Let It Snow! Community Design Workshop, December 15

Today marks the first official snow of the season! As part of our preparation at the City, we are reviewing the technology tools and data we use to communicate with the public about how we’re responding to winter weather emergencies – and we want your input.

We are looking for people with all tech abilities and levels of access to technology to participate in a facilitated community design workshop on December 15th at the offices of Substantial on Capitol Hill. For more information and to RSVP, please visit seattlesnow.eventbrite.com.

Civic Tech Roundup: November 23, 2016

Seattle happenings

  • Check out yesterday’s recap of the Code for America Summit, a collaborative effort from Seattle IT, Seattle Police Department, and the Mayor’s Innovation Team. We continue to explore how we can bring more user-centered design to the services we provide as a city and the technology we use to support them.
  • Startup Week Seattle was as energetic as ever. For the first time, we presented a civic & social impact track with 5 events – three with City involvement. Approximately 150 people attended our events on edtech, civic tech, and inclusive design. Special thanks again to all our speakers and congratulations to all the successful track organizers, which focused on everything from “real talk” on diversity in tech to the evolving AR/VR landscape. Check out this recap of the civic startups panel on StateScoop and explore all the events and companies at seattle.startupweek.co.
  • On November 9, Open Seattle launched a new meetup, OpenIDEO, focused on user-centered design and design thinking. You do not have to have technical skills to participate. For more on this meetup or to attend the next event on December 7, visit the new outpost’s Meetup page.
  • Love Seattle? Love tech? You have until November 30 to apply to be an organizer of Open Seattle.

National news

  • A new app called Nexar is crowdsourcing traffic data in San Francisco and New York. The app is free; the company has $14.5 million in backing, with a business model around monetizing crowdsourced data. The founders say this data has value for insurance companies now and the makers of autonomous vehicles later. (GovTech)
  • The City of San Rafael has implemented a just-launched tool called ProudCity Service Center that embeds directly into Facebook, allowing users to find information, make payments, submit service requests, and provide feedback all from a simple initial interface. (GovTech)
  • Is the future of open data open source? A new product from GIS company Boundless believes so, switching up the traditional gov-SaaS business model, around licensing for individual users, to a model more focused on providing central support for agencies that operate at scale. It’s worth keeping an eye on as the civic tech sector and government in general wrestle with the tradeoffs between open-source and proprietary software. (GovTech)

New tools

  • Escape Your Bubble, a Chrome extension that interrupts your Facebook news feed with clearly marked stories from “the other side” (you can choose whether you wish to better understand Republicans or Democrats) is just one of several civic-minded apps and offline efforts to emerge in the immediate aftermath of the election. In “Coders Think They Can Burst Your Filter Bubble With Tech,” Emily Dreyfuss lists them all. (Wired)
  • Pittsburgh’s new Burgh’s Eye View app is an open-source tool that displays geocoded open data about service requests, arrests, code violations, and more. (CityInspired)

Is civic tech partisan? Harvard Kennedy School’s David Eaves says it can’t be. Code for America Founder Jen Pahlka says it fundamentally isn’t. FedScoop asked both sides of the aisle. Everyone seems to agree that good government technology isn’t a partisan issue – but 18F has taken a stand in small ways on things like gender and racial equality, and the civic tech movement is fundamentally oriented around the notion that government should be accountable to people. It’s unclear whether those values will carry forward, and there’s an active debate among thought leaders as to where the work can and should go from here.

  • In “Looking Forward: How Civic Technology Can Bridge the Divide,” AppCityLife CEO Lisa Abeyta urges civic technologists to stay focused on tangible outcomes. She writes: “We must continue to develop and share the technology and tools that can deliver better self-service access to the information and services we need within our own communities, urban or rural, that empower us to make informed decisions, interact with our government, and improve our own economic mobility.” (Inc.)
  • 18F’s Noah Kunin says he’s staying to work for Trump.”My oath to this country was not to a particular office, or person, and certainly not to a political party. It was to the Constitution and to the people (emphasis added)” (Medium)
  • Civic tech, government tech, and urban tech are often used interchangeably, but to many in the fields, they are not the same thing. In a post-election essay, “How Civic Tech Should Respond to Our New Reality,” Personal Democracy Media/Personal Democracy Forum founder Andrew Rasiej urges the civic tech community to stay focused on equity, even when that is perceived as political. “If [civic tech] is to ever fulfill its promise,” he writes, “our field must become a champion for decency, equity, and openness, and to do everything it can to fight bigotry, racism, and hate. The fear of openly talking about these subjects at Summit makes me also fear that the civic tech community has not yet developed enough to know when to recognize the difference between partisanship and an existential threat.” (Civicist)

