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What’s New in Civic Tech: What Works Cities Launches Sprints

Plus, Boston is looking for 2019 analytics summer fellows; Los Angeles unveils its new ShakeAlertLA earthquake alarm app; International Open Data Conference identifies key themes for the work’s ‘second phase;’ and more.

What Works Cities, which was launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2015 to help local governments benefit from data-driven decision-making, has launched a new program called What Works Cities Sprints.

The sprints are essentially an opportunity to work with What Works Cities’ long list of partners and its network of peer cities on improving foundational data practices. They last between two and eight weeks, and each one is tied to one of What Work Cities’ certification criteria, which include areas of achievement in everything from data governance to stakeholder engagement.

The end goal of participating in these sprints is to help cities accomplish feats that will ultimately lead to them receiving What Works Cities certification. The one criterion for potential participants is that the cities have completed a What Works Cities certification assessment, which helps local governments gauge how they are currently performing as well as what sort of support they’ll need to get better.

Local governments can find out which sprints are launching soon by signing up for the organization's newsletter, which also offers information about how to participate, calendar events and links to a relevant Slack channel.

As an example of what these sprints look like, the next one is called Trial “In a Box,” and it’s set to begin on Jan. 14, lasting for six weeks. The aim of that sprint is to help cities improve the efficiency of their efforts to engage with residents. Participating cities will get a webinar, a step-by-step guide for conducting their own trial processes, a set of templates for interventions, some tools for analysis, a support call and another webinar. Other upcoming webinars include Open Data Policies and Workshopping RFPs Using Results-Driven Contracting Strategies.

Boston Is Looking for 2019 Analytics Summer Fellows

Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology is looking for 2019 analytics summer fellows to help solve civic challenges with data work.

In a call for applicants, the city notes that this year’s fellows will help with projects related to digital content, user experience and data visualization. The exact nature of the work is also likely to involve piloting different technologies, working directly with constituents and, finally, testing the innovations the team develops.

The fellowship spans eight weeks and it is a paid position, whether it’s paid directly through the city, a university or a related grant. This opportunity is available to both undergrad and graduate students, although organizers note that there is a preference for applicants who already have related experience or education.

The city also notes that a successful applicant will be “entrepreneurial, humble, curious and a strong communicator.”

To give potential applicants a better idea of what to expect, a past fellow recently took to medium to write about her experience in the program. Rebecca Gray participated in the program last summer and his since joined Boston’s analytics team as a data and performance analyst, now working for the local government full time. Gray’s piece, From Summer Fellow to Full-Time Employee, is online now.

The deadline for applicants is Friday, Jan. 4. Interested students can apply online through the Digital Team Summer Fellowships webpage. Applications must be in by 5 p.m. the day of the deadline. If chosen, fellows will have a phone interview in mid-January with an in-person interview to follow late in the month or early in February.

Los Angeles Unveils New ShakeAlertLA Earthquake Alarm App

Noting that “earthquakes are a matter of when — not if,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti took to Twitter this week to announce that ShakeAlertLA, the city’s new earthquake early warning app, is ready for download.

Earthquakes are a matter of when — not if. We're officially launching #ShakeAlertLA tomorrow, and today you can become one of the first to use our early warning technology. Download the app here → — Mayor Eric Garcetti (@MayorOfLA) January 2, 2019
Once an earthquake is detected, the app sends out a notification, giving residents valuable seconds to prepare for the impending quake. The app also has functionality aimed at helping users prepare for a potential earthquake. It can be used in an informational capacity as well to get information about recent earthquakes, or, in the wake of an earthquake, to find help once it has passed.

The app, which is the work of the mayor’s office, is built on a West Coast ShakeAlert system that was developed by the U.S. Geological Survey. Currently, the app is available for iOS and Android devices. Los Angeles is the first city in the United States to deploy an earthquake early warning app for use by the public.

Alerts are only issued on the app for earthquakes that are magnitude 5.0 or larger, likely to cause shaking to be felt throughout the Los Angeles area. The system uses a series of sensor networks to generate alerts prior to an earthquake actually being felt. Studies have found that warning time from the platform is likely to range from a few seconds to tens of seconds, which would allow trains and taxiing planes to slow down, or for cars to not enter bridges or tunnels, thereby reducing fatalities that can result from a large earthquake.

International Open Data Conference Identifies Key Themes for Data Work’s ‘Second Phase’

Following the recent International Open Data Conference (IDOC) in Buenos Aires, Eric Reese of the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University identified several key themes he expects to be a major part of the next phase of open data work.

These include focusing on the users and real people who actually stand to benefit from government open data work, building a greater capacity for engaging with those people and honing the ability to adapt to new challenges. Reese detailed these thoughts on the GovEx website in a piece called Open Data: The Second Phase. He stressed the importance of these areas moving forward, noting “There are no easy solutions for these issues but the open data movement must focus on meeting these needs in order to sustain itself in the future.”

Reese elaborated on the importance of each one, connecting them to discussions at the recently concluded event in Argentina as well as to work currently underway by GovEx — work that includes working with local governments to establish tools that can address new technologies such as algorithms and AI; improving GovEx’s own data standards directory; and helping to build capacity among local governments for open data via GovEx’s open data course.

Reese also encouraged anyone interested in this work and these issues to reach out via email or to follow the group on Twitter.

Shift Indy Initiative Comes to a Close

Shift Indy — a two-year project to drive government services forward in Indianapolis and Marion County, Ind. — is coming to its planned end, and, as such, the jurisdiction's CIO Ken Clark penned a blog discussing what has been accomplished and what comes next, among other things.

Clark’s blog — titled Your Website, Your Government, Your Digital City Hall — was posted last week, and it goes into a discussion of the common priorities across local government's tech and innovation work, including storytelling, building a website that goes beyond just being an online platform, and custom-building a content management system centered on efficiency. The blog also notes that the Shift Indy project enabled technologists to manage the “review, revision and publishing of content for every agency and department, reducing stale and unnecessary information by 60 percent,” which is major progress by any metric.

Clark, however, also notes in the blog that the program didn’t accomplish everything it aimed to within the two-year time frame, attributing this to the initiative being a dynamic project that created new obstacles and learning opportunities as it progressed.   

The last major achievement of the Shift Indy project will come in mid-January, when the local government fully transitions to its new URL and subsequently sunsets its previous platform.

Oregon Seeks to Hire IT Procurement Specialist

Procurement is a major challenge for most — if not all — local and state government IT departments across the country. Approaches to making it more efficient may differ, but a good many of those engaged in government technology work are currently working to improve procurement.   

To this end, Oregon is currently looking to hire an IT procurement strategist. The successful candidate will work on a joint initiative of the Office of the State Chief Information Officer and Procurement Services called Basecamp. The job posting goes on to note that Basecamp is charged with developing “a world class portfolio of enterprise IT contracts,” and that in that position, the successful applicant will have a chance to make a difference in how this business is done.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.