Sunday, July 5, 2015

Civic Hacking In The News: July 05, 2015

Hope you had a good Fourth of July! Here's your July 5th peek at a few recent online news items relevant to civic hacking. Click on the news item's title if you want to read the whole article or post.

GovTech is Not Broken
“...Governments move slowly compared to...the tech sector...Selling stuff — not just technology — to government requires sourcing leads, submitting proposals and counter-proposals, securing external certification, periods for official and public comments, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of process...That long sales cycle doesn’t give a small bootstrapped startup a chance to demonstrate the potential of its concept and technology. (Unsurprisingly, the already-giant vendors with a stronghold on the market are more than able to handle this long cycle. They’re also more interested in profits than improvements and innovation.) 
These issues are not accidental...The most under-appreciated characteristic of the government procurement process as it exists today is that its current design is largely intentional...Requirements for women and minority-owned business participation; requirements that governments utilize local vendors; requirements that governments favor vendors that have any number of different traits or qualities – no one would argue that these requirements are adopted in the hopes of fostering positive outcomes. But the price of using the procurement system as the vehicle for achieving these ends means that the process is more complex for all participants. Probably the most overarching value we imbue in the procurement system is risk aversion – in fact, much of the complexity and cost of the current system (for both governments and vendors) can be attributed to the desire to reduce the risk assumed by governments when partnering with outside firms to build or acquire technology… 
However, the widespread use of these and similar requirements by governments at all levels doesn’t seem to have lessened the incidence of IT project failures, and they can drive up the cost of technology projects by pricing smaller firms out of the bidding process…”
This post points out a significant reason why government technology is often lagging behind what its citizens have access to and expect from their governments. That same reason is why civic hacking developers can have a real impact with modern computing tools and processes, and why cities and counties might want to consider supporting civic hackers and evaluating alternate purchasing processes like the ones discussed in “‘Asks’ & ‘Offers’ -- Community-Builder And CivicTech Marketplace.”

Inside Obama’s stealth startup
“...The new hub of Washington’s tech insurgency is something known as the U.S. Digital Service, which is headquartered in a stately brick townhouse half a block from the White House. USDS ­employees tend to congregate with their laptops at a long table at the back half of the parlor floor...Apart from an air-hockey table, there aren’t many physical reminders of West Coast startup culture—a lot of the new techies are issued BlackBerrys, which seems to cause them near-physical pain...Todd and Mikey—the ones who helped bring people like Eric Maland, Lisa Gelobter, and Weaver down here—are, respectively, Todd Park, the former chief technology officer of the United States, and Mikey Dickerson, who led a team of 60 engineers at Google and supervised the crew that fixed the website last year. Since that time, Park and Dickerson have been steadily recruiting an elite digital corps—a startup team, essentially, built mainly from the ranks of top private-sector companies—and embedding them within the U.S. government. Their purpose is to remake the digital systems by which government operates, to implement the kind of efficiency and agility and effectiveness that define Silicon Valley’s biggest successes… 
One of the first lessons Dickerson learned about D.C. when he arrived was that the city traditionally conflates the importance of a task with its cost. ultimately became an $800 million project, with 55 contracting companies involved. "And of course it didn’t work," he says. "They set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to build a website because it was a big, important website. But compare that to Twitter, which took three rounds of funding before it got to about the same number of users as ­—8 million to 10 million users. In those three rounds of funding, the whole thing added up to about $60 million." Dickerson believes that the project could have been done with a similar size budget...”
This Fast Company article addresses some of the ways the current US White House is trying to combat the deficiencies of govtech pointed out in the post above. Organizations like the US Digital Service and 18F are attempting to bring the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial mindset to the mired-in-multibillion-dollar-prime-contractors environment of Washington, D.C. That environment of huge prime contractors brought us the $800 million website that didn’t work and the USAF Expeditionary Combat Support System which cost $1.1 billion over seven years before it was finally cancelled. And it’s not just the US. The UK National Health Service recently abandoned its new IT system which cost over $16 billion.

