Wanted: Streetsblog for civic innovation
(thx to @nickgrossman for the pithy headline)
We’ve come a long way with this civic tech thing, building great tools for great cities. But word still travels way, way too slowly. Most of the impact we imagine is still only… imagined.
And we’re imagining something big: tech in cities has the potential to profoundly change how citizens experience government and life. Big, powerful changes that create new economic opportunities and new lives for many people. Done right, dramatic changes to benefit and driven by people who have been marginalized and powerless.
How big? Think change at the scale of the interstate system + mass auto ownership + suburbanization (but much more beneficial). That’s about the right order of magnitude, maybe underestimating a little.
So why, given where we want to be, are our voices so quiet, our visions so weak, and our messages so puny? Changing tech in cities can’t be done with jargon about standards, tame lists of tools, and nerdy guidance on open data. We’re failing everyone this way, failing to put tech to work fixing urgent challenges now.
But hold on, what’s the problem? Isn’t there great stuff coming from _____________ (insert your favorite CfA fellows, incubatees, open data leaders, Brigades, etc)?
Yes, there are amazing new tools, necessary data work, smart people, and new businesses. Good stuff all over. Necessary but not sufficient. The civic tech diaspora is still too inwardly focused (exhibit A: this blog post). We’re doing a bad job of communicating beyond the lightning talk/blog frenzy echo-sphere. Consider:
- Despite big efforts around cataloging (Civic Commons * ) and local guidance (e.g. Sunlight’s nascent local work), there still aren’t good resources available for municipalities to get started. Where resources exist, our crowd tends towards completeness over clarity, enormity over editorial. And that makes it hard for new people to get up to speed.
- Standards are wonderful but we can’t lead with them. Lead with need (or need + standards in parallel, but that doesn’t rhyme).
- Focused work like the incredible Smarter Chicago by definition has to keep that focus in their backyard. Same with Reinvent Albany, the NYC Transparency Working Group, others. Too busy to be the Appleseeds of civic tech.
- New startups are going to sustain this revolution eventually, but they need some help now. Capacity building and awareness raising will prepare cities to be ready (in all aspects — mindset, $$, process, legal).
- And finally, although Code fellows and the peer network are great, they’re tiny compared to the challenges ahead.
No silver bullet, but here’s a missing component that is within reach: high-quality, informed guidance for cities. Stories about previous successes, briefing notes about areas of opportunity, best practices to follow, local peers to learn from. Not cherry picking highlights that may be hard to replicate, but solid, reliable expertise. Not marketing disguised as guidance. Talking in a language cities also speak. Sounds a little dull, but we have such a story to tell, it’ll be anything but.
This is a fixable problem. Funders could support this story telling very easily in a new or existing organization. It would be cheap (no software developers). This could be a regional or national effort.
It should be easy to measure impact. And it will have quite the impact: sharing stories and building capacity empowers and activates existing civic and good gov groups, planners, etc, for them to pick up the song and add their voices. Perhaps there’s a bus that goes from town to town, a rolling roadshow of the future… And crucially, this is short term, going out of business within a few years, having catalyzed new energy and thinking in city halls and gov offices all over. A bright light that starts many fires.
It’s easy to throw stones. Demos not memos **, always. But I am disappointed that this emerging sector still has so far to go before it really emerges and makes an impact. Otherwise, what are we doing with our short lives?
* lots more could be said about Civic Commons. Benefitting from hindsight, I see the primary failure as not serving a clear user need — it would have been better to build up guidance based on the need cities have. Nobody really needs a catalog.
** “demos not memos” is the perfect tech-minded civic activist tattoo. With “be good or be good at it” on the other bicep.
(Here’s a use case for this new effort: I chatted last week with a town, thinking about their options for 311 - service request tools, etc. Open311 sounded interesting but was completely confusing. This town wants to get it right. So we chatted about the various aspects of standards, tools, open data vs internal management, etc. I suggested some vendors (SeeClickFix, Public Stuff). Afterwards, I went looking for more to send. And it turns out, we lack well written, accessible guidance in digestible forms. And for 311, you can substitute almost all others of city government work)
Easy steps to better open data in NYC
NYC has a great open data law, and decent compliance - lots of new data becoming available. Opening up data is good, but seeing it used to solve real problems is the most desirable end goal.
