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What’s New in Civic Tech: Knight Invests $1M in CfA Brigades

Plus, this week Code for America holds its annual summit event, Boston’s Digital Team shares case study giving transparency to its work, a map charts recent American migration data, and more.

The sun rising on a street lined with tall buildings in downtown Miami.
The Knight Foundation is investing $1 million in Code for America (CfA) to expand the group’s brigades in seven U.S. cities, the philanthropic organization has announced.

The seven cities are Boulder, Colo.; Charlotte, N.C.; Detroit; Miami; Philadelphia; San Jose, Calif.; and St. Paul, Minn., all of which are cities wherein the organization’s namesake Knight brothers once published newspapers. Code for America — the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization in the vanguard of America’s civic tech movement — has brigades in 85 cities within 41 states, which have netted roughly 25,000 localized volunteers.

The brigade program works to identify major challenges and find digital solutions for them in the communities in which they are located, doing so by bringing together organizers, developers, designers and anyone else with an interest in collaborating with local government or other groups. The announcement for the investment notes that the money will go “to implementing practices that help with recruitment and management for the volunteer technologists who power the organization.”

This past year has been an active one for CfA’s brigades, with the groups responding to multiple crises, leading many efforts to respond to the pandemic. This sparked 307 projects — more than 100 of which were COVID-19 specific — that reached an estimated 5 million people, directly serving more than 700,000 of them.

The brigades receiving the Knight investment were among the most active. The Miami-based Code for South Florida, for example, helped to support the creation and scaling of GetYourRefund.org, which is a free digital tax assistance tool for both English- and Spanish-speaking families with low income. That project in 2020 helped more than 30,000 families, leading to a total of $62 million in distributed tax benefits.

The new investment will be a five-year commitment, and it marks just another evolution for Knight’s support of CfA. That relationship dates back to 2010, and it has now led to nearly $10 million of investment in the group. (Zack Quaintance)

CODE FOR AMERICA SUMMIT: DESIGNING EQUITABLE GOVERNMENT


The annual Code for America (CfA) Summit took place this week, boasting a focus on designing equitable government.

Indeed, the role of government in addressing historically marginalized communities was one key idea repeated throughout the virtual conference. Former Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs — who is now serving as special adviser for economic mobility and opportunity to California Gov. Gavin Newsom — was a featured speaker, and he addressed one key function of government as repairing what it has broken.

USDA Senior Advisor for Data and Technology Lynn Overmann elaborated on this idea at the event as well. Overmann addressed that when using data and machine-learning technology, equity biases are inherently part of that data. Overmann cited USDA’s 100-year history of discriminating against farmers of color.

“We really have to rethink the ways that we are assessing equity,” she said. “We can’t count on the data that we have in our system right now, because that is excluding thousands and thousands of people who are not in our system because we’ve kept them out of it.”

Designing an equitable government starts by acknowledging that the government systems currently in place hold inherent biases, and then subsequently working to redesign with that in mind.

This sentiment was echoed throughout the conference, notably in the panel entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” Kathy Pham, USDS digital service expert, stressed that two of the biggest takeaways from the past year are to understand historical context when building technology, and then to think about and communicate with the communities and the people for whom the new technology is being built. (Julia Edinger)

BOSTON'S DIGITAL TEAM SHARES A CASE STUDY


In an effort to bolster transparency and give the community a glimpse into its work, the Boston Digital Team is sharing case studies about its work, the most recent of which focuses on web content.

Specifically, this new case study looks at the work the digital team did with the city’s parks and recreation department, which had a need to give the public more information. The full detail of the work can be found on the digital team’s new blog post, but in short, the idea was to help give the public an easy way to find information about the department’s construction projects. This meant building a new and more engaging web presence with this in mind.

“On the old website, there was no easy way for our Parks Department to make that information accessible to the public,” the digital team wrote in its blog. “And even if they could make that information available online, it was very laborious to keep it updated.”

This tidbit — as well as the rest of the post — is a useful one for civic tech communities, giving a glimpse into the way that government digital change teams work within city hall, collaborating with another department, collecting feedback from the public and executing a plan that seeks to address the needs of both sides. This look behind the scenes is an ongoing project, with other entries having looked at branding and design for 311, as well as modernizing public notices. (Zack Quaintance)

METRO NASHVILLE CONDUCTS BROADBAND ACCESS SURVEY


A new survey aims to collect info from Nashville residents that can be used in work to bridge the digital divide.

Some of the questions in this survey ask for basic information, such as age, ZIP code, and the number of devices one owns that use Internet for a quantitative analysis. It also asks residents if they are aware of low-cost options that may be available to them, as well as if they would be interested in a government program to reduce or remove cost.

It also asks if residents — if provided the resources — would be interested in various digital skills opportunities: learning to code, creating an app, or starting a tech business, for example. This allows decisions to be made based not only on the current digital landscape of the city, but also on what might exist if people had greater access to broadband and other resources.

The survey will be open until May 15, 2021. (Julia Edinger)

A NEW MAP CHARTS RECENT AMERICAN MIGRATION DATA


Finally, MapLab recently launched an interesting new data visualization, which is always a treat for those of us engaged with civic tech.

The map is built around showing American migration patterns in the wake of a pandemic. The map is built from data that the U.S. Postal Service keeps around change of address forms, with the map showing which counties gained residents and which counties lost them.

There’s other data too, and for those who really dig it, MapLab also recently published more info about the map. (Zack 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