Five ways governments can encourage civic startups

2012 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Civic Startup.”

With the growth of the open government movement and more and more governments embracing open data, we see an increasing number of useful civic applications being developed.  Every weekend hackathon spawns multiple projects that could potentially live on as a successful venture or company.

Some hackathons are specifically geared toward producing viable companies – this is exactly the approach that was taken at last November’s “Education Hack Day” in Baltimore.  At that event, the idea was to set up winners with as much expert advice and opportunity as possible to launch a business around their weekend project to help teachers.

Generally speaking, a “civic startup” is a startup company with a focus on civic improvement or social good.  They look and act just like other kinds of startups, but their aims are somewhat loftier.  ElectNext and SeeClickFix are a good example of a civic startups – their aim is to become profitable and viable (just like other startups), but if these ventures are successful they will impact people far beyond their direct customer/user base.

Everyone benefits when voters are more engaged and participate more regularly in elections, or when city neighborhoods are cleaned up.  We all get something out of the success of civic startups like ElectNext and SeeClickFix , whether we use them directly or not.  In this sense, we can describe these kinds of startups in economic terms – civic startups are those that generate a positive externality.

Some civic startups are direct consumer of open government data, like RailBandit which uses data published by public transit agencies.  Other civic startups – thought this type seems especially rare – might potentially offer goods and services directly to governments through the standard procurement process.

There are ways that state and local governments can help startups and encourage the startup community.  Some governments (usually at the state level) provide early-stage funding for technology companies – the Maryland Venture Fund is a good example of this.  State and local tax policy can also be used foster and encourage high tech startups.  But these options have become more challenging for governments in recent years because of financial strain and tight budgets.

In 2012, I believe that state and local governments will connect the dots on open data and begin to see it as a viable economic development tool for encouraging the development of new businesses and the creation of civic startups.

Here are five steps that governments can take to help encourage and foster the growth of civic startups in 2012:

1. View open government data as an economic development tool

Transparency and visibility are the most common arguments used to justify open government data programs, and the are both strong and compelling.  But there is another argument this is just as compelling – that by releasing data collected and maintained by government agencies in useful, developer-friendly formats that governments can encourage the development of new businesses.

I’ve made this argument before, as have many others.  It’s time for governments to adopt the mindset that open data is a tool in their economic development tool kits.  This change in thinking will directly impact the quantity and the types of data sets that are opened up for developers to use.

2. Codify open data requirements

If entrepreneurs are going to build businesses around open government data, they’ll need certainty that such data will be released in a complete and comprehensive fashion, and that it will continue to be released in the future.  Attracting investment for civic startups will be more difficult without this level of assurance and commitment from governments.

A good example of open government data drying up can be seen in Philadelphia. Until early 2009, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health had published a listing of restaurant inspections on its website. This kind of data has been used in several municipalities as the basis for new civic applications, and both Chicago and New York City publish this information for developers.  However, in early 2009 Philadelphia stopped publishing this information, and the web page where it once resided is no longer active.

It’s hard to build a business around data that might not be there in the future. That’s why governments need to formalize their commitment to open data.  Mayoral directives and executive orders – like Baltimore’s – are great.

Ideally, however, this commitment should be enacted in statute so that it is less likely to change even with the election of a new mayor or governor.  This will give civic startups greater certainty and allow them to more easily attract investment.

3. Reform the government procurement process

I think it’s awesome that public sector CTO’s like Chicago’s John Tolva are taking about civic startups and encouraging business development through open government data.

In a recent blog post, Tolva mentions the Chicago Lobbyists project which is powered by data released by the city.  In his post, Tolva points to the group behind this website’s decision to respond to a city RFP for an online lobbyist registration system as evidence of progress:

Clearly the process was eye-opening. Consider the scenario: a small group of nimble developers with deep subject matter expertise (from their work with the open data) go toe-to-toe with incumbents and enterprise application companies. The promise of expanding the ecosystem of qualified vendors, even changing the skills mix of respondents, is a new driver of the release of City data.

As encouraging as this development is, it seems pretty unlikely to have the the desired impact unless significant changes are made to the city’s procurement policies.

In their RFP response, the Chicago Lobbyists group described the Chicago procurement process this way:

Responding to an RFP for the City of Chicago is a herculean task… this approach to an RFP results in proposals from one type of contractor: firms that are very large and able to jump through all the hoops that the City has to ensure the minimum amount of risk and liability for the City itself.

