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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.

#MakeBetterHappen — City Year AmeriCorps Member Appreciation Month

Do you know that March is City Year AmeriCorps Member Appreciation Month? Well, if you don’t, let me tell you a bit about City Year New York and the amazing team we sponsor at JHS218 James P Sinnott in Brooklyn. This will help you understand why there is an entire month for us to show our appreciation for their work.

City Year works to bridge the gap in high-poverty communities between the support students actually need, and what their schools are designed to provide. Their teams of AmeriCorps members work as tutors, mentors and role models to help students reach 10th grade on time and on track, making them three times more likely to graduate.

I had an opportunity to speak with City Year Impact Manager, Matt Davidson, and he shared with me some of the exciting events and programs that he and his Corps members are providing at JHS218, which are having such a positive impact on the students, school and community.

During the month of February, the team hosted a social affirmation event to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Each student was asked to write something positive about themselves, their school or their community. These writings were anonymous and were posted in a common area to create positive awareness on the Wall of Appreciation for the entire month.

For Pi Day, 3/14, the JHS218 team planned a carnival of different math activities to use as an alternate way for the students to get excited about math. Since the New York area experienced a snowstorm on Pi Day this has been rescheduled. I look forward to hearing the outcome!

STEM week will be hosted at the end of April. This will be an all week-long event where students will conduct science experiments as a way of learning in a different way and practicing mindfulness. It will also provide a positive distraction from the stress of their standardized tests.

The Corps members also lead several clubs after school such as coding, science and dance. These clubs will run through spring break. They also oversee a college and career readiness program.

Wow, right!? And this is just a sampling of what they are doing to make an impact at the school. They are really making better happen!

As the Corps members reach the end of their year of service, some of them will be moving onto graduate masters programs. One Corps member will be attending Fordham University, another will be going to the University of Southern California and a third will be attending the University of Minnesota. Impressive! Not only are they currently making better happen for the students of JHS218, they will be making better happen for themselves. I can’t wait to see what is next for them.

Additionally, a current Corps member is looking to stay on at City Year to be a team leader. True dedication.

Thank you to the entire AmeriCorps team at JHS218! Not only do you give a year of service, you also give your heart and soul to the school and students, and are truly making a difference.

  • Chelsea Bowens
  • Lily Cannon
  • N’Dia Dugue
  • Bri Fisher
  • Liza Gerwig
  • Alyissa Gooding
  • Brian McGovern
  • Nikita Stewart
  • David Tom
  • Michael Ventura

# THANKYOUCORPS!

A Letter to Hanna Wallach (From Hanna Wallach)

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and empowerment, we’re thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month with our newest spotlight series. We’ve asked local women leaders to write a letter to their teenage and college-aged selves to recall a moment in time when they felt empowered by technology. Throughout the month of March, we’ll be spotlighting this series on our blog. We hope these stories uplift you and inspire you to #MakeWhatsNext.

Dear 14-year-old Hanna,

This is 37-year-old Hanna. I’m writing to tell you a little bit about your future – who you are and how you got there.

Right now, you think you’re not very smart; you think that studying is tedious, and you haven’t had much encouragement from others about your intelligence. You’re mostly focusing on quantitative subjects and think that you’re going to become an engineer – not because you particularly want to, but because others have told you to do so – but you’re really most interested in questions about people and society. Guess what: you’re actually really smart. Twenty-something years later, you have a PhD in machine learning, a subfield of computer science – from Cambridge, no less! – and you’re a Senior Researcher at Microsoft. Your research is in the interdisciplinary area of computational social science – i.e., the study of social processes using fancy math and fast computers.

You think that computers are only used for word processing and creating spreadsheets, and are therefore really boring. But computers are actually awesome. There’s this thing called the Internet that’s only been around for a couple of years. You don’t know this yet, but it will transform day-to-day life. It will enable people all over the world to communicate with each other. It will mean that computers and society are inextricably linked, and you will be able to use computers to study all kinds of social phenomena. This will change your life. You will end up working with computer scientists and social scientists to answer questions about how people interact – how they communicate, how they influence one another, and how this changes over time. In a few years, you’ll read an article by one of your now colleagues about the science of small-world networks. This article will blow your mind. For the first time, you’ll realize that you can combine your (soon-to-come) interest in computers with your interest in people and society.

