Fostering civic innovation in California

Alissa BlackAlissa Black joined the New America Foundation in April to lead the newly-formed California Civic Innovation Project, focused on “identifying best practices to improving service delivery, opening new channels for public voices, and bridging the state’s digital divides.”

Black previously served as government relations director at Code for America and has worked for New York City and San Francisco governments, including developing and deploying SF’s Open311 citizen reporting system.

What is the CA Civic Innovation Project and your new role in this?

I’m very excited to be leading the California Civic Innovation Project (CCIP). CCIP promotes innovations in technology, policy and practice that deepen engagement between government and communities throughout the state. Through research and information-sharing, CCIP builds communities of practice within California’s local governments and identifies best practices to improving service delivery, opening new channels for public voices, and bridging the state’s digital divides.

Healthy knowledge sharing networks, both formal and informal, are essential to the diffusion of innovation in local governments. CCIP’s research in the area will contribute to more a comprehensive understanding of how local governments can better share technology, policies, and practices. Additionally, CCIP will engage with local governments to develop an innovation process grounded in public-private collaboration and community engagement.

What are the biggest challenges in getting government to engage with citizens and how does it overcome this?

The most daunting challenge any large organization could face is culture change, and that really is the underlying barrier to governments’ deeper level of engagement with the community. Local governments operate in an environment that is heavily siloed, so much so that employees in one department do not interact with employees in other departments. The culture of operating in silos disincentivizes government employees from collaboration, both internally and with the public. There are a number of cities in California that have overcome the silo barrier and engage with their communities.

Days of Dialogue, created by former Los Angeles Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, brings together civic leaders, government officials, and the general public to engage in dialogue on issues that divide the community. Other California municipalities have been successful forming partnerships with community groups to support civic engagement. The partnerships offer the advantage of engaging a pre-existing network and tapping into the expertise and resources of local partners.

What are the best examples of innovative uses of technology with regards to enabling better citizen participation?

A few examples come to mind:

  • Open311 is one of the best examples of government innovating to not only improve access for residents, but also to create an ecosystem for developers to build mobile apps and consumers to access government data.
  • Another example that I consider innovative, simply because the technology we consider ubiquitous is often absent in government, is the use of video conferencing in Nevada County, California. The county government began offering video conferencing for service intake and court filings, saving residents time and making county services more accessible.
  • Participatory budgeting is an exciting way to involve the public in better understanding the local budgeting process, but more importantly I believe, raising public awareness of the trade-offs that need to be made when preparing a budget.

How can those interested in your work connect with you to learn more (website, social media, contact info, etc.)?

You can find out more about the California Civic Innovation Project at

I’m currently looking for policy interns so if you’re interested in learning more about the opportunity you can reach me at blacka (at) You can follow me on Twitter at @alissa007 and @NewAmericaOTI.

Listen to Black’s interview on the CAFwd Radio Show:

San Francisco posts Open311 RFP

San Francisco has published a request for proposal to integrate Open311 with the city’s CRM software, Langan. Bid submissions are due February 3.

For questions or more information, contact Janelle Kessler at

From the RFP:

The 311 Customer Service Center seeks solution strategies and pricing schedules for Mobile and Web self service enhancements complying with the Open311 specification. The solution will provide public access to the City’s CRM application using the Open311 standard via an end-to-end connection from the web and mobile clients. City expects to license an existing software system, with defined enhancements to that system during the implementation.


City and County of San Francisco Request for Proposals for Open311 to Lagan CRM integration


City and County of San Francisco Request for Proposals for Open311 to Lagan CRM integration

2011 GovFresh Awards entries and voting now open

2011 GovFresh Awards

Every day, tech-minded citizens across the country are doing good by their communities, literally geeking out about how they can help re-define the relationship government has with its citizens, using technology as a democratic tool to collaboratively empower both.

So much is happening in the civic technology community – website redesigns, new websites, open data initiatives, apps, camps, developer contests, hackathons and more – it’s hard to get a perspective on or truly appreciate the collective work of these dot-dogooders both inside and outside government.

That’s why we created the 2011 GovFresh Awards.

It’s time to recognize and honor all that’s been accomplished this year.

It’s time to say thank you.

Here are the categories. Start entering and start voting.

Bloomberg: How cities can ‘Moneyball’ government

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has a blog post on how cities are collaborating to better leverage data analytics and maximize taxpayer return on investment. The post cites examples from major American cities and how they’ve leveraged data, especially 311 logs, to realize efficiencies.


