Behind the Scenes: The #RedHeartHacker Discusses the GovLab Academy

By: Joel Natividad


Having been in the Open Data space since 2011, the civictech company I co-founded – Ontodia, have been through a lot of ups and downs.

And we’ve learned a lot of things the hard way – first and foremost, that ironically, technology is the last thing being considered when it comes to civictech.  Procurement, the election cycle, the news cycle, and various other “non-tech” concerns trump the merits of the technology.

That’s why I was so excited when I found out that I was accepted into GovLab Academy’s Data Analytics for Change Coaching Program!  Where else can I find an “insider’s perspective” as to how data analytics can be effectively applied in government from no less than the head of NYC’s Mayor’s Office for Data Analytics (MODA) – Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki?

MODA is the undisputed pioneer of doing Data Analytics innovation at scale in municipal government.  And Amen, having worked in academia and the private sector as a trained scientist before becoming a White House Fellow in 2012, the Chief Technology Officer of the Office of Personnel Management in 2013, and now the Chief Analytics Officers of  New York City – Amen knows how to turn raw data into insight.

And doing so while juggling these other “non-tech” considerations that befuddled our team when we first started, where we ended up building solutions for ourselves.

His perspective on the “Data Scientific Method” and how his team applied it to help City Agencies see data as a strategic asset, bridging artificial barriers to cross-agency data sharing, prioritizing low-hanging questions that materially affected Agency performance – directly informed and validated our latest product roadmap.

He confirmed what we suspected after having preached “open data and its three trillion dollar potential” to numerous small-town mayors in the US.  Regular people don’t really care about “open data.”

They don’t really care about catalogs of raw datasets in the cloud.  They don’t have time to download the data, load it in their own database, and create models in R.  Or looking at pretty maps and visualizations that are too generic and can’t be personalized to their daily lives. They want not only answers – but actionable, contextual, hyperlocalized, personalized information.  They want Small Data.

They want something similar to the City’s Business Atlas.  Using Open Data from the City’s portal, the Census, and footfall traffic from an NYC startup, MODA was able to contextualize raw data and convert it to actionable market research information that entrepreneurs use on a daily basis when starting businesses in NYC.

I also learned that size matters. That government procurement is just not optimized to engage a small early-stage civictech startup like ours. That informed and validated partnerships that I was negotiating while the class was underway.

It was also interesting that the class composition was quite diverse – from another major U.S. metropolis trying to learn from the New York experience; to activists just getting started with data-driven advocacy in Europe, Africa and Asia; to a civictech startup like ours trying to package what MODA pioneered in NYC, and creating “MODA-in-a-box” to democratize Data Analytics innovation and bringing it to smaller jurisdictions.

I just wish the class was a little longer and that there was an extended opportunity to collaborate in a formal setting.  Still, I’m sure now that GovLabs has seeded the network with these diverse connections, we’ll continue the conversation beyond the online programs.

As GovLabs Academy builds out its catalog, I’ve no doubt that it will become the “Khan Academy” of not only civictech, but of Gov 2.0.

Hopefully, they’ll have some more material for civictech entrepreneurs like me to spare future students a lot of the pain and suffering we went through when we first started. As it’s not enough to know how to hack the technology, you also need to know how to hack the bureaucracy.

#RedHeartHacker 🙂

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