The Value Civic Engagement adds to Open Data for government

The Government Operations Agency is focused on making open data, public data accessible by anyone that can be freely shared and redistributed, available through online means. Open data is open to the public and encourages collaboration and community participation by cultivating it for better outcomes. Through civic engagement, individuals are able to improve the quality of life and help government go where it cannot go alone. Engagement can influence policy and provide data-driven decisions.

What is Civic engagement?

Civic engagement involves the use of open data and identifying how this information can bring awareness to improve processes, programs, and/or policies. Civic engagement is about taking the data further. Lists of datasets do not actively engage public members nor do they show the core value they possess. To get the most from data, one must bring it to life and capture its meaning and full potential through the development of apps, visualizations, dashboards, or other tools. Improvement is based upon partnerships stimulating innovation that will ultimately shape programs and services, help deliver input, and advance public policy.

Civic engagement is bringing the right people together to create projects that best address problems governments face. There are three essential members to include when developing events including technological experts, subject matter experts, and front line community members that are pieces to the larger puzzle of civic engagement.

  • Technological Professional/Coders- Volunteers eager to contribute to government through their expertise but have little to no idea what to build from the data available. They can develop apps and visualizations, but lack understanding about everyday issues people encounter.
  • Subject Matter Expert/Government Staff- Most knowledgeable in the particular field and have insight as to what should be created. They will know what to build and what is needed to drive effective change.
  • Community Member/Front Line Participant- People that encounter issues and want to share insights around these challenges. They can identify a problem that needs to be resolved. It is important to remember building with and not for.

Why is Civic engagement needed?

With civic engagement we have the ability to bring innovators across the State of California that can leverage open data and help community and policymakers. Government is able to break down silos and work with the community to utilize existing technology for better operations and solutions to meet the public’s needs. Civic engagement is about connecting groups that otherwise would not be talking to each other. Opportunities for participation in public service are created while new relationships and networks are formed. At its core, government is about doing collectively what cannot be done alone and this is why civic engagement is vital.

Through civic engagement products that succeed are those that best support work in which groups and people are already committed to. This allows support for an open and involved culture which empowers the groups and people to create change for themselves. Civic engagement is not always about saving lives, rather it is about making government function better. It is about finding new methods which improve everyday activities.

Department Benefits

Civic engagement is a resource to motivate policy change through data driven decisions. Whether it is generating tools to find services or building search engines to access data, engagement will create innovative solutions that deliver social value.

More citizens will be enabled to engage with their government. Open data and civic engagement is more than transparency, it evolves from just knowing what is happening in government into the ability to actively contribute as a citizen.

Civic engagement is more than checking off a box after an event. Successful engagement is an effect that can transform the culture and attitude of a community. Open data and civic engagement works to bring a collected effort by delivering better processes through volunteer participation. Tools created are not sold for profits, although prize money may be a motive, they are brought to life for improvement of Californians’ lives and government.

Civic Engagement Events

There are different civic engagement events with specific goals to help government improve efficiency. With civic engagement there is the ability to bring innovators and people that otherwise would not interact with government together to leverage open data and help policymakers.

Hack-a-thon/ Code-a-thon

The purpose of a code-a-thon is to bring individuals from diverse backgrounds to work on projects and redefine them for better usage in the form of websites, mobile apps, or other technological solutions. Hacking in government refers to improving or finding better solutions to problems. Hackers, i.e. coders, are individuals volunteering to better the way governments work.

Civic engagement events like code-a-thons may vary in regards to the time duration. Events on average go for 24 to 48 hours. Participants are typically given food, drinks, and sometimes the opportunity to win prizes. In government supported events, these costs are covered by the departments hosting or through sponsors. After initially meeting, participants gather and pick teams to pursue a particular idea they find of interest. At the end of the event teams present their products and winners are chosen. Products which are presented at code-a-thons can have a lasting impact on government. Governments are able to run these events on limited resources. Prize money may not be a large sum but a purpose and goal to service their community attracts volunteers.

Data Challenge

Similar to code-a-thons, data challenges invite competition of innovation and creativity to bring awareness to important issues. Challenges differ from code-a-thons because participants are given an extended time-frame, more than a weekend, typically ranging from one to six months to address a specific topic. Teams then assemble themselves and work together freely to develop data-driven solutions. These data competitions are for a specified group to create data-based stories defining an issue or resource. Using at least one data set, they can create visualizations to describe trends in the data. Completed projects are submitted before a set deadline and a panel of judges determines the winner.

