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This Week in Civic Tech: Digital Cards for City Fixes and NYC’s Participatory Budgeting App

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / March 31, 2016
Citizens weigh which community projects will be awarded funding as part of New York City's participatory budgeting program. The city is one of 1,500 around the world that has adopted the practice. Vimeo/NYC

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each Friday for updates.

A Planning Methods App for City Madness

The 21st century has dealt city planners a rough hand. Cities are growing denser, traffic congestion is spreading and global warming is submerging America’s coastlines. But troubles notwithstanding, a team of entrepreneurs is attempting to reshuffle the deck with an app that tosses fresh methods into today’s urban planning. The idea stems from GreaterPlaces, the maker of Cards Against Urbanity, a parody of the rude and raucous game Cards Against Humanity where players answer questions in a series of funny and profane responses.

In a Medium post, GreaterPlaces Co-Founder Lisa Engstrom Nisenson writes about how her startup went from Cards Against Urbanity to its latest product, simply titled: City Design Method Cards. She recalls a “really sh—ty summer” in 2014 when her tech startup was in a slump and she found herself drinking with a colleague for inspiration.

“Halfway through a beer, I remember saying, ‘Let’s do something fun,’" Engstrom Nisenson said.

The epiphany resulted in the first lines for Cards Against Urbanity, a game that once released on Kickstarter ignited an uproar of praise from planning officials and city workers. Her team began receiving photos of game nights from city staff, requests for card decks, calls to host events and booming kudos on Twitter. The success drove GreaterPlaces to ask what would happen if there was a card app that — with a mix of insight and practical methods — guided cities to solve real-world issues. She likened it to a Pinterest for city planning.

“We have put together a deliberate series of tools to meet everyone where they are on the learning curve and guide them using print, tech, mobile, Web  —  and humor,” Engstrom Nisenson said. “We want a platform to connect people seeking ideas and inspiration with civic innovators worldwide who are doing the work.”

The app would work by taking the burdens of cities and pairing them with a searchable menu of digital cards users could share and search by category or civic problem. The platform is still in development, but GreaterPlaces has launched a new $38,000 Kickstarter campaign to turn it into an enhanced Web and mobile app service for cities. 

NYC’s Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting isn’t new to New York, but for the first time since the program began in 2011 the city is asking citizens to vote online and with more than $30 million for community projects. This year 28 out of the city’s 51 districts are engaging in the process. This requires each New York district member to put up a minimum of $1 million each of discretionary capital funding for citizen decision-making.

As in 2015, the civic tech startup Democracy 2.1 is coordinating all digital aspects of the program. This has resulted in an early citizen engagement campaign to poll support for proposed projects, engineering a preregistration app for instant online voting from different devices, and streamlining the city’s paper ballot for quick scanning. Once voting ends on April 3, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council will finalize the details in May and June with adoption by July 1 — the start of New York’s next fiscal year.

In 2015, the program saw record numbers with 24 districts participating and more than 51,300 ballots cast. Among the selected projects last year, citizens awarded funds for a diverse mashup of civic works. They paid for park facilities, library fixtures, sidewalks, school renovations and even New York City Police Department security cameras. The 2016 projects are equally diverse and can be seen on an interactive map on the city website.

Real Money, Real Power: Participatory Budgeting from PBP on Vimeo.

Civic Tech Director Exits After Philly Mayor Enters

Philadelphia’s Civic Tech Director Aaron Ogle has announced he will step down after roughly a year and a half in the position. His departure, revealed in a Twitter post on March 24, may call into question whether the incoming administration of Mayor Jim Kenney will match former Mayor Michael Nutter’s investment in innovation and technology initiatives.

In a tweet confirming the exit, Ogle expressed skepticism about the future of his position. Philly reported last week that Ogle is leaving behind his work directing the creation of, a developing prototype for the city’s next website and that CIO Charlie Brennan has tasked Kyle Odum, the city’s Web and data delivery manager, to oversee the Web and creative services team responsible for the new site. Brennan said he was unsure if another civic tech director would be hired.

On his Twitter account, Ogle didn’t elaborate about his reasons for leaving but did say in a follow-up post that he was “exploring future career opportunities” and taking time to be with his family.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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