A Fond Farewell

                                         Our 2017 Delta.NYC volunteers meeting for the first time. 

                                        Our 2017 Delta.NYC volunteers meeting for the first time. 

After two very productive years, I'm moving on as Founding Executive Director of Civic Hall Labs. While my last official day is Friday, December 15th, I will remain a member of the civic tech community at Civic Hall.

My sweet spot is turning ideas into successfully launched enterprises. I’ve done that with Civic Hall Labs and laid the foundation for the next stage of growth. 

In August 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, Founder and Cofounder of Civic Hall. They shared their vision to start a non-profit innovation arm of Civic Hall. Several elements of their vision resonated with my work founding and running Impact Hub Los Angeles and co-founding the Civic Innovation Lab with the City of Los Angeles and Microsoft.

We set out to build a trusted nonprofit intermediary that could provide a safe place for nonprofits and government agencies to collaborate and pilot new solutions leveraging today’s digital tools. And we wanted to help others do the same. It required recruiting a diverse team that could work across sectors and creating a team culture that encouraged trying new things. 

I’m extremely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. Over the last two years, we’ve pioneered several new programs from scratch, and begun to explore how stakeholder engagement and systems-based thinking can be utilized in tech product development; and how to bring technical and nontechnical folks together to effectively collaborate. Through these approaches we seek to ensure civic tech is more inclusive and has the real impact of creating equitable community outcomes.

Specifically, we’ve launched a Health Lab focused on creating a healthy public, one where all communities have civic agency, feel heard and connected to the whole, and have equitable access to public resources. Through our Pro Bono Tech program,, we have pioneered a new approach to closing the digital divide within the nonprofit sector while bringing meaningful volunteer opportunities to digital professionals. And we delivered the eighth year of the NYC BigApps Competition in partnership with NYCEDC, the most successful year yet for the competition, with more than 900 workshop attendees, 500 registered participants, 1 million+ impressions, and 150 applications submitted.

                                                          Elizabeth speaking at NYC BigApps Event.

                                                         Elizabeth speaking at NYC BigApps Event.

We’ve also developed our first-ever civic ideas accelerator, CivicXcel, with a custom-built curriculum combining the best of design-thinking, lean-startup, and product development. And at the same time, Labs has officially launched our $1.6 million ReferNYC pilot with funding from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Criminal Justice Investment Initiative, CJII, and in partnership with the CUNY Institute for State and Local Government (ISLG) and many soon-to-be announced agencies. The cross-sector pilot is prototyping a federated open data exchange with the potential to transform the health and human services data landscape in NYC and beyond. Stay tuned for more updates by joining our mailing list here.

Here are the last two years by the numbers:

  • Raised $5.4 million;
  • Developed 25 sponsor and funder relationships; 
  • Partnered with 110 NYC nonprofits and civic ventures;
  • Recruited over 195 digital professionals volunteered their time and skill through our programs;
  • Accelerated 22 projects and startups;
  • Engaged 1200 people through our in-person workshops and ideation sessions; and
  • Received over 500 job applications and hired 13 staff.

I'm proud of what we’ve built and the nerve that we’ve struck in our unique approach to civic tech! I want to thank a few of our early supporters namely The Omidyar Network, The Ford Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Microsoft’s Cities Team.

I also want to thank Andrew and Micah and the rest of the board for supporting me and trusting my leadership in establishing this organization over the last two years. As we move through this transition, Micah is stepping into the role of interim executive director, and I am looking forward to staying in touch with the wonderful partners and individuals who made the last two years so great! 

Onward and upward. 

-Elizabeth Stewart

Founding Executive Director, Civic Hall Labs


Improving On Our Healthy Public Challenge

Our Final Look at the Healthy Public Challenge — Part 5

                                   A collage of the Healthy Public Challenge experience.

                                  A collage of the Healthy Public Challenge experience.

A collage of the Healthy Public Challenge experience.

Over the past few weeks we’ve talked extensively about the Health Public Challenge we ran earlier this year. You can read lots of the individual team coverage throughout our blog. It was a learning experience for everyone involved, and each team took away valuable lessons from the ups and downs of their project. Civic Hall Labs learned a lot as well, and the pilot turned out to be successful in generating some guidelines that can support potentially innovative civic ideas on a small scale.