How Smart Cities Are Promoting API Usage
APIs are increasingly being released by city authorities around the world as a programmatic way for community organizations and businesses to interact with city open data. Cities are running hackathons or civic hacking events to encourage reuse of city datasets. APIs are discussed in terms of their benefits to civic engagement through greater transparency, for more efficient delivery of government services, and as an enabler of a new wave of local industry innovation. The growing international focus on the “smart city” — in which open data, e-government, and real-time sensor feeds contribute to more automated and sustainable city functioning — will also rely heavily on APIs in order to make much of that agenda possible. 
But the truth is, cities around the world are only starting on the API journey...Few cities are focused on creating transactional APIs that would enable citizens and local businesses to engage with services directly via API, with perhaps Open 311 being the only example of civic engagement and service delivery provided via API.”
This above Programmable Web article about smart city APIs points out that cities are in the very earliest stages of making their data available and easily usable by civic hackers, entrepreneurs and government technologists. Exciting times lie ahead for those involved with this field, including both opportunities and pitfalls.

Detroit drives toward open data
To encourage civic engagement and increase transparency, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan signed the GO DATA executive order aimed at creating “a more open, collaborative and accountable relationship between the city government and the people it serves.”...Citizens will be able to access crime reports, building and trade permits, blight remediation data among 75 individual data sets that include over 60 maps of libraries and parks...The portal will house data and information from nine participating agencies: the Buildings, Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department, the Detroit Police Department, Detroit Land Bank Authority, Planning and Development Department, Recreation Department, Public Works, Assessor, Department of Transportation and the city clerk...Along with the move to open city data, Detroit Mayor Duggan is signaling he wants to make Detroit’s services more accessible to its citizens. 
The city recently launched a mobile-friendly website and an app showing the real-time locations of city buses, and just introduced a 311 app that lets residents report municipal services issues.”
It's kind of inspiring and hopeful when a large city that has seen such hard times as Detroit decides that open data is worth spending money on and also launches a 311 app. Maybe that means open data and municipal services apps like Open311 will start showing up in NE Wisconsin cities in the not-too-distant future!

The cost of knowing
We had another opportunity this week to think about what delivering 21st century government means with the news that the city of McKinney, Texas proposes to charge $78,974.05 to Gawker Media to fulfill a FOIA request relating to officer use of force at a pool party last month...just as business is adapting to a digital world, our government must adapt as well. Digital is no longer a choice, or something that is added on. Instead, “digital” is now one way – and increasingly and inescapably, will be the normal way – that government delivers its services to us. In other words, a government’s “core competency” – its purpose, the things that it does for us - must include ownership, control and understanding of the way their services are digitally delivered. Because if a government doesn’t own, control and understand the digital delivery of its services, then it has ceded responsibility...The bulk of the $78,974.05 is made up of $63,583.50 to program a computer to search through emails from 2005 to March 1, 2014... 
We should not be satisfied with a government – of whatever size or political persuasion – that does not have the ability to search through its own correspondence. Being able to search and read your own correspondence is a basic competency.”
The story about the proposed cost of getting FOIA data in McKinney, Texas, has two aspects which cities and citizens in NE Wisconsin should consider. First is that we should make sure all worthwhile government data is obtainable in a cost-effective manner. Some of that effort should be directed at data gathered in the past and data currently being gathered. The other part of that effort should be directed toward future data collection systems and upgrades to current systems.

The second aspect we should consider is the bigger picture that citizens of the future, people who've grown up never having used a hardwired landline phone and never having known a world without the Internet, will expect to live in cities that operate in the same digital world these younger citizens view as just everyday life. Both citizens and cities of NE Wisconsin need to decide how local governments will manage and deliver their services in a world of 4G smartphones, gigabit fiber networks, and streaming video entertainment like Netflix. If NE Wisconsin doesn't offer cities that operate the way future generations of citizens operate, those citizens may decide to live elsewhere...


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