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What’s New in Civic Tech: Kamala Harris Introduces Tech Bill

Plus, Stanford University policy lab releases data on millions of U.S. traffic stops; three takeaways from Open Data Day 2019; and San Antonio passes a new cross-agency data-sharing agreement.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has introduced legislation called the Digital Service Act, which would state and local government agencies federal support for investing in tech and modernization efforts.

Another facet of the legislation is that it would also boost the United States Digital Service (USDS), a federal agency that helps improve how government uses technology. If it comes to pass, the Digital Service Act would direct $50 million of funding to the USDS, plus $15 million to seed grants for state and local government digital services. Those grants would require that 50 percent of the money be spent on hiring talent rather than procuring technology. Grantees would also have to report their results at the end of the two-year period, and the USDS would be required to report to Congress on the grants bi-annually.

In a press release announcing the legislation, Harris received support from Code for America — a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that supports the government's use of tech to better serve citizens — and the Center for Democracy and Technology, another nonprofit that promotes democracy and associated values by shaping policy with a focus on individuals.

“Americans deserve a government that works for them and that just plain works,” Harris said in the press release. “We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century. The Digital Service Act will help harness top talent for the government, save taxpayer dollars, and put the power of technology to work on behalf of the American people.”

Earlier this year, Harris declared that she would seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency. In that context, it should be noted that this is perhaps the most high-profile move of any candidate in the race as it pertains to state and local governments using technology. While government technology has not traditionally been an issue that has interested national voters, its potential for efficiency and tangible change may catch the attention of an electorate this year among demographics that have shown increased interest in government.

Stanford Computational Policy Lab Released Data on Millions of U.S. Traffic Stops

The Stanford Computational Policy Lab, which uses tech to tackle issues related to criminal justice among other things, has released the results of a five-year effort to collect data on hundreds of millions of traffic stops in the United States.

These datasets are now available for interested parties such as the media, elected officials and, of course, civic technologists. In addition to the actual data sets, the researchers have also released an analysis of racial disparities within the stops. The project, dubbed the Stanford Open Policing Project, looked at nearly 100 million traffic stops that took place between 2011 and 2017 among 21 state agencies, including those in some of the most populous states in the country — states like California, Illinois, New York and Texas. The study also looked at data from 29 police departments at the municipal level, including major jurisdictions such as San Francisco, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

“On a typical day in the United States, police officers make more than 50,000 traffic stops,” researchers wrote on the project’s website. “Our team is gathering, analyzing, and releasing records from millions of traffic stops by law enforcement agencies across the country. Our goal is to help researchers, journalists and policymakers investigate and improve interactions between police and the public.”

As the site also notes, before this research effort there was no comprehensive national repository of data that detailed interactions between law enforcement officers and the public. The site enables relatively easy exploration of the results, aided by tutorials. The analysis code also used by researchers can be found on the site.

Finally, the developers noted that this is more of a beginning than an end. “We’ll be regularly updating the repository,” they wrote, “and we’re collecting more information every day.”

Three Takeaways from Open Data Day 2019

Open Data Day 2019 has come and gone, and now some of those at the forefront of the nation’s civic tech efforts have shared lessons from this year’s event.

In a medium post appropriately titled “Three Takeaways from Open Data Day 2019,” Code for America Developer Tom Dooner laid out some of the key lessons he noticed in the context of this year’s events.

Open Data Day is essentially a time in which civic tech groups, government innovation outfits and others in the space host community events aimed at promoting open data. Dooner’s piece starts out by noting there are now 73 Code for America brigades — which are localized civic tech groups — spread throughout the country working together to solve shared community challenges.

By learning about events in Tampa, San Francisco, Charlotte and other locales, Dooner noted that the three clearest lessons that emerged were: everyone can learn from big cities, open data is thriving and community is key.

The first point is one often bandied about in government tech spaces, as many note that the size of cities make them into nigh perfect use cases for agile tech work. That work, if successful, can then be replicated elsewhere, be it in other jurisdictions or at the state and federal levels.   

“If NYC has the resources to try many different prototypes,” Dooner wrote, “keeping up with what they most successfully accomplish might help you advocate for your smaller jurisdiction to do the same.”

As far as the point about open data thriving, Dooner noted that the brigades are “by and large, shifting to focus on delivery-driven government,” but that at the same time open data remains a cornerstone of their efforts. Finally, Dooner wrote about the importance of strong civic tech communities that can pull people with new skill sets into the fold.

While all of these points cited concrete examples of things Dooner noticed in 2019, at this point in civic tech’s lifespan those three things could also be looked at as pillars for the work moving forward.

San Antonio, Texas, Passes New Cross-Agency Data-Sharing Agreement

San Antonio has passed a new enterprise agreement to streamline and share data across city departments.

Craig Hopkins, the city’s chief information officer, announced the agreement at the recent 20-20 Cities meeting in San Antonio, which was organized by Cities Today. The departments involved are housing, transportation, water, electricity, the river authority and Bexar County. The individual groups won’t give up rights to their data, but they will have simpler channels to store it in places where it can be accessed by participants.

The agreement contains processes for handling and sharing the data that allows privacy protections and other security measures to remain in place. Hopkins also noted that this model could potentially be used in other cities, even those that don’t have direct oversight of all agencies and utilities.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.