Ten of the Best City-Oriented Innovation Tools

Editor’s note: In this guest post, Ian Kalin, currently the director of open data for software company Socrata and former Presidential Innovation Fellow, shares his thoughts about the tools that are available to cities looking to take advantage of the increased data flows.

This past week, The Economist published “The Multiplexed Metropolis,” a brilliantly global and judicious review of data-driven civic innovation. To quote the article’s subhead, “Enthusiasts think that data services can change cities in this century as much as electricity did in the last one. They are a long way from proving their case.”

Knowing better than to argue with the bible of capitalism, I instead offer that The Economist missed a few of the most important civic innovation tools. Civic innovators are people who create new ways to improve cities. They can come from all corners of civic society: government, the private sector, non-profits, academics, etc. Their greatest resource is people who are motivated to work together and improve their community.

Beyond that, there is a variety of tools making real impacts within U.S. cities, and every civic innovator should consider using them:

1. Hackathons
Description: Competitions that last 24 or 48 hours for coders and technology developers
Benefits: Hackathons are a quick way to engage coder communities, gather feedback on community interests, facilitate the sharing of innovative ideas and turn data or new technologies into apps.
Costs: Light pre-event labor (25-50 hours for the sponsor), event space, food/drinks, data hosting and API hosting. Hackathons rarely lead to anything that requires long-term maintenance.
Tangible Results: Produces useful apps, documents brainstorming, cleans up data, recruits coders/developers and markets opportunities for sponsors

2. Data Jams & Datapaloozas
Description: Brainstorming and showcase events that last an average of one day
Benefits: Data jams and datapaloozas offer the innovation of a hackathon with the added bonus of sustainability by integrating with the revenue-generating desires of CEOs and entrepreneurs. They market government open data, which even the “most techy folks” don’t always care about, to businesses that can transform it into everyday products and services. Data jams also provide higher levels of customer and citizen interaction as well as more substantial feedback on which public datasets are actually relevant.
Costs: Event planning (50-100 hours for the sponsors), two separate sets of event space, two half-day sessions for participants, food/drinks and data hosting
Tangible Results: Converts open data to products and services of real value, spurs the liberation of additional data, inspires new competitions and challenges to sustain the community

3. Challenges
Description: Multi-month incentive-prize competitions
Benefits: Challenges enable governments and companies to crowdsource problems, which has the potential to return diverse solutions.
Costs: Costs include a financial prize (recently seen between $5,000 and $5,000,000), qualified or celebrity judges, a competitive hosting platform (i.e. proposal manager) and sizeable marketing efforts. Labor-hours range from half-day preparation of a web site to a full-time, five-person staff over the course of many years.
Tangible Results: Joy’s Law states that the smartest people in the world will always work for someone else. Well-designed and executed challenges can often deliver a cheaper solution than if governments and companies were to try to solve certain problems entirely themselves.

4. Weekly Hack Nights
Description: Routine meet-ups for coders
Benefits: Weekly hack nights can generate apps of great civic value at little-to-no cost, as demonstrated by Code for America.
Costs: Costs include event space and data hosting. If a community of innovators is not already assembled, one will need to be set up, which can be a challenge.
Tangible Results: Hack nights can sustain a community of coders that has a civic purpose. Some cities have demonstrated that it can lead to much more stable apps and technologies.

5. Traditional Grants
Description: Government block issuance of money following some form of competitive application
Benefits: Grants fill a public need where traditional market factors are not contributing to the general welfare of people.
Costs: Large administration and financial awards
Tangible Results: Puts money against big problems facing the public at large

6. Non-Profit & Academic Centers for Civic Innovation
Description: Established organizations that work within communities
Benefits: The Smart Chicago Collaborative and the GovLab at New York University demonstrate how important civic innovation centers are to the overall relationship between the public and private sectors.
Costs: Grant funding and full-time employees to manage centers over multiple years
Tangible Results: Provides unbiased solutions for civic improvements without being tied to immediate market forces

7. Online Communities
Description: Platforms such as Stack Overflow, Github and Quora
Benefits: Approaching online communities brings government problems to hotspots where innovators are already assembled.
Costs: Costs are minimal. Integrating with an online community is more of a cultural hurdle, requiring time to ask questions, offer answers and network with others who are trying to solve common problems.
Tangible Results: Provides answers to real-world questions, such as those in the Open Data Exchange on Stack Overflow, in the comments of the Project Open Data account from the White House on Github or the conversation sprung from the U.S. Chief Technology Officer post on Quora.com

8. Social Media
Description: Twitter, Facebook, etc.
Benefits: Engaging residents through social media breaks down the traditional walls of government, empowering more people to directly engage with political leaders.
Costs: When done effectively, social media engagement costs little more than time from elected officials and their staff.
Tangible Results: Currently, the best example in the United States is the communication style of Newark Mayor Cory Booker (Twitter: @CoryBooker). His leadership has led to 1.4 million Twitter followers for a city that only has a population of roughly 277,000.

9. Conferences
Description: Both the traditional admission-ticket and lecture-style events to the new “unconferences” (including a “Failure Conference” for tech entrepreneurs in the Bay Area in October)
Benefits: There is a reason why conferences continue to attract participants. One of the strongest powers of a government is to act as a neutral convener.
Costs: The cost should be minimal because there are usually opportunities for companies to serve as profit-making organizers.
Tangible Results: Shares best practices and process improvements and serves as a good government forcing function for announcements that can be covered by media

10. Entrepreneur-in-Residence Program
Description: A professional exchange program
Benefits: In these programs, resident entrepreneurs become agents for culture change within static organizations and also serve as incubators for new business opportunities.
Costs: Different deployments have demonstrated wide variations in costs from the sponsor’s perspective. Usually there is some type of short-term headcount increase. However, programs like these at the federal and local level have also been able to attract outside investment.
Tangible Results: Programs can produce new products and services to improve the business of government and contribute to new business ventures.

All of these tools should be considered by civic innovators. As more cities adopt them, they will indeed change cities in this century as much as electricity did in the last one.

About the author

Ian Kalin is currently the director of open data for Socrata, a cloud software company. He previously worked for the U.S. Navy, energy start-ups, and the White House. Ian’s passion for civic innovation can be followed on Twitter at @IanJKalin.

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