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Breaking The Digital Divide: Online Tools Every Community Should Use

July 7, 2014
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Breaking The Digital Divide: Online Tools Every Community Should Use
Fabrizio Giraldi/Redux
One Silicon Valley mind wants to bring civic technology to even the smallest cities across the country.

We’ve all heard about the growing economic divide in this country. But now, there’s a technology divide occurring as well.

Larger cities like Chicago, San Francisco and New York continue to innovate civic technology and bridge the divide between citizens and government, while this progress is leaving small communities behind.

Without digital tools, staff or infrastructure in place to bring basic services online, small local governments and their citizens are suffering from a digital divide. But one Silicon Valley mind is determined to break that barrier and help smaller cities understand how they can join the digital movement.

All it took for Abhi Nemani to realize the vast difference between small and large cities was a visit to his hometown of Centralia, Illinois. The former acting co-executive director of civic tech nonprofit Code for America used to spend his days creating digital engagement tools and improving city websites across the country while living in San Francisco. But when he returned home to his rural town of 13,000, he realized that it was missing out on those same services.

“Our cities are more independent and muscular, number in the tens of thousands, and hold responsibility for core service delivery,” Nemani writes in a Medium piece. “Then there are our harsh fiscal realities: small towns, particularly ones with shrinking economic bases, struggle just to maintain current services levels, while citizen demands increase, let alone build out modern technology teams.”

Nemani has been working with the Open Government Foundation to become more familiar with government services like local bills and municipal code to better understand the process of transforming them digitally. He’s also created a Digital Services Center, a draft of a simple mapping component that he hopes to further develop for cities to use as basic infrastructure to house these digital tools.

Instead of thinking of creating the services from a developer’s vantage point, Nemani explains, we need to be thinking about it from a city’s perspective and present it in an easy-to-understand manner. To get started, Nemani contends that any civic technology should include the following eight tools:

Bullets: Crime-related data that give residents a sense of how safety is handled in the city.

Examples: CrimeAround.Us, Crime in Chicago, Oakland Crimespotting

Bills: Providing citizens with more transparency around legislative data.

ExamplesOpenGov’s AmericaDecoded, MySociety’s SayIt, Councilmatic

Budget: Making public finances and city spending available online.

Examples: OpenGov.com, OpenSpending, Look at Cook

Buses: Transportation tools to help residents with schedules, planning, etc.

Examples: OpenTripPlanner, OneBusAway

Data: Open, organized, municipal information.

Examples: Socrata, NuData, CKAN, OpenDataCatalog, Junar

411: An online information hotline used in the same regard as the phone version.

Examples: CityAnswers, MindMixer, OSQA

311: Non-emergency online assistance including reporting things like road repairs.

Examples: SeeClickFix, PublicStuff, Connected Bits, Service TrackerOpen311Mobile

211:  A social services hotline for services including health, jobs training and housing.

Examples: Aunt Bertha, Purple Binder, Connect Chicago

“The opportunity is that we have the chance to take all of these components that are being built as open-source tools and turn them into companies that offer them to cities as hosted platforms,” Nemani told Next City. “Even a 10-person shop can put in a credit card number and pay a hundred dollars a month for one of these tools.”

While Nemani admits each city will be different — some places are too small for transportation components — working towards a template is critical to make civic technology accessible for everyone. But by focusing on these eight tools, any town is off to a great start.

“We as a civic technology ecosystem need to move towards building the technology we have in a way that lets it get to scale. And we have to put things out there in a way that makes sense to people.”

MORE: Can Big Data Reshape City Governments?

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