CivicMakers

Bringing California open data to life

Okay, I admit it: Even as a champion of open data, I find that it’s often mundane to view data on a portal. Simple lists of datasets — and even the maps and charts you can create — don’t truly show the intrinsic value of data that’s been freed to benefit communities.

To really capture the meaning and potential of such data, you need people to bring data to life — in the form of local collaborations, news stories, and apps that provide the audiences you’re trying to reach with easy access to information and services. It takes people, not portals, to leverage data to improve the usage and delivery of services; raise broad awareness of issues; and inform local and statewide policymaking. For example, leveraging health data from California’s health department’s open data portal to create stories about measles-immunization rates for kindergarteners in the Golden State. Reporters and advocates harnessing this information brought this story to life.

Data just sitting on a portal can’t do that.

And all of these people who seek data for their work need to connect with each other. An advocacy organization in Fresno may want to learn from similar work being done in San Diego. A nurse at a health clinic in downtown L.A. may want to partner with a researcher at USC who’s got expertise with health data. An epidemiologist with the California Department of Public Health may want to team up with staff at local health departments.

As open data efforts statewide expand and mature, the need has become clear for data stakeholders to collaborate in these and other ways. To help address this, the California Health & Human Services Agency (CHHS) has initiated a project — tentatively dubbed the Data Commons — to help Californians make effective use of publicly available data.

This initiative, which is funded by the California HealthCare Foundation, had its roots in outreach work conducted through the California Health Data Project; I was involved with this effort, which was aimed at encouraging local use of data from the CHHS data portal. The California Health Data Project has helped bring together innovative leaders from CHHS, local governments, and, most importantly, communities  — healthcare providers, civic hackers, and advocacy groups — to ensure the state’s valuable health data is finding its way into the hands of people and organizations who can put it to good use.

During an event last year sponsored by the California Health Data Project, we had an “A-ha!” moment. At this Code for San Jose meeting, a volunteer technologist who was eager to improve his community with his technical chops commented that, while it’s great to see all these data being released, how does he — that is, someone who has no experience in health — know what to build from data that’s been made available? It’s true that he can’t rightly expect to have the subject matter expertise to know what to create, but what if he easily could pair up with a doctor who’s on the front lines of providing care, each contributing their own expertise to build data tools that can make a difference in San Jose. That’s an organizing concept around the Data Commons that CHHS wants to build.

The project, still in its formative stages, is a team effort involving CHHS, Purchia Communications, and CivicMakers. They’re all eager to gather input as this project evolves, so stay tuned for specific ways you can contribute. In the meantime, fill out this form to express your interest and join the project email list.

Bay Area cities team with startups to solve civic problems, scale government innovation

STIR 2016

Bay Areas cities San Francisco, Oakland, West Sacramento and San Leandro teamed with startups this year as part of the Startup in Residence program to “explore ways to use technology to make government more accountable, efficient and responsive.”

The 2016 cohort included 14 companies that worked with the cities over 16 weeks, and the teams made their presentations Friday (see #STIR2016).

All of the projects were fantastic, but Binti really stood out and opened my eyes to the impact modernized technology can have on truly changing lives.

The STIR program started in 2014 and serves as a model for other geographic regions that want to create momentum around civic technology and scaling government innovation.

Big shout to Jeremy Goldberg, Krista Canellakis, Jay Nath, the SF Office of Civic Innovation, an incredible team of ambassadors and mentors, Monique Woodard from 500 Startups and, of course, Lawrence Grodeska and the CivicMakers team. It’s inspiring to see public sector leaders working proactively with startups to break through the procurement and technology mold and bring better digital services to those they serve.

For those interested in participating in the the 2017 cohort, see the participation requirements and apply.

Building big tent democracy

Photo: Luke Fretwell

Photo: Luke Fretwell

We started CivicMakers for one simple reason–to connect passionate citizens who are building a better democracy in our communities, workplaces and political institutions.

From civic engagement platforms like DemocracyOS and Neighborland, to the spread of participatory budgeting programs from New York City to Vallejo, California, we’re excited and inspired by a new movement for a 21st century democracy that is sprouting up all around us.

It’s been our mission to support this movement by providing a space for it to continue to flourish. In eight short months, we’ve done just that by hosting seven events for nearly 1,000 citizens from San Francisco to New York City.

One trend we’ve seen is that the “civic tech” movement, despite incredible passion and demonstrated success, stands apart from the broader tech sector. Millennials, for example, are flocking to social enterprise because of their inclination for impact, but many are unaware of the huge opportunity for impact in the civic tech space. Ditto for those in the “social good” space, who either haven’t heard of civic tech, or, if they have, don’t know how to plug in to hackathons, Github, open source, etc.

The time is now to build a “big tent for democracy”–a strong, broad-yet-deep community of citizens of all stripes and vocations who are dedicated to democracy in the many contexts of our society.

We are in the early stages of erecting the scaffolding for this tent, a platform to connect “democracy practitioners” who need solutions and implementation guidance for their projects (e.g., nonprofits, local agencies, benefit corporations, community organizations, etc.) with “civic tech developers” who are looking for users and clients for their products. We envision this platform as a knowledge base that supports citizens who are creating, implementing, and reporting back on their experiments in building a better democracy, whatever the context.

Sound cool?

We think so, but we want to hear from you. We’ve posted a short survey, and your candid feedback will help us identify the missing gaps in the successful discovery, adoption and implementation of the growing number of civic tech and collective governance tools available.

Your insight and experience is invaluable as we work with the civic tech community to build a big tent for the growing network of citizens that together are making democracy a reality.

Take the civic tech survey.