I met Melissa Kraft, Chief Data Officer in Denton, Texas, at West Oak Coffee Bar on a Tuesday last April for the Little D Open Coffee Club meetup. We were soon joined by Assistant City Manager Bryan Langley, and Alison Ream and Jessica Rogers, key staff in the City Manager’s Office. Before long, our table included Kyle Taylor, President of Denton TechMill, graduate students from the University of North Texas, local programmers, a small business owner, and other members of the Denton community who are interested in open data. This group meets every other other Tuesday with the goal of supporting Denton’s tech and startup community.
The meetup I attended was focused on addressing the needs of the City as well as the community. This conversation occurred just one month after the City partnered with University of North Texas, community members, and Serve Denton to create a dashboard of tools. Going forward, community partners will use these tools to serve residents and better understand and solve homelessness, poverty, and blight.
As the progress in Denton illustrates, cities are rethinking how they work with their communities. Rather than opening data just for the sake of transparency, cities are increasingly using data to develop solutions to improve residents’ lives and to increase resident engagement. In Denton, the City’s relationship with its civic technology community is strengthened by Kraft’s leadership, whose attendance at meetups and role as the City’s community link is a critical ingredient to Denton’s success. Mark Headd, former Philadelphia CDO, writes, “Having city officials engaged and present at civic technology events is a key ingredient to their success, growth, and longevity.”
To the north, this tenet is also borne out in Kansas City, Missouri, to a different end.
KCMO’s Chief Data Officer Eric Roche meets weekly with the City’s Code for America (CfA) Brigade to work with city code violations data. Quality of neighborhood services is a priority for residents according to the City’s annual citizen satisfaction survey, which also indicated that residents are most concerned with demolition of dangerous buildings. Recently, the City made a budget allocation to demolish the City’s 800 dangerous buildings. While the City’s collaboration with the Brigade may result in insights for Kansas City decision makers, the primary purpose is to develop data science and visualization skills for community participants.
Outside of Denton and Kansas City, there are instances of civic tech groups that are no longer functioning, cities that do not have an organized civic tech community, and projects that were created at hackathons but have not been maintained.
But is civic tech dead?
I think about civic tech in the same way that I think about open data–both are a means to an end. How often have you heard open data posited as a solution to a citywide problem, whether it’s public safety, healthy communities, or housing? Of course, we know that opening data on crime will not solve a city’s public safety problems, and neither will fostering a civic tech community. A conversation about opening data, or about civic tech, is not as meaningful as a conversation about ending homelessness using city data. In the same way, it’s more compelling to talk about home renovation, a topic that many people can relate to, than it is to talk about a hammer, the tool that is used to build the house.
Denton and Kansas City have different goals for engaging their civic tech communities and both cities are intentional about those relationships. They are successful because city staff are active participants in the engagement. As Mateo Clarke, brigade captain of Open Austin, points out, it takes organization to bring those groups together and share their goals and data needs. These cities are shifting the conversation to focus on identifying and solving community problems, and improving residents lives alongside community partners.
What if your city does not have a civic tech community? You can work with other potential stakeholders that serve residents, providing blight data to food pantries to help them target their services; sharing data on families applying to the shelter system with homelessness services providers; and opening data on home values over time with neighborhood organizations. Developing and sustaining strong relationships with community service providers can allow cities to leverage their services, for the good of the community.
Consider the impact of an ongoing relationship between city government and United Way, which has worked in numerous cities to improve education and health outcomes, such as increasing graduation rates and reducing teenage pregnancy. Or look at the potential of aid from LISC, which provides grants, loans, and technical assistance to communities to support affordable housing, safer streets, and better schools initiatives, which revitalize communities.
Civic tech is not dead. It is evolving beyond its initial definition to include new ways for cities to collaborate with community partners.
Whether your city has worked with these partners for years or is just starting out, the same rules apply to civic tech engagement:
- Show up,
- Learn about their data needs (and wants), and
- Consider them equal partners in sharing data and developing tech tools.