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This Week in Civic Tech: LA Captures 'Universe of Transportation Options,' What are the Top Civic Engagement Challenges of 2016?

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

by / January 28, 2016
Los Angeles' new transit app Go LA takes a "universal" approach to transportation options by including both private and public services. Jason Shueh

This Week in Civic Tech presents a lineup 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 week for updates.

Go LA App Captures 'Universe of Transportation Options'

With today’s smorgasbord of transit apps, cooking up something new requires a rare kind of alchemy. Los Angeles, however, may have done it: The Go LA app went live on Jan. 27 with a bevy of features that integrate ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber in addition to the typical fare of buses, trains, taxis and bicycle commuting. Officials say this is to capture the entire “universe of transportation options” available.

“Go LA gives users the opportunity to move around in smarter, faster, cheaper and greener ways by linking them to all the transportation options available to them -- from freeways to Metro to bike routes -- while also providing the city with useful data to help us make policy decisions that benefit residents,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in a release.

Once users enter a destination, they're given data insights about their travels, such as price points, various distance options, carbon emissions and calories burned — if walking or biking. Further, the app possesses an algorithm to learn and adapt to user behavior, and personalizes the experience by adding commuting options based on preference. It also lets travelers save frequently planned trips in a “My Rides” section.

Los Angeles is working with Xerox, the vendor supporting Go LA, to eventually add booking and payments so entire trips can be planned and purchased in a single location. Next iterations may also include ride-sharing to coordinate carpooling, destination parking details, and personal goal setting for budgeting, fitness and travel time. Considering all the personal data the app might gather, the city emphasized that all rider information will be anonymized.

The app's sole criticism likely will come from some open data advocates who may dislike that it isn’t open source, thus allowing other cities to take advantage of the same technology. Even still, the app may prove to be the next compelling transit solution for high-density cities. It is available for free on the Apple and Google Play stores. Once downloaded, users can set a destination, and see the fastest, cheapest, most eco-friendly ways to get around.

Top Challenges in Civic Engagement

At the end of 2015, citizen engagement company GovDelivery conducted a study of more than 1,100 officials to identify the top civic engagement challenges and priorities for the coming year. The findings, from both the U.K. and U.S., underwent some number crunching to create an infographic that highlights a few illuminating statistics. For example, while many governments are embracing digital options to interact with residents, officials report three primary stumbling blocks to progress: Fifty-eight percent of respondents cited resources, 50 percent cited budgets and 45 percent cited poor media content.

Open data initiatives are another area of lament. Only 30 percent of respondents said their jurisdictions published open data while only 7 percent had plans to publish open data in 2016. Against those figures, 41 percent had concerns about the overall effectiveness of their open data services.

Noteworthy Blog Alert

Will cities ever recognize the position for chief product officer? Ben Berkowitz, CEO of SeeClickFix hopes so. In a blog post, titled Planners: The Chief Product Officers of Cities, Berkowitz argues that city planners should be considered — and supported — as the product officers for municipalities. Planners and planning teams, he observes, can implement leadership decisions more quickly, grasp citizen needs in more depth, and be a go-to point for efficient strategy. Product officers inspire growth in the private sector in this way, and Berkowitz sees them doing the same under the title of city planners in the future.

Ash Roughani, director of the Code for America brigade Code4Sac, writes about the next steps for civic tech in his post Civic Tech as a Public Utility. He opines that open data is a foundational precursor for civic tech, one that should ultimately connect and assist citizens via digital interfaces and direct service delivery. He challenged governments to work toward a single civic interface that citizens can use for information across various levels of government. These would measure critical areas like quality of life outcomes, responsible entities, finances, impact opportunities and current Issues and trade-offs.

To fix citizen engagement issues, an overwhelming 87 percent of respondents said revamping their websites would be a focus in 2016. Emphasis on social media was at 63 percent and email outreach at 51 percent. Along the same lines, GovDelivery measured the perceived return on investment for different technologies, which ran fairly parallel to previous stats. Websites sat at the top with perceived ROI of 41 percent, social media at 22 percent, and email and text messaging at 17 percent.

Open Data and Agriculture Collide

Also this week, the worlds of agriculture and open data collided with the announcement of USDA-Microsoft Innovation Challenge winners. For this challenge, civic hackers used more than 100 years' worth of USDA data from the department’s open data portal to engineer solutions for “resilient and sustainable food production." The hackathon, led by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in support of the White House’s Climate Data Initiative, offers a total of $63,000 in cash and prizes. The top three winners are:

The Farm Plenty app allows local farmers to compare data on crops grown within five-mile radius of their farms. A farmer only has to select a point on the Web app’s digital map to get details about nearby crops. This information includes most popular crops in the past year, five years, and couples these with data on acreage, pricing information, and how consumers are utilizing the crops. George Lee of San Francisco, Calif., earned the $25,000 grand prize for this app.

The Green Pastures comprehensive analytics dashboard helps farmers visualize and decipher data on metrics like production, yields, sales, pricing, irrigation, revenue, farmer markets, pesticide and manure usage, and more. The underlying idea promotes data-based strategies for crop selection and farming. Khyati Majmudar of Mumbai, India, won the $15,000 second place prize for this dashboard.

The What’s Local? app lets residents and farmers see the what, where, and how of local agriculture. Using data from the USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture, the app explores food systems for 100 of the most populous urban areas in the lower 48 states, said creator Benjamin Wellington of Brooklyn, N.Y. Each area encompasses a 50-mile radius, and data is displayed in a dichotomy of dollars invested and agricultural outputs. The emphasis is to take a big picture view for improvements to local food networks. Wellington won $7,500 third place prize for his app.

San Francisco's Call to Startups

This post wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t include a brief shoutout to San Francisco’s latest Startup in Residence program that launched Jan. 28. Government Technology writer Colin Wood writes about the program’s return and the three neighboring California cities that are joining the Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation in a 16-week residency initiative for startups who want to re-envision city hall with unique tech products. The long-term ambition is to install a national and global vehicle for startup investment in the govtech marketplace. Startups have a February deadline to apply, the program starts in March, ends mid July, and showcases innovations to the public in a September demo day event.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

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

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