In mid-March, the daytime high temperature in Anchorage is just starting to poke above 20 degrees. But while the cold may linger, it’s a hot time for civic tech and innovation in Alaska’s most populous city.
Anchorage recently hired a chief innovation officer, one of just a handful of municipal tech leaders to wear that title. The city got national nonprofits to line up in support of its new open-data portal launch, and it has won hands-on support from Code for America.
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz “really wants his entire staff to take him out past where he can see," said Brendan Babb, who came on board in May 2016 as the city’s chief innovation officer. "He is constantly pushing us to come up with new ideas, asking how other cities do stuff, trying to be in the know.”
Fresh out of the gate, the portal has delivered data on restaurant inspections, childcare and property appraisals. Prompted by public curiosity about the recent heavy snow year, managers also have added data on snow removal statistics. There are homelessness stats on the site, which is built on the Socrata platform, and also FBI-based unified crime reporting information, or UCI.
“The UCI data is great, but there is a lag in when it comes out, because it has to be verified,” Babb said. Right now the site offers 2015 data, with 2016 figures expected soon. Babb also is working with local police to put more current information online.
Support from national nonprofit organizations was critical in getting the site up and running, especially in the early stages when the city was trying to establish its ground rules. The Sunlight Foundation was able to lend its expertise in the development of an open data policy, which Babb said launched in April 2016.
Partners from What Works Cities have helped in the development of performance management tools to be used in conjunction with the open data. The long-term plan is to utilize the city’s open data resources as a means to track the effectiveness of diverse policies and programs.
The portal already is changing the way city departments view data and its role in governance.
“We have had to do a little explaining on what open data is," Babb said, "but when departments understand that this means they will be able to see other city data more easily, that they will be able to access the information they have always wanted from other departments, that gets people interested.”
At the same time, making information publicly available has already begun to drive improvements in the quality of civic data. “When you make data easier for people to access, you start to take a second look at that data. You start to think, 'We should do a better job of explaining this column,'” he said. “We are doing that now with property appraisals and it makes the data better — better for residents and better internally for the city”
In addition to lending their expertise, outside partners have helped fund the effort, with Bloomberg putting in a three-year, $1.5 million i-Team grant, which the city is using the build its internal capacity for data management. The city also has drawn about $65,000 from the Alaska-based Rasmuson Foundation.
In addition to the financial support, the city also has leveraged hands-on help from its outside partners, including a pair of volunteer programmers from Code for America who are looking at workforce development issues in the Mountainview neighborhood, a diverse enclave with an unemployment rate four times higher than the rest of the city.
“We are trying to figure out what the barriers are to people getting jobs," Babb said. "We are looking at job training and generally considering ways to use technology to make things work more effectively for everyone.”
The team is looking at state IT systems that provide job-related information — often ineffectively. “A lot of older government applications aren’t mobile friendly," he said, "so we can try to make things easier to access for someone who doesn’t have a desktop computer, so that they can start the job seeking process at home.”
The coders also are considering transit, looking at the possibility of building a job-search app that overlays bus routes atop work locations, to help potential job applicants understand their transportation options. But that’s just one idea. “Their goal is to prototype potential solutions, show them to users and then we can enhance it from there based on that feedback. It is going be constantly evolving,” Babb said.
Such constant evolution is implicit in Babb’s job title. As government monikers go, his is still relatively new: Only a handful of cities boast a chief innovation officer on the rolls.
His job is not just to innovate, but also to nurture creative thinking across government. “A lot of city employees have great ideas but they don’t have the time to test those ideas,” Babb said. The chief innovation offiver, however, can round up that creative energy and put it to work.
Creativity has defined Babb’s work so far. A former research scientist, he holds three patents for computer chips designed to help correct memory errors. He tracks his passion for innovation back to a college internship in a chip design firm. “I had a lot of freedom to look for things that were interesting or unique," he said. "I had no day-to-day responsibilities, which really allows you to think hard about how you could do things better.”
He has directed theater as a hobby and even worked as a DJ. It all helps to inform his present work on the creative edge of civic tech. “As a DJ you are always trying to read the crowd,” he said. “You try a song, and if people stop dancing you play a different song. You learn what works and you try to improve.”