I don’t mean to single out Chicago here – Tolva and his boss (Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel) are among the most enlightened public officials in the country when it comes to open data and citizen engagement.  Chicago’s procurement practices are probably more like procurement practices in other cities than they are different.

Pubic procurement policies weren’t built with startups in mind.  But given the vast sums spent by state and local governments on technology and software, this could be an immensely powerful avenue for encouraging new businesses and civic startups.

4. Showcase civic applications and companies

One of the most effective and lowest cost steps states and local governments can take to support and encourage civic startups is to showcase civic apps.

I’m always amazed when I see cities – like Baltimore – that have robust, developer-ready open data portals yet no centralized listing of apps built with city data.  What’s the point of encouraging developers to use your data if you’re not going to then encourage citizens to use their apps?

Both San Francisco and Philadelphia have nice application showcases that could easily be emulated by Baltimore and other cities.  There are also other, stand alone app directories – like City-Go-Round for transit apps – that developers should be encouraged to utilize when promoting their applications.

5. Manage expectations

If civic startups are anything like their non-civic counterparts, many of them will fail.  This is the reality of the startup ecosystem – lots of companies, many of them with great teams, awesome technology and a hot idea, just don’t make it.

The failure of civic startups – whether powered by open data or selling directly to governments – shouldn’t be used as the basis for political outrage.  A failed civic startup doesn’t translate into an indictment of a government’s open data program, although some might try to characterize it this way.

Although there isn’t anything to stop those that want to use the failure of civic startups as a way to make political hay, supporters and advocates can go a long way toward mitigating this if expectations are properly managed.

Open data and civic apps aren’t a panacea for the problems of governments, they are but one tool in the vast toolbox that governments have available to them to provide services to citizens and do all of the other things we expect governments to do.

The interesting thing about the idea of civic startups is that if governments embrace open data and encourage it’s widespread use, they may find that they are able to encourage new business development while at the same time making their own burdens a little lighter.

Baltimore Open Government 2011 Year in Review

Baltimore City Hall - Photo by wallyg

Photo by wallyg

Following up on my previous post for the City of Philadelphia, this post describes what happened on the open government and open data fronts in the City of Baltimore in 2011.

OpenBaltimore Launches

The open data movement in Baltimore officially began with the unveiling of the OpenBaltimore data repository in January, 2011.

Running on the Socrata platform, OpenBaltimore launched to great excitement in the Baltimore technology community, many of whom had been advocating for a civic hacking event in the city for some time.

In the span of just a few weeks, Baltimore seemed to go from zero to 100 on open data.  The SODA API built into the OpenBaltimore platform seemed to dovetail perfectly with requests from the developer community for Baltimore City to give them the raw materials to build civic apps.

Civic hacking soon ensued.

Civic Hacking

In February, the very first civic hacking event took place in Baltimore.  This wasn’t the first hacking event to take place in Charm City, but it was the first to happen after the City published open data sets for developers to build civic apps with.  And that’s exactly what they did.

In early February, software developers, journalists and civic activists converged on the Emerging Technologies Center in Baltimore’s Canton Neighborhood to build civic apps.  One of the great things about this event (in addition to the visible enthusiasm of the developers that attended) was the fact that Socrata had their lead developer evangelist on site, working along side the Baltimore developers to use the City’s new open data platform.

This event would set the tone for much of the civic hacking that was to take place in Baltimore for the remainder of the year.

Later in the year, a second civic hacking event would take place at Digital Harbor High School in the City’s Federal Hill neighborhood.  This highly successful event – Education Hack Day – was focused on the needs of teachers and schools, and brought educators and technologists together for a successful weekend of app building.  This event was recognized as a runner up for “Best Civic Hackathon” in the recent GovFresh Awards contest.

The Search for an OpenGov Champion

The OpenBaltimore site was launched at something of an odd time as it relates to Baltimore City government and politics.

The City actually decided to build an open data portal before the man that would become the City’s CIO (Rico Singleton) was in his current position.  The very real potential existed for the OpenBaltimore project to be lost in the shuffle as the incoming CIO asserted his new authority and lined up resource to execute his own priorities.

In addition,  2011 was an election year in Baltimore, with the sitting Mayor (Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the former City Council President who took over the office when her predecessor resigned amid a scandal) running for a full term.  There was speculation in the technology community that the launch of OpenBaltimore was nothing more than a political ploy – a hollow nod to the calls from local developers for open data and a good way to shore up the Rawlings-Blake Administration’s record on transparency.

