The Future of Civic Tech: 8 Localities Showcase Their Initiatives

Code for America Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka, Beta 2015

Gathering at its San Francisco headquarters June 10, the civic innovation group Code for America (CfA) showcased a lineup of latest apps and efforts for eight localities in 2015.

Tagged as its BETA event, the meeting provided a status update on CfA’s popular yearlong Fellowship Program that couples teams of technologists with governments to develop digital tools benefiting citizens. CfA Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka spearheaded the night with a talk on strategy. As no mere coincidence, she said the teams took a decidedly targeted approach to their work. Health, economic development, and safety and justice were social impact areas announced at CfA’s Summit last year, and these areas were where most groups dedicated themselves in 2015.

“After five years of doing this, we want to go deeper,” Pahlka said. “And what you’ll hear from us over the next couple of years is more and more projects that are pushing that [strategy], trying to generate positive feedback loops and working to prove that a user-centered, data-driven and iterative approach can actually have those outcomes.”

Following this up, Pahlka confirmed that CfA’s three citizen-centered focal areas are now under leadership to direct development of the civic tech portfolios. In 2014 CfA hired Rebecca Coelius, formerly the medical officer for innovation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to direct its focal area of health. And since then, Pahlka said the organization has added directors Jenny Montoya Tansey for safety and justice and Efrem Bycer for economic development, with Bycer joining last month. According to the CfA website, both are well versed in their respective disciplines.

Montoya Tansey, a Stanford graduate, last served the nonprofit Californians for Safety and Justice, a group advocating for solutions to the prison and criminal justice system, and before that, worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on civil rights issues. Bycer, who graduated from Cornell University, was previously employed as an economic development manager at the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. Prior to this, he served as a performance auditor for the city of San Diego.

Fellowship Director Nicole Neditch said growth of the focus areas could be attributed to CfA’s evolution as an influencer in social change, with the group seeking to define itself with developed expertise and see greater return on resources. Reflecting momentum, she added that the eight localities would continue to generate value in the social impact areas as fellowships fine-tune solutions for the CfA’s Summit, which will be held Sept. 30 to Oct. 2.

“All of these projects are a work in progress, and they’re going to continue to do user testing over the next several months — continuing to build, continuing to revise,” Neditch said.

Among the eight teams — Somerville, Mass.; West Sacramento, Calif.; Vallejo, Calif.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Indianapolis; Richmond, Va.; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; and Pittsburgh — health represented three of the fellowships, economic development two, and safety and justice two. In addition, one team focused on a category outside the emphasis areas — the Pittsburgh fellowship aiming to improve procurement operations in the city.

Below are summaries for the eight teams, and the entire presentation can be viewed here.

1. Somerville, Mass.
Fellowship Team: Amir Hadjihabib, Mari Muraki and Alex Soble
Emphasis: Health/Education
Project: To help at-risk students, the team designed a dashboard to enable teachers to track the well-being and educational progress of students.

2. West Sacramento, Calif.

Fellowship Team: Imanol Aranzadi, Natasha Fountain and Grant Smith
Emphasis: Health
Project: To leverage urban farming and eliminate food deserts, the fellowship hopes to fashion a site and app to connect farmers with suitable urban farmlands while advertising produce to locals.

3. Vallejo, Calif.
Fellowship Team: Nikki Zeichner, Andrew Schneider and Jazmyn Latimer
Emphasis: Safety and Justice
Projects: To re-establish trust between citizens and police, the team is collaborating with officials on two prototype apps, with the first being an app to draw feedback and the second to inform residents of police services.

4. Albuquerque, N.M.
Fellowship Team: William Tyner,  Yaniv Zimet and Jennings Hanna
Emphasis: Economic Development
Project: The team is working to build a platform that allows low-income citizens to avoid predatory lenders with education about free city services and access to low-interest lenders.

5. Indianapolis
Fellowship Team: Laura Ellena, Chris Reade and Tiffany Andrews
Emphasis: Safety and Justice
Project: To support law enforcement transparency — in the city and nationally — the team has undertaken an ambitious effort to create a menu of police open data sets. Additionally, the group created the hashtag #openpolicedata for feedback on this ongoing initiative.

6. Richmond, Va.
Fellowship Team: Ben Golder, Emma Smithayer and Sam Matthews
Emphasis: Health
Project: To bridge a gap in needed health-care services for people in poverty, the group is refining a Web app that lets applicants see whether they qualify for assistance and check which documents are required.

7. Miami-Dade County, Fla.
Fellowship Team: Sophia Dengo, Ernie Hsiung and Mathias Gibson
Emphasis: Economic Development
Project: To improve service delivery, the is leverageing data data and feedback loops to increase civic engagement, starting in permitting and expanding to other county departments.

8. Pittsburgh
Fellowship Team: Ben Smithgall, Shelly Ni and Patrick Hammons
Emphasis: Economic Development
Project: To promote local business and streamline contract management, the team has built web apps to expedite and open up procurement — with three just been launched. The first advertises city work opportunities to local businesses, the second helps staff navigate procurement processes, and the last aids officials to manage contracts.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story mislabeled the emphasis of the Miami-Dade County Fellowship, it has been corrected from procurement to Economic Development.

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