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This Week in Civic Tech: 4 Key Takeaways from Code for America's 2015 Summit

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

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.

If there was one week of the year dedicated to civic tech, it has to be this one. On Sept. 29, Code for America kicked off its annual summit, which began with a celebratory “Pub Crawl” in the downtown streets of Oakland, Calif., and subsequently launched into a parade of sessions, panels and keynote addresses. In Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf's keynote, for instance, she spoke of her "very explicit letter" to Uber.

As with previous iterations, this year drew government and civic tech advocates from across the nation -- and U.S. CTO Megan Smith paid a surprise visit. And, as expected, a deluge of app demos and case studies highlighted latest civic achievements in the past year.

Here are a four key takeaways from the summit, which wraps up on Friday.

1. Airbnb Stands its Ground

In the media, Airbnb is often credited as a democratizing source for income opportunities that enable affordable housing, or cited as a nefarious work of Silicon Valley capitalism (which is perhaps the most publicized assumption).

On Thursday, Airbnb CEO and Founder Brian Chesky made an appearance to respond to the critics who assume the latter, speaking in an Interview with Tim O’Reilly, founder of O'Reilly Media.

“Sometimes I read about the sharing economy as if it was a problem, I think that is the wrong frame of mind,” Chesky said. “I think the sharing company allows somebody in 60 seconds to become an entrepreneur, to make a living wage income. We’ve done a number of economic studies that show that it’s the equivalent of a 14 percent raise [based on average per capita income].”

This, he said, amounts to about $8,000 on average for Airbnb’s hosts and added that it could actually be a distinguishing factor allowing low-income citizens to join the middle class. Chesky also noted that 87 percent of revenues, minus government hotel taxes, go directly to hosts.

“I don’t want cities to think that we at Airbnb think we’re going to come into your city against your will and we’re going to succeed in spite of you,” Chesky said, arguing instead that the company has succeeded because of collaborations between the company and city officials.

Chesky also noted that the company is undergoing an extensive overhaul of its payment systems to transfer collected tax revenues — via occupancy and hotel taxes — back to governments. Washington state is the most recent jurisdiction to be given Airbnb revenues, officially announced on Thursday. He also said that studies at Airbnb showed the taxes did not have any effect on their ability to bring in customers.

“We’ve run a [customer] conversion test, and paying a hotel tax does not lower conversion,” Chesky said. “So we’re not losing. Our hosts aren’t losing. Cities are making more money and there’s no problem.”

Yet the founder did confess that the company never saw itself as perfect, but more as an evolving organization as it’s learned from consumer behaviors. Chesky said Airbnb has had to take a couple thousand apartment buildings out of its app simply because of profiteering super users — housing owners who had opted to do away with affordable rental housing in favor of more profitable hotel fees.

As one of his final remarks, he called a current lobbying effort in San Francisco, Proposition F, “anti-affordable” housing. The measure places restrictions on Airbnb housing rentals by limiting owners to only 75 nights of Airbnb hotel rentals per year. Additionally, it would require Airbnb and its hosts to provide guest and revenue reports every three months.

2. Oakland Mayor Tells Uber to 'Behave'

Striding on stage Wednesday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf had a few words for the ride-ordering app Uber as it moves its offices into her city: In her letter to Uber, she reminded the company that it needs to behave itself. She also introduced the word “techquity” to the company, and the crowd, as a way to underscore the idea that the tech industry has a duty to deliver public services equitably to all Oakland citizens.

Last week, the ride-hailing giant purchased a seven-story, 300,000-square-foot office in the heart of Oakland’s downtown for $123.5 million. Uber estimates that 3,000 employees will be headed there once renovations are completed by 2017. And while Schaaf has lauded the investment in the city, she emphasized Uber's duty to be a community builder as it leverages the city’s resources for employees and customers. Her message echoed a previous statement she’d made in a joint release with Uber on Sept. 23.

“I also look forward to helping Uber make other meaningful contributions to Oakland that will make this a more equitable, vibrant city where everyone can thrive,” Schaaf said in the release.

Uber did not flesh out specifics on its community contributions, but noted its expansion will be coupled with an investment into revitalizing part of Oakland’s historic downtown.

3. Federal Data Secretary?

U.S. CTO and ex-Googler Megan Smith made a surprise visit to update attendees on federal tech initiatives and join in a tribute to Jake Brewer, a White House staffer and tech advocate who recently died during a charity cycling event to combat cancer. Probably most intriguing was Smith's brief mention of a new “data secretary” position the Obama administration will be appointing to coordinate national data projects.

“We have a new data secretary [position] coming together, because really, we’ve got to get the data interoperable, whether that’s health-care data, or property data, or just talking about policing data,” Smith said.

She did not give specifics on when the new hire would be made, but the position adds to a varied list of data and tech positions President Obama has created since taking office. In addition to Smith’s position, some of these titles include chief data scientist, White House IT director, chief digital officer and the assortment of technical support positions of federal tech groups like 18F and the U.S. Digital Services.

4. Asthma Analytics Go Live

California’s Health and Human Services (CHHS) Agency on Thursday launched an interactive Web app that offers key statistics on asthma emergency visits. The app takes asthma data from the CHHS Open Data Portal and other sources, and fashions the data sets into an interactive map that lets users visualize how asthma emergency department visit rates vary across California.

It is hoped that the app -- a product of the California Health Data Project, a statewide effort funded by the California HealthCare Foundation’s Free the Data initiative -- will raise asthma awareness for both health providers and patients. Andrew Krackov, associate director of external engagement at the California HealthCare Foundation, made the announcement in an afternoon session during the summit.

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