Showcasing the Inaugural Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award Winners

Local governments are leading the way to implement innovative, forward-looking civic technology programs that narrow the digital divide and make cities more livable. But for all the impressive initiatives out there, many brilliant ideas never get off the ground for lack of resources. So last year, with support from the Democracy Fund and Benton Foundation, Next Century Cities launched the Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award. The competitive civic innovation prize invited cities to propose out-of-the-box solutions to local challenges.

From the outset, we emphasized local knowledge: cities know what they need better than we ever will. By being purposefully vague on project guidelines, we avoided pre-determining the kinds of project proposals we received. The overwhelming number of high-quality – and original! – applications confirmed our faith in cities.

Last August, after an extensive review process, our team of expert judges – including Benton Foundation Executive Director Adrianne Furniss – chose three finalists: Austin, Texas; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Louisville, Kentucky. Each received a seed grant to launch their local civic technology or digital inclusion program. Next Century Cities staff worked with the cities to put the grant to work and get their programs up and running.

The Next Century Cities team was thrilled to showcase the winners at the Broadband Communities Summit in Dallas, Texas last week. The early morning hour – we took the stage at 8 am – couldn’t keep a crowd away to hear from our inaugural Benton grantees.

Catherine Crago Blanton -- Head of Strategic Initiatives and Resource Development at the Housing Authority of the City of Austin -- explained how the Digital Ambassadors in their Smart Work, Learn, Play program connect low-income housing authority residents to the Internet and improve their access to transportation at the same time. The Ambassadors train residents in digital skills so they can better access online government services and transportation options. Crago Blanton demoed geographic information system (GIS) maps that show just how far some city services are from the people that need them the most – a visualization of the time cost of using city transit that goes far beyond bus fare. With better data, the city can calibrate its public transit programs to better meet the needs of residents.

Her team’s work has impressed outside funders, including the Austin-based car2go carsharing service. She told the story of how her Ambassadors “reverse mentor” car2go staff by taking them on bus trips around the city, so they can see what life for the transit-dependent is like. The Ambassadors’ work thus far has helped the city win an additional $50,000 grant from Austin’s Transit Empowerment Fund – vital grant dollars that both expand the program and ensure it continues well into the future.

Chris Seidt gave the audience a sneak peak of Louisville’s Gigabit Experience Center, which launches this week. The center promises to bring economic development and connectivity to a part of West Louisville that has historically lacked both. The center will host both a coworking space for startups, as well as a digital skills center – so Louisvillians of all stripes will benefit. Seidt told the audience about programming that will come to the center, including a summer “Cyber Camp” to teach students coding skills and programming drones.

The Gigabit Experience Center played a key role in the city’s successful bid for a $30 million Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to improve the quality of life in West Louisville.

Perver Baran of North Carolina State University demoed the InVision Raleigh app that her team of student coders is developing in partnership with city staff. The app is still in development, but once it is complete, community members will be able to visualize – and give feedback on – proposed development downtown. Although InVision Raleigh is not yet publicly available, it is already having an impact. Baran explained how the software development firm ESRI was so impressed by the concept that the company flew her team of student coders out to ESRI headquarters in Redmond, California for a two-day hackathon to speed development of the app. ESRI is already considering how it might develop similar apps with other cities around the country. Baran also shared insight with the audience on how to ensure success in forming partnerships between universities, city agencies, and nonprofits - so Raleigh’s effort stands to benefit communities across the country.

Baran also took time to highlight some of the difficulties that can arise when implementing new and innovative projects with stakeholders from multiple organizations. She explained how differing grant procedures across organizations can add time to processing. And while delay is never ideal, it can be particularly challenging when working with student coders on an academic calendar.

The Benton Next Generation Engagement Award winners are visionaries at the vanguard of civic technology. Their work exemplifies best practices in digital inclusion and community engagement through technology so that more people can benefit from innovation, and be a part of our online civic discourse.

The team at Next Century Cities is grateful for the support of its funders who make these awards possible.

Todd O’Boyle is Deputy Director of Next Century Cities, a coalition of more than 170 mayors and local government leaders committed to faster, more affordable broadband Internet access. At Next Century Cities, he leads federal policy outreach and oversees the Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award. Prior to joining Next Century Cities, former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps picked Todd to launch his Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause. In that capacity, Todd directed public interest communications policy campaigns, including successful efforts to guarantee the Open Internet; protect and promote competition; and stop Comcast’s bid to acquire rival Time Warner Cable. Todd has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and a B.A. in German.