ARTICLE | Apr 26, 2016
Photo courtesy of Beta City YEG

There are citizens in almost every city with skills and capacity to create amazing civic technology projects for free (or almost). The Alliance for Innovation's upcoming TLG 2016 conference on how Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, brought together its government and tech sectors to build a culture of fun and impactful tech volunteerism.

David Rauch co-founded a civic technology meetup in Edmonton, Alberta Canada called Beta City YEG (the region’s airport code). He had just moved to the city a few months earlier from the US, recently started working for the City, and enjoyed scrappy tech projects. A civic tech meetup is not exactly an original idea. Citizen tech volunteers make amazing products everyday all over the world (look up Code For America’s Brigade system), but governments everywhere struggle to incorporate the results of their tech-enabled citizens. Beta City YEG and fellow City employees have spent a lot of time figuring out how to get these basically free tools integrated into government programs and operations.

This is a challenge because Government procurement was not exactly designed to accept almost-free amazing tech products from citizens. It’s hard enough to procure technology the normal way (RFP, contract, etc.), so imagine for example the complexity when a college student designs a pedestrian counter twenty times cheaper than a similar product. Logistically, how do you pay the student the $150 for parts (contract, invoice, does he have insurance?), how do you sustain the program without a company, how do you find potential uses for a product you didn’t think could exist?

Considering that there are more than 130 civic technology meetups around the world, in almost every US state and continent, the model was there to borrow. There was already an active civic technology scene in Edmonton going back at least to 2009, when the City first released its open data catalogue. There were annual hackathons, which are great bursts of civic tech energy, and occasional events, but it can be useful to have a regular monthly meetup to keep projects stringing along. So Lydia Zvyagintseva, digital humanities scholar at University of Alberta, and Rauch, as a volunteer and not in an official role with the City, started the first civic tech meetup in Western Canada.

As described above, the group borrowed the civic tech meetup formula and built on the network that already existed in the city, so it’s a funny model for innovation; the group self-identifies more as serial borrowers than innovators. But borrowing and iterating is its own kind of interesting. For instance, as opposed to buying or building a web application to connect those in poverty with immediate need services, a citizen volunteer used an open-source solution (worth around $30K) for free. There are more than 4,000 civic tech projects on websites like GitHub that are open source, meaning 90% of the work has already been done by civic tech communities around the world, and most tools can be redeployed for free. Almost all of our projects are like that, they build on the innovations of others to develop user-friendly tools for a fraction of the price (or free).

I like to think that we help the City and community members take ideas from “nice to have” to “have.” For instance, when the City first wanted to make a downtown public art map, it had a list of around 120 pieces of art that it owned around the city. Earlier that year, BetaCityYEG used that list of 120 and a few others, along with a hundreds of crowdsourced pieces, to compile a list of around 900 pieces of public art. Also, when the city art consultant only had enough money to make a printed brochure, BetaCityYEG stepped in and developed the mobile-friendly and interactive tour website. Now that site is being maintained by City staff.

Another example is when the group did a project with an upright piano Rauch had placed in a transit center, we put a little computer inside it with a microphone and a wifi card. One of our tech wizards, Ben Zittlau, made a program so that when people were playing, the device would record. When it detected a few seconds of silence, it would stop recording, and then export the sound file to a music-sharing website in near real time. Hearing those first few recordings was a revelation. I had put out seven pianos that year and was always curious how often they got played. I was amazed when we had hundreds ofrecordings logged in around a week, including 7 minute rambles at midnight. and exuberant jazz jams at the start of rush hour. Btw, that project is open source and cost about $200 in easy-to-find parts.

One of the most enlightening projects is happening now, the group is in the midst of a project where we’re working on social benefit screening tool, the kind that brings together benefit programs from all orders of government and nonprofits and lets people test if they might be eligible for benefits. There are some products on the market for $5,000 or $10,000 which are great, but this is just a “nice to have” project at this point in the community. I pitched the project to the meetup and someone came up afterward and said essentially “I can do that in a month, open source, for the cost of hosting (a few hundred dollars) because I want to do something cool that matters and it won’t be very hard.” That’s not usually how government tech procurement goes, but I think there is more capacity like that in cities than they are making use of right now. This kind of co-creation of services and products represents a real peak of public engagement, in my opinion.

In terms of the future, the group will hopefully continue to grow, gather some more sponsorships, continue to bring out great presenters to the monthly meetups and do amazing projects. For instance, they’re looking to replicate thecivic user testing group concept out of Chicago. They’re really excited to use a360-degree camera they recently purchased to photograph the City’s enormous river valley park system, like google streetview but forparks instead of roads. We’re looking forward to our presentation at TLG 2016, where we’ll tell the story of how to start a civic tech group, fund it, coordinate work with government, and sustain the projects.

6 Qualities Linked to Innovation Impacted

  • Robust External Partnerships

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