Civic Tech

How We Can Use Tech to Help Citizens Better Access Local Government

Originally published by CHORUS on Medium.

TEAM GOV Left to right: Regina Schwartz, Chief of Staff Department of Intergovernmental Affairs for the City of New York, Nicole Neditch, Senior Director of Community Engagement at Code for America, Tiana Epps-Johnson, Founder and Executive Director at Center for Technology and Civic Life, Matt Stempeck, Director of Civic Technology at Microsoft, and Stonly Baptiste, Co-Founder and Partner at Urban Us.

A few weeks ago, I got to spend two days in Chicago with a deep bench of civic innovators and senior campaign veterans to celebrate the launch of CHORUS, a new organization working to foster and strengthen the movement for equity, opportunity, inclusion, and justice. We shared candidly, brainstormed openly, and workshopped around advocacy, volunteering, voting, and governance, working out of the University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Our team took on the challenge of governance, or more specifically, how to improve residents’ awareness of, and engagement with their local government’s services. Fortunately, we had exactly the team you’d want to put together to do that kind of thing (see photo above).

First, we considered all of the barriers to effective government, as well as the levers that we might have available to us to create change.

Some of the common barriers within government included siloing of knowledge within individual city agencies and departments, difficulty effectively communicating the work that is done, and an overriding risk-averse culture. Fear of a negative headline was mentioned several times. On the public side of the relationship, a major barrier is a lack of basic civics education and awareness of how government works.

Fortunately, our team had experience in accomplishing things with government, and could identify some tactics that have worked in the past. Small pilots were encouraged as a way to experiment without triggering the bureaucracy’s allergy to risk. The ability to get quick wins, and generously share the credit for them within government was also a proven method. Having a short amount of time to complete the project — a sprint — was also found to be a great forcing function. And we acknowledged the power of peer networks to connect communities of practice within government to one another.

Our next challenge was to create a concise problem statement. Given the universe of potential problems, this took some discussion. We framed the challenge with a helpful model of citizen engagement proposed by Regina.

Her model flips the infamous ladder of civic engagement on its side to demonstrate residents’ spectrum of engagement with government, from:

  • ignorance of the public sector’s role in their lives to
  • awareness of what government provides them to
  • a deeper understanding that we shape our governments to
  • a sense of agency to go from a recipient of services to a shaper of services

We chose to focus on the early stages of this journey, helping residents discover government services, and setting the stage for deeper engagement.

“How might we enhance people’s awareness of their local government’s impact on their lives?” With this problem statement framing our work, here’s what we came up with…

Increasing Engagement with Government Services through Contextual Discovery

Our solution might best be understood as a specific example in an applied setting:

You go grocery shopping. As you check out at the register, the Point of Sale device where you swipe your debit or credit card asks you if you’d be interested in receiving help paying for your groceries (we’ll test the exact language here for comprehension, inclusiveness, and a sense of empowerment). If you say you’re interested, the dialog asks for your cellphone number so a staffer within your local government can text you more information.

As you’re on the way home with your groceries, we send you a text that starts a conversation. Over the course of a few questions, we get a sense of your situation, and whether you might qualify for available benefits. We keep the conversation going, helping you discover other relevant government services, or connecting other people you know to the same.

When we zoom out and abstract this model beyond food benefits and grocery stores, there are three key components:

1. Natural context

Let’s surface government programs at the exact time and place that someone might want or need to make use of such a program (e.g. introducing SNAP benefits exactly as the person is paying for groceries, including tax preparation assistance on the tax forms).

2. Personal engagement

We set the stage for a genuine two-way conversation with the person that, over time and with additional communication, can grow into a true relationship. We chose SMS intentionally, knowing that low-income New Yorkers have access to smartphones, prefer communicating by text, and already use them to do their shopping and banking. Our conversation is designed from the onset to provide people with an increasing sense of agency. We begin with information about relevant services and grow the conversation over time to let people feel that government is listening, understanding that experiencing a responsive bureaucracy improves engagement.

3. Human-assistive technology

Recognizing that local government outreach staff may be busy (or non-existent), we propose to scale staff’s time with emerging technologies that will help them reach more people through personal channels.

In our example, the initial flow of the SMS conversation is pre-scripted, so that a staffer or even a chatbot can pull from a template bank to get in touch and begin the relationship. This allows the local government to qualify large numbers of people before more time-intensive conversation is needed (inspired by Hillary for America’s concierge voter text hotline).

So what’s next?

We’d love to see engagement services like the one described here tested in the real world. The lightweight version of this project could be accomplished with administrators at the local government level who are willing to try something new with a little bit of staff time, and a staff or volunteer technologist who could set up a simple texting program.

CHORUS is looking for partners interested in collaborating to bring this idea to life.

If you know of existing programs that achieve these goals, or if you’re interested in exploring how we might design a small pilot to try this out, please leave us a note in the comments or get in touch.

Beyond Representation: Designing a Modern Government

I recently flew down to San Pedro Garza Garcia, a city next to Monterrey, Mexico, for a quick trip to help launch DesafíoSP (‘Desafio’ translates to ‘Challenge’). I was invited by Dinorah Cantú-Pedraza, who runs NYU’s GovLab Academy, and helped organize the challenge, together with Graciela Reyes, the City Councilwoman who made the project happen, and Miguel Salazar of Codeando México, the country’s Code for All Brigade.

DesafíoSP reminded me of the most recent incarnation of NYC’s BigApps. Like BigApps, DesafíoSP focused on where technology, data, and innovation can improve residents’ lives. The list of finalist teams is an exciting mix of projects, including work to make government data more transparent and accessible, to capture more value from the city’s waste streams, to create geospatial maps of the community, and multiple projects to protect pedestrians from auto traffic.

