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Seattle's Civic Tech Advocate Promotes Innovation, Engagement

Candace Faber is working to figure out how to create real space for more innovative thinking about how the city uses technology to solve civic problems.

Through the creation of a new role early this year, Seattle took a step toward maximizing the talent of the tech community while working to improve IT’s integration across city departments. In January, Candace Faber became the city’s first civic technology advocate — a position that she said is “not terribly different” from diplomacy, having started her career in the U.S. Foreign Service. Soon after moving to Seattle in 2013, she became involved in the civic tech and startup scene. Now Faber reports directly to Seattle’s CTO, but works most closely with the city’s digital engagement team, where initiatives like the open data program are housed.

1. This is a new position for government — how are you approaching it?

Many cities have made investments in their open data program or data analytics or digital equity. I am connected to those efforts, but also the position is new and different from anything I’ve seen elsewhere, which is a bit of a challenge in that I need to figure out how to create real space for more innovative thinking about how we use technology to solve civic problems.

With the title of “advocate,” I’m a team of one, so I don’t actually do data analytics or build applications. I am instead in this two-way advocacy role where I am advocating for tech innovation within the city and for civic engagement out in the tech community — and then trying to create spaces where both cultures can come together and solve problems.

2. How has your role been received by the community?

It’s been largely positive. I’ve seen the Open Seattle community, for example, grow significantly in just the last five months since I took the job. I don’t organize that community, it’s volunteer driven, but it is sort of the main gathering space for people interested in civic hacking. I see a lot of that as a result of doing outreach to groups that maybe haven’t been included before.

There’s been a strong response from our local tech industry and the people who work in it who really want to help us solve some of our major challenges. And I’ve also had a good response from the code schools and other education institutions, and people who are looking to build even basic applications that serve a social good purpose.

3. How does the role fit into the internal structure of the city?

It’s a brand-new role, and so I’m still defining it and trying to be responsive to the needs within the city. It’s challenging anytime you come into an institution that works well and has people who are very dedicated to their work with an approach that could be perceived as disruptive. We really like to use the word “innovation,” but it’s only fun if you’re the innovator. It’s not so much fun to be a person who’s being innovated upon. So I’m working to create more of a community of practice around the city where I’m trying to help people see the potential for data and technology and then give them ways to access it on a voluntary basis.

4. Is a government setting conducive to innovation?

Innovation in government is tricky. It takes time for a reason and that’s something that I’ve learned since joining the city. It’s actually quite good that we move slowly because when government makes a change, it has to last for a very long time. People rightfully want to be thoughtful about how we implement things. … With civic tech in particular it’s important to think about things like, “What is the equity impact of this tool?” If we switch to using a new technology, whose voices are we privileging in that conversation? There’s tremendous potential in tech to improve outcomes, engage more people and serve more people’s needs, but we need to be really deliberate about what choices we make with the data stance and the technology side.

Elaine Pittman is the former managing editor of Emergency Management magazine.