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What’s New in Civic Tech: Seattle Wins National Awards for Digital Equity Efforts

Plus, Code for America brings Californians human-centered access to food assistance, 18F and the FBI build Crime Data Explorer, and Austin, Texas, donates used government computers to underserved residents.

Seattle’s Information Technology Department has won two awards from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors for its efforts to foster digital inclusion within the city.

The awards are:

  • 2017 Community Broadband Strategic Plan of the Year, for Seattle’s Strategic Plan for Facilitating Equitable Access to Wireless Broadband
  • 2017 Community Broadband Digital Equity Project of the Year, for Seattle’s Technology Matching Fund
The Technology Matching Fund provides financial support for digital equity projects that cost up to $50,000, while the Strategic Plan for Facilitating Equitable Access to Wireless Broadband sought to explore ways to improve city-wide access to broadband Internet.

“The city is committed to making Seattle a more digitally equitable community,” said Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller in a recent press release. “The recognition by NATOA shows we are making progress on that commitment and is a testament to the great work of our staff and community partners.”

Projects eligible for the support from the Technology Matching Fund include those that seek to increase access to free or low-cost broadband, improve digital literacy skills, or provide residents with affordable access to devices and accompanying technical support. This year marks the 20th anniversary of that program.

The Strategic Plan for Facilitating Equitable Access to Wireless Broadband is part of Seattle’s ongoing efforts to ensure 100 percent connectivity to high-speed Internet in the city. There are three parts to this project: reducing regulatory barriers, exploring public and private partnerships, and exploring municipal broadband. Earlier this year, Seattle released an RFI seeking ideas for providing the public with access to Wi-Fi.

Code For America, California Partner to Deliver Human-Centered Access to Food Assistance Programs

Earlier this year, Code for America (CfA) officials detailed their vision for the group’s next chapter, and this week they made significant progress toward their goals by launching a partnership with California to make it easier for resident’s to go online for food assistance services.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan group is partnering with the state to make, the initial version of which was built by CfA more than two years ago, available to all residents of America’s most populous state. This platform facilitates easy and mobile access to CalFresh, California’s food assistance program, sometimes known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“This is the first site that lets you apply for CalFresh [SNAP is known as CalFresh in California], on your phone. You are not tethered to a don't have to visit an office. You can do it wherever you are,” said Leo O’Farrell, the CalFresh Program Director at the San Francisco Human Services Agency, in an announcement of the partnership on CfA’s website.

In the announcement, CfA officials detail the importance of access to these programs, especially when it comes to health and education outcomes for kids. It also noted that there are 2 million Californians who are eligible but not participating in CalFresh, instead struggling with hunger and other afflictions that eventually results in costlier taxpayers bills once expensive public health care is necessitated. CfA’s aim with their tech work is to close this participation gap, simultaneously making life better for the afflicted and governmental spending more efficient.

With the new platform, it takes an applicant about 8 minutes to finish a submission, a vastly improved time up from the previous average of 45 minutes.

GetCalFresh was one of three products specifically cited as a point of emphasis in the vision for the future CfA laid out in March. The other two were Clear My Record, which gives people a way to reduce or dismiss criminal records for better access to jobs, housing and voting; and ClientComm, a platform that facilitates communication between clients and case workers helping to navigate pre-trial, parole or probation issues. 

The FBI and 18F Are Building a Crime Data Explorer

The federal digital consultancy 18F and the FBI have collaborated to launch the Crime Data Explorer, which makes nationwide crime data available to the public, who can use it to view trends, download data sets or access the Crime Data API for reported crime at national, state or agency levels.

The core goals of this platform, which is still under development and slated for periodic updates, are to foster more transparency in law enforcement and better, more informed conversations about crime. In a post on GitHub, developers note that the current program takes up to two years to publish some data, covering about 30 percent of the population and providing somewhat minimal specificity, as only 20 percent of the country’s largest cities are included.

The GitHub posts also notes that the project involved nine months, 10,342 hours, 1 terabyte of data and 150 interviews with users.

Austin, Texas, Donates Used Devices to Residents in Underserved Areas to Foster Digital Inclusion

Every few years, Austin’s IT department refreshes the city’s computers, replacing some of the local government’s aging tech with updated devices. This year, the city took about 100 discarded computers and laptops and donated them to residents in underserved areas.

There are three core tenants to fostering digital inclusion: connectivity, training and devices; Austin CIO Stephen Elkins said this donation, of course, addressed the device piece. Some of the tech was donated through nonprofit groups in areas with poor digital equity, while 25 laptops formerly used by the city were given to students who live in public housing and had received scholarships from Austin’s Housing Authority.

The city also worked with Microsoft to have the newest version of Windows installed on the devices.

“Through this collaboration we’re helping to solve the whole digital inclusion problem,” Elkins said.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.