Data Jam & Datapalooza

Data Jams encompass bringing together various stakeholders including entrepreneurs, community members, and subject matter experts for a half-day event to brainstorm. Participants come together at the end of the day and present ideas. The top 5 or 10 ideas are voted upon and teams begin to form that will later work on prototypes. After 100 days, teams reconvene and show off what they have created at an event called datapalooza. Data jams and datapaloozas sound familiar to hack-a-thons, however differ as they go about creating products with more meaning behind it. Hack-a-thons are limited and if no interaction occurs once the event is over, the product can fail. Data jams emerged as a solution to resolve this shortcoming. From an outside perspective, data jams serve as the middle piece between the short lived hack-a-thons and the long term/multi-year projects. Usually lasting 100 days, these events give individuals/groups enough time to develop useful products and services while also allowing people with limited time to volunteer.

Open Data Bootcamps

Data Boot camps compromise of individuals interested in hands on learning for constructing of tools, apps, and visualizations. Open data is only useful when people know how to use it to improve decision making. Through data boot camps, technological data experts train people on a set of basic literacy skills on the road to learning how to make final products. The overarching goal is to have participants understand data and be able to utilize it for innovative processes. Bootcamps have a timeframe ranging from 3-4 days to 2 weeks. Individuals are encouraged to make teams and work on projects of their liking to create practical and innovative solutions. Boot Camps are hands on workshop trainings which guide participants from basic training to development of products. After going through a boot camp participants come out with a better understanding of the power of translating data into stories. Boot camps will not only bridge the divide between different stakeholders, it also gives them necessary skills to build through data tools and applications. It teaches participants how to access data and apply it for communities to benefit from it while increasing civic engagement and holding government accountable.


Example of Events

Open DataFest

The California Health and Human Services Agency partnered with the Stewards of Change Institute, the California HealthCare Foundation, and the Health Data Consortium to host the inaugural Open DataFest on January 21-22, 2014 at the Sacramento Convention Center. The Open DataFest symposium brought a diverse group of leaders from both the public and private sector to explore ways of increasing access to data, initiating meaningful use, and improving service programs across the state. Through the use of presentations and interactive sessions, participants were briefed on the open data movement, its relation with regards to California, and the benefits new tools could create for decision making. The California Health and Human Services Agency has continued the Open DataFest symposium through the 2015, 2016, and 2017 years showcasing new developments, highlighting innovative solutions, and continuing efforts to build upon the open data movement.

Health 2.0 Developer Challenge

On June 6-7, 2015 the California HealthCare Foundation and Health 2.0 partnered to organize the first California state government civic code-a-thon at the University of California, Davis. This code-a-thon was a part of the National Day of Civic Hacking and attracted participants to create apps and visualizations using the California Health and Human Services’ Open Data Portal. California State Senator Richard Pan kicked off the event as representatives from Code for America, State of California’s Little Hoover Commission, and California Government Operations Agency witnessed this first-of-its-kind collaboration between government and the developer community. Participants were challenged to use health-care data with approximately 60 coders producing 15 apps that informed communities about the health choices and informed different levels of government about policy decisions being made. The code-a-thon awarded $20,000 in prize money to winning participants: $10,000 for first place, $5,000 for second place, $2,500 for third place, and $2,500 for the audience’s choice. Although there was prize money for top participants, the goal of the code-a-thon was to not only bring developers but include the non-coding community to produce solutions that are needed and address on-the-ground needs.

  • First place– Apptology
    This app was developed for the County of Sacramento’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) offices to use in order to allow users to locate WIC vendors and offices in their area.
  • Second place– PoliSee
    This dashboard was designed as a web app to track, discuss, and share progress from the State of California’s Let’s Get Healthy California initiative.
  • Third place– Shiny
    The dashboard known as CommunityBeat was designed as a wellness tool to help users understand their community pulse through health and demographic indicators.

