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TBC: A Conversation with Code for America’s Catherine Bracy

Catherine Bracy

Catherine Bracy of Code for America. Photo: courtesy Catherine Bracy

Many people still remain skeptical about digital technology, data, and the potential they hold to transform our cities. Catherine Bracy is not one of those people. As the International Program Manager for Code for America, which has recently grown to work in several other countries around the world, and launched Code for All, an “international network of civic technologists working with government to improve service delivery and citizen engagement,” Bracy sees the impacts that technology is beginning to have on civic engagement, while recognizing the hurdles still to come. I caught up with her to pick her brain on the future of digital cities, what we need to do to get there, and how we can follow along and engage with today’s most exciting projects, as well as those happening tomorrow.

We’re putting a lot of faith in technology and digitalization and its ability to save our cities. What aspect of this boom is the most promising for cities today?

Well, I think this is true for all levels of government, but really what network technologies allow us to do in terms of facilitating citizen participation is beyond anything that we were able to do with other hierarchically organized organization, for lack of a better word. It used to be that the only way citizens could really participate in their government in the US was voting every few years, signing a petition, protesting. Network technologies and these ways of organizing allow for so many new ways for citizens to actually participate in the business of government, and we’re really just scratching the surface of that. One example is participatory budgeting. There’s a whole new set of ways for cities or any government level to process input from citizens and actually put that into practice when they’re doing policy making, and participatory budgeting is a great example of that, where citizens can actually take part in the budgeting process.

Are you seeing a marked improvement? Are governments actually genuinely making good use of this data and this expanded ability to consult and engage?

Yes, and again I think we’re really just at the beginning of what’s possible there. One of the things that we all need to be better about—and this has been a problem when it comes to the academic literature on civic engagement and the role that technology plays in either encouraging or discouraging offline participation: it’s really hard to measure civic engagement. It’s really hard to measure what role technology plays in increasing or decreasing civic participation. So that’s something that the field really needs to focus on. Can we come up with good ways to measure that? But we know anecdotally. For instance in Boston, we built a tool that helped parents select schools for their kids when Boston, a couple years ago, moved to a school-choice model. The instruction guide that parents received from the schools was completely impenetrable. There was an exposé in the Boston Globe and the school district was coming under a lot of pressure, because they had put this onus on parents and then made it really hard to figure out where to send their kids. So we made it super simple: you enter three pieces of information and you get a list of all the schools that your child is eligible for and information like how close is the nearest bus stop and that sort of thing. Now we know that this has made an impact because two years later, half of all Boston public school parents are using this tool to select the school that their children attend, and the school district has told us that we have changed the relationship that they have with their parents. So we know that impact, but again we need more robust and rigorous ways of doing benchmarking like, when we came into Boston what was the level of engagement and how far did we move the needle with a tool like Discover BPS? Those are the sorts of things I think we’ll start to see as part of the advances that will spring up.

What else is lacking in the conversation now?

Like, I say, that’s a big one, finding more rigorous ways to measure participation. I think we need to do a better job of engaging citizens and making them understand that there are these new ways to participate, not just by helping us build tools—and that’s for everyone, not just programmers. But also that these tools are available to use, and actually encouraging citizens to make use of them, and meeting them where they are, so not just dumping a whole bunch of new apps on the market but, say, integrating health inspection data into Yelp, that sort of thing, which is something that we worked on. I think we are starting to do this more. We realize that cities have to focus on all of their residents, not just the ones who are really savvy at using smartphone apps. So developing ways that technology can reach a much broader swath of the public is really important work. We’re starting that work at Code for America, so we’ve got projects that focus on criminal justice and access to food and human services, and developing an expertise in those areas and how technology can help really achieve on outcomes that cities want to see—so improving on education and public health and poverty metrics, which are what we’re driving for. Technology is only a tool, and if we focus too much on the technology and not enough on how the technology affects those outcomes then I think we’re not doing what we should be doing. So seeing that bigger picture is something that we’re starting to do a little bit more but needs a lot more attention.

A concluding note:

I asked Bracy who and what else she follows to keep abreast of the latest in digital technology, governance, and participation in cities. Who’s doing the most exciting stuff (aside from Code for America, of course), and how does she keep up with it? For news tidbits, Bracy likes many of our own favorites, like Next City and Atlantic Cities. She follows along with TechPresident, a fabulous publication that covers “how political campaigns—presidential, congressional, and state—are using the web to affect those campaigns” as well as “keeping a close eye on how the White House and the public are interacting through the web, a topic that we also track for the whole political and civic arena.” Other recommendations include Citymart.com out of Barcelona, Living Cities, the Governance Lab (GovLab) at NYU Wagner, and the City Lab conference, a partnership between the Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Help us build a library of resources to continue following and engaging with the future of digital technology in cities and city building: add your resources below in the comment section!