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3 Cities Finding New Ways To Open Up Government With Technology

Want to know what’s cutting edge in civic innovation? Here’s a look at the best, in cities ranging from Piqua, Ohio, to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

3 Cities Finding New Ways To Open Up Government With Technology
[Image: Buenos Aires via Shutterstock]

Technology holds lots of potential to open up city governments–if cities let it. In theory, the Internet should herald an era of transparency, civic engagement, and understanding between government and the governed. For examples of cities doing a good job, take a look at GovFresh’s 2013 award-winners, which were just announced. We picked out three interesting examples here.

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OAKLAND

Oakland has introduced a system called RecordTrac that helps city officials handle information requests from the public. Developed by fellows from Code for America and released last October, it’s now used by all departments and has handled about 2,000 requests so far. Some example requests: locations of reported shootings and traffic studies related to a controversial plaza redevelopment.

“Oakland has a liberal policy in terms of granting the public the right to access information, but wasn’t delivering on that promise,” says Cris Cristina, one of the fellows. “City employees didn’t have the tools to manage their workflow.” RecordTrac allows for faster responses. As a bonus, every request and response is publicly viewable.

Cristina has since formed a company with two other Code for America fellows. PostCode is now selling the RecordTrac system to other cities, and working on CityVoice, which manages phone-in community feedback. The projects were joint winners in GovFresh’s best app category.

PIQUA, OHIO

Piqua, Ohio (population 20,000) wants residents to experience government for themselves. “For 16 weeks, our residents see our departments and their work first hand,” says development program manager Bill Lutz, explaining the Government Academy initiative. “[They] shoot laser guns in a police simulator, they ride around town in a fire truck, they drive a snow plow through an obstacle course.”

Started in 2012, 72 residents have been through the course, often changing their opinion about Piqua as a result. One lady initially said she hated the city, but later “gave a stirring speech to our City Commission claiming our employees were the smartest, most dedicated public servants,” Lutz says.

GovFresh’s “Small City of the Year” also oversees a community on NextDoor, a private social network for neighborhoods, and will start using the MindMixer ideas engine in 2014.

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BUENOS AIRES

Argentina’s capital took the “Big City Award.” “BA is taking a holistic approach to civic innovation that you don’t see most governments doing,” says GovFresh’s founder Luke Fretwell. “It’s not just the culture of innovation, but all aspects, including open data, open-source technologies, cross-agency collaboration, and working closely with the civic hacker community to foster engagement from the outside.”

For example, it was the first city in Latin America to publish data under a Creative Commons license, and encourages citizens to mash up the material in apps and visualizations. It has organized two hackathons so far. Its open-data culture has also been a boon for journalists, who’ve published stories about city finances despite Argentina having no freedom of information law.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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