Here are some of the things we learned on makes a great project, what makes a great mentor, and what kind of program structure is required to keep civic entrepreneurs on track and properly supported:

The Characteristics of a Great Project

Let’s start with the projects. While nearly all of them made great strides during the course of the program, we noticed certain qualities that appeared in our best performing teams. They included:

  • Having a clear Theory of Change (TOC), with all team members understanding how their activities affected it.
  • Having a clearly identified end-user.
  • Being accountable to end-users. Human-centered design has many benefits, not the least of which is keeping the project integrated with the real needs and feelings of the people civic projects are trying to help, spurring them to keep breaking through barriers in the process.
  • Being truly open to assistance and advising in product development. If a team is not open to consistent (and at times critical) feedback, the chances of success will greatly diminish. Teams need to be open to change, and able to pivot quickly based on feedback that they might not like hearing.
  • Appropriately scoping the cost of work.

At the end of the day, no amount of help can save a project with the wrong attitude, so finding these characteristics in the teams was incredibly important to us. 

The Characteristics of a Great Mentor

The next variable was having phenomenal mentors guide the teams. These mentors included Alistair Blake, Dr. Jack Saul, and Dr. Mindy Fullilove. We owe them many thanks, as without their dedication and our expertise, many of our teams would not have achieved the outcomes they did.

Some of the qualities we looked for in our mentors included:

  • Inquisitive teaching. Asking the right questions to help guide someone through the process of understanding a complex problem without forcing them or revealing the answer, which creates more creative, original solutions.
  • Being critically supportive. Mentors didn’t pull punches when something wasn’t working, but none of them shamed teams for their mistakes or lack of knowledge.
  • Extensive and community-based experience and values.
  • Genuinely cares about the growth and learning of project team.

These skill-sets ensured that our mentors would be able to guide teams through the creative hurdles and setbacks of the design process. 

Changes for the Future

However, there were a few issues we didn’t plan for, and, if we could do the Challenge again ( or expand on it for the future), we would add additional technical instruction to the schedule. These would include:

  • Google analytics — how to build in and how to evaluate
  • Google AdWords and SEO
  • Stakeholder analysis 101
  • User research tools — (focus groups, surveys, listening sessions)
  • Project scoping
  • Usability testing
  • Fundraising and business development tips and strategies

Diversity in background is important, but we also now agree building a common bedrock of shared skills would improve group communication and progress. In addition, while our mentors provided great one-on-one feedback with the teams, having optional group instruction on different aspects of the project would have further instilled necessary skills.

In addition, a monthly digest of all the learnings from each project to share (either as a newsletter or email series) would be beneficial in the future. Having groups see what each other was accomplishing and learning could only enhance their knowledge, and perhaps provide ideas for overcoming hurdles in their process.

The Next Step for the Health Lab

The Healthy Public Project was a key opportunity for the Health Lab to experiment and refine our design, build, and test methodologies. Through this work we gained key, replicable insights into how to collaboratively design digital tools that can not only produce an impact on community health, but deserve greater investment and refinement.

As our Health Lab moves into launching larger, multi-stakeholder technology pilots, we will continue to expand and refine this methodology. Through our commitment to open source work, we will ensure that the results from our future initiatives are visible to those working community health and the practice of using tech for the public good.

If you’re interested in partnering with us on a new idea or technology that needs development or a proof of concept, please get in touch with Health Lab Director Erika Strong, at


How Human-Centered Design Creates Better Solutions

A Look Back at our Healthy Public Challenge-Part 4

                 Health Lab Director Erika Strong kicking off the Healthy Public Challenge

                Health Lab Director Erika Strong kicking off the Healthy Public Challenge

One of the principles we believe in is that a focus on Human-Centered Design can greatly improve the outcome of a project. In our Healthy Public Challenge, every team was forced to challenge their initial assumptions throughout our design process. Out of all the groups, the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance discovered some fascinating user insights that allowed them to greatly change and refine their product for the better.