Mayoral elections can wreak havoc on open data programs.  Civic activists in Baltimore needed only to look a few miles to the south – to the District of Columbia – to see the dramatic change that a mayoral election can have on the direction of a municipal open data program.  The District – once a pioneer in the open government movement – has fallen almost completely off the OpenGov radar following the defeat of former Mayor Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary in September of  2010.

Real questions about Baltimore City’s commitment to open data were raised leading up to the Baltimore Mayoral primary.  I myself had a chance to weigh in on this issue – ultimately, I felt that the City’s commitment to open data was genuine and that there was great potential for civic engagement and change.

One of the most interesting and valuable events of the year served as a vehicle for addressing many of these concerns and fostering an open discussion between the technology community and the Baltimore City CIO.

Dubbed, “BmoreSmart Meets City Hall,” the event was organized by Kate Baldow and brought dozens of interested parties to Baltimore City Hall to engage in a dialog with CIO Rico Singleton.  A frank, honest and open discussion took place and those that attended learned a lot about the challenges that face Baltimore and the plans for the future of open data.

Coming Full Circle on 311

Baltimore was the first city in the US to use the 311 designated dialing code and a centralized call center to field citizen requests on non-emergency issues.  So it was fitting that in 2011 Baltimore joined the ranks of cities to deploy an Open311 API.

In connection with this announcement, Baltimore also launched 311 apps for the iPhone and Android, and launched a Twitter account for tracking 311 service requests.

Baltimore’s embrace of Open311 looks like it will be one of the most productive avenues for engaging developers to build civic apps to help the city.  It would be great to see some outreach in this area in 2012.

The Road Ahead in 2012

In the past several weeks, Baltimore City CIO Rico Singleton has been on a tear – releasing scores of new data sets to the OpenBaltimore platform.  He’s hired a Chief Digital Officer for Baltimore and conducted the interview via live video stream, with questions for each of the candidates solicited from the local tech community via Twitter.

The deep pool of talented people in Baltimore that want to use city data to build useful civic apps was evident in some truly innovative projects that developed through the course of the year.

Following the Civic Hack Day in February, Shea Frederick began work on what would become SpotAgent – an app that uses data from OpenBaltimore to find safe parking in the city.  Beyond just being a great app, and a great example for municipal officials of what can be done with city data, Shea’s work highlighted an important issue for OpenBaltimore – the frequency of data updates.  With Shea’s strategic prodding, the city began a pilot project to update parking violations (and other data sets) much more frequently, making them more valuable for everyone.

Shea teamed up with other talented Baltimore developers Jonathan Julian and James Schaffer for Baltimore Vacants – a project to provide more usable information on who owns vacant properties in Baltimore.  Jonathan was also one of the stars of the Education Hack Day in Baltimore (his team won first prize) and he blogged about his experience at the event to encourage others to take up civic hacking.

Another vacant property project was taken on this year by Mike Subelsky, a talented developer who announced several weeks ago that he wanted to take on a “free software project” as both a way to learn new skills and to kick start a viable project.  Mike ended up working with Kate Bladow and Baltimore Slumlord Watch on a project to identify who owns vacant properties.  Mike was gracious enough to not only work on the project, and to publish all the great data he was able to pull together, but also to write a detailed blog post about the experience.  Mike’s post is worth the read for those interested in the value of open data.

If the City of Baltimore fully commits to engaging this smart, talented community of developers and civic activists in 2012 it will be a banner year for the open government movement in Charm City.

Open Gov Champions for 2011

Baltimore’s community of civic-minded hackers is deeper than most cities, so the following is by no means an exhaustive list of those who have contributed to the open government movement in that city.  But as I said previously with the list I put together for Philadelphia, when I think about the open government movement in Baltimore it is hard to imagine how it would work without these people.

Mike Brenner.  Mike is a tireless advocate for open government and open data.  He was the very first person I ever became aware of calling for civic hacking events in Baltimore, and he was the primary organizer for both of the events that took in Baltimore this year.  Like others in the Baltimore technology community, Mike has heard the siren call of the Big Apple and Silicon Valley and he’d be a huge success in either place.  But he’s a Baltimorean at heart and he cares deeply about his city.  Every city should be so lucky as to have someone like Mike Brenner working to make things better.

