A bridge between civic administrators and technologists

photo by David Phan

photo by David Phan

Today, at the first ever White House ‘Tech Meetup,’ Jerry Abramson, Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, presented a challenge to preeminent thought leaders and local advocates in the field of civic technology and skills training. He asked them to work with elected officials.

It's a first step to acknowledge the need, but leaves an even bigger issue unanswered. How do we work not just for the government but with the government?

At Open Data Nation, we work with city administrators reaching out to the technology community. These include people like Nadeem Mazen, City Councillor of Cambridge, MA and a technologist and innovator himself. A regular at local meetups like Code for America’s local Boston Brigade, Mazen is trying to change how democracy works from within.

But many city executives simply don’t know where to start. Last week, Abramson mentioned he hosted 50 mayors from across the nation at the White House and only 5 were aware of tech meetups in their community.

 

“...only 5 of the 50 mayors were aware of tech meetups in their community.”

 

Meanwhile, outside the public sector, an active, civic-minded community of young technical professionals have begun to organize. They’ve taken it upon themselves to create homegrown innovation economies with novel web applications, data visualizations, and analysis. More often than not, these products are built using open datasets, which are paid for and published by city executives in their respective cities.

These two streams of civic leaders and technologists are working toward the same goal -- improving the places we live and work. But they not yet working together productively to get it done. There’s still much work to do to integrate civic leaders into the tech community and vice versa.  

In order to make this cross-sector convergence a reality, the most pressing priority is to create an open data service sector to bridge between and support the work of civic administrators and technologists alike.

A robust open data service industry will provide support for administrators and technologists in three ways. First, we can work with cities to leverage existing open data resources in order to make better data-driven decisions. Second, we can engage citizens by hosting worthwhile civic challenges, asking them to bring their skills and knowledge to bear on problems affecting their communities. Third, we can develop a hiring pipeline and marketplace for solutions.

This bridge between civic administrators and technologists does not exist...yet. It's an infrastructure problem that needs financing.

The civic tech community needs investors to support companies that aim to cultivate this culture of civic technology, including social benefit companies like Open Data Nation and nonprofits like The Center for Technology and Civic Life. While one-off web applications and platforms with demonstrable and sizeable one-time returns have their place, it's organizations like Open Data Nation that will ensure that the nation's civic tech ecosystem thrives.