While BigApps began as an open challenge to encourage New Yorkers to build apps powered by open government data, it has evolved over the years into a more sophisticated model where teams co-design solutions with the people they’re working to benefit. DesafíoSP is starting at this point, and is especially focused on the participatory governance benefits of the program. The residents who participate have already made serious commitments of time and energy to improving their community, and will continue to as the program goes on. They will be coached by others who have embarked on similar projects, thanks to the GovLab Academy, and they’ll be connected to the offices and agencies doing related work in the public sector.

Below are my remarks from the launch event, edited for brevity:

Programs like DesafíoSP and BigApps NYC present an important question, as surveys show that people have lost faith in public institutions: What would it take to have a government that we truly believe in?

It’s quite easy to lose faith in our government when it doesn’t do what we want, or doesn’t do anything at all. The greater challenge is to help design a government that’s worthy of your involvement. The key word there is ‘help’ — we need to show up. Not just on Election Day, but also by participating in the many new programs designed to bring the people’s expertise to bear on public sector challenges.

How can we redesign our governments to invite people to take part in the first place? What would it look like if voting and taxes weren’t the only times you thought about your government? It won’t surprise anyone when I say that I think technology can help answer this question. But technology doesn’t automatically lead to better government.

In a lot of ways, technology has empowered individuals more than it has empowered our shared collective. But technology can do more than just enhance the agency of the individual. Technology can improve the shared group, too. We can make better groups, and collaborate better. We can use technology to discover new participants across very large groups of people that we previously couldn’t, as GovLab’s expert network projects seek to do. We can match problems to the people with experience solving that kind of problem.

For participatory government to work, we need two things:

  1. We need more people to know how their government functions.
  2. We need their government to open up more to more people.

It’s frequently said in civic tech circles that our governments organize 21st century citizens with 18th century technologies. There are good reasons for representation; Not everyone should have to spend all day reading legislation. There are also bad reasons for representation, like a fear of what citizens will do if they’re fully engaged. Representation allows us to become lazy as citizens, and forces our representatives and government employees to do all of the work.

We need to do a better of job communicating to the public what government does, who it’s for, and what all of these municipal departments actually do. What do all those government employees do? That park I bring my dog to each morning – who fought to create it, and where do I show up to keep it there? We need to tell the stories of the public sector – we can’t assume people will just trust institutions as they might have in the past.

There’s so much value the rest of us can contribute to government to improve it, to make it worthy of its ideals of serving all and lifting our community. But we can’t access that value if our government won’t acknowledge it or expend the energy to organize it.

Now, maybe all of this is obvious. But it’s really hard to actually do the things i’m saying.

What if I came to you at your job, in your busiest time of year, and said, I’ve got 50 people who want to help, but they don’t know how to do your job. Can you train them, and hold their hand, and find them work that’s appropriate for their skill level and background and degree of motivation each day?

You’d kick me out of your office.

So, how do we bring the public into the public sector?

We gathered to mark the launch of DesafíoSP, and to celebrate the government opening up to not just include, but really leverage the people it represents. We’re celebrating the people leading the way with projects to reinvent their communities, and their government in the process. With your expertise, your commitment, we will point a new way forward.

The municipality, Codeando México, and the Govlab Academy launched a call not just for solutions, but for solutions and involvement. And the people answered.

It wasn’t easy. There’s a big time commitment. More meetings and phone calls after a day of work. Very few of the people participating in DesafíoSP work for the municipality. All of the people live or work here and care about this place.

You probably know, there are two categories of motivation — extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. And when surveyed, you spoke of the impact of getting something done.

These are the projects you’re going to get done. Wanting to see something through for the sake of the result, not prize money or the glory of winning. That’s intrinsic motivation.

That drive, to contribute to changing something for the better, and your acting on that drive, is what will make this work worth your commitment, in the end.

Getting stuff done is where local governments can really excel.

 

While there can be a variety of barriers to successfully doing something, one limit to getting things done at the local government level is often as simple as someone raising their hand to do it.

San Pedro, you raised your hand.

From pedestrian improvements and composting to government transparency, you’ve identified exciting areas to update and improve where you live. You submitted projects from the public sector and the private, as committed individuals who built a team, and as existing groups re-engaging.

You represent a range of ages, professional backgrounds, and life experiences.

The Coaching program you’re embarking on is unique. It’s tailored to help you accomplish the impact that set you on this course to begin with. So you’ll be trained, and connected with others who have done similar work, and provided guidance by experts.

And I hope that even after recruiting your team, you will continue to connect others to your projects, to involve the communities around you early and often. Because your project will be most successful if it’s adopted, if you are not it’s only champion.

Thanks to Dinorah Cantu and Beth Noveck and codeando mexico, we’re moving in the right direction. Thanks to the leadership of San Pedro Garza Garcia, we have a place to experiment. Technology can improve how we do this. San Pedro Garza Garcia could be to participatory citizenships what Porto Alegre was to participatory budgeting – a shining example for the rest of the world to watch, and then, when things go well, to point to, in their own town meetings and government boards, and say, “Hey, why don’t we try that, too?”

NYC wasn’t the first city to do participatory budgeting. It now distributes $32 million a year guided by a public election rather than a government official. 27 city councilors participate.

In Boston, youth who can’t even vote, who have every reason to treat government like a faceless entity, have already had the experience of directing public funds towards improvements they specifically want to see to their neighborhoods.

With work, we can move the system in the right direction. It begins with a strong pilot. And from there, it can grow, to a handful of pilots, and then ongoing commitments. Maybe next it becomes a trend. And sooner than later, if we keep working at it, our innovation becomes so successful, we stop noticing that we do it this way. Like libraries and subways and NASA and all the other shifts in our idea of what the public sector can achieve, we’ll know we’ve accomplished victory when we completely take it for granted that one of the fundamental parts of an effective government is the contributions of its talented citizenry.

