Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Philadelphia Mayor Launches a New Office for Innovation, Taking a Cue from Boston

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, October 2 2012

Inspired by Boston, the city of Philadelphia is establishing its own Office of New Urban Mechanics, said the city's Mayor Michael Nutter late Monday at the Code for America Summit.

"New Urban Mechanics Philadelphia is a nimble and entrepreneurial government outfit," Nutter said during a Monday afternoon speech in San Francisco. "It is piloting and prototyping small innovative projects in the civic space, which along with efforts of individuals across multiple city departments, will better enable our city to sustain a culture of innovation and entrepreneurial approaches to problem-solving."

Its co-directors are Jeff Friedman and Story Bellows, who had previously worked on civic innovation projects in the mayor's office. In his remarks, Nutter said the city will model its project closely after the Boston outfit created by Mayor Thomas Menino and led by former tech entrepreneur Nigel Jacob and city official Chris Osgood.

“We’ve engaged the city’s entrepreneurial and startup communities for their energy and passion and intellect," he said. "We’ve established solid working relationships with business incubators in Philadelphia, and expanding the network of those both in and outside government working to analyze and solve civic challenges.”

Code for America sent fellows to Philadelphia for two consecutive years, and the establishment of the office is an outgrowth of that experience, Friedman said an in interview.

The idea is to create a space where civic hackers, entrepreneurs and those in government can work together on experimental projects to address specific urban issues. Bellows and Friedman have spent the past six months talking to a couple of hundred department heads, city employees and civic-minded citizens for input on projects.

Friedman said that the intent is to create a "risk aggregation platform," where "we are trying to provide a safe place for people to try things out," and sometimes possibly fail. The projects are meant to be small, low-dollar experiments of limited duration. They've yet to figure out the metrics or cut-off points, but will consult with their peers in Boston and the local academic community to develop them, Bellows said. They plan on developing specific metrics for each project as they embark on them.

"Government doesn't always have the solutions, but we have a lot of convening power," Bellows said.

The mayor didn't announce any specific projects on Monday, but Bellows and Friedman said that they have plenty of ideas. The projects aren't necessarily going to be technology focused, they said. For example, they're mulling over the idea of tweaking the city's gun buy-back program. Bellows and Friedman said that they'd recently talked to a "human factors" expert, who suggested that they might want to tweak the program to create incentives for neighborhoods and local communities instead of for individuals.

Mayor Nutter said that the city's technology initiatives are part of a larger governing philosophy centered around the notion of an inclusive, participatory culture.

“To me, open government is about more than just sharing information or transparency. Those are critical components of it. But I think an open government is a conversation. It’s a process. It’s a new relationship,” he said. "Our agencies are constantly reminded that this is not about building better technology. It’s about rethinking how services are delivered and integrated across our city government. Our vision is to take every service that does not require a face to face interaction and making it available online so that our citizens can interact with the government any time, anywhere on any device and on their schedule."

In June, Philadelphia launched a pilot project called Textizen, which was created by Code for America fellows Alexander Yule and Michelle Lee. The project publicizes city officials' desire for more feedback on planning issues from citizens in public spaces, and asks them to text in their feedback.

That initiative is just one out of several that the city has launched in the past couple of years. More recently, the city launched a new 311 app mid September that enables citizens to report in problems through their mobile phones.

The technology initiatives are just part of a wider strategy of having to work smarter, because local governments are performing a "high wire act" looking for solutions with ever-shrinking budgets, he said.

"Our goal is to do it with smarter government solutions like cross-agency collaboration and public-private partnerships, technology, new ideas, citizen input and an open government," he said.

This post has been updated

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.

GO

The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.

GO

tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.

GO

Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.

GO

monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.

GO

friday >

In Google Hangout, NYC Mayor de Blasio Talks Tech and Outer Borough Potential

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the lead of President Obama and New York City Council member Ben Kallos Friday by participating in a Google Hangout to help mark his first 100 days in office, in which the conversation focused on expanding access to technology opportunities through education and ensuring that the needs of the so-called "outer boroughs" aren't overlooked. GO

thursday >

In Pakistan, A Hypocritical Gov't Ignores Calls To End YouTube Ban

YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan by executive order since September 2012, after the “blasphemous” video Innocence of Muslims started riots in the Middle East. Since then, civil society organizations and Internet rights advocacy groups like Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All have been working to lift the ban. Last August the return of YouTube seemed imminent—the then-new IT Minister Anusha Rehman spoke optimistically and her party, which had won the majority a few months before, was said to be “seriously contemplating” ending the ban. And yet since then, Rehman and her party, the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), have done everything in their power to maintain the status quo.

GO

The #NotABugSplat Campaign Aims to Give Drone Operators Pause Before They Strike

In the #NotABugSplat campaign that launched this week, a group of American, French and Pakistani artists sought to raise awareness of the effects of drone strikes by placing a field-sized image of a young girl, orphaned when a drone strike killed her family, in a heavily targeted region of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Its giant size is visible to those who operate drone strikes as well as in satellite imagery. GO

Boston and Cambridge Move Towards More Open Data

The Boston City Council is now considering an ordinance which would require Boston city agencies and departments to make government data available online using open standards. Boston City Councilor At Large Michelle Wu, who introduced the legislation Wednesday, officially announced her proposal Monday, the same day Boston Mayor Martin Walsh issued an executive order establishing an open data policy under which all city departments are directed to publish appropriate data sets under established accessibility, API and format standards. GO

More