Why Google Likes Fiber, OGITA Offers Big Help for Small Cities, and the Benefits of Civic Hacking

All the government technology news you should know.
June 4, 2013

Edited by Tod Newcombe

Why is Google spending all that money to put fiber in cities like Austin, Texas; Provo, Utah; and Kansas City? High-speed Internet is the future, according to the search engine giant, and cities are going to play a crucial role in its development.

Right now, the problem is that organizations have hit the ceiling as far as speed is concerned, limiting their ability to grow and be innovative, according to Google Senior Communications Associate Jenna Wandres.

“Here at Google and [at] many other companies we’ve talked to -- large and small -- engineers have these great ideas for products that they want to deploy to customers, but Web speeds are just draining their ability to do that,” she said.

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More Internet is a good deal all-around, which is why Google seems to think building out gigabit fiber is a no-brainer from both business and cultural perspectives. It can also help cities when it comes to education, health care, entertainment and economic growth, according to Wandres. It’s especially beneficial for local economies.

“Something like 97 percent of Internet users look online for local goods and services,” she said. “So if you’re a small business and you’re not online, you’re missing out on a huge percentage of business. That’s a huge economic impact.”

So far, Google has lit up its fiber to neighborhoods in Kansas City and Austin expects to go live by mid-2014. Google will take over Provo's existing fiber network in an arrangement that will have the search engine company providing Internet serivce to the city by the end of this year.

When it comes to information technology, small governments need all the help they can get. That’s why a group of municipalities formed the Oklahoma Government Information Technology Association (OGITA) to help cities and towns with their social media and mobile computing problems. Despite its Midwestern origins, OGITA has grown nationally to include approximately 400 city technology departments in 25 states.

The nonprofit group consists of 100 representatives and limits participation to two individuals per municipal organization. Members can ask questions (online and at regional conferences) and get tips on technology matters they're troubleshooting.

The initial idea behind OGITA was to help member cities deploy internal computing networks more efficiently. Smaller local governments with little or no IT staff also got assistance from OGITA members in larger cities. The group’s goals expanded when Apple’s iPad tablet debuted in 2010. They developed a configuration document, which has gone through several revisions, and now covers a range of topics that include what types of cases and keyboards can be used with the device. The group also created a small set of applications for business users and another set of tools for IT support teams. Training sessions were developed for using the iPad and software tools developed by OGITA members. The group also crafted policies that spell out appropriate uses for the device.

Enid, Okla., was one of the first cities to implement an iPad program for local government. Dana Watkins, IT director of the city, said she helped develop the apps and the configuration document -- a tool used frequently by her team.

"We are always referencing that document when we want to know something about iPads -- that is the biggest thing about this organization," Watkins said. “When you get ready to do something, get out there and find out if somebody has already done it before you, so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

OGITA also published a social media policy in early 2012. Like the iPad materials, the social media document will be revised as new concerns arise. For instance, a new version of the social media policy will be released later this year because of expanding federal regulations that apply to public-sector use of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube.

Is civic hacking good for cities? The folks at Code for America, the nonprofit that encourages online collaboration among local governments, think so. They recently released a list of 10 reasons why civic hacking can encourage the use of publicly available data sets to develop solutions that benefit everyday citizens:

1. Civic hacking makes room for innovation. Opening up the data and inviting civic hackers to have their way with it allows for varying perspectives -- and solutions -- to a problem.

2. It engages citizens in governance and creative problem solving. Some of these engagements include: participatory budgeting and how transparency, crowd-sourced community input and crowd-funding projects could tie into the effort.

3. Civic hacking encourages economic opportunity. New York City hosts its BigApps 2013 competition to stimulate development of apps that improve both transparency and access to information; to encourage both innovation and creation of intellectual property that has commercial potential; and to use technology to solve challenges.

4. It provides insight into government decisionmaking. Take Open Budget Oakland, an app that easily lets citizens see how money is allocated in different city departments.

5. It facilitates community service. Through a program called Adopt-a, in which citizens take responsibility for communal infrastructures by adopting them, residents of Boston and Anchorage, Alaska, have helped shovel out fire hydrants, and Honolulu residents have checked tsunami sirens.

6. Civic hacking teaches new technology skills. No matter the exact type of civic hacking event, those who are participating are learning new skills such as GitHub, GIS and data visualization.

7. It creates a broad network of civic hackers. The civic-hacking movement is spreading rapidly across the country, and as it does, civic-minded volunteers connect to share stories and collaborate on projects.

8. It helps citizens serve themselves. "Whether it’s helping a neighbor get rid of a possum camped out in their trash or shoveling the sidewalk during a snowstorm, civic hacking is both the technology and the action of citizens working together," Code for America writes.

9. Civic hacking helps government manage tech-related expectations. When it comes to mobile Web technology, consumers' expectations are relatively high, while local government’s resources are simultaneously low. Civic hacking helps people understand what’s doable and what isn’t.

10. It connects technology and non-tech groups. One the most important things civic hacking does is bring people together from different backgrounds, experiences and skill sets.

 An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Google was building a fiber network in Provo, Utah. Provo has an existing network, which it has agreed to sell to Google. We regret the error.

Information for this newsletter was compiled from news reports published by Govtech.com.

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