Tech Justice: broader social justice potential emerges from the high tech arena
A Pew Research study on smartphone ownership shows that the digital divide is slowly narrowing. While the income and age divides still exist, tech ownership has evened out over race and gender among the younger crowd. This doesn’t mean that work to bridge the digital divide ought to slow down—but these ownership trends have lit a fire under innovators. Now, it makes more sense than ever to use technology to deliver everything from social services to government transparency. And at a recent conference of innovators working to make government more effective through technology, I learned a great deal about how we in Cambridge (and Cambridge City Hall) can lead this revolution.
But Tell Me, Does It Work?
High tech solutions—web or mobile phone software solutions in particular—are already doing fairly heavy lifting all over the country. The SNAP program (nutritional assistance for low income individuals and families) application process is known for it’s “churn,” the need to constantly reapply to the program due to inefficiency in the application review process. A recent software solution intervened to cut churn by 40 percent—saving recipients valuable time and reducing waste. A pilot project in Rhode Island unifies the beginning-of-school-year paperwork for parents into a single web form, eliminating rework and allowing the data collected to actually be usable and legible. For every 83 hours parents spend filling out forms via the traditional paper systems in Rhode Island, the computerized pilot only requires 2 hours. It’s easy to see why that pilot has moved up from only a handful of schools at inception to a total of 57 public and charter schools this fall. In Atlanta, a smartphone app has reduced the number of traffic warrants issued due to missed court dates, while also reducing traffic court waiting time and unnecessary court appearances. This year, Pittsburgh will be working with Code for America to fundamentally revamp procurement—the process by which large government contracts are sent out to bid, and often awarded to large, inefficient firms rather than small, hungry companies. The list of meaningful technology interventions goes on.
Ok, So What About About Open Data
One initiative that I am leading is a comprehensive Open Data Ordinance for Cambridge. In cooperation with several city departments and my colleagues on council, Cambridge will eventually release data to the public—everything from statistics typically seen in city reports, to traffic and accident reports, to budget data, and beyond. What’s so important about all this, is that the data will be well structured. Here’s one way to explain how powerful this is: if you were to download all of the city’s reports on economic development in order to figure out how income has changed for single mothers over the years, using the tools currently available, you’d be in for at least a few hundred hours of careful reading to pull out the relevant data amidst all the tables and discussion sections. The same task with well-structured open data and an API (essentially functions to grab that data) would allow us to not only aggregate the data in question, but to graph it, search it, break it down by race and geography, and share it with friends via social media or text message—all with a few lines of code and a few seconds of processing time. If we are going to get serious about longstanding social justice issues here in Cambridge, including the widening gap between rich and poor, a housing crisis for low and middle income residents, and problems of educational access and equity, we must absolutely settle on the scope of these problems now and meet regularly to create data driven solutions.
Enough About Data, Give Me Access
I’m also helping to lead an important initiative to improve access in two important areas: Human Services (HS) programs and Out of School Time (OST) opportunities. We currently lack a simple, exhaustive, up-to-date online inventory of services and opportunities. My goal is for Cambridge to launch a single web destination that allows residents to: find new opportunities, search for programs by location on an interactive map, filter programs by rating, suggest programs to friends and family, ask questions to program managers and experts, and more. My favorite feature, if we can assure data security and parental sign-off, is that OST program managers will be able to proactively recruit participant students and families based on goals for socio-economic diversity and workforce development, for example. To this end, I am helping the city to write grants, think about design, and coordinate between stakeholders so that this type of online resource will become a reality. Recently, I have met with partners all over the country who are willing to give us code from their up-and-coming OST and HS portals, so that Cambridge can step into the mix several years ahead, so that we can start implementing and testing right away.
If you want to get involved in local civic technology, consider going to Code For Boston’s weekly meetings on Tuesday nights, join city leadership in designing Cambridge’s upcoming HS and OST “portals”, or reach out to me with ideas or questions.