The Initial Concept

The group had proposed a First Wave Intergenerational Technology Program. The idea was sparked after Hurricane Sandy: during the storm, many older adults in the Rockaway area wound up trapped in their homes and struggled to contact the outside world for help. Given that many of them in the area had no access to digital communication to get in touch with others, the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance decided to create a program to partner them with high school students who would teach them how to use social media and Skype to reach out during emergencies. They hoped that older adults would not only gain useful skills, but that their program would also help develop strong relationships between older adults and a younger generation, combating loneliness and isolation.

It sounded great in theory, but things did not go as smoothly as they hoped.

Challenging Program Assumptions

In early October, RWA began hosting weekly technology help sessions every Tuesday afternoon from 4:00–6:00 PM at the Rockaway Institute for a Sustainable Environment (RISE). The high school students prepared lessons on subjects ranging from Skype, computer basics, and cell phones. Although the older adults who did attend weekly sessions reported being pleased with them, attendance lagged. On average, only between two and ten adults attended each training.

These numbers were weak, especially in comparison to how many older adults said they’d be interested in a program like this. So instead of continuing with the project, Civic Hall Labs discussed how applying HCD methodology to the problem would reveal the cause of the low attendance.

With the guidance of Health Lab Director Erika Strong and Dr. Mindy FulliloveRWA decided to host a listening session in January with older adults who live in the Rockaways with the goal of better understanding their perspectives. To their surprise, RWA surfaced several barriers to their participation. Most importantly was the time of day of the sessions, which were not convenient for older adults, as many prefer not to drive at night, eat dinner early, or are uncomfortable leaving their home after dark. Participants also felt that sessions should be held at sites that seniors were more familiar with, such as NYCHA community rooms and senior centers. Lastly, they wanted to have an opportunity to share knowledge with the students as well. Rather than structuring the program so that the youth are the “teachers” and the older adults are the “students,” participants preferred a “knowledge exchange”.

It was a tremendous learning opportunity for the team, so RWA decided to conduct a listening session with the student volunteers as well. While students reported being happy to have gained the opportunity to interact with seniors, they also felt they needed more training on how to work with them and different technologies. For example, one student described not having used a flip phone in years and discovering that the older adults all had flip phones. Students also agreed they wanted sessions to be more interactive with the adults, rather than simply teaching them a skill.

Relaunching the Program

All of this re-emphasized the need for HCD thinking across technical and non-technical parts of a program. The program has relaunched with a focus on being a collaborative program between the two generations. In addition, it will take place on summer mornings, when teens are out of school, and will run two days a week rather than multiple days per week.

For our final post on the Healthy Public Challenge, we’ll discuss our overall takeaways from the program. See you then!

Building Trust Between Officers and a Community

Healthy Public Project  Part 3: How Expert Mentorship Is Key For Civic Innovators

        ReportedPD, the new app designed to help improve community and police relations. 

       ReportedPD, the new app designed to help improve community and police relations. 

Last week, we discussed how even a small amount of funding can be enough to allow a team to take risks and innovate. But money is only one resource that can cultivate innovation. One of the most important lessons coming out of these sessions is that while money is important, expert mentoring is also a key element that supports smart experimentation and the synthesis of lessons in order for breakthrough models to emerge. Why? The process of iterating and testing ideas can lead innovators to multiple dead ends. Guidance from experts with decades of experience in community health and civic technology can help challenge assumptions, summarize insights, and provide direction when stalling.

From the beginning, we wanted to have a clear advising structure for each team. Advisors were given three HPP projects and had six hour-long sessions with each project every month during the grant period. One our participants groups, Reported PD, had this to say about the role of mentorship in their project:

“The opportunity to regularly share our latest findings and status with an expert mentor was more valuable than if we just had the money, since we probably wouldn’t have pursued the community relationships as strongly.”
                                                     Reported PD Founders Maddy and Jeff Novich

                                                    Reported PD Founders Maddy and Jeff Novich

The two-person team with backgrounds in criminal justice had an idea for an app that would allow people to report negative interactions with police officers in a simple, quick, and secure way.

The current process for reporting police misconduct in NYC has several problems. While you can file a report online through the CCRB’s (Civilian Complaint Review Board) website, during initial conversations Reported PD learned from the CCRB that they rarely get enough information to corroborate a claim against a police officer. Part of this was because of the questionnaire format, but the other part was that people didn’t immediately file after an event, which meant that they simply didn’t remember some of the most important details of the encounter or know that this accountability pathway exists.

This meant that Reported PD’s app would have to:

  1. Create a better, more user-friendly interface in order to gather all the information the CCRB needed to corroborate a claim.
  2. Be simple to use and accessible in the immediate aftermath of a negative police encounter.

Building With a Community, Not For 

After being partnered with their mentor, they were given processes on how to best reach populations that had the highest interaction with police officers in order to start getting feedback on what affected communities would like included in the app. Through this process they learned something that they had taken for granted: people wanted to be heard.

They first thought that simply submitting an allegation against police misconduct would satisfy this need. As it turned out, people were less interested in this as a feature. Instead, many wanted to share their stores and see other people’s experiences.

During this same time period, they discovered another problem: they realized that their app could perpetuate negative relationships between police departments and over-policed populations. Through coaching sessions with Dr. Mindy Fullilove, they explored how the app’s focus on reporting only negative interactions with police officers left no room to commend and reinforce positive police interactions. If NYPD’s motto is Courtesy Professionalism Respect, Dr. Fullilove believed that the team should provide the NYPD examples of what that should look like so that the officers could receive guidance on how to uphold those values. Reported PD iterated the idea to allow users to provide officer commendations for when someone had a particularly good encounter with law enforcement. They then began conducting user interviews to also discuss positive interactions with police.

Creating Better Police Interaction Outcomes

One of the most interesting lessons was that when the team was advised by Dr. Fullilove to speak with more potential young users, they indicated that they were like to have the opportunity to give the officers feedback on their behavior. Rather than simply discussing what a cop did wrong, they wanted the ability to share how it could have been handled differently.  Reported PD ran with the idea and created a “preferred resolution” option — which encouraged people to do just that.

Through expert coaching and the use of human centered design, the app was improved from the initial version in two important ways:

  1. The addition of commendations, as well as the “preferred resolution” option, strengthened the ability to reinforce the police behavior constituents wanted to see, and gave constructive criticism for improving on negative encounters. This new balance provides a more complete picture to create more accountable policing in NYC.
  2. These features increased the number of potential users of the app. This is doubly important because of the hope that data put into the app can eventually be utilized to find positive and negative trends in policing, which could then be relied on to craft better overall policy that improves community/police relations.

These features transformed the scope and role of the project, and made the app more applicable to a wider audience — those with both positive and/or negative experiences with law enforcement. Due to Dr.Fullilove’s excellent mentorship, as well as the adherence to human-centered design, the app is a much stronger product compared to when they were gestating the idea. In their exit narrative, they said:

“Had we just been given the money directly, I don’t think we would have the same outcome in the short amount of time. It was because of our mentor that we included the commendations section of our app and while that surfaced in our interviews, she suggested we put it directly in. The advising process also provided tremendous value because we had to regularly check in and it helped us to stay focused and execute consistently, knowing that our meetings were coming up. The opportunity to regularly share our latest findings and status with an expert mentor was more valuable than if we just had the money, since we probably wouldn’t have pursued the community relationships as strongly.”

Their app is available for download, and ready to be tested across the City of New York.


Even a Small Amount of Funding Is Enough for Civic Innovators to Take Risks

A Look Back at Our Health Public Challenge — Part 2

Civic Hall Labs 96.jpg

Last week, we discussed the goals behind our 2017 Healthy Public Challenge. This week, we wanted to take an in-depth look at one project in particular, and how it relates to funding innovation. 

People need capital in order to take risks and experiment. However, we believe that with the right mentoring and processes in place, funding dollars can go farther in pushing new ideas forward.

Our Healthy Public civic innovators were only awarded $10,000 to develop their product. In most sectors, an award of $10k is modest, well below the standard of funding for technology pilots. However, alongside our ten Healthy Public civic innovators, we learned time and again that even this small amount of funding, combined with expert mentoring, can be hugely beneficial to a project — even for established organizations.


The Participatory Budgeting Project is a well-established, national organization that wanted to create an innovative solution to helping their budget delegates make data-informed decisions specifically around equity in under-resourced communities. Every year, local governments across the US set aside discretionary funds for residents to vote on local initiatives that improve their neighborhood. Residents submit their ideas to a participatory budgeting steering committee that coordinates getting the ideas to a group of budget delegates who then select the community projects that will go to the general public for a vote.

Except budget delegates usually have to make these decisions with little information about what a neighborhood really needs. Imagine trying to determine if you should select a project for new traffic lights or a community garden for a neighborhood without knowing anything about pedestrian safety in the area, or how many community gardens already exist? How would you know which neighborhoods have a greater need for resources and community projects?

PBP wanted to create a solution that would give the budget delegates the data they required to make need-based, informed decisions on what would most benefit the health of a community. This small grant gave them the room to experiment and create a minimal viable product (MVP) that has potential to help under-resourced communities access a significant amount of funding. This allowed them to experiment on a much larger project without dipping into their very stretched organizational budget.

Challenging Assumptions

Their process was greatly assisted by their mentors and Civic Hall Lab’s human-centered design process (both of which we’ll explore in more detail in upcoming posts). Each helped the team learn insights about their end users and the context in which they are making decisions that they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

For example, PBP thought the main problem would be gathering important data to present to the budget delegates for their decision-making; instead, the issue was that the budget delegates didn’t know how to use the data to make an equity-based decision. The sentiment was best summed up by the most common question they received after handing over the data:

“So…what do you want me to do now?”

This feedback forced PBP to expand their thinking and figure out a user-friendly system for synthesizing and visualizing the most important data. Not only that, but they realized they were going to have to train themselves to interpret it before they had any hope of training others. Now, with a much more refined, user-tested product, they are going to train the Greensboro council as their first test-run.

In the end, the grant money gave PBP the chance to take a risk on a new innovation, and in doing so, they discovered that the problem they were trying to solve was different than their initial assumption. Through the use of expert mentorship and human-centered design, they managed to drastically improve their product, strengthen their processes, and create a scalable solution.

If you’re interested in keeping track of PBP, visit them on their website or catch up on their blog. 

In the next post, we’ll discuss more about the importance of mentorship in civic innovation. 


How Can We Create the Conditions for Better Experimentation and Innovation? 

A Look Back at our Healthy Public Challenge — Part 1

The only way to innovate is to fail, fail fast, and quickly pivot from that failure.

For tech entrepreneurs, the idea of failure doesn’t mean that something is finished, instead it means it’s time to conduct more experiments that either validate or invalidate original assumptions. Many companies realize the only way to truly innovate is through this kind of experimentation, which includes testing, feedback, synthesis of learnings, and further experimentation with the new lessons learned.

Unfortunately, within the civic and social sectors, structuring grants for experimentation and iteration are not popular concepts with many funders, and innovation methods are not well utilized within many nonprofits and social good startups.

We know philanthropy wants to see new tools and approaches to create positive change. Whether it be through grants, accelerators, or fellowships, thousands of hours and millions of dollars are being used to spur new ideas on a variety of civic and social problems. Examples include everything from the Knight Cities Challenge to deepen civic engagement and community connection, to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s investment in emerging trends and cutting edge ideas to help build a Culture of Health. We at Civic Hall Labs are eager to help leverage those investments in new models. We apply human centered design and product development know-how to ensure a seed of an idea has the chance to break through.

At Civic Hall Labs, our mission is to build technology for the public good and help others do the same. We seek to develop infrastructure needed to run and scale these programs, with an eye toward new models of civic engagement and expanding the field of civic tech. You can read more about our approach here.

Last year, through the launch of our Health Lab, we wanted to see if we could expand the impact and effectiveness of the innovation challenge model. 

We set out to see what would happen if the winning teams were given mentorship from domain experts, design thinking tools, and yes, financial support.With the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we created the 2016 Healthy Public Challenge to catalyze innovation in addressing the civic determinants of health disparities. 

This health innovation challenge looks beyond the traditional question of what makes a population unhealthy to ask: “What makes a healthy public?” The challenge seeks innovations that tackle the problems that impact collective health disparities, and the chronic problems our communities face, such as isolation, disempowerment, and instability.

The Healthy Public Challenge had two primary objectives:

1. We wanted to spur investment and innovation across the three core areas we use to define a Healthy Public:

  • Civic Cohesion — the collective valuing of all communities within neighborhoods, municipalities, and our nation.
  • Civic Agency — the ability for all communities to actively and meaningfully participate in our democracy and civic institutions.
  • Access to Resources — the fair and equitable access for all communities to community services and resources.

2. More importantly, we wanted to test and build a strategy for how the fields of public health and civic tech can effectively cross-pollinate to create a bigger impact.

The Healthy Public Challenge was simple: entrepreneurs, designers, developers, nonprofits, and companies were encouraged to submit their ideas on how digital tools could be used to create a Healthy Public. After winners were picked, each civic innovator team would participate in a six month advisory period, which included mentorship from the Civic Hall Labs’ Experts in Residence Alistair Blake, Dr. Jack Saul, and Dr. Mindy Fullilove. Each mentor is an expert in community-informed programmatic design specifically in urban displacement, community mental health, and collective trauma.

Each team also received $10,000 over that six month period to build their solutions into viable prototypes that could make real impact in the health of our public.

We were working from the hypothesis that a small amount of seed funding, six months of expert advising, and a design process grounded in the principles of human-centered design would allow teams to experiment with their idea and find a viable path forward regardless of the problem each team was trying to solve. 

We ended up selecting 10 teams from a wide variety of backgrounds to participate in the challenge:

  • Civic Cohesion: The projects submitted from Hollaback!, Article 25, Looped, Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, and the Good Men Project all worked to strengthen and integrate disconnected or under-resourced communities through tech solutions tackling social isolation, inter-generational learning and support, and gender-based violence.
  • Civic Agency: The projects submitted from NYC Councilmatic, Reported PD, and the Participatory Budgeting Project built civic agency by increasing dialogue between neighborhood groups and local government entities to discuss the most pressing health and safety issues facing their communities.
  • Access to Resources: The projects submitted from Heat Seek and both had projects that used technology to protect fair, safe, and affordable housing for the most vulnerable communities in NYC.

By the end of the program, we emerged with a field-tested model that validated some of our core assumptions, but also provided new insights on how to use digital tools to contribute to civic and community health outcomes.

Over a series of blog posts, we’ll be exploring the different insights learned through the lens of some of our most interesting projects to emerge from the Healthy Public Challenge. 

These lessons include how:

  1. Even a Small Amount of Funding is Enough to Take Risks
  2. Expert Mentorship is Key for Civic Innovators
  3. Human-Centered Design Creates a Better End Product

We hope that by showing you our process and insights, funders, investors, and universities will be able to take what we’ve learned and innovate!

Helping Unlikely Civic Innovators Flourish

Launching our Inaugural CivicXcel cohort

                           Several CivicXcel teams meeting each other during the first module. 

                          Several CivicXcel teams meeting each other during the first module. 

At Civic Hall Labs, our mission is to build tech for the public good and help others do the same. This weekend, we took another step towards that goal as we officially kicked off our newest program for civic innovation, CivicXcel.

Sponsored by Comcast NBCUniversal, the program is a rigorous 6-month training for civic innovators to turn an idea in their head into a solution in someone’s hands. So many accelerators focus on people who already have a tech background, that we wanted to create one specifically for people/teams with a great idea to on how to make a more just, democratic, and equitable society, but needed the the technical/business know-how to make it happen.

In the first phase of the program, participants work side by side with experts in design thinking, ideation, and prototyping to create viable, well-researched, and tested prototypes. These experts come from a wide variety of top companies and organizations, including: Do Something, Squarespace, Delta.NYC, Purpose, Exalt, Queens Library, HCII at Carnegie Mellon, and BigApps 2017.

In the second phase, participants will work alongside successful entrepreneurs to identify a revenue model for a startup or a strategy for a proof of concept, determining if they'll work best as a stand alone organizations, or as an internal project of an existing organization.

There are 8 teams participating in the inaugural cohort, including the 4 winners from this year’s BigApps 2017.  Each of group has personal experience with the social challenge they are working to tackle, and are at different phases of developing their solution.

The Teams Include:

Klaatch: Klaatch is an organization formed to end loneliness and promote community among older adults. Klaatch provides the infrastructure, support and services enabling seniors to meet where and when they want and with people selected to form a positive group.

Dollar Van NYC: Dollar Van NYC is on a mission to improve access to low cost, reliable transportation for the approximately 900,000 New Yorkers living in “transit-starved” areas. Winner of the BigApps 2017 Judge’s Choice Award.

FAMin: FAMin’s mission is to give families the power to stay connected and to share resources. People use FAMin to share with their family and friends, moments in their children’s lives and crowdfund needs in that child’s life. FAMin is changing the way family is done.

CiViCLY: Civicly brings the power of ratings and reviews to government and the public sector. Citizens accustomed to using Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc. will be empowered to rate city services, schools, public transportation, politicians, government agencies, utilities and more.

BlacPac: BlacPac is a web-based application designed to close the information gap that exists for Black students who want to go to college. BlacPac's ultimate mission is to improve Black student retention in higher education so that their communities see the benefit of their skills and experiences.

PassNYC: The PASSNYC Opportunity Explorer is an interactive, smart catalog and universal application for over 200 extracurricular opportunities for NYC students. Grand prize winner of the BigApps 2017 Knowledge Challenge.

OnBoard: On Board is a distributed passenger check-in system for New York City’s paratransit network (Access-A-Ride). By creating a public, independent database of passenger pickups. Grand prize winner of the BigApps 2017 Transportation Challenge.

We plan on covering the journey’s of many of these groups over the next 6 months, so be sure to stay tuned for updates!

Harvey, Irma, and Maria: The Growing Need For Open Disaster Relief Data


In the wake of three devastating hurricanes, disaster relief organizations relied on massive government data-sets to provide live updates and allocate important resources. Google pulled data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to keep maps updated based on the rapidly changing water levels and weather patterns in Texas. The American Red Cross used data to create interactive maps of shelter and hospital locations in each affected state. And the Department of Homeland Security launched an open data platform for geospatial data on Harvey, Irma, and Maria, making the information publicly available for organizations to download and use towards their own relief efforts.

Going beyond immediate relief, open government data sources can be cross-referenced and leveraged to inform policy-making and tease out the social impact of these hurricanes. The Geographic Information Systems (GIS) company ESRI partnered with the nonprofit emergency service provider Disaster Relief to map social vulnerabilities in Houston communities. Their maps demonstrate a high correlation between flood zone areas and communities of immigrants or non-English speakers, low income communities, and elderly populations in Florida and Puerto Rico. (The Atlantic wrote an interesting piece exploring the overlap between socioeconomic status and vulnerability to flooding).  

At Civic Hall Labs, we’re thrilled to see communities leveraging civic technology and open data to coordinate relief efforts. As Wired reported, FEMA’s robust digital infrastructure of social media alerts, live mapping, and online emergency response centers proved highly effective during 2012 Hurricane Sandy in New York, and stood in stark contrast to the notoriously clumsy management of Katrina. So far, these technologies are being leveraged in response to Hurricane Harvey and Irma, though they have been less successful when it comes to aid for Maria.

The advantages of open, user-friendly data interfaces for coordinating relief efforts are obvious, but the takeaways extend beyond disaster management.  Data mismanagement and inherent structural issues can create sluggish, inefficient systems that create a wide variety of problems for large populations. Next week, we’ll discuss how we are partnering with New York City to tackle a large scale, structural data issue within the city’s social services, something that impacts over 3 million residents.

In the meantime, if you would like to help with relief efforts beyond using civic tech, please visit this page.