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What’s New in Civic Tech: Three Perks of Data Work Check-Ups

Plus, New York City looks to partner with the private sector to boost broadband for underserved residents; Code for America puts out call for 2019 summit proposals; Cook County, Ill., maps gun and overdose deaths; and more.

Few organizations in the country have more expertise on municipal data work than What Works Cities, a nonprofit group aimed at helping local governments improve the lives of residents through data and evidence-based decision making.

When What Works Cities starts talking data, it’s wise for civic technologists and public servants in the tech space to listen. Such is the case with a recent Medium post — Three Perks of Getting Your City’s Data Check-Up — by Senior Program Manager Lauren Su and Associate Madeleine Weatherhead. The piece lays out the simple reasons why cities should regularly give their data work a check-up, much as one would get an annual physical or car inspection. These check-ups are available through What Works Cities’ partner Results for America for any municipality that completes a certification assessment through the group.

The three reasons cities should want to do the assessment are as follows: A data check-up helps a city get a better understanding of the practices it has in place; it helps a city delineate clear next steps for its work; and it ultimately gets a city resources that it can subsequently use to bolster its data work. Those resources include access to educational materials and the network of peers, which includes a long list of expert partner groups.

What Works Cities is also preparing to host a series of sprints next year, in which participating cities can join an eight-week-long process that will see them working with a cohort of like-minded jurisdictions to obtain What Works Cities certification.

New York City Looks to Partner with Private Sector to Boost Broadband for Underserved Residents

A recent Request for Information from New York City related to connecting underserved residents and small businesses to broadband Internet has yielded more than 50 respondents, the city reported.

Now, the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer is looking to lock in a public-private partnership that would help it reach its goal of bringing affordable high-speed Internet access to all of its constituents by the year 2025. The RFI, which was issued last November, was met with a long list of respondents, ranging from well-known Internet service providers like AT&T to lesser-known entities involved in work such as digital inclusion and advocating for worker rights. The full list of companies is available online.

What the city wanted to know was whether the private sector could partner with the local government to help connect the entire jurisdiction while also delivering on five guiding principles: equity, performance, affordability, choice and privacy.

Campaigns like this are fairly standard for local and state governments across the country, which in recent years have prioritized obtaining 100 percent broadband access as part of a wider effort to help constituents with digital skills and access so as to stay competitive in the modern economy. New York, with its size and prominence, is of course in a unique situation. An April report from the city notes that more than two-thirds of households have just one or two options for high-speed Internet, while the numbers for small businesses are not much better — a reality that limits choice and keeps prices high and connectivity rates low.

The next step for New York is an ongoing effort to develop partnerships — potentially with many of the groups in the RFI — while also identifying the areas of the city in most dire need of better broadband access.  

Code for America Puts Out Call for 2019 Summit Proposals

Code for America (CfA), a nonprofit and nonpartisan group at the forefront of civic tech work in the country, is looking for session proposals for its annual summit, which is to be held in Oakland, Calif., in late May.

With Code for America’s status as a major leader in the civic tech space, its annual summit is essentially a key touchpoint for the state of American civic tech work. To help potential presenters formulate their session proposals, CfA has laid out an early preview of the three topical tracks likely to guide the content at this year’s event. They are as follows:

  • GovOps: This track looks at how technologists can contribute to culture change in government organization, examining how to transform people and culture within government as well as the principal issues related to things like procurement, security and staffing.

  • Digital Delivery: This track is about the processes, best practices and tools necessary to foster collaborative efforts — with entities both in and out of government — that can ultimately help public institutions better meet resident needs.

  • Civic Innovation: This track takes the 20,000-foot view of civic tech work, asking what can be done to find new ways related to the work. It also examines how early-stage tech can be used by government while also balancing issues such as privacy related to data.

The deadline to submit session proposals is Jan. 11. The application is on the group’s website, along with a list of sessions from the 2018 event that can serve as examples.

Cook County, Ill. Maps Gun and Overdose Deaths

Cook County, Ill., which is home to Chicago, has used data to address its ongoing gun violence and drug overdoses crises, doing so by mapping the spikes in those problems.

The project, which was recently featured as a local government case study by the nonprofit group Results for America, went live in January. It includes public data and accompanying visualizations about opioid and gun-related deaths in the county. Perhaps most impressively, throughout this year the resource ranked as one of the 10 most-visited on the Cook County GIS website, tallying nearly 17,000 visitors.

To create the resource, technologists with the county used information from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. Results for America notes that law enforcement and public health officials can access the data and visualizations in order to obtain timely info capable of driving data-informed decision making that could speed up related work, including investigations and health interventions.

The information involved with this project has long been requested by law enforcement agencies, public health advocacy groups and others. As such, Results for America also notes that an added benefit is a decrease in the amount of time that medical examiner staffers must spend processing Freedom of Information Act requests, since the project has already yielded a decrease in those by more than 30 percent between January and October, 2017.

Gilbert, Ariz., Maps Holiday Christmas Lights

On a lighter note (sorry for the pun!), Gilbert, Ariz., has used its own data to map the location of the town’s best Christmas light displays.

Gilbert, which is in the Phoenix metropolitan area, has done this by using information from its Gilbert 311 app as well as Alex, a municipal chatbot that Gilbert has designated as its data librarian. The end result is a crowd-sourced map of the most festive homes and businesses in the area. The way it was compiled was actually pretty simple. Gilbert 311 users needed only to sign into their accounts, click a button in the 311 app, and upload a photo of their holiday display, tagging it in a category labeled Holiday Lights Map and answering a few quick questions.

Alex the chatbot then spent the past month or so (through Jan. 1, actually) highlighting the most festive displays. In traditional Gilbert style, the city enticed higher participation through a holiday ornament giveaway and a social media campaign.

A New Way to Bee Proactive About Gathering Data

Data is the life blood of a good many civic tech projects, and, as such, its often beneficial for those in the space to stay up to date on data-gathering methods.

For municipal governments, data is being collected these days from a wide range of sensors, affixed to everything from trash cans to street lights. One new and tiny way to collect data has recently been developed: sensor-filled backpacks capable of being attached to bees. A report by the World Economic Forum, an international organization that supports public-private cooperation, describes this tech as “a tiny wafer loaded with electronics and a small battery.”

This project essentially aims to turn bees into a tiny IoT platform, one with use cases that include monitoring the health of fields and other environments via gauging temperature and humidity. Bee-based sensors could also be used to check crops for signs of rot, work that is currently done manually.

The tech is, of course, wireless, capable both of being charged and of transmitting data without being plugged in. It was designed by engineers at the University of Washington. The report notes that the scientists were careful to follow best practices for not harming the bees, even if this work does take advantage of them. The tech weighs roughly 102 milligrams, while the full-grown bumblebee it is designed for clocks in at somewhere between two and six times that large.

The tech is currently in the prototyping stage with a presentation planned for the ACM MobiCom conference in 2019.

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Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.