At the moment, you’re surrounded by people who believe the following: “Either you’re initially good at something, in which case you should pursue it, or you’re not, in which case there’s no point in trying.” As a result, you are rebellious and you feel as if you don’t fit into the neat boxes set out for you by your teachers and parents. But, as a girl, the very act of studying computer science is a rebellion – and a far more exciting and constructive and fulfilling one than listening to Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins until 4am. In addition, over the next few decades, there will be a considerable amount of research indicating that adopting a “growth mindset” (believing that ability is something that can be cultivated via effort) rather than a “fixed mindset” (believing that ability is something that one is born with and cannot control) leads to increased perseverance and, eventually, success. Soon, you will learn about this research and you will adopt a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. It will make life much more fun 🙂

Because of your growth mindset, you will fail and fail repeatedly. But failing (and learning from these failures) is the one of the best ways to improve at anything you’re trying to learn; in order to succeed, you first need to learn how to fail. It turns out that “grit” (a combination of passion and perseverance) is the single personality trait that best predicts success. Although you don’t realize this yet, you have this trait. You’ll see this in practice when, at ages 16 and 17, you’ll fail many of your A-level exams. Ultimately, you’ll study to retake these exams, and this will become a pivotal moment for you – you’ll realize that if you’re passionate about something and you persevere, even when it’s really hard, you’ll eventually succeed. You’ll discover how you learn best, and that everyone learns differently.

It will take you a while to find your path, but when you do, you’ll totally crush it. Right now, you have yet to discover and embrace your intelligence and perseverance, but as this happens, everything will start to fall into place. You will end up becoming a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New York City and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the College of Information and Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And in your “spare” time you’ll even play competitive roller derby and do parkour (which, guess what, exists). Finally, one last thing: you don’t know it yet, but you’re a total badass. Seriously. Keep that in mind, and you’ll do just fine.

Love,

Hanna

Celebrate Open Data Day in New York This Weekend

Every March, we’re excited to join data enthusiasts worldwide to celebrate International Data Day, a worldwide event that promotes awareness and use of open data. Through a series of events around the globe, people of all skill levels converge to create new projects, analyze data, and find new ways to visualize data.

We believe open data is a priority for civic tech enthusiasts — and we invite you to join us as we kick off the open data celebration this weekend. Here are some highlights of this weekend’s schedule — we hope to see you there:

March 3-5

Giving Tuesday DataDive, Presented by 92Y, DataKind, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

  • Friday 3/3 6:30pm-8pm EST: discuss goals for the DataDive and dive into the data!
  • Saturday 3/4 9am-9pm EST: choose a team and get to work!
  • Sunday 3/5 9am-3pm EST: final presentations and networking
    Note: You can attend one or all days.

We’re thrilled to be hosting a DataDive March 3-5 and are looking for data pros of all backgrounds to roll up their sleeves and work side by side with experts from the 92Y, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Facebook to help use data to unravel tough questions and prototype new solutions.

March 4

International Data Day

Open Data Day is an annual celebration of open data all over the world. For the fifth time in history, groups from around the world will create local events on the day where they will use open data in their communities. It is an opportunity to show the benefits of open data and encourage the adoption of open data policies in government, business and civil society. View activities happening around the world here.

NYC School of Data (SOLD OUT)

New York City School of Data is a community conference showcasing NYC’s civic design, civic/government technology, and open data ecosystem.

March 6

Civic Hall Presents: Open Data, Mapping Global Security & the Department of Defense

How can we get national security data into the open? The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) will demo its geospatial data portals for the Arctic, for combating wildlife trafficking in Africa, and for Hurricane Matthew.

March 7

Five Year Anniversary of New York City’s Open Data Law, Local Law 11 of 2012

In many countries, states and cities Open Data is a policy – here in New York City it is a law, which ensures that Open Data is here to stay.

NYC Chief Analytics Officer Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki speaking at Socrata’s Connect 2017 Conference in DC

10 – 10:25am on the Main Stage. Livestream details coming soon.