We’re all here in this together, and the point of having a public sector and a government isn’t to rule, it’s to bring us together to get things done. When the very idea of government and shared investments like public education are under attack, we need to prove that we’re better together every once in awhile.

That’s exactly why we’re here together today. By signing up to participate, by coming together to improve San Pedro, you’re living out the highest ideals of what government should be. Congratulations and please, lead the way.

Working Forward: Ross Dakin, Senior Advisor, Microsoft New York

From waiter to White House — it’s all about people

My first “real job” was at a local Italian restaurant in San Diego, where I bussed tables for three years during high school.

On my first night of work—having no experience—I loaded a tray full of eight water glasses, walked over to a table, and spilled them all onto a customer’s lap. I was devastated; I knew I would be fired.

Later that night, Javier (the restaurant owner) approached me in the back of the restaurant.

“What do you do when you fall off a bicycle?” he asked.

I paused, wide-eyed, then replied, “Get back on?”

With a nod, Javier walked away, and that was the end of it. To this day, he remains a mentor and one of my closest friends.

That job taught me so much about effective leadership, team dynamics, engagement with the public, and—above all—how to treat women and men working long hours in the service industry with respect and an appreciation for the distinction between “server” and “servant.”

Everyone should work in food service at least once—I’ve found no better lesson in empathy.

Technology is easy; culture is hard

Fast forward a couple decades—last year, it was my honor to serve as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow in Washington, D.C., where again I found service and empathy to be at the heart of my job. This program (affectionately abbreviated “PIF”) was created to provide an avenue for bringing modern methodologies and best practices from the private sector into the federal government.

While there is a technology flavor to the PIF program, its greatest strength lies in the beginnings of culture change that it has brought to the federal workforce (agile development, human-centered design, an embrace of failure and an appetite for experimentation, etc.), and the key to changing that culture has been the employment of deep empathy for career federal employees. Understanding their procurement, budgetary, and security requirements helped us best facilitate the shedding of the business-as-usual mindset (“but we’ve always done it that way”) in favor of an open-minded curiosity for novel and alternative approaches.

One manifestation of this was the warming of government to modern cloud technologies despite unfamiliarity and natural skepticism. By empathizing with their encumbering bureaucratic constraints, we (and our friends in 18F, USDS, and other groups) were able to help many agencies navigate their way toward adopting cloud services for their technical needs. It’s been very encouraging to watch more and more agencies trust their missions (from food stamps to national security) to Azure and other cloud service providers.

None of that would have happened without first building trust and understanding between our group and the civil servants with whom we worked—it all starts with people.

The real heroes

As a side note, I cannot overstate how amazing career government employees are. The vast majority of everyone I met during my time in D.C. had the highest levels of work ethic, integrity, and true passion for public service. While participants in programs like PIF, 18F, and USDS perform short-term “tours of duty” to help modernize government (sometimes in highly visible ways), the career government employees of all levels who dedicate their lives to public service are very truly deserving of the highest praise and recognition.

The challenges I mention arise from the fact that our government is an enormous organization that necessarily has many regulations unique to the charter of providing for every single person in our country, often requiring stability that results in a natural isolation from the ways of the ever-evolving private sector. In this and other respects, it was very illuminating to appreciate the critical differences between running a business and running a nation.

Speaking of business

Many PIFs remain in government after their fellowships end, either as White House advisors, at other technology-focused groups like 18F or the US Digital Service, or within executive agencies in such roles as Chief Technology Officer, Chief Data Scientist, etc.

I opted to return to the private sector because I realized that it’s just as important for people with government experience to be in private companies as it is for people with private sector experience to cycle through government. When both sides of the table share experience with each other, we can begin to collaborate from a place of common understanding and accomplish much more than we could accomplish without the benefit of having gained insight beyond our respective silos.

This continues to be true for me personally, as my time as a PIF informs my current role at Microsoft a great deal: they share many attributes (both are small groups within large organizations, both are undergoing periods of reinvention) and their associated challenges and opportunities. While not public service, the Microsoft TCE team strives to generate public good in many of the same ways that I did as a PIF (identifying strategic partnerships, leveraging our unique scale, employing best-of-breed technologies, etc.), and I am grateful for both the opportunity to have served in my governmental capacity and to continue applying the learnings I gained there in the private sector.

Stronger together

Both my time as a PIF and with Microsoft TCE have opened my eyes to many astoundingly unfortunate conditions that exist in our country. The fact that 19% of American kids grow up in poverty is unacceptable. It’s 2017—we can do better.

This is why private sector programs like Microsoft’s Tech Jobs Academy, public sector initiatives like #CSForAll and TechHire, and public/private collaborations like The Opportunity Project excite me so much: the keys to economic advancement should not be the zip code you grew up in or being of a privileged demographic, but a strong work ethic and the daring to chase big dreams.

Both public and private sectors share a role to play in advancing economic opportunity, and the most progress can perhaps be made when they function together in collaboration.

Success and humanity

With the shared responsibility of generating public good comes a shared challenge: what is “success” when the goal is not simply to make money?

If we impact the lives of 10 people, have we been successful? Must we impact a thousand people to be successful? A million? What depth of impact is required to achieve success? How should we quantify the level of impact?

These are questions without right or wrong answers. They’re questions that are highly subjective in nature. When much of a technologist’s career involves black-and-white programming, these questions present an interesting gray area that must be navigated with an element of gut feeling, ethics, and intuition that a computer cannot provide.

This is the human side of technology—it’s truly all about people.

