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What’s New in Civic Tech: STiR Now Accepting Applications

Plus, the Philadelphia Department of Revenue uses tech to reduce tax delinquencies; electronic IDs are coming; Washington, D.C., helps seniors use smartphones; the challenge of the first online census; and more.

City Innovate’s Startup in Residence (STiR) program is now accepting applications from local government agencies for its next cohort.

STiR, for the unfamiliar, is a program aimed at fostering better working relationships between government and startup companies. In addition to opening this year’s applications, STiR is also hosting webinars for interested government agencies. During these sessions, participants will have a chance to learn more about STiR, its application process, what joining a cohort entails, timelines for participation, procurement and more. They will also have access to case studies and a chance to ask questions of the program’s organizers.

Upcoming webinars are currently slated for May 22 and May 28. The deadline for applications is June 30.

STiR essentially gives startups the chance to work within local government for a period of 16 weeks, developing tech products aimed at solving civic challenges. It also features an innovative, fast and easy-to-use procurement process. The program was founded in 2014 as a program exclusive to San Francisco. Since then, it has grown to become international, tackling nearly 100 civic challenges and working with more than 30 governments. Projects have addressed a wide range of issues, including urban mobility, digital services, and civic engagement, among others.

Philadelphia Department of Revenue Uses Tech to Reduce Tax Delinquencies

During the recent Philly Tech Week 2019 presented by Comcast, the city’s Department of Revenue noted that since 2013 it has used tech and other methods to reduce tax delinquencies in the city by 31 percent.

This progress was discussed on Monday during a panel about data-driven success stories within Philadelphia’s city government, which included officials from the Mayor’s Policy Office, the Water Revenue Bureau, and the Department of Revenue, among others, according to local media. That decrease in delinquencies means that 96.1 percent of real estate taxes in the city are now being paid the year they are due.

There’s no one magic way that the Department of Revenue did this. Rather, it embraced an agency-wide culture of data-driven governance that led to several initiatives, which is an ethos spreading throughout the city. And not all initiatives have to do with taxes. For example, data belonging to the department paved the way for a Water Revenue Bureau desktop app that indicates delinquent accounts, rating them on a number of factors by which they are most likely to be paid. Public servants can then work to collect from accounts with the highest likelihood of settling, rather than evenly dividing resources.

Some of the projects undertaken directly by the Department of Revenue to collect owed taxes include a property owner portal that will show users how much they owe, as well as updated forms that are easier to fill out.

Electronic ID Cards Are Coming

While a physical identification card will be necessary for the foreseeable future, there is a building momentum for electronic means of identification.

There are several states currently running or evaluating pilot projects related to that concept. Perhaps most tellingly, one of the most powerful and influential companies in the private sector has also begun to push the concept. News broke this week out of Google’s developer conference that the company is working on bringing electronic ID to Android devices. Separate — but likely related in the minds of many — Google also said that new Android Q devices would require encrypted user data.

There are a lot of questions to this idea of being able to identify yourself via your phone rather than a plastic card you carry in your wallet, and given that, it’s probably safe to say that the development is not yet imminent. A tech giant like Google starting work to figure it all out, however, does seem to represent the first steps. Once completed, wallets will have gone entirely digital, as there are already ways to carry everything from cash to credit cards via a smartphone.

Government support will also be crucial in this endeavor, and as mentioned above, some states are already embracing the thought. As many as five states tried variations of the idea in 2018. Earlier this year, Government Technology reported that as many as 77,000 drivers in Louisiana had downloaded a digital driver’s license app there. In other words, it’s coming.

Washington, D.C., Helps Seniors Use Smartphones

Connect.DC, a digital inclusion program run by the nation’s capital, is working to help seniors get better at using tech through a number of initiatives, one of which teaches them how to more efficiently use their smartphones.

The overarching program is called Senior Tech. It first launched in March, and it involves several components, including Internet safety workshops, free tech support and lessons about social media. A smartphone training course is a vital and popular part of the work as well, with officials reporting that in less than three months, more than 100 seniors have benefitted from the program.

It is conducted with lessons in gathering places such as libraries, senior centers, churches and Connect.DC’s own mobile tech lab. It’s a four-course workshop that covers a wide range of topics, including how to send photos, how to download apps, navigating social media and more.

Programs like this one represent an evolving trend across the country. As using technology and the Internet becomes an increasingly vital part of everyday life — for everything from health care to basic communication — local governments are taking it upon themselves to create and support digital inclusion efforts within their jurisdictions. Digital inclusion means many things, but chief among them is making sure that entire populations have access not only to technology but also to the skills one needs to use it efficiently.   

‘The Challenge of America’s First Online Census’

And finally, Wired published a feature this week detailing something that every major city in the country should be deep into preparing for: the first online U.S. Census.

Technology has developed rapidly since the last time the census was conducted 10 years ago. What that means is that for the first time in our country’s history, tech will be the foundational element for how the population is counted. The census is, of course, invaluable to the strength of our democracy, determining not only how much federal funding areas of the country get but also the amount of representation they are given in Congress. If a city undercounts — always a far greater concern than overcounting — it can lose congressional seats at the state and federal levels.

With that in mind, a number of cities are working hard now across a number of departments to ensure an accurate count. The piece in Wired has a great overview looking at some of what’s being done and how and why it matters so much, making it must-read material for civic technologists and public servants alike.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.