NYC Big Apps Workshop – NYC Open Data Portal & Department of City Planning Facilities Explorer Tutorials

Join members of the NYC Open Data team and Department of City Planning for a demo of the NYC Open Data Portal and new Facilities Explorer tool (launching soon) followed by a breakout session at the Tuesday March 7th NYC Big Apps Workshop. You’ll learn the basics about how to access NYC data (1600+ datasets!) and get an overview of other tools such as the Facilities Explorer powered by NYC Open Data that you can use to support your research and work for the Big Apps competition as well.

March 8

Made in NY Media Center + Fabernovel Data & Media: Open Data Breakfast

Whether you are a developer, agency or civil service non-profit having access to data drives business, improves services, and promotes free public access.

Together with FaberNovel we are hosting and interactive breakfast and conversation on March 8th to learn more about the City of New York’s Free Open Data Portal and how you can use it to build products, conduct research and analysis or create new applications.

Department of Small Business Services: 2017 Smart Districts Summit

Inaugural NYC Smart Districts Summit, where community and technology leaders will collaboratively explore how emerging technologies are being leveraged to address the most pressing district-level challenges.

College of Staten Island (CSI) Tech Incubator + Vizalytics: Data – A Driving Force of Innovation

Connect with us to discover how organizations and entrepreneurs are utilizing data to drive innovation within our local community. Learn the practices, technologies, and patterns the experts use to fuel their enterprises by way of big data.

March 9

Reaktor Open Data Studio

The goal of this evening is to share some ideas about how Open Data could be utilized in new ways, especially in New York. We have a happy hour with benchmarks from Helsinki, where open data catalogues have been advanced for a while, and companies and developers alike are used to creating cool applications for it.

Join us to hear examples of applying open data in a user-friendly way, and let’s come up with new ways to use open data to create new tools.

General Assembly Panel Discussion: Data and…Health

Big Data is continuing to significantly impact the way in which organizations operate and make informed business decisions. Emerging technologies are now paving the way to innovative medical developments, and it looks as though data is beginning to transform the entire healthcare industry! In collaboration with the first annual NYC Open Data Week, GA is bringing together influencers from the health and wellness spaces to discuss how data is impacting their organizations.

March 11

NYC Parks Computer Resource Centers Open Data for All: TreesCount! Workshop

This free workshop, presented by NYC Parks and the NYC Open Data team, offers a broad introduction to the NYC Open Data Portal along with the concept of data literacy and analysis.

Using NYC TreesCount! 2015 data, the most accurate map of NYC’s street trees ever created, you will learn how to identify, download, manipulate, and visualize NYC Open Data with a focus on community engagement and awareness. Using tools such as Google Sheets and CARTO, you will be able to create your own graphs and maps from NYC Open Data.

March’s Civic Tech Events

Happy Women’s History Month!

The civic highlight of the month is the NYC School of Data, kicking off March 4 and continuing for a week (Sold Out).

Join for a week of celebrations of the 5-year anniversary of the NYC Open Data Law. Open Data enables and empowers New Yorkers like you to better understand how your City works and what is happening in your neighborhood, schools, streets and parks. We encourage you to explore this data for yourself by visiting the NYC Open Data Portal!

NYC Open Data Week is a collaboration between NYC Open Data, BetaNYC, BureauBlank and the dynamic NYC civic tech community. We’re kicking off the week on International Open Data Day with School of Data (March 4th) and wrapping up with an Open Data for All Workshop at the NYC Parks Hamilton Fish Computer Resource Center (March 11th). Peruse the descriptions of these events and many others below and sign up!

PLUS, on March 9Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is hosting a citizen workshop on responses to the L train shutdown, and how to improve the 14th street corridor.

The rest of the month:

March 3-5

Giving Tuesday DataDive, Presented by 92Y, DataKind, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Open Data Week)

  • Friday 3/3 6:30pm-8pm EST: discuss goals for the DataDive and dive into the data!
  • Saturday 3/4 9am-9pm EST: choose a team and get to work!
  • Sunday 3/5 9am-3pm EST: final presentations and networking
    Note: You can attend one or all days.