NYC Hacks Shipping at the Ports & Logistics Hackathon

This month, our team at Microsoft NY collaborated with developers, business people, designers, domain experts, and lawyers as sponsors and mentors to bring modern technology to the international shipping industry at the NYC Ports & Logistics Hackathon. The 48-hour hackathon was a collective effort between Rainmaking Innovation, Ports America, the Port Authority of NY/NJ, Mærsk Group, Microsoft, Quintiq, INTTRA, Cisco and the Red Sea Gateway Terminal. The history of international shipping has seen very little technological disruption, despite accounting for 90% of global trade. A marketplace that employs 13.5 Million people and generates $436.6 Billion in the US alone is a prime opportunity to innovate, and to this we say: Bring in the hackers.

February’s Civic Tech Events

Thanks to everyone who shared event links and invitations with us. We’re looking forward to seeing you around the city all this month. Check out some of our favorite events taking place in NYC in February:

All month

Carol Jenkins toured the new African American Museum in Washington, DC, as part of her program “Black America” on CUNY TV. You can view the hour-long show, “More Than A Building, A Dream Come True” online at cuny.tv/show/blackamerica/PR2005859.

Wednesday, February 1, 4:00pm

Databite with Jonathan Mayer

Regulatory agencies—especially the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission—have risen to prominence on technology security and privacy issues. Drawing on recent federal experience, this talk will explain why FTC, FCC, and similar agencies have assumed policy leadership roles, what legal authorities are at their disposal, and how agencies have exercised their authorities. The presentation will include case studies of both successes and failures, and it will offer suggestions on best practices and recurring challenges. The talk will also address how researchers and civil society groups can effectively engage with regulatory agencies.

Wednesday, February 1, 6:30 PM

The Business of Comedy

Join LMHQ for a fireside chat about the business of comedy, where we’ll give attendees a peek behind the curtain about what goes into making comedy work. More funny folks are experimenting with comedic mediums, more clubs are opening for standup, and comedy is being woven more effortlessly into the fabric of pop culture on a daily basis. What does it take, beyond the performance, to make comedy as a business successful?

Moderated by Taylor Moore, comedian and comedy curator at Kickstarter, in conversation with Justine Giannino, Manager of Original Programming (Current Series & Development) at IFC TV; JD Amato, Director and Executive Producer of The Chris Gethard Show; Jasmine Pierce, Writer at Reductress and Heidi Vanderlee, Publicist at Shark Party Media.

Tuesday, February 7, 7:00pm

February 2017 NY Tech Meetup and Afterparty

Join fellow technologists for an evening of live demos from companies developing great technology in New York, followed by a networking afterparty.

Wednesday, February 8, 2:00pm

Accessibility, Mobility, and Design

A conversation about the meaning of mobility and the role of design as a process that can cultivate a culture of accessibility that goes beyond accommodations. Sara Hendren (Olin College of Engineering) and April Coughlin (SUNY, New Paltz) will discuss physical, structural, social, and attitudinal barriers within and outside of the classroom, that shape access to education for students with disabilities. The discussion will be moderated by Jessica Murray (Futures Initiative Fellow, GC Doctoral Student in Human Development). You can also watch the live stream at bit.ly/FuturesED-live and follow along at #fight4edu.

Wednesday, February 8, 6:00pm

Proposition: We Can Solve The Fake News Problem

Conversations is a series of events focused on open discussions on the changing new media landscape. Our events will feature panels with insights from the most respected news organizations, the newest disruptive publishers, and tech and media thought leaders. Through conversations, let’s work to transform media together.
The role of fake news — from PizzaGate to the 2016 election — is of grave importance, and a debate is roiling in tech and media circles about its impact and what can be done to curb it going forward.

By the time we reach the next presidential election cycle, the volume of fake and machine-generated news, information, commentary and debate may explode. From algorithmically composed text to photorealistic video simulations of people and events, from conversational bots to machine-generated audio that is indiscernible from the voices of politicians, there is a high probability that discourse among citizens will take place in a universe of fictions.

This event — structured as a debate — will chart and discuss key areas of technological advance that will impact the information landscape and consider how technology companies, media, governments and academia will respond to the benefit or detriment of democracy. It will imagine potential futures, and identify developments that are key to understanding which of those futures is most likely to play out. Crucially, it will ask the audience to decide: can we solve this problem? Or is fake news an unavoidable side effect of the internet?

Wednesday, February 8, 6:00pm

Research & Understand (Discover)

For BigApps participants — In this session, we will apply a human-centered and empathic approach to design research and ethnography in order to deeply understand unmet user needs. Some of these activities will include user and subject matter expert interviews, as well as observations and secondary research. Participants will come away with an understanding of the core principles of design research.

Thursday, February 9, 3:00pm

Civic Hacker Hours

Join Civic Hall members & the Hacker Hours community for an informal coworking session to give & receive support from developers, engineers, data scientists, and other technical professionals. Open to all skill levels.

Thursday, February 9, 6:00pm

The Cooperative Platform Economy: A Conversation with Trebor Scholz and Yochai Benkler

Hear Trebor Scholz in conversation with Yochai Benkler to celebrate the publication of Trebor’s new books, Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy (Polity) and, co-edited with Nathan Schneider, Ours to Hack and to Own. The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, a New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet (OR Books).

Thursday, February 9, 6:00pm

How can government agencies rethink public space to sustain lasting value?

For the second installment of the Parks Without Borders Discussion Series, NYC Parks welcomes leadership from New York City’s Public Design Commission. This discussion will delve into how government agencies can rethink guidelines, concepts, and expectations to sustain lasting value, helping to support a more seamless public realm.

Speakers:
Justin Moore, AICP Executive Director of NYC Public Design Commission
Signe Nielsen, FASLA, President for NYC Public Design Commission

Moderated by:
Nancy Prince, Deputy Chief of Design for NYC Parks

Saturday, February 11, 9:00am

Girl Develop It: Hackentine’s Day

Girl Develop It NYC is hosting its first-ever hackathon! It will be a one day event for all skill levels to work in groups on projects with the added bonus of skill-building workshops attendees can sign up for. This is a great opportunity to try out a hackathon with beginners like you, learn new skills and work on exciting projects with support from mentors and other GDI members.

