Looking Forward in Civic Tech: Code for America Summit and Beyond
Every year, thousands of people gather at the Code for America Summit to discuss how technology can improve our governments and the services that they provide. I had the pleasure of attending the Summit this year in Oakland, CA alongside colleagues from Microsoft and friends from various sectors, all of whom are passionate about advancing a 21st century government by the people, for the people.
Jen Pahlka, founder and Executive Director of Code for America, kicked off the Summit with an overview of Code for America, a non-partisan, non-political organization that employs civic technology experts and supports a network of over 80 “Brigades” (local volunteer groups) nationwide. Many of these groups showcased their current efforts at the Summit, including projects related to food assistance programs, criminal justice, and others.
This year’s CFA Summit included many fantastic speakers, starting with Cecilia Muñoz (Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council), who praised the growing role of technology in government:
Another exciting White House appearance came from Alvand Salehi and Tony Scott (Office of the U.S. CIO), who unveiled code.gov live onstage. This new website will inventory all federal source code repositories, making code sharable across federal agencies and open sourcing many of them for public use.
Speaking of open source, we had fun demonstrating some of the capabilities of the Microsoft Azure cognitive service APIs using our open source Intelligent Kiosk application, which makes use of computer vision to perform face and emotion recognition:
We also demonstrated an unreleased version of Microsoft Translator, which is built using the Azure Translator Speech API and Translator Text API (the same technology that powers the translation features in Skype and other Microsoft products).
In her talk Accessibility in the Modern World, Jenny Lay Flurrie highlighted that “technology moves faster than the laws do,” reminding us that accessibility is about much more than compliance. In that spirit, we’re brainstorming ways to apply these translation technologies to the civic tech ecosystem, from promoting inclusion among deaf students and English language learners in the classroom to helping local governments enhance accessibility of citizen services. What ideas do you have? Tweet them to us @MicrosoftNY!
Another open source tool we displayed was Civic Graph:
Between startups, community advocates, academic and enterprise involvement, and federal/state/local governments, the civic tech space is growing at an inspirational pace. We built Civic Graph to help navigate and visualize this ecosystem and those contributing to it.
We’re excited that in addition to being an open source project, Civic Graph is also generating open data, a topic of much discussion at the CFA Summit.
Of course, no discussion of data would be complete without DJ Patil, the Chief Data Scientist and Deputy CTO of the United States. Interviewed by Tim O’Reilly, DJ reminded us that simply opening a dataset is often not enough; to encourage engagement, the data must be accompanied by a mission.
The 2016 Summit closed with a beautifully impassioned appeal by Lori Brewer Collins (mother of late White House staffer Jake Brewer) to continue “cultivating the karass” and working toward improving our country and the lives of those within it, reminding us that “A legacy is the enduring truth about your life.”