As an occasional user of the nyc.gov/data portal, I’ve encountered some areas for improvement. Fixing these will make it easier to get open data, which in turn will enable all the great outcomes we want to see. Here are a few observations, with suggested remedies.
On the portal —
Search is horrible in the data portal. It really sucks. The single biggest suck is that search returns user-filtered subsets of data. So for example, if I filter 311 calls about rodents, and save that search, you will be able to find it. Showing derivative data on primary search is a horrible experience for users because you get so many search results.
Suggestion: Fix search.
There’s a secret magic dataset of all city-owned datasets in the portal. For me, it’s transformed the open datas site into something helpful. But you have to know about it (it’s at https://data.cityofnewyork.us/dataset/NYC-OpenData-Catalog/tdsx-cvye). The magic dataset should be much easier to discover. Suggestion: Add a link to the magic list of data.
Update: check out the link on the front page of the data, linking to a dashboard of open data from the city. Big improvement.
Update II, 10/5: Ok, the dashboard is actually not very helpful. But this buried link is.
Metadata is patchy. Datasets could have letter grades for the completeness of metadata, to help the city prioritize datasets that need work (this doesn’t deal with the quality of metadata though)
Suggestion: Add more metadata.
Metadata is hard to browse.
Suggestion: User test the metadata layout and improve it.
Data with addresses is not automatically geocoded! For the city, this should be a data processing step that’s almost free, and integrated somehow into the pipeline of uploading a dataset (whatever that currently is). Where data has been geocoded, include a column indicating the success or otherwise of the geocoding.
Suggestion: Geocode all address data!
Those are the pain points around the data itself. The other big area of improvement is around the human-facing side: customer service for data consumers…
Answer the questions. Currently, the user request area on the portal is a ghost town. The portal provides some tools for asking feedback, but many questions are not answered. Maybe even most questions.
Suggestion: staff up to answer questions.
Get community assistance in answering questions. Consider a third-party tool for handing data questions. The Stack Overflow model, or Discourse, might be better for a collaborative exploration of issues with data. And the interface will be much better than the question tools built into the Socrata platform. It would be really cool in NYC used the open data Stack Overflow to field and respond to questions.
Suggestion: Bring in the community for some structured data Q&A.
Deal with public requests. There are some good and some wacky requests for new data. Most have been ignored. This is bad. These questions can all be answered and should be. Particularly the non controversial ones — asking for rodent data that’s already covered by some other data set. Again, the stack overflow model could help.
Suggestion: Triage requests: quick nos to data that’s not feasible to open up, or shared elsewhere, or the jurisdiction of the MTA. Put other stuff onto a list for future consideration.
Foster community-led working groups. I’m just a frustrated data user who wants to see the data portal be better. I want to see more people working with data. There are many others who are smarter than me, who will happily give time to help improve open data in particular topic areas. Showing up for discussions with community groups isn’t a commitment to do anything apart from listen, but it builds up a ton of trust.
Suggestion: Working groups!
Price transparency is good for civic tech
A few weeks ago at OpenPlans we put our prices for Shareabouts onto our website. Before then, if you wanted to pay OpenPlans to set up a map, we had to talk about it - our prices weren’t secret, and I’ve happy described them on conference panels, but getting the details wasn’t as easy as going to our website and looking.
Price transparency like this is a really good thing for people buying technology for government. We’re chipping away at the appallingly expensive status quo.
I know that the fine people at Civic Insight have done something similar, and they even have a fancy pricing calculator.
Shared prices reduces friction for people seeking high-quality tools.
Every phone call or email followup to find out about the cost of tools is a small barrier to doing a better job of community involvement - small barriers that add up enough to stop a busy person. And even for a simple query, that research time that could be better spent on other tasks.
Transparent pricing helps other people advocate for good tools.
We all benefit from a well-informed community inside and outside city government, with realistic expectations of the costs of tools. These tools are also much cheaper than many people expect, but they aren’t free. And what you pay for is extremely good value. Having this info available helps everyone understand the options.
Why keep prices secret? Concern that these might not be the “right” prices perhaps? Sure: we might not be charging enough, or more than some cities want to pay for particular features. As we keep working on adding new features, we will re-evaluate. Perhaps concern about being undercut by others? Or wanting to keep pricing flexible/opaque in case a mythical deep-pocketed client shows up? Neither of these seems like good arguments to me (and they weren’t ones used by anyone at OpenPlans, I should add - we were slow to do this mostly because we’re small and busy).
