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3 technologists’ hopes for a more open Pittsburgh

What's next for civic tech in the region? Trustworthiness as a goal, looking to models in other cities and above all, accessibility.

This story appears as a part of Open Data PGH, a joint reporting project by and PublicSource on open data trends in Pittsburgh, underwritten by Heinz Endowments. Learn more here and get updates here.

Open Data PGH is ending, but open data work in Pittsburgh is going strong.

As we at wrap up our six-month project looking at civic tech in Pittsburgh, we wanted to look ahead to challenges and opportunities and asked some stakeholders for their insights.

We gave three experts a series of questions and left it up to them which ones they wanted to answer. Interestingly, all respondents passed on this one: “What happens to Pittsburgh if we get Amazon HQ2?” which suggests there are more pressing concerns to the civic tech community than the potential impact of a big corporate entity. (Or maybe we’re all ready for the waiting and speculating to be over.)

First, a quick look back at some of our greatest hits:

Now, here’s what Michael MadaioLeslie Setlock and Bob Gradeck had to say about the future of civic tech in Pittsburgh:

What are the most pressing challenges Pittsburgh has on the horizon when it comes to civic tech, and how do you see the region tackling these challenges?

In line with his volunteer work co-leading Students Using Data for Social Good, Madaio thinks accessibility is the most important consideration for future open data efforts — “that residents of the greater Pittsburgh region have open access to the skills and knowledge of how to use that data, and open access to systems that are built by that data and used by the city.”

“It is critical that those people and groups that might use data to impact public policy and civic life reach out to other groups of city residents to incorporate diverse perspectives into their data science process,” said the grad student. “It’s also critical that the city continues to be transparent with how data science and machine learning systems that might be built on open data are used to impact public policy and civic decision-making.”

We know the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance is working on some of those issues with its in-development, more-refined data delivery model, Data Rivers, which will make it easier for the city to publish the data its users want to see.

Speaking of which: Madaio gave I&P a shoutout for its April Inclusive Innovation Week, where technologists of all skills levels and professional affiliations can mingle with “data-savvy” city staffers.


Setlock, an analyst at the Allegheny Department of Human Services, also has accessibility in mind. She thinks one challenge is “a realistic appraisal of the average client’s access to technology” — for example, while more low-income people have smartphones nowadays, many don’t always keep those phones with them or have minutes on them.

That can be a problem for technologists trying to connect with them.

“Civic tech folks love to create innovating apps,” said the former Carnegie Mellon University researcher. “That’s a good thing. And, more isn’t always better, especially with a population who may be mistrustful of both tech and the government. It can become overwhelming.”

A solution, then, is “ensuring that civic tech solutions are workable outside of the research and/or entrepreneurial environment,” she said. “Can they operate in the contexts in which our clients live?”

To make that happen, Setlock suggests that researchers examine clients’ access to technology more deeply in order to understand not only “if they own it, but how they use it and how they would like to use it,” and that technologists build apps for all types of client needs and “invest in building trust (and trustworthiness) in those technologies.”


Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center’s (WPRDC) project director, Gradeck, said much of his work involves introducing civic data to non-technologists.

“Through the Urban Greenprint project,” he said, referring to the data viz examining the Pittsburgh region’s green spaces, “we have learned that building tools to meet user needs around a specific use case creates a compelling value proposition for people to use and share data. We hope to build more tools that enable people to interact with civic data to address community challenges.”

The Code for Pittsburgh founder named WPRDC’s annual Data Day with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh as another way to open doors to civic tech.

“We also realize that people need help in using data,” he said. “We’ll continue to provide technical assistance through office hours and upon request. We’ll also continue to partner with the Carnegie Library to build additional data literacy and technical literacy programs as we’ve done with [our] Data 101 [toolkit].”

And a way to tackle the knowledge gap: “In addition to intentionally including all members of the community in this work, we can all pay attention to the language and ways we may be unintentionally excluding people that have valuable contributions to make.”

What other cities or regions are providing civic tech lessons Pittsburgh could follow?

Madaio picked the Big Apple and the Windy City first.

“New York City has been a leader in taking steps towards increased algorithmic accountability, with a recently passed bill establishing a task force to evaluate and hold accountable ‘algorithmic decision-making’ used by the city government,” he said. “While this task force does not yet have a means to enforce or regulate these algorithms, the task force is still a step beyond what other cities or states in the US have done.”

And the University of Chicago’s Center for Data Science and Public Policy is notable for “an effective use of academic data science capacity to support local (and national) organizations for positive social impact,” he said. “Their Data Science for Social Good (DSSG) summer fellowship has placed hundreds of researchers with cities and organizations across the country and served as a model for several other cities to spin off their own DSSG programs.”

Madaio also named Georgia Tech’s Center for Urban Innovation in Atlanta for “leading the way on engaging citizen stakeholders in the ‘smart cities’ design process, with projects like Dr. Carl DiSalvo’s work on ‘participatory design’ of smart cities technologies.


Gradeck is a fan of several other cities, as he alluded to in May, when he shared that the fact that Pittsburgh wasn’t at the forefront of the national civic data movement ended up being a good thing for WPRDC in many ways. All in his own words:

  • Detroit — We [at WPRDC] love the way that Detroit through the Digital Justice coalition put their values at the front of their work. In Detroit, we’ve also learned a lot from Data Driven Detroit about sustaining this work.
  • NYC — We admire the way the NYC Planning Labs have been able to build user-centered digital civic data products in an agile way.
  • D.C. — We like the way that D.C. and New York partners in the National Neighborhood have been able to build tools to support people working on affordable housing issues.
  • Houston and New Orleans — We also like how places like Houston and New Orleans are thinking about how to proactively use data to respond to disasters and track recovery.
  • Toronto — In Toronto, we’re interested in learning how community activists have been able to start a conversation about data ownership, consent, and privacy in response to a plan by Sidewalk Labs to incorporate data and technology in a new neighborhood.
  • Louisville — In Louisville, the City staff are using data from corporate partners like Waze to make data available to communities for planning transportation programs. The team at the City started the Civic Data Alliance to enable cities to work together to support key tools and infrastructure.
  • Boston and Chapel Hill — In places like Boston and Chapel Hill, and in communities participating in the Civic Switchboard project, we’re excited to see libraries play a role in their civic ecosystems much like our library partners have here in Pittsburgh.
  • San Francisco — In San Francisco we’ve learned a lot about how the City has developed a solid approach to manage data as a community asset.
  • Places like Chicago, Philadelphia and D.C. have also been able to build community among civic volunteers.
Series: Pittsburgh / Open Data PGH

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