Saturday, February 11, 2:00pm

Celebrating The Diaspora: Highlighting the Richness and Diversity of Black History (past, present, & future)

2017 NMACDST CHANGE MAKER AWARDS will be presented to:

Edna Simbi, Upendo Women’s Foundation
Wayne Devonish, 500 Men Making A Difference

The 2017 Youth On The Move Award will be presented to:
Jtara Clark, NAACP New York Branch’s Youth Committee

Performances by:
Broadway’s – Joaquina Kalukango, MOVE(NYC), Mfoniso Udofia, J. F. Seary & More

Please join us for – Food . Fellowship . Vendor & Exhibit from The National Black Theatre

This event is Free & Open to The Public

Monday, February 13, 6:30pm

No One Ever Said Mapping Time Was Easy.

If you’ve ever tried to map a historical database, you understand how hard it is to do all the things at once. Showing data over time presents unique issues: overlapping features, navigation through time and parallel boundaries/standards/data are just the beginning.

Well, we are going to help you get started by presenting a few projects which went all the way there. Whether through obsession or assigmnet, they’ve scraped old books and photographed old maps. They’ve digitized and georeferenced. And they’ve finally made something new from the activities of the past.

So join us for a little time-travel with maps. We look forward to seeing you in the past and future.

Wednesday, February 15, 6:30pm

Startup Cities

Entrepreneurs, economists, and urbanist thinkers join forces to discuss the actions, effects, and impacts of startup methodology for cities.

Join the conversation!

Wednesday, February 15, 6:30pm

Digital Pioneers and the Urban Environment

Across the United States, designers are using cognitive computing and data analysis to help American cities meet the needs of their diverse populations. Tiffany Chu, Code for America fellow and cofounder of the public transport data initiative Remix; Adam Cutler, distinguished designer at IBM Design; and Sarah Williams, director of MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab and cocreator of the City Digits: Local Lotto project, will discuss the promise and challenges of this important partnership with moderator Cynthia E. Smith, Curator of Socially Responsible Design. Remix and City Digits: Local Lotto are currently on view in the special exhibition By the People: Designing a Better America.

*This event has a $15 admission price. Admission is reduced to $8 for educators, seniors, and students.*

Wednesday, February 15, 7pm

Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy

Some of the most remarkable impacts of digital media on political activism lie not in the new types of speech it supports, but in the new forms of listening that it fosters among organized pressure groups. Organized advocacy groups are increasingly turning to digital analytics in order to gauge supporter interest, monitor public sentiment, experiment with new tactics, and craft strategies that resonate in the new media environment. In his new book, Analytic Activism, Dave Karpf discusses the heretofore overlooked role of analytics in organized political engagement. He explores how this new mode of activism works, how it is produced, what it is useful for, and what its limitations are. In this public talk, he’ll discuss how the themes of Analytic Activism relate to the new challenges we face in the He Who Must Not Be Named Era.

Thursday, February 16, 6:00pm

Shades of Intimacy: Women in the Time of Revolution

In her trenchant analysis of U.S. history, literary critic and Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers considers the aftermath of the notion of partus sequitur ventrem—the “American ‘innovation’ that proclaimed that the child born of an enslaved mother would also be enslaved.” In this lecture, Spillers engages the idea of the “shadow” family to explain one of the tectonic shifts in the concept and practice of social relations in the New World from the 18th century—a period of profound contradiction and change when dangerously hegemonic definitions of race, gender, and family took hold—onward. Registration for the evening lecture is preferred but not required.

Friday, February 17, 12:00pm

Machine Eatable: The Journey from Analytics to Editorial

Journalism’s adjustment to the digital age has required a crash course in data and analytics. The editor’s hunch now sits next to realtime metrics on content performance across a dizzying array of channels.

How do leading publications like The New York Times adjust to a wide range of new competitors? How has data been introduced to newsroom staff and leadership? How has it affected newsroom decision making? What can be done to ensure that we protect the craft of investigative journalism while ensuring it finds and resonates with a meaningful audience?

Please join us for a rich, attendee-driven discussion on what data-driven journalism should look like and how it should serve a society in need. Also, sandwiches. Always sandwiches.

Tuesday, February 21, 6:00pm

For BigApps Participants — In this session, we will identify patterns across qualitative and quantitative data sets. We’ll explore open source data & reports, interpret qualitative data from our interviews and learn data visualization techniques. From there, we’ll generate insights to highlight the opportunities for initial product concept direction.

Thursday, February 23, 6:00pm

How Does Technology Enrich Urban Policy?

Sidewalk Labs is an Alphabet company that imagines, designs, tests, and builds new technologies that address big urban problems across a range of areas, from mobility to housing to government services.

Upcoming:

Saturday, March 4th, all day

Save the date: NYC School of Data

NYC School of Data 2017 – Save the Date

Saturday, Mar 4, 2017, 9:00 AM

No location yet.

106 Brigade Members Attending

The New York City School of Data is a collaborative network improving the City’s data ecosystem. This network seeks to enrich our lives and communities through technology, data, & design. This year, we will invited civic hackers and community based organizations to learn from each other and share how we can improve our communities and our data.Thi…

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RECAP: Lightning Talks with Tech Jobs Academy

With the start of a new year, people around the world generally make resolutions to themselves [to do better things and be better people].  These resolutions can run the gamut, but the one thing they seem to all have in common is the want and desire to improve—whether it be to improve on one’s self, one’s circumstances, one’s environment etc.  

