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What’s New in Civic Tech: Miami Launches New Beta Website for Testing

Plus, Seattle releases annual report on city’s open data efforts; Vermont civic tech group launches app to coordinate volunteer cleanups; and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ summit on city communications emphasizes the importance of social media.

Last spring, Miami released an alpha version of a redesigned website aimed at providing a more user-centric experience. Now, the city has launched a second draft of the project, one officials are hoping users will go online and test.

The site features a new design modeled after the vibrant aesthetics one finds in Miami’s neighborhoods, but the improvements go past the visuals. In an online announcement, the city notes that its new website features 50 services, including permit instructions, trolley information, park reservations and more. Developers will continue to add functionalities in the coming months alongside “concise department pages, fresh city official pages and thorough informational guides such as How to Start a Business in the City of Miami,” officials said in the launch announcement.

This sort of human or user-centered design work is a trend that has begun to reshape online city government in order to work more efficiently for residents. To that end, developers of Miami’s site emphasized that as they expand and update the new site over the next nine months, user feedback will not only be welcomed, it will be “serving as a guiding factor for constructing future pages.”

The new site has an “About the New Website” tab, which links to space for providing feedback. There is also a link to do so on the new site’s homepage. The site was built as a collaborative effort between the city, users and the Web developer Open Cities. The original will remain open during the ongoing beta phase.

Seattle releases its annual report on open data efforts

Seattle has released a report on its open data-related accomplishments from 2017 and where its work will be headed in 2018.

The report, dubbed the Open Data Program 2017 Annual Report, also includes information about the new look for Seattle’s open data website. The city isolated some of the highlights of the report in an announcement this month. Those include adding 76 data sets resulting in 130 million rows of new information to its platform, as well as redesigning the open data platform’s interface to make it more friendly for residents to use.

In terms of Seattle’s open data plans for 2018, the announcement lays out a series of top priorities while also noting that they are all currently underway. These priorities include improving how the various city departments release their data, making open data more accessible to the public (a recurring theme), implementing the recommendations of the open data program, continuing to make quality improvements to the platform and improving the use of data to identify the city’s high-value data sets.

Seattle has long been a leader in open data, both in terms of making all data open by preference and in privacy as it pertains to the release of open data. In fact, Seattle’s citywide privacy program is often recognized as one of the leading efforts among municipal governments to guard the data they collect. City technologists, however, have recently emphasized how important it is that they continue progressing in this area.

Vermont civic tech group launches app for coordinating volunteer cleanups

A civic tech group in Vermont has built and launched a new app to bring people together for an annual statewide cleanup that dates back to 1970.

That cleanup is Green Up Day, which is held in Vermont each year on the first Saturday of May. During Green Up Day, volunteers set out to remove litter from Vermont’s roadsides and public spaces. This year is the event’s 50th anniversary, and just in time for the big day, Code for BTV has built a Green Up Day App to bring together individuals, businesses, nonprofit groups and anyone else who wants to help.

With this app, users can coordinate group cleanup efforts in certain areas. They can also place pins on locations where they are dropping full Green Up Day bags for later pickup, as well as to see where bags have already been dropped. Developers said in an announcement that their hope is to reduce overlap of volunteers going to areas that have already been cleaned.

Code for BTV is an official Code for America Brigade, which means it is part of a nationwide network of similar groups working to help sustainable tech and innovation efforts aimed at supporting, augmenting and improving the work of local governments. More than 55,000 Green Up trash bags are expected to be distributed this year to volunteers.

Bloomberg summit on city communication emphasizes importance of social media

Bloomberg Philanthropies recently convened 54 communications officials from municipal governments in the United States and the United Kingdom in New York City to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by a shifting media landscape.

The transition from traditional communications methods, such as phone calls or faxes, has been a swift one, with many local governments now playing catchup as their residents increasingly rely on social media for updates. Local news outlets have withered and imploded, and the new media landscape is dynamic, which can make it quite challenging for often-slow-moving government agencies to navigate.

To remedy this, the recent Bloomberg event gathered those tasked with overseeing this navigation for panels, workshops and one-on-one meetings in which they shared tips on social media and storytelling, best practices and meditations on the changing media landscape.

Four main strategies emerged from the talks: leverage new opportunities to shape the narrative; hone a city’s listening skills; integrate communications and service delivery; and — perhaps most relevant for those in gov tech — think flexibly about platforms, including social media. 

Dana Berchman, chief digital officer for Gilbert, Ariz., and with a background in New York City media, has emerged as a leader in the local government communications space. She was in attendance at the Bloomberg event to share some of what she’s learned. One example she gave was that the social media network Nextdoor is emerging as a major force for local governments to tap into, with more than half of Gilbert’s 78,000 households using it.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.