Meet one of our star judges — Princeton mayor Liz Lempert. A Stanford graduate, she began her career in local politics in 2007 as co-chair of the Mercer4Obama campaign, where she grew the organization from a dozen volunteers to over 3000 members. Lempert served for four years on the former Township Committee beginning in December 2008. In a candid chat with Pragati Verma, she discusses civic tech movement and its role in Princeton community. Excerpts:
Thank you for judging our Hackathons and supporting Code For Princeton. Did you find any exciting projects at our previous Hackathons?
Well, there have been several impressive ones. In one of the first Hackathons, there was a group that put together a website to track Princeton’s gas and electricity usage and provides information on the impact of energy use by Princeton residents on greenhouse gas emissions. And I remember they did it in a really visually appealing way. Also, there was a group of middle school students, who worked on a solution to enable students to alert a school bus driver, if they missed it by seconds.
It’s great because even if the idea is not a fully-developed product, this exercise can be useful to help people think outside the box and get creative to solve community challenges we face. I enjoy serving as a judge because it often opens my eyes to a new way of thinking.
Are there any specific needs or challenges that we should address?
I feel that we are collecting data about several things in Princeton and a group like Code for Princeton can be very helpful in figuring out new and effective ways to use that data.
For example, you might have seen signs around town that tell you the speed limit on that street. Right next to it, we have posted signs that measure and display your current speed. We can use this data to compare people’s speed, when the signs are switched on and when they are off. This will help us measure effectiveness of these signs.
Similarly, we can look at our tree database that has information about every single street tree in the neighborhood. We are concerned about Emerald Ash Borer attacking ash trees. A group like Code For Princeton can look at the data to make sure that our stewardship is as effective as it can be, within our budget constraints.
The police department also publishes a lot of data every month. Code for Princeton can help by visualizing that data in a way that it is meaningful. You all did a great job at a hackathon a couple of years ago when you created a tool that mapped data of vehicle crashes.
Do you think civic tech movement can make a difference in Princeton?
We are a pretty unique community of people with so much talent. Code for Princeton Hackathons are a great way to capitalize on the tech talent we have. And for technology folks, this is a wonderful way to make a meaningful contribution. Often, people working in tech industry don’t get involved in municipal problems. The civic tech movement has created a new way to address municipal challenges, and provided a new avenue for meaningful engagement.
What about our Hackthons? Are these contributing…
Hackathons generate a great sense of community. It’s the closest experience to political campaigns. Everyone works collaboratively and you can feel a sense of idealism in the room. In addition, it’s great fun and a wonderful opportunity to tie a bow around your work.
I would encourage everybody to stop by for the presentations at the Hackathon. It’s really fun to see what the different groups come up with. And you can contribute, even if you do not have a tech background. It makes me feel so lucky to be part of the Princeton community.
You seem very keen on technology adoption. But that’s not the case with governments, in general, and local governments, in particular. What do you think holds them back?
In my opinion, it’s inertia. It’s not easy to switch to new systems. Moreover, budgets are tight and people are busy. This initial investment of time and money makes it hard.
But the world is changing and it’s important for local governments to recognize that we’re fundamentally organizations that provide services. We need to do our job effectively and efficiently. It’s hard to do that without technology.
For instance, we are in the process of redesigning our website and bringing our forms online, so that people can access them after office hours and pay applicable fees online with a credit card. This will also give our staff more time to focus on other parts of their job.
I believe that technology can help us reduce bureaucracy and make it easier for residents to get services. That’s what it’s all about — Putting the focus back on service delivery.