We’re thrilled to be hosting a DataDive March 3-5 and are looking for data pros of all backgrounds to roll up their sleeves and work side by side with experts from the 92Y, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Facebook to help use data to unravel tough questions and prototype new solutions.

March 4

International Data Day (Open Data Week)

Open Data Day is an annual celebration of open data all over the world. For the fifth time in history, groups from around the world will create local events on the day where they will use open data in their communities. It is an opportunity to show the benefits of open data and encourage the adoption of open data policies in government, business and civil society. View activities happening around the world here.

NYC School of Data (Open Data Week)

New York City School of Data is a community conference showcasing NYC’s civic design, civic/government technology, and open data ecosystem.

March 6

Civic Hall Presents: Open Data, Mapping Global Security & the Department of Defense (Open Data Week)

How can we get national security data into the open? The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) will demo its geospatial data portals for the Arctic, for combating wildlife trafficking in Africa, and for Hurricane Matthew.

March 7

March 2017 NY Tech Meetup and Afterparty

Join us for NYC’s most famous and longest running monthly tech event! You’ll see a fantastic lineup of New York tech companies presenting live demos of their products, followed by an afterparty where you can network with the community and meet our demoers and sponsors.

Five Year Anniversary of New York City’s Open Data Law, Local Law 11 of 2012 (Open Data Week)

In many countries, states and cities Open Data is a policy – here in New York City it is a law, which ensures that Open Data is here to stay.

NYC Chief Analytics Officer Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki speaking at Socrata’s Connect 2017 Conference in DC (Open Data Week)

10 – 10:25am on the Main Stage. Livestream details coming soon.

NYC Big Apps Workshop – NYC Open Data Portal & Department of City Planning Facilities Explorer Tutorials (Open Data Week)

Join members of the NYC Open Data team and Department of City Planning for a demo of the NYC Open Data Portal and new Facilities Explorer tool (launching soon) followed by a breakout session at the Tuesday March 7th NYC Big Apps Workshop. You’ll learn the basics about how to access NYC data (1600+ datasets!) and get an overview of other tools such as the Facilities Explorer powered by NYC Open Data that you can use to support your research and work for the Big Apps competition as well.

Disability, Bring It On

We will explore notions about stressors, and how when cultivated correctly, stressors can yield great fruit.

Hacknight @ Grand Central Tech

Come join us for a night of hacking at Microsoft’s Grand Central Tech Space! There will be a talk on Microsoft APIs and time to work on your own projects.

March 8

International Women’s Day 2017 at Civic Hall

In celebration of #IWD2017, and their campaign for #BeBoldForChange, we invite everyone—men and women—to participate in all-day programming at Civic Hall. Visit the website to find out more information about how to participate in this year’s International Women’s Day.

Civic Hall supports and encourages the initiatives by both the Women’s March and the International Women’s Strike on March 8th. We’re gathering our global community as we act together for equity, justice and the human rights of women, through a series of panels, workshops, and talks on economic solidarity.

Databite No. 95: Amanda Lenhart, Alice Marwick, & Zara Rahman

Please join us for presentations from D&S affiliate Amanda Lenhart on the prevalence and potential effects of online harassment and D&S fellow Alice Marwick on best practices for conducting risky research. Talks will be followed by a panel discussion, moderated by D&S fellow Zara Rahman, exploring ways to reclaim power and control of activism in both the digital sphere and offline world.

NYC BigApps 2017 Workshop: Understand the Constraints (Design)

From here we’ll begin a series of rapid and iterative brainstorming processes that will lead us through prototyping and ideation. This session will focus on using the research from the previous weeks to start making design decisions and scoping product prototypes.

Made in NY Media Center + Fabernovel Data & Media: Open Data Breakfast (Open Data Week)

Whether you are a developer, agency or civil service non-profit having access to data drives business, improves services, and promotes free public access.

Together with FaberNovel we are hosting and interactive breakfast and conversation on March 8th to learn more about the City of New York’s Free Open Data Portal and how you can use it to build products, conduct research and analysis or create new applications.

Department of Small Business Services: 2017 Smart Districts Summit (Open Data Week)

Inaugural NYC Smart Districts Summit, where community and technology leaders will collaboratively explore how emerging technologies are being leveraged to address the most pressing district-level challenges.

