The 2012 Code for America Summit: Democracy Behind and Beyond the Dashboard

October 12, 2012 Paul M. Davis

From the Code for America Ignite event, which took place the first night of the Summit at the CfA offices. Photos by Paul M. Davis.

The growth of the civic tech movement in recent years is impressive. Ranging from citizen-developed bus tracking mobile apps to municipal and federal open data portals, the scope and goals of these efforts vary widely. What unites this loose-knit federation of policy makers, developers, data divers, journalists, advocacy groups, and entrepreneurs is the goal to apply the innovations of open source software, the real-time web, and Big Data analytics, to make government more efficient, transparent, and representative.

Non-profit organization Code for America (CfA) is one of the leading lights of the burgeoning movement, and during the three-day 2012 Code for America Summit, held last week in San Francisco, forward-looking citizens met to reflect on the movement’s progress, share what they’ve learned, and discuss issues of access, effectiveness, and scale.

During her keynote, CfA Founder Jennifer Pahlka emphasized that a sustainable civic tech movement relies upon citizen engagement, applications and services that deliver tangible value, and results in policy change, since even the most forward-thinking public officials may be voted out of office in the next election cycle. “We need feedback loops,” she said, “not just for the applications we’re building, but also the cities.” Evoking a phrase that would be heard often over the following days, Pahlka noted, “when we do it together, the community will be our capacity.”

With Pahlka framing the discussion, over the following three days presenters and attendees drilled deep into a substantive dialogue about the successes and challenges ahead. It’s a dangerous game to prognosticate what the future of government will look like — as with all civic matters, there’s no single clear answer, but rather a range of approaches to address the various needs of different citizens and communities. But judging from the talks and presentations during the Summit, mobile data, open source, and big data will play an increasingly defining role.

Data-Driven Decision Making

The City of Chicago is among the most aggressive to adopt data-driven policies in the past two years, much of which can be credited to the efforts of the city’s CTO John Tolva. The city’s open data portal is one of the most exhaustive to date, but Tolva is also aware of the operational value of interoperable systems and rich analytics. Tolva chaired a discussion about collecting and analyzing city data using common standards, to provide city officials with a responsive dashboard to measure the performance of public services.


To discuss this vision of “the city as a platform”, Tolva was joined by New York City’s Analytics Director Mike Flowers, Anne Milgram, former Attorney General, State of New Jersey, and Steve Spiker of the Urban Strategies Council. Tolva and CfA 2012 Fellow Jesse Bounds discussed Open311, a significant project undertaken by the city and its CfA team to build an open API that allows citizens and third-party vendors interface with Chicago’s non-emergency services database.

Silos and Skills

Connecting databases and correlating the information within is a significant task for most municipalities, which are often locked into legacy systems using proprietary formats. Spiker discussed the technical challenges facing city officials and open data advocates. The problem goes beyond data silos and legacy file formats, Spiker noted — it’s also a human resources challenge. “There’s a disconnect in who we hire in government,” he said, arguing that cities can find plenty of people to crunch data, but not enough capable of performing sophisticated analysis, and effectively communicating the insights revealed. “We don’t use data strategically in many government organizations,” he said, “and that’s a killer.”

Mayor nutter

Such transitions require dedicated effort at all levels of city government, but a Mayor who recognizes the value and instills that top-town gives such efforts a huge boost.

In recent months, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has demonstrated his firm commitment to “govern smarter by being a data-driven democracy,” as he said during his keynote speech closing the first day. Nutter signed the city’s Open Data and Social Media policy earlier this year, and named Mark Headd, former CfA Government Relations Director, to serve as the city’s Chief Data Officer.

“Open government means communication that is a conversation,” said Nutter, “not just to, but also with, citizens.” The Mayor took his keynote as an opportunity to announce that Philadelphia will be CfA’s first two-year partner city, allowing the 2013 team of fellows to continue working closely with the city on its open data initiatives. The 2012 team demonstrated their projects for the year, which include Textizen, a platform-agnostic mobile app that solicits and collects citizen feedback from a variety of sources, including SMS for those without smartphones.

Civic Data Value and Opportunities

The long-term vitality of the civic tech movement requires not only engaged government officials and civic-minded volunteer hackers. It will also have to deliver tangible value in policy, quality of services, and economic growth. Recognizing this, CfA announced its Accelerator program during the summer, requesting pitches from startups that plan to build businesses on top of civic data and API’s. The second day of the Summit began with presentations by the seven chosen companies, which will be formally announced next month.

During “The Community is the Capacity” panel, a diverse range of practitioners drilled down into the specifics of civic data initiatives. Emer Coleman, the United Kingdom’s Deputy Director for Digital Engagement, delivered some hard-learned lessons and guiding principles that arose during the development of the London Datastore, one of the most thorough and robust public data portals to date.

Opening data and increasing government transparency “is really hard,” Coleman acknowledged. There are many barriers to such initiatives — institutional inertia, legacy systems, citizen privacy concerns, and the slow and cautious pace of government bureaucracy. Coleman’s goal— “rebuilding the national infrastructure in an open and agile way” — is bold and highly ambitious.

The most valuable lessons from building the London DataStore, and the in-beta nationwide data and services portal Gov.UK, is that such initiatives must build trust within and without the institutions, use extensive analytics to model and deliver what citizens actually want and need, while recognizing that data won’t always provide the answers or questions. She also emphasized that governments can’t go it alone and must collaborate closely with citizens and vendors, and that they must find a way to break out of existing frameworks and take risks — no small feat, she acknowledged.

Live london tube map 500

Even in beta form, the results are impressive. One example is the Live London Tube map, a web app that pulls real-time transit data from the public API. A number of mobile iPhone and Android apps have followed suit, demonstrating the potential for new business opportunities to arise from easily-accessible and readable government data.

Beyond the Dashboard

The second day of the Summit closed with a talk between Tim O’Reilly and Todd Park, CTO for the United States. Park presented a fittingly high-level look, touting the open data initiatives undertaken at the Federal level, as well as the Administration’s embrace of open source software, which include adoption of Drupal as a content management solution and even commits to GitHub.

Park ruffled some feathers among folks following the #cfasummit hashtag on Twitter, when he declared that “Data by itself is not useful. Data is only useful if it can be applied for the public benefit.” In context, however, Park’s statement was far more nuanced. “You cant feed your babies with data,” he said, “or pour data on a wound to heal it. Data has to be applied to be useful.”

Park’s statements served as an important reminder that while collecting, sharing, and performing analytics on the streams of data produced by citizens and governments presents many opportunities, it’s critical to not lose sight of individual citizens and their unique experiences. Democracy can’t be conducted entirely behind a dashboard.

To learn more about the 2012 Code for America Summit, view Christopher Whitaker‘s in-depth Storify pages for day one and day two.

Watch video and read about Code for America’s Big Data for the Public Good seminar series, sponsored by Greenplum, a division of EMC.

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