The prices we’re sharing don’t cover everything, for example special feature development we are often asked to do. Soon, we will add prices for OpenPlans, our planning communication tool. We have more work ahead to give greater openness to the costs of hiring us, but we’re trying.
Spend your time on data tools
I mentioned that teams working on Big Apps should look at data trends, not just make maps. A related observation: you have limited development time, so don’t waste it building an engagement tool. Focus on a data tool.
What does this mean? By “data tool”, I mean something that can be useful to look up or make sense of data about the world around us. For example, recent building permits, or maximum buildable floor area around a location based on current zoning, or something with financial data, or access to health care services. A tool that can imperfectly answer a defined question over and over, maybe for different places and times.
There are heaps of difficult problems out there, and community organizations need help answering them. Often, these organizations understand both a problem and the answer they need, and the right data tool, if sensitively designed, can slot right in and provide answers right away that can lead to immediate positive change. Sure, you have to do some work to identify these problems and the organizations, but the payoff is huge (when measured in social goodness, at least).
The alternative is the seductive world of engagement tools. Look at all those people on Facebook! Look at these tweets! Surely we can harness just a little bit of this energy to get people engaged online in fixing this problem. Every neighborhood might be different, but they all need this collaborative tool for…. Alas, the answer is almost never building the missing tool.
Instead, the answer to organization challenges like organizing neighbors to care about safer streets, or parents about schools, or anyone about anything, is to meet them face to face. Technology can obviously do a lot to help all along the way, but it won’t replace capacity on the ground and people. And if you’re considering building tools, you likely aren’t also building capacity face to face. That’s not a judgement, just a realistic assessment of how you can spend your valuable and limited time.
So, if you’re embarking on a development project for social good, go build some data tools.
Trend, not maps
This year’s Big Apps competition is focused on some real issues, including traffic safety. We have tons of open data that can be used to explore these issues (like recently-released crash data), but most responses I’ve seen are maps.
Maps are great, but tools to examine trends are better. For example:
- Is this district seeing more crashes than last year?
- Is the past week a “typical” week, or is there something to look into?
- How do increases in crash numbers in this district compare to our neighbors over there in another district?
- How does change in this neighborhood rank in comparison to others in the city?
These are questions that people in community organizations and elected officials need answers to. City-wide mapping tools are just less useful, because they don’t drive towards policy responses.
And it’s not just street safety. Imagine dashboard tools showing trends from open data like 311, or building permits.
Trend tools are harder to build, but they are so powerful. We need more of them (and a framework to do time and district comparisons on a dataset would be very helpful to get us there).
UPDATE 5/29: Here’s a great trend dashboard from Make Queens Safer.
The only reason I know this, and that other neighborhood leaders know this, is because of government records. Northside neighborhood leaders try to keep up; they’re some of the most hawk-eyed citizens in the city. But often times local government can be the worst enemy in untangling the messes left by these companies.
Neighborhood leaders and housing researchers are force multipliers to counties losing out on property taxes and cities failing to enforce rental license laws and ensure livability.
Government should be doing everything they can to ensure that housing researchers have the convenient access they need to help fight fraud and abuse.”
– “This is what happens when housing data isn’t open and accessible”, by Tony Webster. https://tonywebster.com/2014/01/housing-data-open-minneapolis/
Public process: Don’t botch your online engagement:
"In short, their impressive wizbangery can be deceptive, fooling the uninitiated into thinking it’s the tool that really matters, rather than the goal-focused story the tool allows you to tell." — Scott Doyon on websites for planning
osp, websites, engagement
The tools community boards and council members need
Borough President Gale Brewer hosted a roundtable on data and tool needs on Monday. Manhattan Community Board chairs and Council Members attended. Here’s my condensed list of the needs I heard —
- Need to identify locations for neckdowns, turn signals —- identify them, where should they go, where are the dangerous intersections?
- What is the difference between crash data from NYPD vs DOT, who collects what data?
- Need to track construction/traffic issues.
- Want to have a replacement/tools to deal with LMCC closing.
- What is the impact of new development (for planning schools, transit, sewage treatment)? Need forecasting tools.
- Need tools to overlay district info with other data layers.
