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‘Civic tech’ efforts open up government data for the great public good

Fostering transparency in government is a growing priority for communities across North Carolina.

Within this context, there are promising efforts underway across the state to help local governments use public data effectively through “civic tech.” But as with any pioneering field, there are important lessons being learned that can help shape how North Carolina communities and their citizens can best leverage this data to maximize government’s efficacy and impact.

John Stephens at the UNC School of Government recently produced a report that is designed to help us collectively navigate this terrain. According to Stephens, the basic definition of civic technology is “the use of open data by people outside of government to create new software applications or presentations of the data for public benefit.” The first generations of technology, for example, were largely a one-way street. Government had the information and would tell us what we needed to know. Since 2010, that has begun to become more of a two-way conversation.

Today, there are six different civic groups across North Carolina that have been working for more than two years to foster civic-minded digital innovation. There are also a growing number of larger cities and counties across the state that have created open-data portals to promote civic-tech projects.

To be considered “open,” data must be available to everyone in a form that is easily readable by computers so that it can be accessed and modified. By making its data openly available, governments can encourage civic innovators to develop useful applications.

An oft-cited example is when the federal government made its satellite and weather data publicly available, resulting in a wave of new technologies like mapping software and weather apps that transformed our lives. But the field of civic tech has mushroomed to include activities like peer-to-peer sharing of resident-owned goods and services (imagine a neighborhood tool-sharing service), crowd-funding platforms to improve public spaces and services (i.e. raising money for a local park), place-based networks and community forums, and platforms to increase volunteerism and civic engagement.

According to an IDC Governmental Insights report, civic tech made up almost a quarter of the $25.5 billion that local and state governments spent on technology in 2015 – and it’s growing 14 times faster than spending on traditional technology.

Wake County, for instance, is investing in a set of open data strategies that include improving opportunities for community interactions, integration with consumer applications, portal and data expansion, and internal engagement with data owners.

But these investments only pay off if there is civic engagement on the other end. This is where Code for Raleigh comes in – a “brigade” of local volunteers that helps bridge the gap between local government and the tech community. In 2015, brigade members helped assess the City of Raleigh’s Budget Explorer that attempts to simplify explanations about how tax money is spent. It is now working with county commissioners to align civic app projects with county priorities. Code for Raleigh also helps organize the annual City Camp NC conference. NC Datapalooza coordinates regional efforts with Code for Cary and Code for Durham brigades and is part of Open NC – a platform to promote communication and collaboration across the state’s six brigades, including the Triad, Asheville and Charlotte.

Code for Charlotte describes its work as a “volunteer fire brigade for the 21st Century. ... We use technology and advocacy as a tool for open government, open data and civic engagement. We work with our local government and community to use design, technology and open data to transform our city.” This includes working with the Charlottte-Mecklenburg Police Department to help organize a digital platform facilitating the distribution of Christmas gifts to more than 1,700 children and the city’s Finance Department to improve a text-message system for food stamp beneficiaries.

While promising, the full potential of civic tech will only be realized if important questions are addressed, such as: Who is ultimately responsible for developing and maintaining these platforms? How can we align the culture of civic innovators and rapid prototyping with the cautious nature of government bureaucracy? How can we evaluate what works and then replicate solutions to other communities? And how can we expand these efforts beyond just our major metros – especially to often under-resourced smaller cities and rural communities?

By Stephens’ estimates, less than 20 percent of North Carolina is benefiting from civic tech. His report makes clear that we’ve made a good start, and we still have a long way to go.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Forward Cities, a founding partner of HQ Community, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at authors@forwardimpact.info and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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