Data-driven analytics is the systematic use of information to find patterns of interest. For cities, this means looking inwards at the detailed data that city agencies continually collect – citizen complaints, licenses and permits, transactions, violations – and identifying new areas of high risk and high cost.

Cities can then respond to these findings by prioritizing the high impact areas appropriately. In the past, individual agencies have been limited in their ability to conduct large-scale analytics by mandate, scope, and organizational structure. City agencies across the country, which each already have a prescribed list of duties they must fulfill to keep the city running smoothly, often do not share data with one another, nor are they equipped analyze it. In an era of shrinking budgets, however, many cities, including New York, have made new efforts to solve this problem by creating teams existing specifically for the purpose of data investigation that can cross agency boundaries, with promising results.

My recommendation to Bloomberg and other mayors would be to open the analytics to the public so that everyone has access and can contribute solutions. Perhaps a lesser concern, keeping this type of information private gives incumbents insider information when assessing what issues voters are most concerned about.

For those unfamiliar with the “Moneyball” premise and have’t read the book or seen the movie, here’s a two-minute overview:

Full post: Expanding the Use of Data Analytics in City Governments

13 ways citizen developers are coding a better America

Code for America has published videos of CfA Fellows demoing their apps during the Code for America Summit held October 13-14 in San Francisco.

John Mertens – Art Mapper

Erik Michaels-Ober – Adopt-a-Hydrant

Anna Bloom – Change By Us

Aaron Ogle –

Jeremy Canfield – Open311 Dashboard

Max Ogden – DataCouch

Michelle Koeth – Civic Commons Legal Guide

Karla Macedo – Iconathon

Chach Sikes – CityGroups

Scott Silverman – ClassTalk

Matt Lewis – JobOps

Ryan Resella – TechnoFinder

Joel Mahoney – DiscoverBPS

Cleaning up the neighborhood: A San Francisco case study

What if you could make litter, graffiti, and other problems in your neighborhood go away just by using your phone?

As crazy as it sounds, it’s actually possible. One of the most popular uses of Blockboard is our “Cityfix” category, which lets neighbors use their iPhone to report issues that require the city’s attention. This includes everything from graffiti and litter to potholes and sewer problems. Blockboard users can report these issues in under a minute: you just snap a photo, indicate your location on a map and choose a category.

Blockboard packages up that information and automatically sends it to San Francisco’s 311 Customer Service Center (using their implementation of the Open311 standard). This puts the issue into the city’s tracking system, and that means a human being is likely to do something about it.

To get a clearer sense of how well the city’s process is actually working, we did an analysis of issues reported during our recent beta test in the Mission District.

Our findings paint an encouraging picture. Even in this era of limited budgets and manpower, the city manages to address most citizen-reported issues in a timely manner. There is just one notable hole, and the story behind it is an interesting one. But overall we think the city deserves credit for delivering on its commitments.

Resolution rates

Out of a sample of 100 city issues reported in the Mission over a two-month period using the Blockboard app, we found that 65 were resolved by the city, within an average of 3.6 days. As of this writing, 35 issues remained unresolved. On the surface a 65% resolution rate doesn’t sound great, but let’s dig a little deeper.

The following chart breaks down reported issues by category. While these categories do not precisely match those used by the city, we use them in Blockboard because we believe they are easier for citizens to understand and navigate.

As you can see, issues related to litter and trash are by far the most common, and the city resolves the vast majority of them (over 96%).

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies graffiti and vandalism. While these constitute the second most common set of issues reported by Blockboard users, they have a very poor resolution rate — just 12%. (Street issues — such as potholes — turn in a similarly poor showing, but there are far fewer of them in comparison.)

Time to resolution

The picture is also interesting when sliced by time. Here is the average time-to-resolution for each category:

Most categories of issues are resolved within 1-3 days — a fairly impressive track record in our opinion. But here again we find that graffiti and vandalism really stands out. With an average time-to-resolution of over 23 days, even the few issues that are lucky enough to be resolved take a while to get there.

So why is graffiti so problematic for the city?

A little research reveals that while the city can take immediate action by painting over graffiti on public or city property (for example, parking meters or city buildings) things get complicated when it comes to graffiti on private property. In such cases, the city’s graffiti abatement law (Article 23 of the San Francisco Public Works Code) determines what happens next.