- Need affordable housing data — type, expiration, capacity, requirements, what is being built, in the pipeline
- Need FEMA flood zone maps.
- Need construction projects mapped, all on a single map
- Need to map out energy efficiency, green buildings.
- Need to know commercial/vacancy rate in the community.
- Need population projections (for schools).
- Want to be proactive with air rights for Hudson River Park.
- Need help working with/verifying DOE data.
- Need health data (no hospital in the district, uses a lot of small community based health centers, hard to get those datasets).
- Want to set up a system to stay on top of a retail survey.
- Want to model shadow impact on parks from tall buildings.
- Want to get demographic data by school enrollment zone.
Quality of life
- Need tools to work with 311 data: construction, noise.
- Need State Liquor Authority data overlaid with other info tied to a single address.
- Need to see more info about liquor license requests — what else do applicants own in the city? What is going on with their applicants before other boards?
- Want to track places with noise complaints/nuisance reports.
- Want to map buildings with C violations — not getting turned around quickly enough.
- Need access to quality of life data/complaints
- Need a digital complaints form for a CB office — want to see how many complaints come in, how many are resolved, etc.
- Need to track CB resolutions — send them out, not sure if they are acted on. SLA etc. don’t know how to follow or track.
- Need better public notifications — meetings, issue notifications, followups.
Walk First tool - what should SF be investing in?:
The City will be investing $17 million over the next five years to improve safety conditions for people walking. Given the City’s limited resources and the need to use this money effectively, you will be asked to prioritize each of 15 pedestrian safety tools (see Tools page for more information) by indicating whether or not you feel that the tool is a low, medium or high funding priority – essentially, how would you spend $17 million on pedestrian safety?
After each selection, you will see the graph at the right change in relation to your choices. This graph shows how your choices affect the total cost, the time to implement and the effectiveness of the solutions.
participation, tool, osp
Microparticipation in Transportation Planning:
details of the Austin Twitter experiments, and more on “microblogging”
twitter, planning, osp, planbox
Don’t make laws to make maps
Hey, legislators! Don’t write laws that require maps (especially those that detail how the map information will be aggregated).
Instead, write laws to open up data. The maps will come. Much easier. Shorter, future-proofed laws.
If you feel strongly about this, go testify. @transalt will be there, and other open data smarties.
This time, the law under discussion is about crash data in NYC, but the same unfortunate approach already made it into law for crime data. Interactive maps are an excellent tool to making complex data public, but requirements for a city agency to produce the map is not the right approach. Why not?
1. We need tools that answer questions and solve problems, and doing that well requires you to start with those needs, rather than building a generic map.
2. The track record of government-built maps is not great, maybe because of #1, or the tools they have, or because of internal development practices that don’t involve users, or something else. For example, the SLA liquor license map.
3. The track record of researchers and technologists and journalists to build data browsing tools is excellent. For example, excellent crime analysis, insightful 311 analysis, everything WNYC does, Vizzuality’s output etc.
4. There are complex tech problems that talented government technologists should work on. Making an interactive map isn’t one of them.
5. Legislation that is extremely specific seems brittle and prone to letter-of-the-law following later. Especially if a city department decided to be uncooperative in the future. Whereas full disaggregated data is flexible. We already have guidelines for opening up data “right”, no need to re-design this for each different type of data. Getting particular about mapping requirements is the worst sort of over-specifying. For crashes, maybe the aggregation by street segment prevents analysis of intersection safety (for example).
CDOT Performance Management Dashboard:
Crying out for a really nice front end! Interesting data here…
The tables in this dashboard work to promote transparency and accountability by providing real-time information about CDOT’s performance of the multiple public way infrastructure maintenance tasks we take on every day.
The charts provide a breakdown of the types of tasks performed, the number of requests for services, the number of requests that have been addressed and those current open. The information is updated on a daily basis.
dashboard, chicago, DOT, osp
“So while the specific problem this contest addresses is relatively humble, I’d see it as a creating a larger opportunity for academics, researchers, data scientists, and curious participants to figure out if can we develop predictive algorithms that work for multiple cities. Because if we can, then these algorithms could be a shared common asset. Each algorithm would become a tool for not just one housing non-profit, or city program but a tool for all sufficiently similar non-profits or city programs.”
