Civic Hacking In The News: August 15, 2015

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Here’s your August 15th update on recent news relevant to civic hacking. This Saturday’s news includes topics that could be forked, extended or used for inspiration by NE Wisconsin civic hackers. For complete details on any of the below items, click on the headline link and read the source material.

OpenGov Voices: Now is the time for open data in Mesa

In local government, we are passionate about the “local” part of our government mission – being the first responder, the first line of direct service to our residents and sometimes the first source of information…we all need better ways to visualize and connect the data that matters to our decisions and priorities. Forecasting trends that truly yield the right outcome require a wider conversation, and often even more data… 

Mesa is excited to be involved in Bloomberg’s What Works Cities initiative because of the way it engages the public in discussing the data behind key strategic decisions. We plan on using Sunlight’s open data principles and guidelines as we build our strategic priorities and open data strategy…We want to build an open data portal that provides a visual around our strategic goals to increase understanding internally and externally. In addition to the visual charts or maps, we’ll provide the full dataset for the public to use and expand upon… 

Open data is about transparency, yes – but it’s also about better decision-making. An open data portal should be the way citizens see clear demonstration of progress (or not!) with specific goals or performance using data, not rhetoric…another way to identify gaps or new areas of interest…”

The Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities (WWC) program is a $42 million initiative designed to help American cities with populations of 100,000 to 1,000,000 enhance their use of data and evidence to improve the lives of residents. Mesa will implement open data practices for the first time, so it would be instructive and beneficial for NE Wisconsin cities to follow Mesa’s journey as it begins opening up its city data. Appleton was too small to be eligible for WWC, but Green Bay’s population qualified for the initiative. It would be interesting to know if GB submitted an application.

‘Open Data 500’ releases initial results

Many of the Australian businesses and not-for-profit organisations using data sets released by the government are employing open data to create new or improved products and services…The study is intended to guide the government in its efforts to add further data sets to its open data portal. So far 64 organisations have participated in the Open Data 500 study. 

Sixty five per cent of them indicated they were using open data to create new or improved products and services, 55 per cent to generate cost efficiencies, and 51 per cent to identify new opportunities. Geospatial data was the most popular kind of government data employed by participants in the study. Sixty per cent of participants indicated they were using government geospatial data sets. Other popular categories were environmental data (used by 49 per cent of participants); demographics and social data (45 per cent) and positioning/GPS data (42 per cent)…”

Weather services and GPS data are two open data sets from the government that companies have used for free to make millions (billions?) of dollars. The main reason people become civic hackers is because of the altruistic aspects of the activity, but there are viable startup business models in the space, especially when the building blocks (open data) are free. Economic value is a great reason to open up government data and a compelling reason to become a startup entrepreneur in the open data field. Maybe colleges will start offering Open Data 101 classes…

Plenario: Changing How We Use Open Data

The majority of open data portals online today are confined to information from a single city government or political jurisdiction.  For researchers, policymakers, or other data portal users, this can create problems: we know that urban landscapes are complex, interconnected places that do not exist within the bounds of a single government entity.  What if, say, I want to see a map of recent traffic accidents in Manhattan, and understand if weather conditions have an effect?  Or what if I want to see if there’s a connection in Chicago between sanitation complaints and environmental inspections? Finding the answers to such questions is not an easy one; it would require looking at datasets from the City of New York and NOAA, and the City of Chicago and Cook County, respectively… 

The solution is a relatively straightforward one – instead, work with “One Database, One Map.”  So goes the tagline on Plenario, the University of Chicago-designed, open-access online data hub that makes the way we view, understand, and use open data drastically more convenient.  

Plenario breaks free from borders to provide data from datasets and portals around the country, all on the same continuum of time and space (or, simply put, one map).  This means that with one query, users can access, combine, download, and visualize disparate sets of data all in the same place…”

Plenario could be a step change in the way open data is combined and might enable a new generation of civic hacks. It sometimes feels like the pace of open data innovation is much faster than the rate at which most people can find out about, learn and use new features and tools. Plenario applications might be another source of the entrepreneurial opportunities referenced in the today’s ‘Open Data 500’ article above.

Small Business Administration Announces Startup In a Day Winners

The federal government just put $1.6 million into the hands of local governments to streamline the process of starting a business in those communities…the U.S. Small Business Administration announced the winners of the Startup In a Day competition…25 cities and two Native American communities received prizes of $50,000 through Start Small Model…the goal of Startup In a Day is to “make it easier for entrepreneurs to start a business by reducing the amount of time it takes to register and apply for permits and licenses on the local level,”… 

Anchorage, Alaska is one of the cities selected for a $50,000 grant, and Code for Anchorage played an instrumental role in the City of Anchorage submitting its application…Babb says supporting Startup in a Day is part of Code for Anchorage’s core mission, “Code for Anchorage has been focusing on making government interactions easier for citizens…We were also getting a new mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, who was interested in open data and civic tech… 

For Brendan, watching his friends start a business this past winter made it clear that something had to change. “I had some friends who were starting a local ice cream business…and they relayed some of the challenges they had with determining what permits they needed, which departments had them, whom to ask clarification questions to, and having to make last minute changes to paper forms.  I am hoping Startup in a Day can streamline the permitting process.” Streamlining this process, Brendan hopes, means more businesses can focus more time on growing their businesses, creating jobs and generating wealth instead of filling out paperwork. 

