The Power of Civic Technology: Highlights from CfA Summit

| MSFT Chicago Staff

What can civic technology do?

In Microsoft’s Technology and Civic Engagement team, we’re not just about providing hardware or software to make things easier. We’re about using this technology to connect with the community, to make a difference, and — to follow Code for America’s mission — to transform government through innovative technology and ideologies.

This year’s CfA Summit showed us what we as a society are capable of if we put our best foot forward, work together, and utilize technology to better ourselves. Our team was present at the summit, and together we’ve gathered some of our favorite moments from the week.

CfA Summit

Boston Team Highlights:

  • Jen Pahlka was inspiring in kicking off the Summit, as usual.  Great message: Starting with users isn’t just about how we should be making technology; it’s about how we should be making government.  Understand users’ needs, every day.  That’s the essence of CfA.
  • Mayor of Oakland Libby Schaaf: it’s all about the people.  Her vision of technology as the of a digital bridge, connecting citizens to gov’t services that serve their needs and drive equity.  She called it “techquity”, using tech to drive equity, using the power of government to talk to the tech community and drive support for equity.
  • Harlan Weber did a great job talking about Code for Boston’s efforts to work for greater inclusiveness, including community partners in National day of Civic Hacking, having them define projects to focus on and continuing the relationship after the national day was over.
  • One of my favorite sessions was Adam Hecktman’s discussion with Holly St. Clair and Lourdes German on data visualization—it was fantastic! I also loved working the Microsoft Lounge and meeting people from all over the world.
  • Terrific panel on 21st Century transportation.  Jascha Franklin Hodge from Boston was a rock star and had the quote of the morning: I hate it when people say that government should run more like business.  Government doesn’t get to choose its customers.  It serves everyone.  Everyone on the panel was very thoughtful.  Strong emphasis on need for private companies like Lyft and Uber to be part of the transportation ecosystem, and share data with gov’t, embrace a true partnership.  If your business model depends on a well-run city, then you need to embrace the partnership and share data to make it work.

Seattle Team Highlights:

  • Watching Ryan Calo, UW professor, and Michael Mattmiller, Seattle CTO present the result of their year-long project on privacy and municipal open data to a room of engaged government officials from across the country struggling with the same problem.

New York Team Highlights:

  • Codeando Mexico has worked with the country’s federal government to design Retos públicos, a new procurement process that invites small, nimble companies to build technology for the state. They’ve had 10 challenges to date, with 330 companies and 1700 participants building 50 prototypes for 9 federal ministries. Challenges have included natural disaster response, healthy eating, and displaying the works of cultural institutions.
  • The tribute to Jake Brewer, a White House advisor and longtime leader in civic tech, who passed away tragically at the age of 34, was especially moving. Carrying on Jake’s work by taking an oath to be an engaged citizen along with 1,200 other CfA Summit attendees was a fitting way to kick off our time together.

Chicago Team Highlights:

  • Loved #CUTGroup discussion by SmartChicago. Focus on working with REAL people, in their neighborhoods, to ensure civic tech resources are truly meaningful.
  • Great partnership with Chicago Public Library, and interesting approach of giving $5 physical gift card. It’s working! Over 1,000 testers in the past year. And a documented playbook with best practices.

Washington DC Team Highlights:

  • Maggie King, Program Director for Computational Analysis and Public Policy (CAPP), University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy said, “We know the opportunity in civic tech is huge. But policy education hasn’t evolved to meet our needs.” She noted that we need to put public policy and computer science on equal footing so that neither is an afterthought to the other.
  • Via Catherine Bracy: “Something Jascha [Franklin Hodge, Boston Chief Innovation Officer] said earlier today resonated with me: Government doesn’t have the luxury that the private sector has of being able to choose their market. They have to serve everyone. Because of that, government is naturally more risk-averse. It requires them to be more responsible about their allocation of resources.”

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