Great. We need more community-owned insights. 311 seems to be a hugely under-valued community asset, for lots of reasons. Hopefully this cool project from David Eaves and SeeClickFix will start to make the locked-up value in 311 more accessible to everyone.
Announcing the 311 Data Challenge, soon to be launched on Kaggle | eaves.ca
Thoughts on business models for civic tech
A frequent topic among the civic tech chatteratti is the question of business models… How do we take these great ideas for civic engagement and scale them to orders of magnitude more people, operating as sustainable businesses with happy employees?
Although the non-profit model works for OpenPlans, I’m personally very keen to see more for-profit efforts - if what we’re doing is so great, it must be possible to do it without depending on members, foundations, etc.
(Boarding a plane to the Knight News Challenge Summer School today, I decided to write down some thoughts that have been rattling around in my head for months. There’s a shorter, more coherent argument to be made, but here’s a first pass, public draft.)
First, some thoughts about the common challenges faced by civic tech businesses. Not all firms have these problems, and none of these are impossible barriers, a problem is just an opportunity with a frowny-face, etc.
- The thought-diaspora of civic tech can be seen as very resilient, because we have many small firms that are independently going after similar goals. But we’re also a fragile collection — every government entity has a technology incumbent, and they aren’t going quietly. You can’t expect to take a multi-million dollar industry away and not experience some pushback (those golf club memberships have to be paid for somehow).
- We’re also fragile because some of the best ideas are either hard to scale, or coming from places that aren’t set up to scale or sell. Perhaps because of our hacker/fellowship origins, we’re good at coming up with creative solutions to problems, but less good at the other stuff. E.g. CrowdGauge or StreetMix.
- For civic engagement and planing software, there’s a risk of larger non-tech incumbents in the space moving in. When margins are thin, will the mega engineering firms develop in-house expertise in (say) TileMill or Shareabouts rather than going outside. Will young firms blaze a trail, only to see older firms cash in?
- Cities are often keen to work with local firms, and local talent - which is great, but it creates a market distortion that is bad for small firms based in a different city, even if their product is great.
- Smaller municipalities have a hard time spending money on things.
- And of course, procurement throws up all sorts of complexities.
Here are three approaches I’ve been musing over. The guiding principle for all of these is to preserve what works so well - small firms with the capacity to deliver groundbreaking tools - but scaled up drastically.
- the Civic Tech Collaborative, working together to get better at selling
- Scaling Together, working together to address the challenge of scaling
- More Local Tech, getting out of the way so a thousand developers take these tools to their communities.
I see a lot of challenges to those three approaches. In particular, I have an un-resolved conflict between the necessity to scale and the inability to scale - if these tools are so great, and as powerful as I think, why do we need the complex approaches described above?
Civic Tech Collaborative
Multiple small vendors who are affiliated and cross-promoting.
Focus on tools that aren’t on a trajectory to stand-alone sustainability already (so, not GovDelivery or Textizen, but maybe Shareabouts and Local Data).
A coherent, unified offering of a few smaller tools coming from the Code for America class each year, plus OpenPlans, and other incubators. Potentially, hiring a professional sales and support staff, to wrap a ribbon of professionalism around a number of tools at once, without each group having that expense.
So for example, OpenPlans could offer our services and re-sell other good tools without creating a procurement headache for clients.
There’s a version of this model where the collaborative shares skills rather than tools — the McKinsey of civic tech, like a more technical Bennet Midland.
Possibly as part of the same collaborative, a grouping that helps turn good standalone projects into feasible service offerings.
The group finds people with expertise in running and tuning service versions of tools, in a manner that makes government IT people happy. The world of civic tech seems to be loaded towards the front end, so finding skills to scale up a service or even just make hosting something that’s robust could be a good compliment. This approach saves each small outfit from needing to bring these skills onboard.
(This one fascinates me.) Local tech expertise is already helping cities with their web problems. Can we give new tools to those teams, and also help toolmakers be successful?
Local tech expertise is often cheaper, and more accessible. For society more generally this might be a good thing — the tax dollars stay local, and government contracts are rewarding work for local developers. We all win if more small development shops are actively re-deploying the best civic tech, by having more people skilled at using and offering tools.
Tool producers can worry less about selling tools to smaller places, but need to find revenue streams to support core development. The obvious example is Wordpress and Automattic, but the parallels aren’t quite true, and the density of work is lower, both for the core development team and the individual re-sellers.