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Local Government That Clicks

John Stephens

This article was first published in Public Management (PM) Magazine through the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in Washington, DC. John B. Stephens. 2016. “Local Government That Clicks: Free Apps + Skilled Civic Tech Volunteers,” Public Management  98:4, 16-19.

Free Apps + Skilled Civic Tech Volunteers

by John Stephens

Most local governments depend on an array of databases, applications, and devices to meet the needs of their internal operations along with their external services to residents. Information technology (IT) is a constantly changing part of government operations.

So, I’m sure Public Management readers are skeptical about any claim that has to do with “free apps.” It sounds like a come-on with a hidden agenda.

Yes, nothing is truly free; however, even for smaller jurisdictions, civic technology, including volunteer assistance, is one part of the rapidly developing IT world. This article focuses on efforts that use the services of volunteers and local government-nonprofit fellowships.

Volunteer assistance, with its pros and cons, can provide a starting point, especially for jurisdictions with limited internal IT expertise.

Assessing Assistance Needs

I write as both a researcher on public participation and government IT and as a member of a local volunteer IT “brigade.” Brigades are local groups of IT specialists and interested residents working to convert open data into useful information, customized to community needs.

Here are three touchstones for assessing how less expensive or free skilled IT assistance can fit some local government needs.

App Bank Since 2010, the national nonprofit Code for America has seeded a variety of ways to help bring government into the 21st century with technology that fits the times.

From projects begun in larger cities using open source, nonproprietary software, the resulting applications (apps) are available for wider use. Some apps are controlled by the local jurisdiction and may be repurposed.

Other apps have become part of civic tech start-up firms, often created by former Code for America fellows as they complete their one-year fellowships working with a particular local government. Some apps have an acquisition cost, and all require skilled IT assistance to ensure a careful fit with backend data and management systems.

Since late 2015, Code for America prioritized work on government services in health, economic development, safety and justice, and communications and engagement (codeforamerica.org/why-government/focus-areas).

Earlier apps are grouped by education, maps and transit, as well as the categories above. The array is impressive and growing (tinyurl.com/zo6ole2). Here are a few examples:

Reaching residents on mobile devices – Textizen and Citygram. In 2012, the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Code for America fellows developed Textizen (textizen.com), an SMS survey platform to better reach young people and mobile-device users. Getting and sharing good information from and about residents, while protecting confidentiality, will be an important part of building a more participative local government.

Currently, Textizen is used by Boston, Massachusetts; Palo Alto, California; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and it is available for adoption by other communities.

A similar application, aimed at getting community feedback about neighborhood issues, was developed in South Bend, Indiana (cityvoiceapp.com).

Citygram is Charlotte, North Carolina’s homegrown way to provide alerts to residents who choose which areas of the city are important to them: where they live, work, or have other connections.

Designed especially for mobile devices (citygram.org), it was created in 2014 and is managed by the Code for Charlotte local brigade, in coordination with city government. It has been adapted to Lexington, Kentucky (www.citygram.org/lexington) and New York City (citygram.nyc).

Improving procurement. In 2015, Pittsburgh developed Beacon (procurement.pittsburghpa.gov/beacon) a platform to improve outreach to vendors. The purpose is to expand the pool of potential vendors, and to improve contracting relationships for more effective procurement. The application has received high marks, with more than 300 businesses signing up shortly after the app was launched.

Where’s My School Bus? is a location information app allowing parents to track their child’s bus in real time (codeforamerica.org/products/wheres-my-school-bus).

CyclePhilly is a freely available smartphone app for recording bicycle trips. Beyond individual interest, the data from the app can be used by regional transportation planners for safety and traffic management work. Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; San Francisco, California; and two German cities have deployed the app datalook.io/cycle-philly.

Child care and pre-school options. Day care and pre-school providers are organized and mapped, with information about licensing, before and after school or full-day options, and ages served. Developed by the Oakland brigade (earlyoakland.org), it is also in use in Indianapolis (codeforamerica.github.io/earlyindy).

Greenways, Trails – a high-tech mapping and navigation tool. Begun as a Code for America project, OpenTrails (codeforamerica.org/specifications/trails) is a data standard that is integrated into various civic tech companies.

Trailhead Labs, for example (www.trailheadlabs.com), has worked with more than 225 local, state, and federal agencies and nonprofits in California, Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee, covering 19,000 miles of trails with another 12,000 miles in development for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Boulder, Colorado, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, adopted OpenTrails and are engaging the civic tech community to build trail prototype maps and apps.

OpenCiRM. A final example goes back a few years when Miami-Dade, Florida, IT staff developed OpenCiRM, which is a customer relations management and 311 system. It is fully free online (github.com/sharegov/opencirm). A demo is available at tinyurl.com/hffyrx2%20 and there is question-and-answer support through sharegov at Google docs (tinyurl.com/jxuqy3u).

Beyond particular applications, Code for America offers an online guide for assessing the basic websites of cities, towns, and counties. Called Digital Front Door, it addresses design, user experience, and assessment (codeforamerica.org/our-work/initiatives/digitalfrontdoor).

Also, for free download are tools for data analytics (i.e., the website’s traffic) (tinyurl.com/zkueals) and a residents survey to assist when a website redesign is anticipated (tinyurl.com/h5l6z5x).