College of Staten Island (CSI) Tech Incubator + Vizalytics: Data – A Driving Force of Innovation (Open Data Week)

Connect with us to discover how organizations and entrepreneurs are utilizing data to drive innovation within our local community. Learn the practices, technologies, and patterns the experts use to fuel their enterprises by way of big data.

Interrupting the Gender Imbalance in Media

Women continue to be under represented in the media. According to Media Matters for America, in 2015, only 21 percent of guests discussing foreign policy on prime-time cable and top Sunday news shows were women.

Join New America, Foreign Policy Interrupted, and Media Matters for America for the release of 2016’s findings and for a series of interactive workshops focused on “interrupting” the obvious lopsidedness.

March 9

Reaktor Open Data Studio (Open Data Week)

The goal of this evening is to share some ideas about how Open Data could be utilized in new ways, especially in New York. We have a happy hour with benchmarks from Helsinki, where open data catalogues have been advanced for a while, and companies and developers alike are used to creating cool applications for it.

Join us to hear examples of applying open data in a user-friendly way, and let’s come up with new ways to use open data to create new tools.

General Assembly Panel Discussion: Data and…Health (Open Data Week)

Big Data is continuing to significantly impact the way in which organizations operate and make informed business decisions. Emerging technologies are now paving the way to innovative medical developments, and it looks as though data is beginning to transform the entire healthcare industry! In collaboration with the first annual NYC Open Data Week, GA is bringing together influencers from the health and wellness spaces to discuss how data is impacting their organizations.

March 11

2017 Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

Wikimedia’s gender trouble is well-documented. In a 2011 survey, the Wikimedia Foundation found that less than 10% of its contributors identify as female. While the reasons for the gender gap are up for debate, the practical effect of this disparity, however, is not. Content is skewed by the lack of female participation. This represents an alarming absence in an increasingly important repository of shared knowledge.

Let’s change that. Join us at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Education and Research Building at The Museum of Modern Art, 4 West 54th Street, on Saturday, March 11, 2017 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for an all-day communal updating of Wikipedia entries on subjects related to art and feminism. People of all gender identities and expressions welcomed and encouraged to attend.

NYC Parks Computer Resource Centers Open Data for All: TreesCount! Workshop (Open Data Week)

This free workshop, presented by NYC Parks and the NYC Open Data team, offers a broad introduction to the NYC Open Data Portal along with the concept of data literacy and analysis.

Using NYC TreesCount! 2015 data, the most accurate map of NYC’s street trees ever created, you will learn how to identify, download, manipulate, and visualize NYC Open Data with a focus on community engagement and awareness. Using tools such as Google Sheets and CARTO, you will be able to create your own graphs and maps from NYC Open Data.

March 20

Women’s Political History Gallery Reception by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

In my office gallery, beginning March 7th, will be a display documenting women’s political history, with photographs, posters and political campaign ephemera from women candidates and causes. The reception for this show, on Monday, March 20, from 6–8 pm, will also serve as our celebration of Women’s History Month, and we will honor the late Maggie Peyton by naming the 19th floor gallery in her honor. Please RSVP for the event at PeytonGallery.eventbrite.com.

March 22

NYC BigApps 2017 Workshop: Ideation and Prototype Building (Design)

At this stage of the workshop series, we’ll “build to think.” We’ll rapidly prototype our concepts in order to get a better sense of how it more tangibly supports the needs of our users. This will be an opportunity for teams to get early stage feedback from a variety of experts, mentors, and community members.

March 27

Understanding Media Studies: “Power Plays with Data” with Zara Rahman and Mimi Onuoha

Media Studies invites you to a talk with Zara Rahman, Fellow, Data & Society and Mimi Onuoha, Artist & Research Resident, Eyebeam.

March 30

SPARCC Launch Event — A Conversation on Building Equity, Prosperity & Sustainability for All

Join us for a conversation on how collaborative, community-driven approaches to addressing poverty, racial equity, health, and climate impacts can positively shape our cities and regions for generations.

