Meeting of the Minds took a few moments to talk with Herrie Schalekamp about new working relationships between researchers and paratransit operators in South Africa and beyond. Herrie is the ACET Research Officer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies. In addition to his research, teaching and consulting in the fields of paratransit and public transport reform he is involved in specialised educational programmes for paratransit operators and government officials. Herrie’s activities form part of a broader endeavour to investigate and contribute to improved public transport operations and regulation in Sub-Saharan African cities under ACET – the African Centre of Excellence for Studies in Public and Non-motorised Transport.
Urban Innovator of the Week: Lourdes German
Lourdes German doesn’t have a background in technology, but that didn’t stop her from creating an innovative national platform for government leaders and citizens.
German is the Director of International & Institute Wide Initiatives at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Boston, the latest evolution of a career rooted in law and public finance.
She is also the founder and director of the Civic Innovation Project, a national thought leadership and virtual learning platform focused on emerging government innovation.
Civic Innovation Project is perhaps best understood as an online database of tech-based educational tools and resources for governments and citizens to best understand and make use of data, particularly as the open data movement continues to grow and make vast amounts of data available for public use.
It aims to democratize data analysis and visualization, so that everyone – from everyday citizens to municipal governments new to data analytics or interested in seeing other municipalities’ best practices – can access, understand, and utilize the technology to make sense of this data and use it in a practicable, solutions-oriented way.
This is done through the site’s “Innovation Gallery,” which offers a series of bundled resources under a different area of interest to civic leaders and citizens. The subjects of the innovation demos currently offered are “environmental projects,” “citizen data,” and “state and local government finance.” Each of these contain demos created with different tools like Microsoft PowerMap and Microsoft Power BI, and there are download links for these free tools as well as training tutorials on how to use them. Examples of civic, academic, and citizen innovators doing work in those areas are also highlighted.
“If I’m in conversation with a community and they tell me something they want to fix – ‘I want to solve this challenge related to the environment, or urbanization, or financing, or population growth’ – I take the story and the data points and create something that helps solve it,” German says. “I share the final product on the platform; the gallery shows models and live demos of the tech tool around the story, then people can download it for free or the pull the code or download a road map that teaches them about data points.”
For those interested in going even more in-depth, there is “Learning Labs for Cities,” a virtual civic tech series “designed to educate and empower leaders seeking to build a reliable data and innovation culture, facilitate peer learning among communities across the globe, and introduce government leaders to leading technologists from the academic and business sectors.”
This is done through a multi-media format of webinars, podcasts, interviews, and in-person events. Topics include smart data discovery tools, business intelligence applications, predictive analytics, and visualization techniques. The series provides education and guidance in adopting emerging civic technology and data solutions that can make government more participatory and effective.
All of this is free, by the way, for cities and citizens alike.
“I’ve always been fascinated by government and cities and what they’re doing, and interested in tech and government,” says German. “My entire background is in government, working with cities that we wanted to build. I loved public finance because we were really sitting across the table from the people with the projects that were keeping the lights on in city hall. How cities are built and funded and constructed is fascinating to see. My entire career has some strain of public finance, and my love of tech only came much, much later.”
It bears repeating here that German has no professional or academic background in tech. Everything she has done has been entirely self-taught, which is precisely the reason why she is so interested in helping others learn how to do the same things themselves.
“Everything I present on the website is something I can create by myself,” she says. “The same resources I present to people to learn to use the tools are the same ones I used to learn them. If I can learn to do it, you can.”
Without a tech degree or a background in coding, just familiarity with Excel, German has created clear, concise, interactive maps and dashboards using open data from reliable sources (typically governments, which have a high reliability for data with integrity).
“I want to inspire that kind of adaptability and the use of something new,” she says.
With President Obama spearheading the recent launch of The Opportunity Project, a massive collection of local and federal datasets available widely and freely to the public, it seems like now is really the time for municipal governments to embrace new civic tech tools to improve the relationships between cities and their citizens, and for citizens to become more involved in understanding and analyzing government data.
“This really started with a simple vision: I wanted to raise awareness of the fact that there are some ideas and tools working within certain communities that often just stayed in those communities,” German explains. “But if something is working great for this city, is there another city out there that could benefit from that? And how to avoid the pitfalls? There are a lot of places where you could read a short post that someone wrote but nothing that set out a roadmap of ‘here is a resource tool,’ ‘here is how to talk to that leader.’ Even as a citizen, ‘here is how to implement this resource and have a hand in civic life.'”
German says that in both of her roles – with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and with Civic Innovation Project – she is constantly thinking about the challenges cities face and how to make key policy areas better for civic life.
“When I think back to the things I’ve done before, it all informs this project: what are the changes that should happen to lead to better policy and more people having a hand in that?”
She started Civic Innovation Project just a year and a half ago to showcase the things she was writing about that she thought were important. She launched the platform focused on data transparency and showcasing citizen innovation, government-led innovation, and innovation from the academic sector to facilitate city-to-city learning.
“I first saw something like this at hackathons,” German says. “They bring citizens together and ask them, ‘Give us your ideas for this problem,’ but what about the cities that don’t do this, and what about the ideas bubbling up from this creative process? Who else benefits from this other than the people in that room?”
She wanted to translate that experience and that accessibility more broadly, so that everyone can participate and benefit.
“The foundation for doing this is to inspire a new level of civic engagement. There should be avenues to change how government works. If a citizen is really frustrated with how the community treats data, this puts the citizen on an equal playing field in having a hand in shaping the government. It inspires civic participation and engagement. Also, citizens can come up with policy solutions that can really evolve the dialogue.”
Additionally, governments can use decades of data from something like a census database to create presentations of information and use them to govern better, then continually add their own data and make it a resource that lives on every single year.
Civic leaders and would-be technologists can learn at their own pace on Civic Innovation Project, clicking through a course, downloading the free tools and additional learning sources, and deciding their own method of learning in this self-paced virtual classroom. That alone, German says, is empowering.
She also encourages people to share their stories of how they are innovating with the tools and resources they accessed through Civic Innovation Project to continue building out what could become a massive database of knowledge sharing and resource exchanges.
German is currently working on evolving the platform into a full learning lab for cities and an online lab repository featuring all of the educational demos she has created and stories of users experiences.
“I really want to show that engagement and research, and also the desire to do something good in government,” she says. “We can come together to do something good.”
She adds, “I have always asked myself, ‘Am I doing something that makes me happy and makes a difference? How do I make an impact with my work?’ and I wasn’t satisfied with the answer. Now I finally feel that I’m doing something meaningful.”
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In addressing this issue, technology has not been effectively deployed to promote redevelopment of these sites and catalyze community revitalization. We find that the question around the use of technology and data in advancing the redevelopment of brownfields is twofold:
How can current and future technology advancements be applied to upgrade existing brownfield modeling tools? And then, how can those modeling tools be used to accelerate transformative, sustainable, and smart redevelopment and community revitalization?
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These innovative parks are helping cities face common challenges, from demographic shifts, to global competitiveness to changing climate conditions. Mayors and other city officials are taking a fresh look at parks to improve overall community health and sense of place, strengthen local economies by attracting new investments and creating jobs, help manage storm water run-off, improve air quality, and much more. When we think of city parks holistically, accounting for their full role in communities, they become some of the smartest investments we can make.