develop a new website for some time, and now the city’s technologists are showing off some new upgrades to it.

On a functionality level, Miami has been at the forefront of a wave of new government sites that are designed to put the needs of users first, rather than those of government. Instead of the monolithic walls of text that long marked local government Web presence, the site is as colorful and vibrant as Miami itself, featuring a prominent search bar up top for ease of use, and clearly labeled sections below. 

As Miami Director of Innovation and Technology and CIO Mike Sarasti noted on Twitter, the new upgrades include better searching, better mobile responsiveness, easier-to-read font, more service content and other features that were added in response to user feedback.

Today, we announce upgrades to Better search, better mobile, more readable fonts, more service content & guides incl. 1 for small businesses. Changes based on feedback. Thank you. For style points, pretty sure we're 1st gov site w/ #DarkMode - #UsersFirst — Mike Sarasti (@Sarasti) November 20, 2019
Ultimately, this is yet another encouraging example of the human-centered design wave that is sweeping through technology offices in America’s cities.

Pittsburgh Area Innovation Meetup Helps Support the 2020 Census

As cities across the country prepare for the 2020 Census — data from which will help determine everything from federal funding to political representation for the next 10 years — Pittsburgh has an early success story to share.

This story involves that area’s Complete Count Committee teaming up with the Pittsburgh Inclusive Innovation Meetup, an event organized by the city and its Department of Innovation and Performance. Past subject matter has included important and current issues such as digital equity, inclusive workforces and crowdfunding basics. The meetup late last month turned to the Census, and the results were significant — with 42 new attendees coming to the event for the first time. Three even signed up to be Census enumerators.

Organizers recently shared information about and insights from the meetup on Medium, along with a guide for other communities wishing to host similar events. The Census is, after all, happening nationwide, ranking as it does as the largest peacetime government mobilization in the United States. 

There are more details on the actual post, but some of the basic advice includes seek partnerships, find storytellers for messaging, invite Census reps, and more. 

Earthquake Visualization Is Really, Really Cool

Every once in a while with this last item, I like to feature a data visualization that is maybe not all that relevant to local or state government, but is just really really cool.

This week that honor goes to a new visualization of earthquakes, which you can check out here. Be warned — it’s mesmerizing.

Earthquakes seen from inside the Earth Created by Raluca Nicola with the ArcGIS API for JavaScript. — Space Explorer Mike (@MichaelGalanin) November 17, 2019
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.