October 20, 2021–By Katya Abazajian
This blog is the third in a three-part series highlighting lessons learned from the TOPcities pilot project. The series aims to provide open insight into real-time lessons from interventions in the field. Read the first blog about how to successfully co-create across city, community, and tech partners, and the second blog about how “good” data needs to be to help civic technologists achieve their end goal.
For civic technology to work, its infrastructure has to be trustworthy, transparent, and accountable to residents. Technologists building civic tech products for governments or communities have to learn to build with peoples’ needs in mind, not just as clients or users but also as co-owners of public tech products. The TOPcities project brings together city government officials, community partners, and technologists to leverage local open data to build products that meet the needs of residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With a focus on co-creating products with community members, this project challenges technologists to work outside of their comfort zones.
As we shared in our recent report, teams in Saint Paul, MN, and San José, CA, led by city governments and their community partners, worked with volunteers from Google.org to co-create prototypes of products that could live beyond the TOPCities program and help cities address critical housing needs emerging from COVID-19.
In the original iteration of the Opportunity Project (TOP), the U.S. Census Bureau’s Open Innovation Labs formed cross-functional sprint teams with policy experts from federal agencies, a user advocate, and an independent tech partner—usually civic-minded tech companies interested in putting federal open data to use. When the Beeck Center partnered with the Centre for Public Impact to design the TOPcities program, thinking at a local level allowed us to envision a program where technologists could embed more deeply into city government and community organizations’ teams.
To shift toward a more community-centered program, we looked for tech partners that wouldn’t aim to deploy a proprietary platform or product, but instead would think openly and creatively about what solution might be best for residents. This made the program more challenging, as sprint teams needed to either build custom open source solutions or leverage an open source tool that already exists. But in turn, we believed prototypes would be more responsive to residents’ needs, and city and community partners would resolve product sustainability questions early so that products would last once tech partners handed the product off to the city staff.
Building open source tools remains a core element of the TOPcities program. A commitment to open source ensures that city and community teams have the flexibility to shift where products live or how they function as policies and regulations change over time. Often, cities don’t have this type of control over the tech products they use. The State Software Collaborative, a project housed at the Beeck Center to convene open source software maintainers across governments, shows that governments are starting to shift away from tech procurement practices that lock them in with proprietary vendors and reduce access to public data. In cities, most governments are still working toward establishing the tech capacity to build and maintain open source products in house. The TOPcities program acts as an accelerator to help demonstrate the value of open data and open source public technology. Through the pilot iteration of the program, cities learned just how necessary it is to train and hire public interest tech talent to build more resilient and resident-centered cities.
In San José, volunteers from Google.org worked directly with community partner Catholic Charities to learn about rental assistance pop-ups and ensure that the sprint team’s custom solution would mesh with Catholic Charities’ workflows to direct residents to the right forms of assistance. In Saint Paul, technologists had to navigate city-county relationships to design a tool that could be used by housing service providers and workers at local shelters who get funding from Ramsey County. Technologists selected the right tools for the job after conducting on-the-ground research.
In San José, the team’s new Rental Assistance Finder is housed by the city under the Housing Department’s Rent Stabilization Team. With support from the city’s IT and innovation staff, and the potential to collaborate with local civic hacking chapter Code for San José, the city’s Rent Stabilization team will be able to continue improving and adapting the open source tool over time.
In Saint Paul, the sprint team opted to use an open source instance of an existing tool called ShelterApp, which had already conducted user testing and research with shelter providers and seekers across cities, making it easier for the City to trust the usability and effectiveness of the tool from the start. The city, in collaboration with Ramsey County, will help local providers begin using the tool and allow them to provide feedback for improvements over time.
Treating community members as equal deciders in product design instead of treating them only as users resulted in stronger, more sustainable products in both cities. While both city teams will still have to overcome challenges in maintaining the tools and the data behind them, they have benefited from the continued support of Google.org volunteers and community partners who invested time and resources into product development.
The TOPcities program demonstrates that investing in tech capacity in government is not only innovative and forward-thinking, but also necessary for delivering foundational services like shelter and rental assistance. Private sector technologists often don’t arrive at public interest tech projects with skills in community-centered design or equitable product development. The TOPcities program helps technologists gain these skills while making the case to governments and community organizations that they need technologists who understand communities on their teams.
We might start to think about this as a cultural shift from a vision of technologists as disruptors or trailblazers toward a new identity of public interest technologists as maintainers and facilitators of work that communities need to get done. The first iteration of the TOPcities program in San José and Saint Paul has demonstrated that this shift is possible, and last month, the Beeck Center and Centre for Public Impact published a toolkit for cities to replicate the TOPcities model on their own. Through community-first design and more transparent data practices, we can build out the future of more open and equitable digital services in cities.
We’re interested in learning more about how cities apply these practices as we consider future iterations of TOPcities. If your city is interested in applying the TOPcities approach to solving community problems emerging from COVID-19, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katya Abazajian is a fellow at the Beeck Center working on projects including TOPcities and the State Chief Data Officers Network. Follow her at @katyaabaz.