The beginning of 2017 is very significant for the Tech Jobs Academy program as we celebrate one year of the program and are still freshly excited about our second cohort, who graduated three months ago. Keeping with the spirit of new beginnings and new resolutions, last week we celebrated the new year by hosting a “Tech Jobs Academy Lightning Talk” which featured three awesome graduates from our first cohort.  

The goal of this event was very simple—provide an opportunity for the program’s two cohorts to get together and hear from some of their peers who are utilizing the skills they’ve learned in Tech Jobs Academy in their every day work. It was a chance to share, to learn, to grow, to be vulnerable and to be present. We were fortunate to have three keynote speakers who all took a different approach on sharing their experiences in Tech Jobs Academy, their paths leading up to Tech Jobs Academy and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Abel Chajet, Information Technology Support Specialist at The Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG Justice Center) provided an overview of his path to Tech Jobs Academy which started off with a deep love and appreciation for technology. Despite his tech interest, he always felt barriers to building on and deepening his skill set. Abel remarked that the things he felt were missing from his different academic experiences prior to Tech Jobs Academy were great resources and peers.

He explained to the room that beyond the wonderful technical skills he acquired in Tech Jobs Academy, he learned even more about the importance of “networking with more than just Ethernet cables and switches!” In fact, his networking led him to connecting with Bradley Michelson, Director of Business Development at Idealist and friend to our team, who then was able to connect him to CSG Justice Center. For Abel, it was important to work for an organization like the CSG Justice Center because he felt “it would be fitting to serve the public good because so many public resources have been spent” building him up.

 

Makini Osson, IT Helpdesk Engineer at WCA Technologies Inc., provided encouragement to her peers to constantly talk about the work you’re doing to your network and to constantly do things that will showcase yourself and your abilities.

Through her presence both online and offline, Makini was able to land in a career path where she is able to expand on her skills using what she learned throughout the program. In fact, the president of her company told her she was primarily hired because of her training in Azure, since many of their clients, who are small businesses, were beginning to migrate to the cloud. Makini concluded her remarks by quoting Albert Einstein, “life is like riding a bicycle, to keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

David Linton, Service Desk Engineer at Dataprise, concluded the series by detailing his extremely diverse path to Tech Jobs Academy and by emphasizing the point Makini made of communicating with your network the work you’re doing.  

David opened by saying his first introduction to the New York City College of Technology (CUNY City Tech) came a number of years ago when he was enrolled as a Computer Science major studying computer engineering.  His time there, however, was cut short when he was told by a professor that computer engineering was a dying field if you weren’t on the teaching side.

From there, David entered the workforce doing various jobs including producing fashion shows, working for the radio station “Hot 97” to working as an Operations Director for a bus company. It was during this particular role that David was re-introduced to technology and his passion for it because his manager also wanted him to work as the main IT professional on staff. It was also around this time that David, drawing from his various work experiences, created his own one-man video, photography and web design consulting business called No Introductions.  

When David was laid off around the recession, he continued growing and building No Introductions. A few short years later David accepted a position as a Video Manager at a company that also wanted him to work as an IT Coordinator. It was here where his love for technology resurfaced and coincidentally it was during this role that he found out about Tech Jobs Academy.  David felt this opportunity could be his big break into strengthening his technical chops and adding to his portfolio.  

Fast forward to Tech Jobs Academy. David made it a point to utilize social media platforms to share the work he was doing in the program, and this simple yet powerful act allowed him to gain contracts for small businesses, where he could set up and manage their wi-fi connections and build servers for their network. David concluded by reiterating that no matter how long it takes, if you’re passionate, dedicated and committed things always have a way of working out.  

As someone who joined the Microsoft Tech Jobs Academy team well into the first cohort, one thing working on this program has shown me is that New York City is fortunate to have talented and passionate people with great drive and ability who are just looking for an opportunity.  Beyond that, it’s shown me that when you bring these types individuals together from it grows a supportive and nurturing community dedicated to paying it forward for generations to come.

Heat Seek Keeps the Heat On This Winter With Data, Tech & Transparency

During New York City’s annual Big Apps competition in 2014, I learned about a new civic tech solution called Heat Seek, and I’ve been a supporter ever since. I’m currently a proud member of the Board of Directors of this tech-powered non-profit that is making a real impact by using an internet of things approach to empower tenants, landlords, community organizations, and the justice system with accurate data that can make a dent in our city’s heating crisis. For many New Yorkers, heat equals health, education, and opportunity. Heat Seek uses technology to defend people’s rights to those things. Thanks to Co-Founder and CEO Noelle Francois for sitting down with us to tell the Heat Seek story.
John Paul Farmer

downloadIt’s cold in your apartment, but the heat and hot water are regulated by your landlord. The wall thermostat reads 57 degrees Fahrenheit for three days — well below the city’s mandate. When the landlord dodges your calls, you file a complaint with the city’s 311 service. Immediately before inspection, the landlord raises the heat, only to lower it back once the city’s inspector leaves. Your options are limited: continue to freeze, find a new apartment, or take action. In court, the proof you provide is your word and handwritten heat log with temperatures and timestamps you’ve recorded yourself. Oftentimes, it’s not enough to get the landlord to comply.

This is the reality for many New Yorkers. Every year, thousands of renters spend the winter in a frigid apartment, Heat Seek Executive Director Noelle Francois told Microsoft New York. Heat Seek aims to combat this struggle. Their mission is to make the city a safer, warmer place to live for all New Yorkers. The nonprofit uses tech to empower tenants, providing unbiased evidence (data) to verify heating code abuse claims in court.

Last winter, the city received more than 200,000 heat-related complaints from 37,000 different buildings, most of which were in lower-income neighborhoods throughout Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.

“What we find is that for the specific subset of tenants we work with most closely, they’re being harassed — they don’t just have inept landlords,“ Francois said.

