What happened this year in civic tech? We recently convened our final Municipal Innovation call of 2012, bringing together civic innovators from inside and outside government for a roundtable review of the year. Here’s what we heard from them:
What were the biggest successes for civic tech in 2012?
Wider adoption of Gov 2.0 principles
Noel Hidalgo, organizer of Open NY Forum and Code for America’s new New York City Program Manager, reported that in New York City the civic hacker community observed “several government layers became comfortable with open government, open source, community engagement… Many government entities are now fully embracing these methods.”
With the high profile launch of the White House’s Digital Government Strategy in May, and parallel efforts taking off in cities across the country, the ideas of gov 2.0 are becoming increasingly widespread. For example, it’s now the norm for city agencies to use social media to communicate with the public, while just a few years ago it was relatively rare. A study from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that in 2009, just 25 percent of the nation’s 75 largest cities used Twitter; by 2011, that percentage had risen to 87, and it continues to grow.
Cities institutionalizing innovation
Cities are beginning to implement structural changes that formally integrates innovation in the workflow and culture of city hall. “We’ve formalized innovation process by adding a Chief Innovation Officer and staff,” said Andy Maimoni. “We’re also expanding open data initiatives by hiring a Chief Data Officer and creating more policy infrastructure.”
Philadelphia led the way in this arena, adding a Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Data Officer, and a Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (modeled after Boston’s). Austin, Texas approved funds to establish an Office of Innovation, while many other smaller municipalities like Montgomery County, Md. passed open data policies and initiatives.
Depth of experience helped scale up impact
Civic tech is still a young field, but we know a lot more than we did a few years ago — and it shows. Commented Phil Ashlock, Presidential Innovation Fellow, “From a high level, you can visibly see more resiliency and interconnectedness…we are seeing things scale in a more meaningful way, whereas in 2010 or 2009 we were doing a lot of this stuff for the first time.” Phil pointed to the spread of Open311 as an example of this, citing rollouts like the upcoming statewide in Massachusetts, major U.S. cities like Chicago, and their first city in Europe.
What are some lessons learned over this past year?
App marketing is crucial
Philadelphia’s transit app “Where’s My Septa?” saw 1,000 percent growth after a promotional outreach campaign, showing firsthand the importance of marketing to ensure an app has meaningful impact.
As Steve Ressler put it in a widely circulated GovLoop post, “The goal isn’t to build cool citizen engagement tools. The goal is to get large amounts of people to adopt new citizen engagement tools to make their cities better.” This was also the idea behind Code for America Brigade’s Race for Reuse campaign, to promote wider use of citizen engagement apps — the winners, ToledoWiki and Anchorage Adopt-a-Hydrant, both gained traction through local press coverage and promotional events.
Leveraging community capacity
In 2012, the Code for America brigade reached over 1200 members with organizing efforts in more than 20 cities across the country. There’s a broad community of civic hackers with widespread interest in volunteering their time and skills, and to optimize that capacity it’s critical to channel that energy towards priority areas. This was especially apparent during the surge of responses to Hurricane Sandy recovery.
Cities took steps to address this — like New York, who created app wishlists, and increasingly focusing apps contests and hackathons around identified focus areas for the city. We suspect this will be a continuing theme in 2013 as the civic hacker community grows and cities seek strategies to best leverage those resources.
What are the biggest challenges ahead in 2013?
Reaching low-connectivity populations
As gov 2.0 gains momentum, it’s increasingly critical to address the digital divide and ensure that it doesn’t only benefit those fortunate enough to have home internet access or smartphones. As Ellen McDermott of OpenPlans emphasized, “The arena of building tools at the feature phone level is really important to try and reach low-income populations.”
Two of Code for America’s 2012 projects — LocalData and Textizen — addressed inclusivity for low-connectivity populations, and it’s something we are continuing to work on in 2013. San Francisco’s 2013 CfA Fellowship will focus on improving Health and Human Services delivery to high need individuals, using technology to benefit populations who haven’t traditionally been advantaged by gov 2.0.
Cities are still facing significant financial pressure and struggling to do more with less. Rick Dietz of Bloomington, Ind. said: “From our standpoint, our biggest challenge is fairly singular: budget…. A lot of our software and IT efforts are geared to finding economies of scale and efficiencies that will have a budget impact.”
Going into 2013, it will be important to redouble efforts on promoting adoption of open source options for government, building new tools that are designed with reuse in mind, and stimulating an ecosystem of civic startups that offer more affordable alternatives to traditional vendors.
The group agreed that we still struggle with approaches for sustaining and maintaining civic software after its initial launch. “Once you deploy the technology, you have to make sure there’s a plan for keeping it operational and sustained,” said Andy Maimoni.
In 2013, we can work on setting better standards for documentation to make it easier for others to take over maintenance or make improvements to projects; explore ways to better leverage community interest in maintaining civic tech on a volunteer basis; and pursue paths for turning civic apps into sustainable businesses (like the newly-announced CfA Incubator).
We want to know: what were your highlights of 2012 — and what are you planning to tackle in 2013?
Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.
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