Gabe Sawhney is the co-founder of the non-profit Urban Digital which is currently offering an innovative course called Digital Government and Civic Tech through Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education. It’s believed to be the first course of its kind in Canada.
What’s this course about?
Digital Government and Civic Tech is designed to show students how government can adapt to the 21st century. Using practical examples and case studies, the course illustrates how government services and engagement can be improved by adopting some of the best practices established in the tech and civic tech sectors, things like agile development, open data, rapid prototyping, and human-centred design. The Chang School has recognized there’s a growing class of government innovators who want to connect with one another and learn how to apply new technology skills to their roles in the public service. This course can help them do that.
Why should the public care about digital government?
Residents and businesses in Canada are used to life at the speed of the internet, and want their governments to function at the same pace. But to meet these new expectations, governments require new skills, new methods, and new tools. Digital government is about bringing those skills, methods, and tools into government, but it’s also about producing better outcomes. A more digital government is one that responds to residents’ needs in a more timely, granular and efficient fashion. It’s also a government that empowers citizens to connect with each other and drive policymaking from the bottom up.
What do you hope this course will accomplish?
Digital government is a cultural shift, and I think that in order to change culture, you have to show people what’s possible. If public servants can take the toolkit from the course and use it to solve some challenges — even small ones — that their respective governments or departments are facing, then they can build on those successes and lower the barrier to change.
What would our readers be surprised to learn about digital government in Toronto?
Toronto was actually one of the first cities in Canada to launch an open data portal. And there are some cool digital government services that people don’t know about. For example, you can check your water meter online, or watch municipal snow plows move around in real-time. And a new, online tool just came out that helps people determine which social services or benefits they’re eligible for, based on a survey about their needs. It’s called the Service and Benefit Finder Tool.
How could digital government affect cities in the future?
Cities are ground zero for a lot of service delivery, everything from public transit to policing to recreation programs and affordable housing. So they have a lot to benefit from by embracing digital government. The smart cities movement is also tied to digital government. With smartphone adoption in major cities pushing 80 per cent, the vast majority of residents are carrying around potential sensors for their city that could monitor traffic patterns, report crimes, or connect residents with their governments in real-time. Cities that embrace that data can use it to deliver highly responsive, personalized services to their constituents.
What do you hope students get from this course?
There are staff from two municipal governments, and representatives from eight different provincial ministries. We also have students who work in the private and non-profit sectors, so it’s a diverse group. I hope they come away from the course with a new toolkit — both tactical and strategic — that will help them to apply these new digital skills and methods to their own work, regardless of the sector they’re in.