Let’s Get Healthy California Innovation Challenge

In August of 2015 the California Health and Human Services Agency and the California Department of Public Health announced the Innovation Challenge to engage people in collaborating towards improving health within communities and the state. This challenge aligned with Governor Brown’s Executive Order B-19-12 and the goal to make California the healthiest state in the nation by 2022. All participants were encouraged to create innovative solutions to help Californians live healthier lives. This challenge ran from the beginning of August with submissions needed to be turned in by the end of September. Finalists were announced in the fall and highlighted at the statewide Innovation Conference the following year. On January 26, 2016 the Innovation Conference took place and celebrated 23 community-based innovations out of about 100 innovative solutions that were submitted during the challenge window in 2015. Submissions for the challenge were from various individuals including health advocates, healthcare providers, community based organizations, and civic and data enthusiasts.

The California Health and Human Services Agency and the California Department of Public Health partnered again in September of 2016 to launch the Let’s Get Healthy California Innovation Challenge 2.0. The theme for the 2.0 challenge was social determinants of health including conditions in which people are born and live. For this challenge a webinar was held in October to provide more information and answer questions. At the Innovation Conference on February 27, 2017, 12 health innovations were selected as finalists for showcasing.

California Health Data Project

The California HealthCare Foundation funded a statewide project in 2015 as part of their Free the Data Initiative encouraging local communities to use available data in meaningful ways through the California Health and Human Services Agency’s Open Data Portal. This project brought state government, local governments, and community participants to get data to those that are best able to use it to impact change. By leveraging data this project would unlock its full potential to create new innovative tools to make communities healthier. Pilot programs were launched in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Fresno. Later the program expanded to include San Diego and San Jose.  An ambassador would be assigned to each of these communities receiving a monthly stipend while building products that were geared towards addressing community needs. As part of the Sacramento team, Health Data Ambassadors created the asthmastoryca.org website, an interactive web asthma visualization app. This website was launched to educate the public on the effects, disparities, and treatments related to asthma severity in California. Data sets are put into an interactive map that offers statistics on asthma related emergency visits across California.

$25K Find a New Way Innovation Contest

On August 25, 2015 the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of General Services introduced the 25K Find a New Way Innovation Contest. This contest encouraged participants to create ideas that were fully formed and could best be implemented towards making state government more efficient and effective. The contest emerged when Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2138 back in September of 2014. Sponsored by Assemblymember Mike Gatto, Assembly Bill 2138, also known as the Innovation Awards bill, gathered individuals to solve specific problems, improve a process, or streamline a function within state departments. The participating departments were allocated $25,000 for prize money given to top products.

California Department of Transportation

The California Department of Transportation launched its innovation contest to seek the public’s help with improving California’s transportation system. This contest took place in the Fall of 2015 and gave participants the opportunity to submit their products up until the month of October. More than 600 entries were received by the deadline and winners were announced on December 31, 2015. The California Department of Transportation awarded $25,000 in prize money to winning participants: $7,000 for each of the three first place winners and $4,000 for the sole second place winner.

  • First place– Advance Directional Sign
    This idea would enhance safety by using markings on highway approach signs to indicate what lanes motorists should enter for desired destination.
  • Second place– Caltrans Freeway League
    This online travel app encouraged people’s behavior for increased safety by rewarding points to those that drive safe, drive during peak hours, and shift their travel modes.

Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control asked individuals to come up with new solutions to help combat underage drinking. The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control saw this as a major issue in the state which resulted in too many young people being killed or injured due to alcohol-related incidents. On December 16, 2015 the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control announced the winners of the Innovation Contest. Those selected had created viable products to better prevent alcohol consumption by people 21 years or younger.

  • First place– CalBoozeBuster App
    This app was designed for youth to feel empowered and anonymously report sales of alcoholic beverages to those 21 years and younger at or around stores. The app has the ability to potentially reduce monitoring and enforcement costs while providing a revolutionary tool for youth to use.
  • Second place– Take 1
    This idea was designed to encourage students to create short films that educate about the dangers of underage drinking. These videos would be viewed on the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s website and on school and law enforcement websites.

California Department of General Services

The California Department of General Services, the Department of Technology, and the Government Operations Agency partnered to host a code-a-thon seeking innovative methods to assist California with improving its sustainable operations. As part of the $25K Find a New Way contest, the California Green Gov Challenge engaged the civic coding community in its efforts fighting climate change. This weekend long event took place on October 24-25, 2015. More than 75 contestants created apps, visualizations, and other useful tools for decision makers to leverage when developing policies towards achieving sustainable goals. Participants used the Statewide Open Data Portal and public data available to help build their products. The Green Gov Challenge awarded $25,000 in prize money to winning participants: $10,000 for first place, $7,500 for second place, $5,000 for third place, and $2,500 for the audience’s choice. At a reasonably low cost, this code-a-thon brought awareness and discussion on how government can improve its sustainability efforts to make better choices for the State of California.

  • First place- Green Buyer
    This is a purchasing tool that connects state departments and agencies to contracts that will help them meet the state’s mandated goal to purchase more environmentally preferable products.
  • Second place- NudgeSMS
    This app reminds employees and encourages them to limit energy and water consumption through text messaging.
  • Third place– smartFLEET
    This is a data dashboard to help with fleet management through the showcasing of statistics including carbon dioxide output and fuel efficiency from the state’s vehicle fleet.
  • People’s Choice– Weekend School Bus
    This service looks to partner with schools in order to rent out buses on the weekends when they are not being used and raise money for educational purposes.

Water Data Fair

The State of California’s Water Resources Control Board hosted the Water Data Fair on March 18, 2016 at the California Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Sacramento, California. The fair was a pre-meeting to the Data Innovation Challenge that started the same day and concluded the month after. This pre-meeting was designed for individuals to come together and share ideas of how to progress with data sharing. The forum consisted of over 100 in-person attendees and 140 remote participants. There were presentations which highlighted methods to synthesize key water resource related data that was available. Throughout the day there were also system showcase and panel discussions strategizing how to increase availability and usefulness of water resource related data.

Water Data Innovation Challenge

Following the Water Data Fair, the California Water Resources Control Board organized a Data Innovation Challenge as the second part to their civic engagement event. The challenge began on March 18, 2016 and ended April 22, 2016. With large amounts of water data the state has available, participants focused on creating apps, visualizations, and other tools. The final products were created to present the capabilities in which water data could be used beyond what is currently done. The challenge concluded with presentations and judging of entries.

Water Quality Science Symposium

The final piece in this 3 series event was the first annual Water Quality Science Symposium. The symposium was created on June 29, 2016 with the focus being on use of data by other programs and Departments. Some objectives include interests on California surface water quality topics, how to share information about water quality with stakeholders and decision makers, and the creation of community to break down silos. Individuals attending the symposium were those looking to share science information and practical applications, research across scientific fields, and transform water quality data into policy solutions.

The second annual Water Quality Science Symposium took place on June 29-30, 2017. This symposium aimed to better connect data with stakeholders, shed light on new science topics and tools, and improve communication through networking. Topics this year included emerging tools for monitoring or analyzing and integrated approaches to address problems or programs.

White House Water Data Challenge

The State of California partnered with the White House Council on Environmental Quality to host the Water Data Challenge centered on innovations for water sustainability. This challenge brought together multiple collaborators including the White House, California Government Operations Agency, State Water Resources Control Board, Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Department of Technology. Participants were given the time frame from October 28 to December 5, 2016, to submit projects in the form of apps, visualizations, or other tools. The challenge had 34 submissions from a wide range of individuals including volunteers, consulting firms, students, and non-government organizations. The winning entry for the Water Data Challenge was selected by a panel of judges.

  • Winner– FlowWest
    This app is designed to demonstrate the best habitat for juvenile salmon by using data to track when and where to target floodplain habitats.

San Francisco Housing Data Jam

The City and County of San Francisco came together on October 14-17, 2013 for a datapalooza hosted by the San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation, California Governor’s Office of Business & Economic Development, and GreenBiz Inc. Led by Mayor Ed Lee’s focus on housing, this event was innovation showcasing the value of new products and services. Leading up to the datapalooza, a data jam was organized 100 days prior at City Hall and brought together 50 entrepreneurs addressing the housing problems with open data. People at this event separated into groups tackling issues such as homelessness, building health, and new housing finance. Out of these issues, the top 10 were voted on and volunteers elected which to deliver services and products.

  • Appalicious
    Delivers an overall health and sustainability score of every neighborhood in San Francisco.
  • Building Eye
    Maps what is occurring in the city making it simpler to discover and understand building and planning data.
  • Project Homeless Connect
    Connects the homeless population in San Francisco with resources available to them.