Heat Seek installs temperature sensors in these apartment complexes, where tenants have not been able to resolve heating problems through traditional channels. The sensors, consisting of a printed circuit board, a thermistor, a Raspberry Pi, and a wireless modem, talk to each other through a mesh network. Once an hour, they collect and transmit ambient temperature data to Heat Seek’s servers. Tenants and their lawyers can access this data on a web app. This data, integrated with public 311 heating complaint information, illustrates what Heat Seek has determined is a heating crisis in New York City.

The sensors come at no cost to the tenants participating in Heat Seek’s program, and can function without Wi-Fi in the homes of elderly or lower-income tenants — those who need the data the most.

download

Credit: Heat Seek

“The idea was always that we want to be able to serve the most vulnerable tenants in the city who don’t have the means or the resources to solve this problem on their own. We didn’t want cost to be a barrier,” Francois said.

Heat Seek sensors are currently installed in about a dozen buildings, with an expectation to expand to 25 buildings by the end of the season.

“We intentionally scaled down from last year because one of the big things we found last year was that providing tenants with data is great, but it’s not enough, especially if tenants don’t have a lawyer and don’t know what to do with that data,” Francois told MSNY.

Heat Seek has begun working hand-in-hand with tenant organizers, public interest attorneys, and city officials at the Housing Preservation & Development department. Together, they look at the city’s open data — complaints, violations, court cases, change in rent-stabilized units, and other indicators that demonstrate a building might benefit from Heat Seek’s sensors. Heat sensor data is shared with the city, so inspectors can drop by unannounced to confirm a pattern in the data.

“We’re hoping that this year, with a more targeted approach, we’re able to see a higher percentage of the buildings where we have sensors actually resolve their issues,” Francois said.

They’ve already seen success. At 178 Rockaway Parkway in Brownsville, sensors were installed in partnership with the Legal Aid Society in October. Nearly a quarter of the time, the temperature hovered around 60 degrees, in violation with NYC Housing Code. In December, Heat Seek held a press conference in front of the building, and Legal Aid Society filed a case against the landlord. Before the case saw a trial, a day after the press conference, the heat came on almost 10 degrees warmer.

before-and-after-graph

A graph of the temperature inside apartments at 178 Rockaway Parkway in Brownsville, before and after Legal Aid Services took action using Heat Seek’s data. Credit: Heat Seek

“After we see more of that impact, then it’s about scaling. There’s no point in scaling for scaling sake,” Francois said of the company’s plans to expand.

Looking ahead, Heat Seek plans to focus on some of the neighborhoods that are up for rezoning as part of the mayor’s housing plans.

“We know that during rezoning and after rezoning, the cost of living in those neighborhoods goes up. Landlords can start to charge more for rent, making it difficult for a lot of the tenants. We want to at least eliminate this one harassment tactic, of refusing to heat the apartments, that’s really effective in driving tenants out,” she said.

They aim to help landlords, too, to heat their buildings more effectively while reducing costs.

“We’re trying to be a non-biased third party,” Tristan Siegel, a coder with Heat Seek since the beginning, told the New York Times. “Even though we did start with tenants in mind, we’re really trying to bridge that gap.”

Ms. Francois credited the NYCBigApps competition in helping them move from an idea to a civic tech success, as well as support from Civic Hall, Beespace, and Robinhood Labs, to name a few.

“We’re proud to be a part of the civic tech, tech for the public good, community. We’re a nonprofit, simply driven to make tech that serves the needs of the partners we work with and the tenants we work with,” she said. “That impacts every aspect of what we do, right down to the design of the sensors.”

Heat Seek works most closely with:
The Legal Aid Society
Legal Services NYC
Brooklyn Legal Services Corp A
Flatbush Tenant Coalition
St. Nick’s Alliance
– Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams
– Council Member Ben Kallos
– Council Member Ritchie Torres
Housing Preservation & Development
CASA
Make the Road

Microsoft New York Team Demo Night

Each season, we take a moment to showcase our team’s latest work, share updates to existing projects, and make key announcements. It’s an opportunity to bring our community in on key programs, as well as a forcing function to ship code! You can watch the presentations below, and check out previous demo nights and events on our YouTube channel. Thanks to everyone who joined us at the Microsoft Reactor at Grand Central Tech Friday evening!

The evening’s presentations include:

  • Matt Stempeck – Vision Zero with DataKind (at 06:35 in the video)
  • Briana Vecchione – Civic Graph (at 10:03)
  • Ross Dakin – Microsoft Translator (at 15:46)
  • Rebecca Garcia – Tech Jobs Academy (at 19:53)
  • Natasha Scantlebury – Tech Jobs Academy (at 24:53)
  • Matt Stempeck – Campaign Technology and Civic Engagement (at 35:10)
  • John Paul Farmer – State of Civic Tech (at 42:34)

Thanks to Joly MacFie of the Internet Society New York chapter for recording the event.

Some top tweets from the night:

Year in Review: 2016 in Civic Tech

msny-2016

We’ve spent our 2016 working forward in civic tech, while sharing stories of leaders in technology and civic progress right here on our blog. Thank you to everyone who has used their voice this year to help us elevate others in the New York area.

A look back at an amazing year on the Microsoft New York Blog:

January

Microsoft New York welcomes District General Manager Laura Clayton McDonnell

We welcomed the newest member of the New York Metro District team — our district general manager, Laura Clayton McDonnell. McDonnell brings a wealth of knowledge in sales management and legal experience, most recently in executive roles at Aspect Software, IBM, Sun and Apple.

IMG_20160115_113237DataViz for good: How to ethically communicate data in a visual manner: #RDFviz
Matt Stempeck

Microsoft’s Director of Civic Technology in New York City, Matt Stempeck, recaps his experience at the Responsible Data Forum, a collaborative effort to develop useful tools and strategies for dealing with the ethical, security and privacy challenges facing data-driven advocacy. Topics included non-screen data visualizations, communicating uncertainty in data and more.

