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What’s New in Civic Tech: JHU, Bloomberg Team on New Center

Plus, Philadelphia reports progress in getting residents connected to the Internet, Cleveland has a new program to connect residents to resources, an online map lets residents get involved with redistricting work, and more.

A new Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation will serve as a hub and centralized resource center for city leaders to receive specialized training in creative problem-solving specifically for local government, stakeholders in the project announced this week.

Those stakeholders are primarily Bloomberg Philanthropies and Johns Hopkins University, which have teamed up and made a $43 million investment to start the new center. In addition to training and developing public-sector leadership, the center will also conduct research on the impact of the work being done there.

Fellowships for city hall staff members will aim to build stronger evidence bases for public-sector work, peer-learning initiatives for public innovation staffers to share knowledge, and networks between organizations the world over that work in the public innovation space.

Specifically, the investment will establish three new Bloomberg Distinguished Professors at Johns Hopkins University.

Overall, the center will focus on three areas: training city leaders, researching how local governments become more creative in their work and supporting the next generation of public-sector innovators. The center will also house a number of ongoing and related programs that are supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, including the Bloomberg Cities Network, Innovation Teams work and the Cities of Service initiative.

Leading the center will be Executive Director Amanda Daflos, an accomplished leader within public-sector tech and innovation work. Daflos previously served as Los Angeles' first chief innovation officer and helped establish and direct that city's innovation team.

Specialized innovation training for public-sector leaders is a relatively new focus area, largely led by programs supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The training aims to provide elected officials and their staff with nuanced professional development opportunities around innovation, something that is common in the private sector and relatively uncommon in the public sector. (Zack Quaintance)


Code for America (CfA) — the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization at the forefront of civic tech work in the U.S. — has voluntarily recognized its staffers' union, Code for America Workers United, the group announced in a press release.

This recognition comes after the union's request for voluntary recognition, which was made on Aug. 2.

"Code for America's leadership and CfA Workers United have worked together in good faith towards voluntary recognition with the intention of delivering on our mission, ensuring an operational structure for impact, and staying true to Code for America's values," the groups wrote in their press release.

The next step is for the two groups to negotiate CfA's first unionized contract. (Quaintance)


Philadelphia has seen a 14 percent increase in the number of households in the city that have high-speed Internet subscriptions at home since 2019, the city reported this week.

This news came via Philadelphia releasing a report titled Connecting Philadelphia: 2021 Household Internet Assessment Survey, which it described in a press release as "a new, up-to-date report that provides a clear picture of the state of digital access in Philadelphia today." The report is a result of a survey conducted this year around Internet access in the city and was a joint effort between local government, Wilco Electronic Systems, Centri Tech Foundation, SSRS and John Horrigan, a national broadband expert.

In addition to the citywide 14 percent increase in household Internet service, another key finding is that 91 percent of homes with school children living in them have high-speed Internet service, which compares favorably to a national average of 75.9 percent.

Other takeaways in the new report include that getting computers to students is easier than providing consistent Internet service in their homes; there is a general lack of public awareness about Internet discount programs; and groups whose broadband adoption are below average follow similar underserved patterns pertaining to race, income and age.

As far as what comes next, the city plans to deploy federal and state funds to bolster connectivity; continue to offer grants through the Philadelphia Digital Literacy Alliance, open reimagined public computer centers and develop the citywide equity plan.

Digital equity work — specifically getting 100 percent of students connected — has risen quickly as a priority for local government in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced much of life online, including education. Armed with new funding from across sectors as well as buy-in from top-level elected officials, the largest cities in the country have worked extensively over the past few months on digital equity, doing so by getting people connected, providing them devices and helping them learn how to use it all in meaningful ways. (Quaintance)


A new program in Cleveland, dubbed Neighbor to Neighbor, aims to help bridge the digital divide while also striving toward housing stability.

The program is essentially a campaign to help educate residents on the resources available to them, and to enhance connections between residents and Community Development Corporations (CDCs). Door-to-door canvassers will connect residents to the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit program. In addition, partners will provide information on available housing programs.

“The Neighbor to Neighbor program is one way to help bridge the digital divide, improve housing stability in our community and improve quality of life for current and future generations,” said Mayor Frank G. Jackson in the announcement.

The program will help create innovative solutions as partners use resident feedback to understand community needs. This feedback may help partners design additional programs related to combating housing instability. In addition, the feedback will help partners get a better understanding of needs for connectivity and digital literacy education.

A joint commitment of $1.35 million between the Rocket Community Fund and the Cleveland Foundation enabled Cleveland Neighborhood Progress to start the program. The program kicked off with five CDCs and will expand to 11 in 2022. (Julia Edinger)


A new mapping tool called DistrictBuilder is trying to make it easier for all people to contribute to political redistricting.

As a recent piece about DistrictBuilder points out, relatively few people are aware that the general public can participate in redistricting practices. Citizens can do this by submitting their own maps of how they think their communities should be represented in the U.S. political process.

Developed all the way back in 2010 under the leadership of a pair of academics — University of Florida political science professor Michael P. McDonald and Massachusetts Institute of Technology social scientist Micah Altman — DistrictBuilder is a relatively easy-to-use resource. It's a free software that gives users the ability to tap the same block-level data that is actually used in the legal redistricting process. With that data, users can then build maps conveying the boundaries that should define their communities in U.S. politics.

This is one of those projects that speaks to the very heart of civic tech, using technology to make governance more accessible to the masses in meaningful ways, and it's especially relevant during the current redistricting process — which takes place every 10 years, following the release of data from the U.S. Census — as the fairness of redistricting remains a source of criticism. As the DistrictBuilder website notes, "Public engagement in the redistricting process is key to creating fair districts." (Quaintance)


As Seattle prepares to launch a new city home page and navigation menu, the city has now made its testing site available for user feedback.

If you are a Seattle resident — or anyone interested in how local government can service its residents online via design — you can provide feedback on Seattle's new web presence now. (Quaintance)


Finally, Pittsburgh is currently accepting applications for PGH Lab, the city Innovation Team's civic tech program that aims to connect startup companies with local government.

PGH Lab is one of a number of programs nationwide that seeks to serve both local government and the startup community by creating mutually beneficial partnerships between them. The way that PGH Lab — as well as other programs in the space — works is that it gives local startups an opportunity to test solutions in a real-world environment, solutions that can potentially lead to marketable government technology sector products.

The details of these programs vary. PGH Lab, though, creates a partnership that runs for six months, within which participating startups are invited to test ideas, gain market feedback and iterate from there. The local government, in turn, benefits by exploring new ways that tech can make its own work more efficient, transparent, sustainable, inclusive and just plain better.

This marks the seventh cohort for PGH Lab, and applications remain open through Nov. 1. Interested parties can apply to participate via the program's website. (Quaintance)
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.
Associate editor for <i>Government Technology</i> magazine.