Nadeem Mazen is a co-founder of two tech and arts-based businesses and is a City Councillor in Cambridge, MA
The digital divide is slowly closing, and that's good for social justice causes. A recent Pew Research study on smartphone ownership shows that although income and age divides still exist, tech ownership has evened out over race and gender in the younger generation. This means new channels are opening for technology to improve access to social services and government transparency. After five days of high-tech immersion at Code for America's civic innovation conference in San Francisco, I've learned a great deal about how Cambridge can help lead this renaissance and make government more effective through technology.
Here's The Deal
High tech solutions--for web and mobile phones in particular--are already improving delivery of social services across the country at federal, state, and municipal levels.
The federal SNAP program (nutritional assistance for low income individuals and families) is infamous for its 'churn' - a need for beneficiaries to constantly reapply due to an inefficient application review process. Recently, an innovative piece of software intervened to cut churn by 40%, saving recipients valuable time and reducing waste.
In Rhode Island, an innovative pilot project unified beginning-of-school-year paperwork for parents into a single web form, eliminating rework and allowing the data collected to be reliable and legible. The traditional paper systems in Rhode Island required about 10 times the form-filling and processing work compared to the computerized pilot. This fall, the technology will be expanded to 57 public and charter schools.
Meanwhile, 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 are often awarded to large, entrenched firms rather than small, hungry, equally qualified companies. These solutions can be applied in Cambridge, alongside our projects. My hope is that many will be, as residents bring new opportunities to our attention and as high tech problem-solving becomes more of a focus for city hall.
What About Open Data?
Working with our local civic technology group, Code for Boston, I am helping to write legislation so that Cambridge releases data for public access and internal use--almost everything will be included: election numbers, assessing data, traffic logs, accident reports, budget statistics, and beyond. What makes this so exciting is the format and the structure.
Previously, to analyze income trends in Cambridge, you'd have to download all of the City's reports on economic development, spend countless hours identifying relevant data, and then crunch the numbers. The same task with well-structured open data and an API (a pack of tools for grabbing relevant data digitally) would allow us to quickly aggregate the data in question, 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. It's that simple and that powerful.
We need to get serious about addressing longstanding social justice issues here in Cambridge. We have problems: a widening gap between rich and poor, a housing crisis for low and middle income residents, and problems of educational access and equity. We must crunch the numbers to understand these problems now and meet regularly to create data-driven solutions. Open Data is our first step down this path. With accurate, up-to-date data, we can get a baseline read on these problems, and we can use data to monitor how well new policies are working to solve them.
Enough About Data, Give Me Access
I am helping to lead data-driven initiatives that will improve access in two important areas: Human Services (HS) programs and Out of School Time (OST) opportunities. Like many cities, Cambridge currently lacks a simple, exhaustive, up-to-date online inventory of services and opportunities.
My goal is for Cambridge to launch an easy-to-use website - a so called "portal" for residents to find new opportunities, search for programs by location on an interactive map, filter programs by rating, suggest programs to family and friends, ask questions to program managers, and more. Imagine a system with complete data security where program coordinators can proactively recruit promising students based on academic need, workforce development initiatives, or neighborhood demands.
A team of committed educators, policy writers, and residents are writing grants, thinking about user experience, and coordinating input between stakeholders so that this type of online resource will become a reality for our families. In reaching out to portals around the country, I have found that many existing programs are willing to share their code and lessons, so that Cambridge can expedite this vision. And as we create new opportunities here, I am confident we can also "pay it forward" by sharing our code and strategies with other municipalities in Massachusetts and elsewhere.
Your input is what makes our city better. Please reach out to me with anecdotes, feedback, or questions. If you're interested in learning more about Open Source or civic technology, consider attending Code For Boston's weekly meetings or joining us at City Hall to design Cambridge's upcoming HS and OST "portals".