February

OnyiVoices of Change — The Future of Technology and the Black Community
Onyi Nwosu, Computer Science Engineer, Black Girls Code

Diversity and inclusion are critical underpinnings to our evolving culture at Microsoft and powerful bridges to the marketplace. For Black History Month, month, we were honored to feature the voices of local leaders who represent our commitment to diversity and use their drive to help the community in which they serve. One of those people is Onyi Nwosu, a computer science engineer at Black Girls Code.

April

civic-tech-1Towards a taxonomy of civic technology

What is civic technology? It’s a question we’re asked often. As Microsoft’s team behind Technology and Civic Engagement, there’s no one “real” answer. Matt Stempeck, Director of Civic Technology, went to Barcelona for The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) to help spread the word of civic tech and explain what it is exactly that we do.

May

Tech Jobs AcademyCelebrating Tech Jobs Academy
John Paul Farmer

Twenty three incredible New Yorkers and their families gathered at Civic Hall to celebrate an accomplishment that would have been impossible just a few months prior. But, like most overnight successes, this one was actually years in the making. Microsoft New York’s Director of Technology & Civic Innovation, John Paul Farmer, told the story of how Tech Jobs Academy came to be.

June

Fellow Profile: Hannah Cutler

Every year, we gain an incredible cohort of civic technology fellows who inspire us through their hard work and dedication to utilize technology in local government and community applications. With each step forward our fellows make, we help make New York City more interconnected through technology. Meet one of our fellows, Hannah Cutler.

August

Welcoming Ross Dakin to the Microsoft NY Team
Ross Dakin

Ross Dakin joined the Microsoft Technology and Civic Innovation team, where he’s excited to use data and technology for social good. He came to us with a deep understanding of civic tech via his former positions at Silicon Valley companies and as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow.

rocinha-favelaQuadratic Voting: Civic Tech for Eminent Domain
E. Glen Weyl, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New York City

E. Glen Weyl, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New York City, wrote about a new voting system he devised, called Quadratic Voting, in which individuals can buy additional votes on an issue at an increasing cost. Beyond eminent domain, Quadratic Voting has a variety of other uses in cities and politics more broadly, allowing citizens to find compromises that allow them to have more say on the issues most important to them in exchange for letting their fellow citizens have their way on the issues more important to them.

Meet High School Intern: Sagar Punjabi

Microsoft is committed to developing junior talent and championing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related fields. Over the summer, we were thrilled to host high school students as part of our NYC Microsoft High School Summer Internship Program (HSIP). We interviewed one of our high school interns, Sagar Punjabi.

October

panorama-entrance01-low-resMicrosoft Reactor opens to spur tech innovation in New York City

Expanding on its commitment to innovation, Microsoft celebrated the grand opening of its latest Microsoft Reactor, based in New York City’s iconic Grand Central Terminal. This is the third Reactor where businesses, universities, governments and entrepreneurs can come together and access the latest Microsoft technologies and expert resources.

November

City Year New York Makes a Difference at JHS218 James P Sinnott Middle School
Donna Abrusci

City Year New York deploys 257 highly skilled AmeriCorps members to serve in 24 elementary, middle and high schools. Laura Clayton McDonnell (GM of Microsoft New York), Antuan Santana (Operations & Community Manager) and Donna Abrusci (Business Program Manager) visited the City Year New York corp member team at JHS218 James P Sinnott Middle School.

December

CoderDojo NYC students work at the Microsoft Store on 5th Ave. Photo from CoderDojo NYC. Coding Outside the Classroom: CoderDojo NYC Teaches Children Computer Science Fundamentals

Although New York announced plans to offer all students programming classes by 2025, fewer than 10 percent of city schools currently offer any form of computer science education, and only 1 percent of students are currently in CS classes. But students do have interest. Living proof is CoderDojo, a global network of programming clubs for young people.

Thank you to all who joined us in sharing the important stories that shape our community. Let’s work together for an incredible 2017.

Keeping Girls and Women Safe Through Technology

Microsoft New York Staff at UN

Our team (Natasha Scantlebury, Ross Dakin, John Paul Farmer, Briana Vecchione) with Assistant Secretary-General of the UN Madame Lakshmi Puri (Center).

Earlier this week, dozens of people – including the Microsoft New York team – gathered at the UN Women headquarters in midtown Manhattan to take part in a fascinating workshop on how technology can keep girls and young women safe. After an introduction by Ravi Karkara (Senior Advisor for Strategic Partnership and Advocacy at UN Women), I represented Microsoft in a panel discussion with Roya Mahboob (CEO of the Digital Citizen Fund), Nancy Schwartzman (Founder and CEO of Circle of 6), and Sree Srinivasan (Chief Digital Officer for New York City) that was moderated by Dr. Shruti Kapoor (Founder of Sayfty). Each of the panelists shared examples of how technology can help – from Nancy’s personal safety app that has been highlighted at the White House to Sree’s portfolio as a leading technologist on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staff to Roya first-hand experiences as a female entrepreneur in Afghanistan.

One particular message I stressed was the importance of ethics in how we develop and use technology. Technology offers us incredible opportunities to improve the safety of girls and young women. But it’s up to us – as companies, governments, academic institutions, non-profits, families, and individuals – to ensure that promise is fulfilled and that such positive impacts of technology are prioritized.

UN Women HeForShe

After the panel surfaced these key issues, all of the event participants got involved by brainstorming ideas and sharing with the room in an open discussion. UN Assistant Secretary-General Madame Lakshmi Puri delivered closing remarks that placed the workshop in the context of the varied efforts and initiatives being undertaken by UN Women and other parts of the United Nations.

This was a very good start.

A look at the day, in tweets: