2 February 2016

Interview with Candace Faber, Seattle's civic technology advocate

Interview by Katherine Boyd. Photo courtesy of Michael B. Maine.

Candace Faber at Hack the Commute

Tell me about the Civic Technology Advocate role – why did City of Seattle create it, and what’s the intention of the position?

This is a brand-new role, but the City has been doing things in this realm for a while. Seattle has had an open data program since 2010. Since last year, we’ve been engaged in ”smart cities” initiatives, such as the Metrolab network and the Global Cities Team Challenge. The City has been engaging with the civic tech community on an ad hoc basis. Now that we have a position dedicated to moving civic technology forward, we can take advantage of many more opportunities.

Do you have counterparts around the country, or are you the first of your kind?

There are many people in other cities and states doing this work, as well as at the federal government level. All of us have different titles, different skill sets, and different portfolios, but we are chasing the same objectives: to make government more technologically innovative, data-driven, and responsive to the needs of all residents.

Is there any place that you get jealous of?

Chicago is doing incredible work. They have a huge Hack Night that even pre-dates the Code for America movement. The nonprofit Smart Chicago is doing some of the most interesting work in civic technology today, especially in pushing for equitable, community-driven solutions. The University of Chicago is another leading player – their Data Science for Social Good program inspired a similar program that the University of Washington now runs in the summer. That’s quite a powerful confluence of actors. I look to Chicago all the time for inspiration.

In Seattle, we have everything we need for an impactful civic technology scene – a robust technology industry, an entrepreneurial attitude, and civic consciousness. We’ve had some extraordinary civic hackathons like Hack the CD, the Social Justice Hackathon and the upcoming Black to the Future hackathon at Amazon. Companies like Microsoft and Socrata and schools like the University of Washington and Seattle University have actively supported the growth of this field. We have all the components to build something unique and extraordinary here in Seattle. We just need to bring them all together.

Why did you want this job?

When I first moved back to Seattle, I saw a lot of possibility at the intersection of technology, innovation, and civic engagement. I got involved with Open Seattle and then ran my first hackathon in 2014, focused on homelessness. That was a life-changing experience. The following year, I contracted with the City’s Department of Information Technology to produce Hack the Commute and facilitate our participation in the Global Cities Team Challenge. I got to know Seattle’s CTO, Michael Mattmiller, and other department leaders, and I was impressed by their commitment to innovation. I also discovered that there is tremendous interest from our local tech companies and the people who work for them in developing tools that make our city better.

After that, I spent a lot of time agonizing over how we could bring all these actors together to make meaningful, systems-level changes in Seattle. I explored a lot of options, including starting up a non-profit or a foundation funded by our technology sector, but it was hard to find a funder who was as passionate as I am about social justice and social equity. I was struggling to balance the needs of my business with my desire to filter my commitments through an equity lens. Not only that, but this work really needed an internal champion – someone at the City who could convene stakeholders and make use of all the resources taxpayers already fund. When Michael Mattmiller offered me an opportunity to be that person, I could not say no.

Why is the social justice element so important?

The first great dream of the Internet was equality – democratizing access to information and the opportunity that comes with it. To some extent, that has happened, but in real socioeconomic terms, technology as a sector is widening the divide between the haves and the have-nots, so to speak. Already, we have witnessed salaries in the technology and health care sectors go up, while overall incomes in other fields have gone down. Technology is designed largely by people with a lot of privilege, which means the needs of those who don’t share that privilege are going overlooked.

That is not what technology promised, and I don’t think it’s what innovators want.  We in the City can make interventions that really target underserved communities. Unlike the private sector, we get to design for everybody.

You have a background in foreign policy - what got you interested in civic technology?

My first big project at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw was called New Media New Democracy. We were looking at social media – Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter, which was new at the time – and exploring the role that it played in the then-ongoing U.S. elections. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns used it to connect and engage with voters in more meaningful ways. Social media technologies created new possibilities for human interaction that we were just starting to think about in government. It’s such a rich subject, so fascinating to me. That thread of civic engagement runs through my career. I was always thinking about how we engaged with the public and let them know what we were doing.

I was also really interested in how new communications tools, including for sharing data, impacted our internal operations. In Kabul, I worked on one report on grant spending that took months to compile and yielded a single, mostly qualitative view into our work. With a shared data management system, that project could have taken me 45 minutes and been updated with the click of a refresh button. In the City of Seattle, we have the opportunity to implement those kinds of systems, streamlining the way we manage data so it’s more useful. The beauty is that the same approaches that make our internal operations leaner also make our external communications clearer. As both an employee of the City and a resident of Seattle, I want to see civic technology – and the philosophies that drive it – in more widespread practice.

Do you have any new insights on civic technology, now that you’re on the public side again?

Yeah. The biggest insight is how challenging it is to get good data out there. On the civic tech community side, I was just looking at what we wanted – more data, more context. I’m so much more familiar now with the range of obstacles that exist. City data emerged based on what was best for that practice at that time – departments have been gathering and managing data based on their operational needs, not necessarily thinking about whether it makes sense to an outsider. And are we going to compromise privacy and security? Can the data be misinterpreted or used in ways that aren’t helpful?  And the people who are in charge of these programs have a lot of responsibilities. The biggest question I am asking myself now is: How can I make it easier and more exciting for departments to share what they are doing? When we can do that, it will be a win/win: a win for the City, as in the entity funded by the public, and for the population of the city as a whole.

What obstacles exist to easily sharing public data with engaged citizens who want to put it to use?

There is a really good example from Hack the Commute. The Access Map team wanted data on sidewalk curb cuts for wheelchair access, so they could help people in wheelchairs navigate downtown. The SDOT data team was great, they got them the data, but SDOT had collected that data in the way that made the most sense for workers on that street at the time – instead of having a more precise definition of location for the curb cuts, it just indicated whether the cut was on the high-number side or the low-number side. That created a lot of additional work for the team to figure out how to locate curb cuts for every street in the City.

Here is where it gets cool: Focusing on what the public wants to know can bring a simplicity to the process itself. If I think about that curb cut data, I imagine it’s also easier for the worker on the street to have more precise information. The life of a dataset isn’t linear – it’s a cycle. The civic technology program completes the loop, so instead of just sending data out into the community, we bring back insights into what the community needs that can inform the way we provide services to begin with. That is really fulfilling. The exciting thing about civic tech is that it can change the relationship between government and people. It’s not just about government being held accountable. Now, I’m thinking about government as a platform for empowering civic engagement. The public has information, insights, and skills that we don’t. They can help us solve problems in a much more efficient way.

What should people wanting access to Seattle’s public data for civic tech purposes know?

First: There is a lot of data already out there. Our open data portal, data.seattle.gov, has examples of current projects, as well as a directory of data sets online. We’re working to expand that program this year. We want to publish as much as we can in a responsible way. Second: We are your city. If there’s something that you want to build, just reach out. We’re trying to make it just as easy to build a civic-minded app as it is to build an app for a user in the private market. We can help you understand what data is available or potentially available. If we can’t release the data, we’ll help you understand why and maybe pivot your idea. But we can’t know what data to prioritize publishing if we don’t know what the community is interested in. We want to hear from you!

So who do you most want to hear from? My only filter is for people who want to do something. It doesn’t really matter what your background is what level of tech skills you have. There are so many ways for people to get involved. All that matters is that you want to work together with your City government to solve the really big challenges our community is facing.

How to Reach Candace:

In person at one of the events above, on Twitter @civictechsea, or by email at Candace.Faber@Seattle.gov.

Candace Recommends: A couple of upcoming City of Seattle events:

  • Wednesday, February 3rd, 6:00 pm at City Hall: Social Justice Hackathon Demo Day. The top three teams from the Social Justice Hackathon will showcase their apps, which address access-to-justice needs for low- and middle-income users. RSVP here.
  • Thursday, February 4th, 6:00 pm at Socrata: Open Seattle. Brandon Bouier, lead GIS analyst for the Seattle Police Department, will talk about open police data and the Department’s participation in the White House Police Data Initiative. RSVP here.
  • Tuesday, February 16th, noon at Impact Hub Seattle: Civic Technology Hour, featuring the City of Seattle’s Open Data Program and the Seattle Police Department. Includes a short presentation on police data and an open-format office hours with the civic technology program. RSVP here.

Katherine Boyd is the owner of Halcyon Northwest, a Seattle-area consulting company specializing in data and public policy.