In New York City and Silicon Valley, Local Government Innovation Gets Outside Help
BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, August 8 2014
At this year's Personal Democracy Forum, executive director of digital at the British Cabinet Office Mike Bracken discussed how the push toward civic innovation often does not start from within government. "You have to start on the outside, you have to finish on the inside."
Two announcements in New York City and Silicon Valley on Thursday illustrate an increasing interplay between government's desire to take advantage of technology potential and the capabilities and skills of the external civic technology community (and the new trend of mayoral selfies).
In New York City on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed two pieces of legislation into law aimed at making the city's legal and administrative framework more accessible, building on the city's existing lauded open data efforts. One law requires the city's Law Department to publish the City Charter, the Administrative Code, and the Rules of the City of New York online and make them available in machine-readable format, rather than just on a somewhat obscure web page or subscription services. The other will require the city to publish online and in machine-readable format the City Record, the official city journal that every day during the week publishes information about upcoming hearings, procurement bids and awards, some court decisions, and official rules proposed and adopted by city agencies.
Currently there is an authoritative subscription print version available in PDF form on the website and there is an online database of the solicitations and awards mainly geared at vendors.
But beyond the legislation to make future editions of the City Records more accessible, which goes into effect in one year, the city has also reached out to a group of civic technology and advocacy organizations to undertake an effort over the next year to make around 4,000 previous editions of the City Record from 1998 to the present, currently in PDF format, accessible in a comparable way.
Coordinating that effort are Noel Hidalgo and Chris Whong, executive director and co-captain, respectively, of New York City's Code for America brigade BetaNYC, which has pushed for the legislation along with sponsor City Council member Ben Kallos, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council member James Vacca and City Council member Brad Lander. A previous version of the legislation introduced in 2009 did not make it out of committee.
The other partners in the effort are the Sunlight Foundation, good government group Citizens Union, Socrata, web-developer coder training program Dev Bootcamp, and Ontodia, an open data solutions firm that has experience working with scraping PDFS and making them machine-readable.
In a statement Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the effort "as another step forward on our path toward a more transparent City Hall" thanking the City Council members involved and the partner organizations, and calling the effort a part of "advancing our administration's goal of becoming the most technology-friendly and innovation-driven city in the world."
— Ben Kallos (@BenKallos) August 7, 2014
Stacey Cumberbatch, Commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, noted in a statement that "while some portions of the City Record are currently online and fully searchable now, we look forward to unveiling more archival content, and making all of the paper’s content available online and fully searchable, as we help to advance the Mayor’s vision of more open government.”
"The City Record is the 'logfile' of the City. Much like the PLUTO [land use and tax plots] dataset opened by the City last year, the City Record is a dynamic curated aggregation from several City agencies that will unlock new operational insights," Sami Baig, president and co-founder of Ontodia said in a statement. "
"We are delighted to see the Mayor and this Council build on the City's pioneering transparency efforts," Hidalgo said in a statement. "We look forward to unleashing this canonical database of municipal information. One year from now, we envision municipal notifications streaming through every imaginable interface."
Calling itself CROW for City Record Online Workgroup, the team is using GitHub and a Google Group to coordinate the initiative. The 16 gigabytes of documents comprising scanned documents from 1998 to 2008 and text-selectable document from 2008 on are available via BitTorrent and in the case of the later documents via Google Doc. On GitHub, users can help download PDFS, create a framework for structuring the data and suggest scraping tools.
Mayor Bill de Blasio with Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union NY, Noel Hidalgo from BetaNYC, BetaNYC member Joel Natividad and Rachael Fauss, director of Public Policy at Citizens Union
Government and technology community collaboration has also received a boost in Silicon Valley, with the announcement Thursday that the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership will expand its operations with a $1 million multi-year grant from the Knight Foundation.
The initiative is a collaboration between the public sector, private companies and local governments that grew out of an 2012 effort launched by the office of San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed in cooperation with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a technology company interest group, to engage tech company employees to work pro-bono to realize government projects for which agencies lack capacity, time or expertise, as a release today noted.
"Many local governments are faced with the pressure of declining resources and increased demands for effective and responsive services for citizens," Reed said in a statement Thursday. "The vision of the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership is to leverage Silicon Valley’s talent to assist public-sector agencies and enhance their capacity to innovate."
Just a glimpse of all the great things happening at this press conference! pic.twitter.com/i4dH6Yo0Qv
— SV TalentPartnership (@svtpca) August 7, 2014
Up until earlier this year, Jeremy Goldberg oversaw the project as an executive fellow in the Mayor's Office. Projects included the development of a web-based business permitting and licensing portal for the City of San Jose, with contributions of workers from companies including Proofpoint, Solar Junction, goodjoe and PayPal, and the development of a marketing and re-branding plan for the City of Santa Clara.
Ebay employees worked on an initiative to create a mobile app for the traditionally paper-based summer reading program of the San Jose Public Library, in which participants received stickers on bingo-style cards. "Since our summer reading app launched on June 1, we had an impressive daily average of 1,224 people sign up for the challenge within the first week-with total signups on track to surpass previous years," Jill Bourne, director of the San Jose Public Library, said in a statement.
The initiative started out with a call to city agencies "to come up with their wish list," said Lea King, who became the executive director of SVTP in April, in an interview with techPresident. She previously founded Race2Educate, a non-profit focused on raising funds for at-risk children, and held positions with Cisco, AT&T and General Electric.
With that wish-list in hand, Goldberg coordinated the initial effort to reach out to local companies with employees willing to participate and work with city agencies in San Jose, Santa Clara and Fremont, she explained. Officially an independent non-profit since 2013, the effort also received seed funding from Knight and the participating Silicon Valley companies after being incubated as a start-up by the San Jose Mayor's Office, King pointed out. The new funding will allow the effort to go beyond being "very much just projects" and volunteer work with the hiring of a full-time staff and the hope of scaling and expanding existing projects and cooperating with more cities, with interest coming from places including San Francisco, she said.
One of the future projects in planning and looking for volunteers involves using technology to better coordinate volunteers and agencies working to feed the homeless in areas where much of the organization is currently paper-based, she said. Complementing that effort, another initiative would focus on developing a job-training and mentoring program targeted at the homeless that could lead to paid internships. While it might not be the case that they all are "taught how to program and work for Apple," King said companies could also reach out to their contractors and sub-contractors to provide opportunities in logistics and delivery.
Another project would involve helping the San Jose Public Library make material from its King Library Digital Collection more accessible in a useable and searchable format rather than PDFs.
"We're not a matchmaker. We don't just put six unrelated team members together to work on a project...We project manage it," King said, noting that all the projects are documented with case studies. "We structure the project, we get the talent on board...and run it like a management consultancy project."
San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed with Nathan Ngo, a photographer attending the SVTP press conference