Over the next 12 months, Brendan says Code for Anchorage will be working closely with the City of Anchorage, the Alaska Small Business Development Center, the Alaska Economic Development Corporation and The Boardroom, a local co-working space, on better supporting entrepreneurs…”

I don’t know what the criteria were for applying to the Startup In A Day (SIAD) competition, but every city in NE Wisconsin that was eligible should have applied. I wonder how many did. There are numerous civic hacking lessons and opportunities that can be take from this article. Below are a few that popped into my mind:

  1. NE Wisconsin cities should work together so that every one of them is aware of competitions, grants or programs that might apply to our region, like SIAD. Building this information database is a civic hack opportunity, although it would only be worth doing if we had commitment from area cities to actively contribute to it.
  2. NE Wisconsin cities should work together by having a central Dropbox, Google Docs or other file sharing resource where all NE Wisconsin applications for competitions, grants or programs are available for review and commenting. This will allow our cities to learn from each other and will mean that our region’s applications are better than if no sharing of info takes place. It may also mean that some cities can apply for programs they might not otherwise have had the manpower that starting with a blank application form would require.
  3. NE Wisconsin cities which don’t attempt to learn from changes these SIAD winners make to their business startup and permitting processes are handicapping entrepreneurs in their city and making the city a less attractive place to start a business. (Milwaukee was one of the winners.)
  4. Not having a Code for America brigade in NE Wisconsin may be handicapping cities that want to apply for competitions like this one. As mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, “Civic Hacking Meetups & Code for America Brigades,” a brigade in this region will only happen if a group of local organizations collaborates to make it happen.

The above suggestions will only work in an atmosphere of collaboration by city personnel who believe in the abundance economy and in the concept that what benefits one city in NE Wisconsin benefits all of the region. What do you think the chances are that the above suggestions are currently happening in NE Wisconsin or will happen in the near future???

The tech behind Sunlight’s ‘Email Congress’ revamp

About a year ago, Sunlight, EFF and over 150 civic hackers reverse-engineered Congress’ contact forms to create Contact-Congress…This project…aims to codify (in an open format) the steps necessary for submitting electronic messages to any member of Congress, opening the door for the development of diverse tools and applications for facilitating dialog with representatives…minimizing barriers to constituent communication while promoting a more accessible and open government… 

In the coming weeks we will be deploying a revamp of the project that will significantly improve the entire experience of sending emails to members of Congress. This post will detail some of the technical highlights of our implementation… 

As the GitHub description reads, the project is a “Lightweight Flask web app to courier email messages to phantom-of-the-capitol using postmark.” It works by stitching together a number of APIs and user input for the ultimate objective of transforming an email message into an automated submission of a congressional web form…Perhaps some day Congress will release a more convenient means of contacting representatives, but until then, keep your eyes peeled for the launch of our revamped Email Congress project...”

If the only lasting impacts of civic hacking are (1) to make it easier for citizens to clearly communicate to local, state and federal US politicians and bureaucrats what the citizens’ priorities, concerns and needs are, and (2) for citizens to easily learn whether the politicians and bureaucrats paid attention to what the citizens said, then civic hacking will have been well worth all the time and brainpower poured into it. The Sunlight Foundation’s ‘Email Congress’ civic hack is only one small piece of communicating citizen priorities and tracking politicians’ and bureaucrats’ actions, but it’s like eating an elephant. One bite at a time.


Every now and then, writing civic hacking blog posts is a bit depressing. Reading and thinking about the above five articles makes me painfully aware that somewhere around 0.001% of the people in NE Wisconsin will be aware of the issues discussed. And probably less than 0.01% would be interested in actually working with the topics or tools mentioned in the articles if they knew about them. As I mentioned recently in the post “NE Wisconsin Corporate Partners And Sponsors For Civic Hacking,” our region is missing out on opportunities that other cities and regions are taking advantage of. In that post I said, “If NE Wisconsin doesn’t take active steps to support and build the tech community in our region, we will continue to slip further behind regions that put a strong emphasis on innovation and the role their tech community plays in building a stronger and more resilient regional economy.” Reading the above five articles just reinforced that opinion and, if possible, underlined it and put it in large, bold font

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