On the horizon

  • From 911 to 311 to crisis hotlines, governments operate a lot of call centers. But could any of those services be automated? What about gamified? In “The Future of 311 could be weird,” David Dudley writes, “The ultimate goal, many 311 experts say, is to allow cities to forge a frictionless and spookily immersive e-commerce kind of relationship with its residents, complete with the ability to predict their wants and needs.” Quoting Andrew Nicklin from the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence: “In an ideal universe, your interaction with government would be so seamless you don’t even know it’s government.” That ideal may not be far away. (CityLab)

Upcoming events

Community events with a civic tech component:

  • Wednesday, November 30, 7-8:30 pm @ University of Washington Kane Hall: “My Politics as a Technologist,” featuring civic technology legends Terry Winograd and Alan Borning. Free. (RSVP)
  • Wednesday, December 7, 6:00-9:00 pm @ Impact Hub Seattle: OpenIDEO meetup about civic engagement and employment in the age of automation. Free. (RSVP)
  • Wednesday, December 14, 6:00-9:00 pm @ Socrata: “Designing Open Seattle’s Role in Civic Tech Post-Election.” Free. (RSVP)
  • Wednesday, January 25, 10:00-11:30 am @ Impact Hub Seattle: “Community Cross-Pollinators: Technology + Social Impact.” Free. (RSVP)

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

Human-Centered Design, Homelessness, and Civic Tech at the 2016 Code for America Summit

In early November, several City employees attended the Code for America Summit in Oakland, California. There were three representatives from Seattle IT (CTO Michael Mattmiller, Director of Applications Tara Duckworth, and myself, Civic Technology Advocate Candace Faber). We were joined by four members of the Mayor’s Innovation Team (Tina Walha, Rodrigo Sanchez, Adam Petkun, and Hannah Hill), and Sergeant Dan Nelson from the Seattle Police Department, who worked closely with Seattle’s Code for America Fellowship team this past year.

After the Summit, we got together to trade insights and lessons learned. Here are our collective key takeaways:

  • Sustainability matters. There are a lot of people who want to solve problems with technology – building the tools is the fun part – but afterwards, the tools need to be transferred, marketed, supported, sustained, and monitored to see if they are really being used.

    “We need to set up just enough documentation, and just enough process, to ensure [civic tech tools] can be sustained.”

  • Tech can lower barriers and increase engagement. We learned about tools being used in other cities to engage with the public, from a crisis text line in Anchorage that operates over SMS to the CityVoice app that allows people to chime in through short telephone surveys.

    “The statistics showed that they were reaching new people [with the surveys]. In Morro Bay, 74 percent of respondents said it was their first time engaging with government. In San Francisco, it was 58 percent. That seems timely given the Mayor’s focus on equitable engagement.”

    “Other cities are using text messages to deliver services. It’s so low-cost, so easy, and so common as a way for people to receive information, compared to drafting letters and stuffing envelopes.”

  • Government and constituents experience things differently. There is a natural tension between how government and the public experience our work. In government, we think about policy, then process, then services. For the user, it goes in the opposite direction.

    “It’s on us [in government] to think not just about the policy, but what the constituent experiences.”


Design Thinking & Homelessness
We also had an extended discussion about design thinking and user-centered design, particularly in the context of homelessness. These are the insights we’d like to share:

  • It’s not about housing, it’s about having a home. Bureaucrats can get lost in the day-to-day of what we have to accomplish and forget that the person on the other side isn’t looking for “a unit of affordable housing,” but a place to live that meets their needs. If we don’t achieve that, we haven’t solved homelessness, no matter how much housing we build.
  • The “user experience” is critical. When a person seeks assistance from the government, what message does the government send? Are they a welcome guest or an unwanted visitor? Right now, it’s hard to imagine justifying these customer service touches as a budget line item. As one of our attendees said, “We don’t measure user experience as part of performance. It would change a lot of things if we did.”

    “When you walk into a Doubletree, it smells like a warm cookie, and then they just give you a warm cookie. How would it change things if you just gave people a warm cookie when they walked in seeking services? It’s a small thing, but it communicates that people are valued.”

  • Government should question whether its practices help or harm. People are not always willing to accept government services, but we rarely ask why. Perhaps it’s not true that they “just don’t want help” – it might be that what we are offering doesn’t help at all.

    “When we do intake, we say to people, ‘Tell me about your life story’ – and they are retraumatized every single time.”

  • We need to design City employees’ work around the people they serve. The hours for a typical homelessness outreach program are Monday through Friday, 7 am to 5 pm – not the hours when an outreach worker is likely to be most helpful to a person in crisis.
  • We have competition. In the private sector, competition fuels service. Companies don’t want their customers to go to a competitor. In government, we think we have a monopoly, but we don’t. If what we’re providing isn’t good enough, it impacts people’s lives. We are competing, and we want to do better.

    “In government, we think we have a monopoly. But we don’t. Our competitor is the street.”

Want to know more?
Below is a video of Sergeant Dan Nelson’s presentation with Code for America Fellow Meredith Hitchcock from the Summit main stage. You can find full video content from the Summit on the 2016 Summit Mainstage channel on YouTube.

