Civic Tech Roundup: October 26, 2016

Seattle happenings

  • WeCount’s new sock boxes take the online platform for matching community needs to resources out into the community via drop-boxes for socks–a common need for people experiencing homelessness.
  • This past Sunday, the Municipal League released a personalized ballot guide that will show you all the candidates and measures on your ballot, along with which organizations have endorsed what and whom. Enter any address in King County. If you don’t live here and just want to check it out, try using our address at the Seattle Municipal Tower: 700 5th Ave, Seattle, 98104.
  • King 5 just covered the launch of the Seattle Trails App developed by the Seattle Trails Alliance, which we wrote about last week. An Android version is coming soon!
  • ICYMI: The City of Seattle launched a new Public Records Request Center last week, making it easier than ever to request public records, understand the process, and see what records are most commonly requested.
  • It’s not too late to catch the final evenings of 9e2, which reprises the groundbreaking Bell Labs “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering” held 50 years ago in New York. There’s an exhibition on the third floor of King Street Station, evening events there, in Georgetown, and at Benaroya Hall, and a full day of events this Saturday culminating in a closing party. The event is sponsored by several of our local tech companies.

National news

  • “Two of the largest cloud-based companies in the government technology market, GovDelivery and Granicus, have merged into a single firm,” writes GovTech magazine. That’s a big deal for the sector. GovDelivery is behind such apps as IRS2Go (did you even know the IRS had an official app?); Granicus works primarily with legislative data.
  • The Sunlight Foundation, which will soon be closing its doors, hosted its final TransparencyCamp in Cleveland, Ohio. Fortunately, they have published an open-source guide to hosting your own TransparencyCamp on GitHub and invite others to “fork” their unconference for any issue that needs an open-source approach to be solved.
  • The Intercept published a lengthy piece called “Open Data Projects Are Fueling the Fight Against Police Misconduct” that offers an overview of local and national efforts to collect, curate, and publish police data. It highlights a number of civic technology applications developed for the specific purpose of police accountability.

New tools

  • BIMI (Because I missed it last time): On October 6, the White House announced the launch of 29 new digital tools and the expansion of the Opportunity Project to facilitate collaboration between government, developers, and communities. One highlight you can use right away is the Department of Labor’s OpenSkills API. Learn more about the project–or get involved!–at dataatwork.org.
  • Activist group DemandProgress released a new tool called EveryCRSReport.com that opens up the publicly funded research provided by the Congressional Research Service to Congress. According to the Sunlight Foundation, the searchable database contains more than 8,200 reports on everything from climate change to public trust in law enforcement.
  • Nurx, an app that allows users to access birth control more easily, is now available in Washington State.

Must-reads

  • FastCoexist calls the open data/smart cities movement “the most boringly named revolution in history.” (Fair.) Naming examples from Mexico to Sweden, author Alexander Starrit cites the many ways technology, data, and openness have improved the governance of cities in ways that are both invisible (better trash pickup, greener parks) and explicitly visible (the value and distribution of government contracts and foreign aid). But the utopian language – “how to build the perfect city” and “once we measure everything” highlights the fact that the revolution will be digitized, and the tension between what’s left of people’s desire for privacy with the need to be seen in order to be served by the digital systems.
  • In Wired, Ted Alcorn, suggests that open data is key to reducing gun violence. As an example, the article cites work done in Chicago to identify the source of illegal guns – many of which were coming from nearby suburbs, prompting other mayors to take action. This is a great case in point for government officials who worry about being held accountable for problems that show up in the data but are beyond their local control. By revealing precisely where the problems are, data empower others to take action, too.
  • President Obama had a mic-drop moment during his speech at the Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh earlier this month, which has been quoted all over the tech press: “Government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.” He goes on to point out that, while government has to worry about unintended externalities and affordability in a way that companies don’t, he sees tremendous value in bringing data and technology to the work of government.

 On the horizon

  • Will virtual reality perpetuate racism? In “Confronting the Assumption of Whiteness in Digital Spaces,” Kara Melton argues that invisible layers of whiteness–wrongly perceived as being neutral–shape how new technologies are built. This is not so different, I would add, from how film photography idealized a (white) skin tone from the 1940’s on, and did not change until demand rose from the makers of furniture and chocolate whose tones were similar to darker human skin. Ultimately, technology helped to solve this problem on film, but then it showed up again in webcams and digital photography, as summarized in this video from Vox. Will the same thing happen in our new digital spaces? Or, as Melton asks, will we be able to address it now?
  • In an op-ed in TechCrunch, European thought leader Giuseppe Porcaro challenges us to think about apps for democracy in the post-www era. Could technology generate a new populism? Some say the 24/7 news cycle already has; Porcaro points to the fact that there are already real-world political parties springing up around the concept of no-filter digital deliberation (beyond the DAO). He notes: “The Five Stars Movement became the second largest group in Parliament in Italy after the national elections in 2013. The Pirate Party in Germany is promoting the concept of ‘liquid democracy,’ with some success, as a hybrid system whereby an electorate vests voting power in delegates rather than in representatives.” Provocative? Crazy? Perhaps. But check out companies like iCitizen, which enable real-time tracking of elected officials and issue-based polling, as well as Seattle-based companies like consider.it (which powered the DAO discussion above) and Swurveys (which is being used by local campaigns this election season). We’ll be talking more about the future of political technology during Startup Week Seattle in November–stay posted.

Upcoming events 

Events with official City involvement: 

Community events with a civic tech component:

If you’d like to suggest events or content, please email us at civic.tech@seattle.gov.