Enacted in 2004 as part of a renewed campaign to discourage graffiti across the city, the law says that it is the owner’s responsibility to clean up graffiti on their property. Once the city has been notified, it sends out an inspector to confirm the report. The city then notifies the owner, who then has 30 days to “abate” the graffiti (i.e. paint over it). If the owner does not comply, additional warnings and then fines may apply. If the owner prefers, they can grant the city permission to take care of the problem on their behalf, but without this permission the city can’t take action until much later on.

This entire process can take a great deal of time and appears to be the cause of the low (and slow) resolution rates we’ve observed. We plan to track these issues over a longer time period in order to better understand the true rate of resolution.

If we set aside graffiti-related issues, the city’s resolution rate is 83%. Our analysis shows that the city is generally responsive to citizen complaints, within the scope of its legal abilities.


Finally, we’ll leave you with one more juicy piece of data. Below is a heatmap (created with OpenHeatMap) showing geographic clustering of issues reported in the Mission. You’ll notice some “hotspots” along Valencia between roughly 18th and 21st, as well as 22nd and Shotwell, and the area around 16th and Mission. It would be interesting to correlate this with other sources such as crime or demographics. If you’re reading this and have ideas, please free free to reach out!

Blockboard puts the whole neighborhood in your hands

BlockboardBlockboard is the latest start-up building a location-based mobile application that aims to give you a hyperlocal view into everything happening in your neighborhood. The iPhone app is currently available in ‘alpha’ for San Francisco’s Mission District residents (request an invite) and will expand into other neighborhoods in the coming months.

The company is led by tech veterans Stephen Hood (, Dave Baggeroer (Stanford Institute of Design), Josh Whiting (Craigslist) and Ian Kallen (Technorati) and backed by well-known angel and venture capital investors, including Battery Ventures, Mitch Kapor, Founder Collective, Harrison Metal, Joshua Schachter, Josh Stylman and Tom McInerney.

Co-founder Stephen Hood shares insights into the new venture and its plans for the future:

Give us the elevator pitch

Blockboard is the app for your neighborhood. It’s a mobile bulletin board that uses your iPhone (and soon, your Android phone) to connect you with your neighbors. If it’s about your neighborhood, you can find it or post it on Blockboard.

For example, you can:

  • Ask a question of your neighbors (we’ll notify you when someone answers)
  • See and post interesting photos from around the neighborhood
  • Read the latest neighborhood news as reported both by the best local blogs and by your own neighbors
  • Report graffiti, litter, or other problems to the city (we’ll automatically submit it to San Francisco’s 311 system and follow-up on the status)
  • Use our neighborhood directory to get those impossible-to-find city phone numbers, find the nearest police station, or connect directly with your elected representatives.

We just launched a small pilot project a couple of weeks ago for the Mission District here in San Francisco, and will be adding more neighborhoods soon.

Why does this matter?

In this age of social networking, we now spend so much time talking to people who are far away that we’ve forgotten how to talk to the person next door. Many of us simply don’t know our neighbors any more. We are living together, and yet alone.

While we may not always want to be friends with our neighbors, we have a lot to gain in having a connection. We all face real issues everyday in the communities where we live. Some are big, like safety, government, and sustainability. Some are smaller, like figuring out what’s going on in my neighborhood tonight or trying to get a streetlight fixed. How are we going to solve these problems on our own?

At Blockboard we believe that technology – and smartphones in particular – can help reconnect neighbors and empower them to improve their neighborhoods, and that’s our goal in a nutshell.

What’s your strategy for expanding to different neighborhoods and cities?

We’ve purposely started with a single neighborhood (the Mission) so that we can build something that is very relevant and useful to the people who live there. Our next step will be to expand to a wider variety of neighborhoods in San Francisco. We expect that Blockboard will evolve a little differently for every neighborhood and city it services, and we’ve built our technology to allow for that. Once we’ve reached a certain level of usage in San Francisco we will begin to look at other cities… but first things first!

What are your plans for revenue?

Our only focus right now is making sure that Blockboard is useful to people and makes a positive impact in San Francisco. If we build the product we’re envisioning we’re confident that we can monetize it in a way that also benefits the communities it serves.

Twelve months from now, what does Blockboard look like? How are we using it?

In twelve months we expect that Blockboard will be active in every neighborhood of San Francisco and will be used in ways we probably can’t even imagine right now. It’s our hope that each neighborhood will make Blockboard “their own” and will use it to address their own unique needs and challenges.

Connect with Blockboard on Twitter.