Over the next decade, trillions of dollars of public and private sector funding will fuel new investments in infrastructure, transit, housing, health, and preparing for the challenges of climate change. This event will bring together thought leaders, philanthropic visionaries, community representatives, and stakeholders to discuss how to ensure large-scale investments benefit everyone.

The Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) is supporting locally driven efforts to ensure that major new infrastructure investments lead to equitable, healthy, and sustainable opportunities for all.

March 31

Machine Eatable: When Recommendation Systems Go Bad, with Evan Estola

Microsoft Technology & Civic Innovation presents Machine Eatable, a lunchtime conversation at Civic Hall. This monthly series offers a candid discussion led by community leaders on the front lines of data science for civic good.

Machine learning and recommendations systems have changed how we experience the internet, and by extension, many of the products and services we use in our civic and private lives. While the reach and impact of big data and algorithms will continue to grow, how do we ensure that people are treated justly?

As the people that build these systems, we have a social responsibility to consider their effect on humanity, and we should do whatever we can to prevent these models from perpetuating some of the prejudice and bias that exist in our society today.

Evan Estola (@estola), the Data Team Lead at Meetup, will share examples of recommendation systems that have gone wrong across various industries, and what can be done about them. Importantly, Evan will offer concrete technical approaches that can be employed. Evan will also offer arguments data scientists can use to justify making ethical decisions in a field that’s obsessed with optimization.

You can arrive at 12pm for light lunch and conversation. Feel free to bring your own, too. We’ll begin the program at 12:30pm and wrap up by 1:30.

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.

Recap: 2017 State of the City Addresses

This week, we were fortunate to join New York City in celebrating the current state of the city, while looking forward to future progress in NYC. With two separate addresses — the first by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and the second by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito — we recounted the successes our city has made and the steps we need to take to move forward.

We’d like to thank the city especially for spotlighting April, a graduate of our Tech Jobs Academy, as an example of how New Yorkers are seizing opportunities to build better futures.

A recap, via Twitter Moments:

National Entrepreneurship Week helps small businesses reach their big dreams

Every small business starts with a big dream. To help any company’s accomplishments mirror its ambition, Microsoft is sponsoring National Entrepreneurship Week. Five days of online and in-person events running Feb. 20‒24 are designed for entrepreneurs and business owners, including a Women in Entrepreneurship event in New York City.

Empowering business creators to thrive matters because small businesses play a crucial role in America’s economic success. They account for 55 percent of U.S. jobs, according to the Small Business Administration. And America’s 28 million small-business owners and entrepreneurs are at the forefront of innovation, fueling growth and creating jobs.

National Entrepreneurship Week will feature free workshops, content, webcasts, events and more, offered by event supporters including Dun & Bradstreet, LinkedIn, Wix and Yelp.

The Women in Entrepreneurship Panel will highlight the triumphs and tribulations faced by women from all walks of life who run small businesses. Ramon Ray of Smart Hustle Magazine will moderate as women entrepreneurs detail tips on how to get a business off the ground and growing. It takes place Thursday, Feb. 23, 6‒8 p.m. ET, at the Microsoft Store (677 5th Ave., New York, NY 10022). The event is free but seating is limited, so RSVP now.

Also live in New York (and live on Facebook), Microsoft’s Cindy Bates — who leads the Small and Midsized Business and Distribution group — will discuss how modern technology can transform your small business. She will advise on best practices for launching a brand and outline the latest affordable tech tools for connecting with customers. RSVP now for Bates’ presentation on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 6‒8 p.m. ET at the Wix Lounge (235 West 23rd St.).

Here are additional in-person and online events and content to experience throughout the week. Visit the Microsoft Small and Midsize Business Blog for details:

To boot, many National Entrepreneurship Week supporters are offering specials and discounts to boost your business productivity. For example, Microsoft is offering 10 percent off select Surface and Windows 10 Pro devices. To find out more, visit your local Microsoft Store from Feb. 20‒26.

Check Entrepreneurship Week for regular updates, resources, new content and special offers throughout the week. And join in the conversation on Twitter by following #WININBIZ.

We look forward to engaging further and learning more about how these activities help small-business owners accelerate their success.

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.