What’s New in Civic Tech: USDS Injects Human-Centered Design into Government Policymaking

Plus, Baltimore’s i-team launches a new website, New York City approves a new tech training center, and civic technologists prep for National Day of Civic Hacking events.

The United States Digital Service (USDS), a federal agency aimed at improving how government uses technology, recently took to Medium, the online publishing platform, to stress the importance of human-centered design within government policymaking.

The article starts by describing existing methods of incorporating feedback into policymaking, noting that while there is often a desire to bring more people into related discussions, “policymakers mainly get feedback from special interest groups and lobbying organizations with the resources and financial incentives to synthesize these complex documents.” The result is that the only input that policymakers get comes from a small group of plugged-in contributors.

The rest of the post details steps from a scenario in which the USDS worked to introduce a human-centered design approach to the policymaking process, one that sought to alleviate the problems the agency had previously identified. The result is an extensive explanation about how they did this work, why they did it and the results the work yielded.

Although this project and its insights came at the federal level, this is all pretty significant in the world of civic tech, with direct applications to state and local governments as well. Human-centered design and constituent engagement are fast taking hold within city halls and statehouses. With the USDS working to incorporate the ideas into policymaking at the highest levels, it's a clear sign that these disciplines are going to be part of the future.

Baltimore i-Team Launches New Website

The Baltimore Innovation Team (i-team) has launched a new website where visitors can learn more about both the team and the projects it is developing.

One of the most notable projects underway in Baltimore is the effort to design solutions that will help the police department improve its hiring and recruitment practices, a project that builds on work done by i-teams in other American cities. As the new website notes, the i-team has “conducted extensive quantitative and qualitative research.” The site also goes on to give specific information about challenges that research identified, as well as what the i-team is doing to address them.

This sort of transparency is repeated throughout the new website. The site also shares photos and bios
about the nearly half a dozen people who make up the team.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, i-teams are supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies in more than 20 cities spread throughout four countries, including many in the United States. In addition to Baltimore, there are i-teams working in jurisdictions ranging from Long Beach, Calif., and Anchorage, Alaska, to Syracuse, N.Y. Their accomplishments include helping with infrastructure issues, fostering innovation and relieving pain points throughout municipal governments. 

New York City Approves New Tech Training Center

The New York City Council has approved a Tech Training Center to be built in Union Square.

The center is expected to help fuel the growth of New York City’s tech sector, according to a press release from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. It intends to do this by “providing accessible tech training and space for companies to grow and hire within the building.”

The project clocks in at a massive 240,000 square feet, and plans call for it to house a tech-focused workforce development center, ample civic tech co-working space at Civic Hall (a nonprofit community tech center located near Union Square), other flexible spaces to accommodate startups, and market-rate office space for more established tech companies. Officials say the center will create more than 600 quality jobs in Union Square.

The project was first announced in February 2017, and its development has included meetings with more than 40 community organizations from throughout New York City. According to a press release, those meetings have resulted in a number of additions, including the dedication of at least $200,000 annually to scholarships for low income students and the expansion of nonprofit training, making event space at Civic Hall free at various times for nonprofits and community groups, developing a Community Advisory Board, and dedicating 25 percent of the booths within the center’s market space to local vendors.

Civic Technologists Prep for National Day of Civic Hacking

Civic technologists across the country are preparing for the annual National Day of Civic Hacking, a coordinated event in which local volunteer groups assemble to conceptualize and execute tech projects that have the potential to improve life in their communities.

This year the event takes place on Saturday, Aug. 11. The day of civic hacking is organized by Code for America and its network of brigades across the country, with a goal of bringing “together civic leaders, local governments, and community organizations to tackle some of our toughest challenges,” according to the National Day of Civic Hacking Web page.

That same Web page has a long and extensive list of events taking place across the country, in many cities located in more than 20 states throughout the country. The type of events being hosted include hackathons, city camps and design camps.

Individuals who are interested in making a civic difference are encouraged to attend, even if they don’t necessarily consider themselves technologists. The website notes that the events are intended to “bring together community leaders, coders, government staff, designers, nonprofit employees, data scientists, and anyone with a stake in their government.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine