October 2014

Participatory Budgeting in America

Participatory Budgeting in AmericaTrust in government is approaching all-time lows. In recent years, Americans have come to feel more and more detached from their own governments and many commentators have simply accepted that as the new reality. But an increasingly popular civic engagement model called participatory budgeting is turning citizens into active participants of governmental budgeting decisions. These cross-sector collaborations of policymakers, citizens, and administrators are proving the skeptics wrong.

The origins of participatory budgeting (PB) can be traced to 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Since then, PB has been named a “best practice” in democratic innovation by the World Bank and enacted in over 1,500 localities globally. Through the process, citizens identify local level spending priories, work with government officials to craft budget proposals, and then convene a wider group of community residents to vote on projects. Elected officials and civil servants implement the projects designed by citizens for their own communities. The process came to the United States fairly recently – in 2009 – with one million dollars in one Chicago Aldermanic ward.

Since then, the process continues to gain momentum. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pledged to grow PB. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ran on a campaign pledge to scale up PB citywide. Melissa Mark-Viverito, one of the Council members who brought the process to New York City, was recently elected to the key position of City Council Speaker. New Yorkers may be pleased to hear that the Big Apple is the US leader in terms of dollars put through a PB process.

This fall, over half of the members of the New York City Council, representing nearly four-and-a-half million residents, will earmark their own discretionary funds for participatory budgeting initiatives in their respective council districts. Speaker Mark-Viverito announced on July 23rd: “Participatory budgeting is a gateway to greater civic participation and leadership in our communities, encouraging collaboration between residents and local elected officials to find creative solutions to neighborhood needs.

St. Louis, San Francisco, and Vallejo, CA, are also adopting PB. The White House recently made an international pledge to support the growth of PB using existing federal community funds. The New York Times has called PB “revolutionary civics in action.”

Cities across the country are starting to launch participatory budgeting and experiment with using digital tools. Boston launched the first youth driven process with a custom made Citizenvestor platform idea collection. On this platform, people can submit ideas, make comments, and “like” project proposals. Some project ideas include converting a vacant plot into a youth and art cultural center, technology bundles for public schools, and creating an indoor/outdoor performance space.

The process provides unprecedented hands on civic education. Participants engage directly with their elected officials and learn about the way high-impact decisions are made. This can include learning about costs and time lags. All of this contributes to deepened civic learning and other opportunities for engagement. The process is especially good at bringing the traditionally marginalized into civic life. Long-time community participants have often cited participatory budgeting as the single most rewarding civic experience of their life. What makes PB so exciting is that it is about real money and real decision-making power.

Participatory budgeting may not be a panacea to low levels of civic engagement. However, its very expansion suggests it is an effective tool. Citizens stay involved because they enjoy meeting their neighbors, elected officials, and community in a more meaningful capacity. Elected officials are putting considerable resources to this process because they understand its profound civic rewards. We need more genuine opportunities for citizens to be engaged participants.

Participatory budgeting is one important tool in an emerging civic innovation toolkit.

Hollie Russon Gilman (@hrgilman) is a Civic Innovation Fellow at New America

Microsoft Surface Brings Innovation to the NFL

Microsoft Surface Brings Innovation to the NFL

This season, the NFL runs on Microsoft. With the addition of Microsoft Surface tablets (“The Official Tablet of the NFL”), the NFL’s “sideline of the future” is becoming today’s reality. Using special Surface tablets designed for the field, coaches and players are able to interact during gameplay and work on team skills in real time through the Microsoft Surface Sideline Viewing System.

And it was no easy feat.

According to The New York Times,

Microsoft was told the tablets had to be rugged enough to survive drops, easy enough to use in a hurry and big enough for several people to see its screen at once. They had to work in extreme temperatures (hot and cold), resist glare and hold a battery charge for a full game, and they had to work on a secure wireless network without delays.

The NFL uses these Surface tablets to review in-game photos and analyze opponent’s defense plans while annotating the photos. With 15 tablets on the sidelines and 12 in the coaches’ booths, players and coaches have the ability to view up to four images at a time as well as to enlarge the images for better viewing. At the end of each game, the tablets are returned and all images and annotations are erased.

The tablets are part of a long-term Microsoft partnership that includes XBox One, inviting fans to use the Microsoft NFL app for XBox One to keep up with fantasy stats, real-time updates, in-game highlights, news, scores and stats—right next to the live games on their TVs.

For more on the NFL/Microsoft partnership, read the Official Microsoft Blog here.

Microsoft NY Embraces The Responsive City

Follow us for more #CivicTech Events and News on Twitter at @MicrosoftNY!

Recapping the Best of NYC at the 2014 #CfASummit

Thank you to all who joined us! For more information on Code for America, visit their website here.

Hacking Hardware to Prototype Resilience at the Feast

Top photo by @catcliffords used with permission

This weekend we had the great pleasure of supporting and attending The Feast (#Feast2014). It’s hard to adequately describe this interdisciplinary concoction of design, social innovation, and inspiration, but the official liveblog is a good place to start.

Setting matters, and on this front we benefitted from working out of an incredible art and community space, Pioneer Works in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Red Hook was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, and still suffers. The Feast’s hardware hackathon was a collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and FEMA in support of the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative. This event built on the same partners’ Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Demo Day.