Center for Digital Government Names Seattle Digital Cities Survey Winner

The Center for Digital Government (CDG) today announced the winners of the 2016 Digital Cities Survey. Now in its 15th anniversary year, the annual survey recognizes cities using technology to improve citizen services, enhance transparency and encourage citizen engagement.  Seattle held steady at fourth place, the ranking it also received last year.

Seattle Information and Technology (Seattle IT) was recognized for its recent consolidation. The new department is made up of 650 staff members that once worked across 15 city agencies and aims to create efficiencies and capacity for tech projects.

Other accomplishments include: the launch of a mobile-responsive website, a customer relationship management system to improve communications with residents and a data analytics platform for the police department. Efforts to work with the city’s tech community include the hiring of a civic technology advocate to engage with those individuals, a Hack the Commute program that developed prototype apps to help solve transportation issues, and a partnership with Code for America on the development of a crisis intervention app to connect people in need with social services.

In addition, an in-house innovation team is working on data-driven solutions to challenges in Seattle. While an open data program has been in place since 2010, the city’s “open by preference” policy was signed in February and calls on department heads to name “open data champions” to spearhead the release of information.  And for monitoring IT performance, Seattle developed TechStat, which is modeled off programs like the New York City Police Department’s CompStat, to facilitate internal transparency and monitor metrics for operations and projects.

Civic Tech Roundup: November 9, 2016

It’s the biggest news day of the year. Here are the civic tech stories not to be missed, even – especially – as we prepare for the new presidency.

Seattle happenings

  • Eight people on staff at the City of Seattle attended the annual Code for America Summit in Oakland, where Seattle Police Department Sergeant Dan Nelson presented alongside Code for America Seattle Fellowship team member Meredith Hitchcock about their new app, RideAlong. The app was developed in collaboration with front-line officers to help law enforcement provide appropriate responses to people in crisis on our streets. Their presentation is now online. (YouTube)

National news

  • This is the year elections went real-time, with VoteCastr providing free data via Slate and a Vice newscast. They predicted that Clinton would win swing states early on – before noon, leading to a surge in stocks and the peso that was later reversed. Most traditional media embargo early results information in the name of fairness, until polls close. However, in states like Washington where we vote by mail and often long before November 8, returns from other states are less and less likely to sway the final voters. As I write this, it seems clear that Votecastr’s methodology was flawed, but there’s no doubt that conversations about data (not just the data themselves) are influencing our elections more than ever. (Recode, NYTimes)
  • The biggest civic tech event of the year is the Code for America Summit. This year, it tackled big structural issues in the field, including procurement and diversity. We’ll post a recap next week; in the meantime, you can check out the highlights on Twitter at #cfasummit.


New tools

  • I hope you didn’t miss “Electionland,” the real-time map of voter issues from Google and Pitch Interactive, which grouped searches nationwide around key topics and showed where search spikes were the greatest. Read more about the project in Wired.
  • Last week’s biggest civic tech news drop was the launch of Code.gov, which open-sources federal government websites and other custom tools, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs’ vets.gov. It’s connected to the United States’ first-ever federal source code policy, which pushes the government to operate more on open-source and to publish at least 20 percent of custom code to the public. You can browse code, view repos, offer feedback on the API’s, and even contribute via  Code.gov’s GitHub.



  • “We don’t call that a revolving door, we call it being a citizen,” says DJ Patil, the United States’ first-ever Chief Data Scientist, about techies moving between the private and public sectors. Listen to the entire interview on Recode Decode.
  • In a panel discussion at this year’s Code for America Summit on “Working Together to Address Racial Disparities”, Kristian Lum from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group showed clearly how data-driven, predictive policing leads to disparate enforcement of drug laws in the Bay Area. This results in more arrests of people of color, even though we know that drug use is consistent across racial groups. “Technology has the potential to reinforce the biases that already exist in the data,” Lum says.  Worth a listen.
  • The Center for Data Enterprise published its Open Data Transition Report on October 24th, presenting a set of recommendations for the incoming U.S. President on how to build on the achievements of the last 8 years. The interactive site allows you to download the full report or explore the recommendations one-by-one. (Open Data Transition Report)


On the horizon

  • A new president. And, very likely, efforts by the sitting president to solidify the work this administration has done to open up data and modernize use of technology across the federal government through initiatives like the U.S. Digital Service and 18F. As Popular Science put it, “Modern technology is amazing and no one running for president understands it” – in contrast to our current commander-in-chief.  The faster technology moves and the more it becomes part of our lives, the more essential it will be to have a government that gets it. How will the next administration handle “cyber”? We still don’t know – but we do know that this current White House has a plan for passing along the Presidential Twitter account. One would hope the other elements of the national civic technology infrastructure have a solid succession plan as well. But it is worth noting, as always, that technology is just tools, and they can be used just as readily to perpetuate injustice as to address it.


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.