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This Week in Civic Tech: Google's Election-Rigging Drama, NYC Procurement, Smart City Startup Seed Capital

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.

Could Google Rig Elections?

Some question has arisen about whether Google might nudge voters in the 2016 election. In a Politico editorial, Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, said a national study showed that by manipulating search results on candidates, researchers could dictate voting preferences. The team was able to shift opinions of moderate Republicans by 80 percent “in any direction.” Such results are a major concern for Epstein considering Google comprises more than 75 percent of all U.S. searches, and outside the country can represent as much as 90 percent. Based on donation records, hypothetically, Epstein suggested Hillary Clinton could be the search giant’s 2016 candidate of choice if it were to tamper with elections. Executives at Google made more than $800,000 in donations to the Obama campaign in 2012 and only $37,000 to Romney.

Denouncing such theories was Google’s head of search, Amit Singhal, who responded by saying the  possibility was a non-issue due to pure search engine mechanics — technical workings in the code that don’t weigh such information. Still, since no one outside Google is allowed to audit the search algorithm, it’s impossible to know for sure. Epstein said he’s now researching possible ways to protect users from manipulative practices, but another kind of intervention may be needed.

“To protect the free and fair election, that might leave only one option, as unpalatable as it might seem: government regulation,” Epstein wrote.

NYC Procurement Goes Digital

In the Big Apple, civic tech entrepreneurs now have the option to simply check their inboxes for latest procurement news.

It’s just one among many features on the recently launched City Record Online. The site, in beta now, doubles as a record database and service portal for the city. On Aug. 7, officials approved two bills calling for New York City’s procurement, legislative and meeting notices to be published online. Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed the passage as another step toward a “technology-friendly and innovation-driven city.” Beyond civic fanfare, the platform could serve as an entry point for urban entrepreneurs to, at the very least, begin learning about city needs and developing relationships in city hall.

As some in the civic tech startup community know, municipal purchases usually result from either a long-standing relationship with civic leaders or early knowledge of procurement contracts — and “early” typically means at the conversation phase, before anything is even remotely official. With procurement data going as far back as 2009, the site and its searchable database can offer hints about procurement trends to broach discussions. The database also permits a search of documents attached to contracts and within departments. Visually the platform is laid out in a series of seven Trello card-like categories: procurement, contract award hearings, agency rules, property disposition, court notices, special materials, and public hearings and meetings. Partners who helped in development include BetaNYC, Citizens Union, Dev Bootcamp, Ontodia, Socrata and the Sunlight Foundation.

Smart City Startups Get $12.5 Million in Seed Capital

The new surge of smart city startups just received another push, this time with a $12.5 million investment in the Washington, D.C., incubator 1776.

Known as a smart city resource for entrepreneurs, 1776 intends to use the capital, announced Sept. 1, for additional seed funding with investments at roughly $100,000 each. The added cash gives the organization table stakes to be a small but influential player in the emerging world of smart city startups. Equally newsworthy, the fresh funding complements the group’s recent move for expansion. In April, co-founder Donna Harris confirmed the acquisition of Disruption Corp., a competing incubator in Crystal City, Va., and Hattery, a San Francisco co-working space. 1776 put out a follow-up release on Sept. 2 unveiling Aquicore as the first startup to benefit from funding. The commercial real estate analytics startup took home $3.1 million, with 1776 leading fellow investors. Currently 1776 has 21 investments, but Harris and co-founder Evan Burfield will undoubtedly seek to increase 1776’s equity stakes soon.


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