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What’s New in Civic Tech: A Range of Exciting Work is Under Way in Alaska

Plus, San Francisco announces Internet as a utility effort; New York City announces three finalists for its NYCx Governors Island Connectivity Challenge; Louisville, Ky., applies for a pilot program to use drones in response to shootings; and Memphis, Tenn., launches an open data portal.

Alaska’s gov tech ecosystem has taken steps forward, driven by projects from several different entities, including the state, the Anchorage municipal government and the Anchorage Code for America brigade. 

Starting at the state level, Alaska recently activated its open data portal, which contains public-facing financial information. The creation of this platform dates back to a bill first introduced in the state’s Legislature in 2014, aimed at centralizing open data that was previously being published on individual agency websites. So far, the portal includes information about operating and capital budgets dating back to 2015, but, according to the bill that led to its creation, the plan is to add more data moving forward.

In other Alaska news, Code for Anchorage, which is one of Code for America’s brigades, has teamed with the Alaska Court System to beta test an SMS court hearing reminder system that may launch soon. This type of SMS system is often valuable for government because it fosters increased digital equity, in that SMS notifications do not require Internet access or the same type of data plan that emails do. The Anchorage creation is based on projects done by other Code for America brigades in Tulsa, Okla., and Atlanta. To emphasize the potential effect of this project further, it’s important to note that a recent study found text message notifications are likely to lead to increased court attendance and less open warrants.

Finally, speaking of Alaska and Code for America brigades, Anchorage CIO Brendan Babb points out that developers have created a new game designed to spread awareness of where such groups are located, excluding those in Alaska and Hawaii for visibility reasons. It’s currently in Alpha, and Babb encourages users to contact him with corrections.

San Francisco announces Internet as a utility effort

San Francisco has started the process of creating a citywide municipal fiber network that officials said will prioritize net neutrality and privacy protections, while bringing fast and affordable online access to constituents.

The city issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) on Wednesday, Jan. 31 to find teams capable of designing and delivering a citywide fiber network in San Francisco. The announcement of the RFQ came from Mayor Mark Farrell, the city administrator’s office and the department of technology. It also noted that any Internet service provider that used the network would be “required to follow strict net neutrality protections, including commitments to transparency, the free flow of information, equal treatment of traffic, no paid prioritization and unobstructed access to lawful websites. Additionally, any internet service provider must follow robust privacy and security standards.”

In some areas of the country, including San Francisco and much of California, the local government response to the FCC’s decision in December to roll back net neutrality was a ferocious one, with public servants vowing to do all they can to preserve a free and equitable Internet. The announcement of this RFQ even points out that the related guidelines are in “stark contrast to the standards of the Trump administration, which has repeatedly rolled back popular net neutrality and privacy protections, allowing personal internet use to be dictated by the highest bidder.”

The RFQ is ostensibly seeking teams that can design, build, operate, finance and maintain a citywide fiber-optic network. This comes after city officials met last year with industry leaders to gather feedback on such a project. The RFQ will identify up to five qualified groups by the end of April, and, afterward, the city expects to award a contract to build, operate and manage an open access fiber network for 15 years.

NYC announces three finalists for its NYCx Governors Island Connectivity Challenge

In other high-speed Internet connection news, New York City has announced three finalists for its NYCx Governors Island Connectivity Challenge, which seeks to bring high-speed low-cost Internet service to Governors Island this year.

City officials describe the group of three finalists as “a broad range of start-up companies and entrepreneurs,” one they hope will inform “how to deliver next generation network infrastructure for ‘5G’ cellular connectivity across New York City’s parks and neighborhoods.” The finalists are Neutral Connect Networks LLC of West Palm Beach, Fla.; Fiberless Networks of Quincy, Mass.; and Edge FiberNet, which is based in New York City. All three will spend the coming months working with the city to test and build connectivity solutions on Governors Island.

This challenge was first announced in October, with a stated goal of encouraging global entrepreneurs to offer bold solutions that would ultimately help with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal of giving all residents and businesses in his jurisdiction access to affordable and reliable high-speed broadband Internet by 2025.

Governors Island is an atypical and interesting part of the city, one that is a popular seasonal destination for merrymaking that includes acres of park space. In announcing the finalists, the city noted that the area is undergoing a transition into a year-round commercial, cultural and educational hub, and that the Connectivity Challenge winner will ideally bring much needed service to hundreds of thousands of seasonal visitors, as well as to dozens of cultural organizations, groups producing public programming and future year-round tenants.

Louisville, Ky., hundreds of others, apply for pilot program to use drones to respond to shootings

Louisville, Ky., hopes to be one of the first cities in the country capable of responding to shootings with drones, having recently submitted an application for the Federal Aviation Administration’s new pilot program for drone innovation, according to reports from local media.  

Such drone use is unprecedented, and, if approved, Louisville would be the first American city that could fly drones to shooting scenes, subsequently using the city’s ShotSpotter application, which would allow drones to take images, potentially before 911 has even been called. Louisville, however, is not alone in this effort, as 300 other cities have also applied for the U.S. Unmanned Aerial System Integration Pilot Program, which was created under the direction of an executive memorandum from President Donald Trump in October. Although, Louisville may very well be the lone city with a proposal related to gunshot detection and drones. 

Louisville is perhaps uniquely positioned for this work because of its ShotSpotter app, which was implemented by Louisville Metro Police after getting funding by the Metro Council, with support from Mayor Greg Fischer. The city expects a reply to its application within the next 90 days. Although Louisville has not officially retailed the specifics of its hopeful drone program, local media is reporting that drones would only be in the air once shots are detected, and, in order to allay potential privacy concerns, all footage would go directly to Louisville police.

Memphis, Tenn., launches open data portal

Memphis, Tenn., has launched an open data portal that gives users access to performance-related data for more than 30 city functions.

In a tweet announcing the launch, Mayor Jim Strickland noted that, “This is the same data that we use on a daily basis to guide government decisions and investments.” In addition to the portal, Strickland signed an executive order that formalizes the city’s commitment to open data and also creates a data-driven governance committee to implement such work moving forward.

This has been in the works for some months in Memphis. In October, the city hired CIO Mike Rodriguez, who told Government Technology at that time that he was making enhancing open data efforts an early priority. An open data portal such as the one launched by Memphis is, of course, a massive step for cities looking to be more transparent as well as to use open data effectively.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.