Civic Insight: Closing The Government-To-Citizen Information Gap

December 5, 2014 9:56 am PST | Data Apps & Visualization, Data as a Service

Cities aren’t falling short in serving their residents. They are falling short informing their residents.

That’s the conclusion drawn by Alex Pandel, Eddie A. Tejeda, and Amir Reavis-Bey, the founders of Civic Insight, an online and mobile platform to improve government-to-resident communications about buildings and properties.

Back in 2012, the three founders were Code for America fellows partnering with the City of New Orleans. “We were asked to focus on blight and vacancy,” Pandel said in a phone interview with Socrata. “At first, we didn’t know if a few techies could make much of an impact on such a complex socio-economic issue.”

When the trio started interviewing residents, city staff, and local organizations, however, it became clear that there was a large information gap between the work the government was doing and what communities knew about it.

The information gap was particularly startling when it came to vacant and blighted properties. As Pandel puts it, “If a resident doesn’t see tangible changes being made to a vacant building down the block from them, the logical assumption is that nobody’s doing anything about it. But really, we saw that there was a ton of work that the City was doing behind the scenes that was almost invisible to residents, since code enforcement is such a long, complex process. We developed Civic Insight to pull back the curtain, so people could see all the work that the City of New Orleans was already doing to reduce blight.” That knowledge empowered neighborhood groups, nonprofits (like Habitat for Humanity) and other invested community members to pitch in to help the City with the revitalization efforts, she adds.

Following a successful launch in New Orleans at the end of their fellowship, the team at Civic Insight heard from many other cities across the country who needed similar help. In some cases, the information gaps these cities were struggling with weren’t limited to code enforcement and blighted buildings – even cities that are booming have other complex regulatory processes like planning and permit approval that residents need to understand. In response, Civic Insight expanded its capacity to help cities communicate with residents about anything property-related.

“We are providing transparency about how buildings in cities are changing over time,” Pandel says, “in a format that makes information about the entire lifecycle of buildings — from planning information to building permits to code enforcement actions — consumable and understandable for regular people, not just experts.”

The upside for citizens is clear: the app is free for residents to use, and provides up-to-date information about how buildings in their city are changing over time, using simple, straightforward language and clear visualizations. Civic Insight even lets residents subscribe to receive email alerts about individual properties or entire areas that they are specifically concerned about.

Civic Insight is a big win for government, too. With Civic Insight’s trends dashboard, cities can get an aggregate view of activity across the entire city, and track metrics that help them make better planning decisions and improve agency performance. Cities which have deployed the app also report less time spent answering repeated, basic questions from citizens about properties, and the questions they do get are better informed and more constructive. The app changes the conversation between government and citizens to a more collaborative and productive one, Pandel says.

As Civic Insight is used by more and more cities, there’s potential for nationwide statistics benchmarking and trend detection. Currently, the app is deployed in New Orleans, Palo Alto, and Dallas and will soon go live in Sacramento, Fort Worth, Atlanta, and Gary, Indiana, with five more cities set for an early 2015 release.

While the app integrates seamlessly with Socrata and is great for cities already using open data platforms, Civic Insight can also be deployed in municipalities which do not currently have liberated permitting, code enforcement, and other property-related data. Pandel says the app is a great way for cities to get started opening data in a way that immediately engages communities.

“Our goal is to make it easy for cities to be more transparent, so we make sure that there is no heavy lifting when deploying Civic Insight,” Pandel says. “It’s an easy way for municipalities of any size to improve efficiency and citizen satisfaction.”


This post is part of a series about apps available through the Socrata Marketplace


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