There were two significant changes to the usual hackathon itinerary that I’d love to see adopted or modified by groups running similar events. First, the day started with a Human Centered Design training by IDEO designers. Part of this training asks designers to consider the community’s desire for designers’ ideas, as well as the long-term viability of their projects, which has traditionally limited the real impact of hackathons.

The second hack to the hackathon agenda occurred when the teams were whisked to key field locations and met with a variety of formal and community stakeholders before getting too deep into implementing their ideas. The participants I spoke to found the interactions with first responders and community members not just a pleasant experience, but helpful in testing their assumptions.

And the teams’ ideas, soon manifested into physical existence, were awesome:

Citizen Power Brigade modified a hybrid car with a field electrical kit to serve as a clean mobile generator, with the capability to power refrigerators or charge 8,400 cellphones with a single tank of gas:

LandlinePH is an off-the-grid decentralized communication network for relief agencies that allows them to continue using digital reporting methods. The team spent the weekend expanding the range of their base stations and integrating GPS auto-locators. An IKEA hanger was repurposed as a USB charger:

Cascade Designs built an electrochlorinator, which can turn water and table salt into chlorine:
Demo of an "electrochlorinator" at the #disastertec... on Twitpic

Photo by @FEMAspox

That chlorine can be used to clean water and fight cholera. The Clean Water STEM Education Program brings the equipment to schools and trains people how and why to use it. Then, when disaster strikes, members of the community not only have the equipment but also understand how to use it.

The Red Hook Initiative’s Digital Stewards team brainstormed ways to take their existing wireless mesh network (!!) and make it more resilient, like by running it on solar power.

Peter Haas’s experience inspecting damaged buildings with limited connectivity following the earthquake in Haiti led him to create Chatpoint, a wireless chat and image sharing system. It’s a lot like Firechat, but based on an RC helicopter transmitters that extend the network’s range over several miles. It runs off its battery pack for a couple of days on off-the-shelf hardware.

Voltaic Systems created a low-cost, high efficiency pedal powered electrical generator system. This manually generated electricity can output to USB to charge countless devices.

“The most expensive resource during a crisis is time.” –@bellmarr

There are many people collecting data in the aftermath of a crisis – governments, NGOs, journalists – but there’s poor sharing of data. Marianne is building a system for sharing this data that interoperates with existing systems so data collectors don’t need to adopt new approaches.

Natural disasters delay school enrollment by 6 months on average, and many students drop out completely. Eskuwela Now is an SMS platform to allow teachers to coordinate pop-up schools in disasters. The team hacked a Wiimote, projector, and Raspberry Pi to allow educators to continue teaching in just about any environment with a flat surface upon which to project lessons. With 12 Volts and under $150 in parts, teachers can build a device with capabilities similar to a $1500 smartboard.

Congratulations to all the teams, and good luck developing out your prototypes!

Photo by @janedelser used with permission.

Join us for “Best of Code for America Summit”


Just two weeks ago, we had the pleasure of attending the 2014 Code for America Summit in San Francisco. Over three days, we connected with hundreds of technology, civic engagement, nonprofit, and startup organizations seeking to change the world through civic technology. We witnessed inspiring speeches on why the “small things” are actually big things, saw governments and civic tech leaders team up to become more open with their data, and were reminded how technology can help strangers in need. After three exhilarating days and plenty of conversations with our peers, we came back inspired.

Next week, we join the local Code for America Brigades, BetaNYC, in our continued mission to change citizenship, government, and more as we recap the Summit here at home. CfA Summit attendees will highlight their top moments of the conference and discuss how we can keep momentum going in our community. After some brief networking, NYC tech leaders will provide their insights on the Summit, followed by open questions and a discussion with the audience.

This is not just an ‘ICYMI’ event. Together, let’s discuss the innovations you’re excited about driving forward; then, let’s explore what needs to be done.

Interested attendees can RSVP here, and also see who else will be joining us next week. We can’t wait to see you there!

New York Civic Tech Events in October

We are back from the Code for America Summit and readjusting to the East Coast’s circadian rhythms. There are a lot of interesting conversations to follow up on, but October has its own plans, too. Come join us at any of these events, and leave a comment if we missed something!

October 7th:
“Meet the finalists of RISE: NYC, a $30 million competition to identify new and innovative technologies to make NYC small businesses more resilient to the impacts of future storms, sea level rise and other effects of climate change.” Event info

October 8th:
Join Beta NYC for their weekly Code for America Brigades civic hack night. RSVP now.

October 10th and 11th:
We’re supporting and participating in The Feast Hardware Hackathon with The Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, IDEO, and the Red Hook Initiative (#feast2014).

The hackathon is “in support of the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative, an effort first launched by the Obama Administration in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The initiative aims to find effective ways technology can empower the disaster resilience community with critical information and resources.” Participants will get to prototype and field test their creations with first responders and design thinkers.

October 14th:
Data & Society launches! “Data & Society is an NYC-based think/do tank focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from data-centric technological development.”

October 15th:

7PM: Come to our offices at 641 Avenue of the Americas for a report-back from the Code for America Summit with Beta NYC. We’ll share highlights from the week, and build on the momentum for local projects and connections. You’re more than welcome to join whether or not you made it to the Summit. RSVP now!

October 17th:
Join us again in our Microsoft Research offices to hear from Susan Crawford, Harvard Law professor and Champion of a Speedy Internet. Susan’s brand new book, The Responsive City, is available now. Susan will share compelling stories and a guiding framework for civic technology in our cities. RSVP now!