Civic Tech Volunteers—Local Brigades. Only since 2012 has Code for America supported grass-roots efforts for long-term civic tech assistance through organizing skilled IT professionals to contribute to their community. The “brigades” are volunteer groups seeking open data—mainly from state and local government, but also using U.S. Census and other sources—to create applications for the public good.

There are some 130 brigades, covering major cities like New York City (https://beta.nyc) and Chicago, Illinois (chihacknight.org), as well as Birmingham, Alabama (codeforbirmingham.org); Tulsa, Oklahoma (codefortulsa.org); Grand Rapids, Michigan (meetup.com/friendlycode); and Code for New Hampshire (odefornh.org).

Code for America reports more than 45,000 people worldwide have been or are involved in brigades (tinyurl.com/z87sbhs). A map at odeforamerica.org/brigade can help you find out if a brigade is in your metro area.

An example is Code for Hampton Roads-Norfolk-Virginia Beach (code4hr.org). Its website lists regular meetings, projects, and supporters. Each brigade is connected via GitHub, which is a tool that allows multiple IT experts to contribute to the same application in development.

I am a member of the Durham, North Carolina, brigade called Code for Durham, which has made food inspection grades available by mobile device, and helped guide the June 2015 launch of the open data by Durham County and the city of Durham—a shared portal at opendurham.nc.gov.

An active government partner is a required component of each brigade. The person may have IT expertise, but it is not essential. He or she simply needs to be willing to help think with volunteers about how public information and services can be enhanced by marshalling open data and online or mobile-device technology.

In some instances, including Asheville and Charlotte, North Carolina, government workers—innovation specialists or IT staff—helped to launch and support a brigade.

Code for America provides guidance and tools for brigades forming and working with government, including “Brigade Organizer’s Playbook” (codeforamerica.org/brigade/organize/playbook) and “Ten Ways to Collaborate with Government” (tinyurl.com/gwacel4).

At the same time, brigades are independent, which brings advantages and limitations.

In summer 2015, I studied four brigades across Virginia and North Carolina by interviewing 36 local government officials. The officials identified several advantages of the brigades: volunteers’ energy, expertise, innovation, and free assistance. Each brigade had one or more successes with the creation of a particular application of public value.

One drawback is that volunteers cannot be held accountable for particular projects. Another concern is that most volunteers have day jobs. Thus, their volunteer time and desire to interact with government IT and other staff occurs after hours for most government employees.

One place has managed noontime meetings or teleconferences as ways to better match the work schedules of government workers and brigade volunteers.

Charlotte is trying to bridge the tension between volunteer-flexibility and government-reliability factors. For 2015, the city government experimented with “Skilled Volunteer Engagements,” which are two small contracts with Code for Charlotte to maintain and update the OpenBudget (codeforcharlotte.org/projects/open_budget) and Citygram (citygram.org/charlotte).

Short-Term Events.  Even without a critical mass for a brigade, communities may benefit through IT businesses, universities, and other groups conducting a short-term event or a 90-day contest to show an “alpha” version of an application to test civic or business viability.

The highest visibility effort is the National Day of Civic Hacking (hackforchange.org/events). Hacking in this context is organized work to turn an idea into a prototype by writing computer code and demonstrating the result.

In 2015, there were 100 unique events. It is easy to scan general social good hacking via hackforchange.org/events, including more targeted hacking events, such as 2015 Fishackathons at Long Beach, California (tinyurl.com/zmov9ra) and other communities.

First started in Chicago, CityCamp is a network of local events focused on innovation for government and community organizations. These events bring together government officials, programmers, designers, citizens, and journalists to share perspectives about the communities in which they live.

CityCamp (citycamp.com) grew out of activists valuing government transparency and exploring how the Web and open data can support more effective local governance. CityCamp has reached some small population communities, including Juneau, Alaska; Jackson, Mississippi; and Pierre, South Dakota.

Of particular interest is the use of social and participatory media, mobile devices, and the idea of the “Web as a platform” for government and community work (citycampnc.org/about).

My experience at the June 2015 CityCampNC was extremely valuable. I learned about a variety of projects and heard from IT industry, government, and other leaders about trends, opportunities, and pitfalls. It was a great introduction for a “non-coder” like myself, as I am IT literate but do not write computer code.

For CityCampNC, datasets from local and state resources were gathered at one website for convenience and are still available online and organized into categories, including public safety, neighborhoods, and health (tinyurl.com/j43wene).

For the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area, hackathons have been sponsored by libraries and tech-friendly businesses. One held in October 2015 was sponsored by Dominion Enterprises (tinyurl.com/glwom7j).

Toward Openness

Enterprise software for critical financial systems and other core IT efforts will not be replaced by the civic tech presented here.

Local government leaders, however, can benefit from tapping various avenues for civic tech to supplement core assets and demonstrate openness to the innovation of their residents using public data in a relatively low-risk manner.

Smaller jurisdictions, in particular, have the possibility of sharing data through a metropolitan open data portal and by enlisting skilled IT volunteers.

As IT continues to change, how each local government sees its public data as an asset for re-use and ripe for analysis to improve services will be one hallmark of the trend for more openness, transparency, and collaboration with skilled volunteers.

 

 

Published April 5, 2016