What's New in Civic Tech: Sunlight Foundation Guide Seeks to Improve Open Data Practices

Plus, Democracy Works increases efforts to connect voters with election info, and Syracuse partners with Code for America to launch new info portal for businesses.

What's New in Civic Tech takes a look at highlights and recent happenings in the world of civic technology.

Sunlight Foundation Publishes New, Comprehensive Guide for Cities to Improve Open Data Practices

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that works with tech and other initiatives to make government more transparent, has released a new Tactical Data Engagement guide aimed at helping cities engage residents and improve communities with public data. 

The guide is an effort to help elected officials and municipal government workers go past simply publishing mass amounts of data online, helping them to put information out there in a strategic way that fosters subsequent actions. In a release announcing the guide, Sunlight Foundation leadership emphasized that this is part of ongoing efforts to foster public access to government information, which should be free, open and online. 

“We shouldn’t just be proactive about data access, but about facilitating use and reuse,” said Stephen Christopher Larrick, open cities director at the Sunlight Foundation, in the release. “What we’ve seen is that cities that connect open data to the unique needs of their residents are able to achieve impact and demonstrate its worth.”

Larger municipalities have recently begun tackling this issue of how to present data online in a way that members of the public who aren’t data scientists will find useful. Boston has released a beta version of an improved iteration of its open data portal called Analyze Boston. New York City has also reached out to data novices with a simplified open data portal home page. Phoenix also recently announced plans to do the same.

As the Sunlight Foundation notes in its release, the guide is a work in progress, and the foundation welcomes feedback


Democracy Works Increases Efforts to Connect Voters with Election Info

After receiving a $2.5 million grant, Democracy Works has announced a commitment to raising $2.2 million in additional dollars to help with its mission: modernizing the way we vote by digitally upgrading the infrastructure of our democracy, thereby improving the voting officials for the public and politicians.

The $2.5 million grant comes courtesy of the Knight Foundation, according to a news release, and Democracy Works co-founder and executive director, Seth Flaxman, described it as a full embrace of his organization. 

“The mission of Democracy Works is to modernize voting for the way we live now,” Flaxman wrote in a statement. “Our vision is to become the digital connective tissue for a 21st-century American democracy. We want to connect citizens to the atomic unit of a democracy: their vote. We don’t simply aim to help someone participate in a particular election; we want them to become a voter who sees participation in every election as core to their personal identity.”

Democracy Works’ goal is a loft one: connecting 230 million eligible voters to election officials. The group has made substantial progress already. In 2012, the year that Democracy Works was founded, the group launched TurboVote, a service aimed at helping voters get registered. By 2016, TurboVote had signed up more than 1 million voters. 

In a related effort, the Knight Foundation has reaffirmed support for the Center for Technology and Civic Life with funding that totals $508,000. That organization is a nonprofit that uses tech to improve interactions between local governments and their communities.


Responding to Hate Crime Increase, Anti-Defamation League to Work with Silicon Valley

In response to a wave of reported hate crimes, the Anti-Defamation League is launching a center in Silicon Valley to track the rise of intolerance, collaborating its efforts with tech companies.

Seed capital for the center will be provided in part by Omidyar Network, an investment firm that operates with a heavy emphasis on philanthropy. In a medium post announcing the funding for the center, Alissa Black, director of investments at Omidyar Network, cited the more than 1,000 hate crimes in the wake of the Nov. 2016 presidential election reported by Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as a wave of bomb threats against Jewish institutions

“These incidents are often precipitated by online hatred and intimidation, targeted at groups based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation,” Black wrote in her post. “This global trend is, in part, being driven by the misappropriation of online platforms and communities to spread hate speech.”

The idea for the center is that it will help the ADL collaborate with leading tech companies to stem the flow of cyberhate, encouraging instead the use of tech to “promote democracy and social justice.”

The ADL has been working toward the reduction of online hate for decades. Recent efforts include a hate crime map launched in the days following the election, which draws from FBI data sets. That map also highlights states that don’t track hate crimes, including Wyoming, Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina. 


Syracuse Partners with Code for America to Launch New Business Portal

Syracuse and Code for America have launched a new portal aimed at facilitating business in the city.

This new business portal is aimed at making it easier to find information that ranges from basic facts about starting a new business to the status of permits. In a blog post, Syracuse Chief Data Officer Sam Edelstein wrote that the portal was mobile-friendly and spelled out in easy-to-understand language. The work was a collaboration between Syracuse’s department of neighborhood and business development and Code for America’s office of innovation. 

The effort was guided by input from nearly every department in the city, as well as from residents and business owners. Edelstein praised the results, pointing to a trio of unique features as especially appealing: its human-centered design, resemblance to BizPort from Long Beach, Calif., and the way it supplements other city efforts. Human-centered design, which means the site was built with users in mind rather than government staff, is an increasingly common trend in municipal site construction

Code for America is a nonprofit nonpartisan organization that helps government deliver services to the public, services that make better use of the tools and practices of the digital age. They also organize a network of technologists and other workers dedicated to spreading these practices in government.


Associate editor for Government Technology magazine