Dave Troy. Dave is a successful entrepreneur whose been around the block more than once. Like so many others in the Baltimore technology community, he cares passionately about his city and wants to make it work better and smarter through the innovative use of technology. Dave’s idea to use LinkedIn data to visualize the relationships between people in the Baltimore community was one of the most interesting and creative uses of data that I saw all year. Dave’s leadership will hep propel the open government movement in Baltimore forward in 2012.

Rico Singleton. He’s got a lot on his plate – outdated technology infrastructure, budget woes and more projects than you can shake a stick at – but everything I saw from Baltimore’s CIO this year tells me he’s in the OpenGov game to win it.  There are certainly enough challenges in Baltimore to justify putting OpenBaltimore on the back burner, but Rico continues to push things forward with the release of new data sets and the constant improvement of the OpenBaltimore site.

Philadelphia Open Government 2011 Year in Review

Philadelphia

Photo by vic15

The time of year-end reviews and top 10 lists is now upon us, so I’m compiling the details of a watershed year for open data and civic hacking in two cities where I’ve seen huge leaps made in 2011 – Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In this first installment, I’ll focus on the “City of Brotherly Love” and highlight some of the events and developments of the past year that made it such a special one for the open government movement there.  In the next installment, I’ll do the same for “Charm City.”

Code for America Launches in Philadelphia

2011 began with enormous potential for the growth of the open government footprint in Philadelphia because of a group of coders and designers that came to town as part of Code for America (CfA).  Philadelphia was one of the CfA partner cities for 2011, and the group of fellows that came to town in the early part of the year wasted no time in making their presence felt.

The group tore into it’s work, and kicked of a series of informal hackathons that primed the pump for much of the civic hacking that was to come later in the year.  To my knowledge, these events were the very first of what could be called “civic hacking” events to take place in Philadelphia, and I thought their impact was hugely important:

“What I was most impressed with was the ability of this event to highlight to those that were there what is truly possible when government data is open to and usable by developers. It provided an object lesson for all those there on the true potential of civic hacking…

“Having the Code for America fellows in Philadelphia, and having them essentially kick start civic coding using city data, has accelerated the awareness of what is possible. I think people would have achieved the awareness that was realized yesterday eventually, but the CfA fellows got people there sooner.

Throughout the year, in addition to its primary mission in Philadelphia, CfA and the fellows that were a part of it were involved in a number of different aspects of the open government evolution taking place in that city.  Whether as speakers, supporters or participants in other civic events, the “CfA effect’ was an important component of what happened in Philadelphia this past year on the open government front.

OpenDataPhilly and Philly Tech Week

In late April, Philadelphia made big waves in the open data world by launching its own unique open data repository.

Announced at the kick off event for the very first “Philly Tech Week,” the OpenDataPhilly.org website and data repository was unveiled with great fanfare.  The unique approach taken by Philadelphia has turned out to be a key to it’s success:

“The city actively partnered with outside parties, private firms, not-for-profits and universities to help set the direction of the city’s open data efforts. The OpenDataPhilly website itself, although it’s brimming with data collected and maintained by the city, was developed by the geospatial and civic application firm Azavea, and is not hosted or operated by the city.  The website, and the larger open data effort in Philadelphia, operates under the stewardship of a group made up of both public sector and private sector partners.”

The follow up to the launch of the OpenDataPhilly site was quick, and turned out to have some lasting impact in the Philly open government movement.

At the end of Philly Tech Week, Technically Philly convened a hackathon that took place in conjunction with BarCamp News Innovation at Temple University.  The hackers at this event focused their attention on property data within the City of Philadelphia, and developed a web app built from “liberated” Office of Property Assessment data that made the data more easily searchable.

This theme of searchable property records has continued to resonate in the open data and journalism communities, and the app originally built at that initial post-OpenDataPhilly event continues to be actively developed and used.

Hackathons and more Hackathons

Following Philly Tech Week, several other fruitful hacking events were organized in Philadelphia that have helped develop more open data and APIs in Philly, and more useful civic applications.

In June and December, Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) events were held at Drexel University, organized by Drexel PhD candidate Mike Brennan.  Both events have produced nationally recognized civic applications.

The June RHoK event produced PhillySNAP – a text messaging application that helps people locate SNAP vendors that sell fresh produce in their neighborhoods.  This application received an honorable mention in the FCC’s Apps for Communities contest.

The December RHoK event produced Sheltr – a mobile web application that provides food and shelter information for those seeking to assist the homeless.  This application was named “Best Social Service Application” in the recently completed GovFresh Awards contest.

In October, a group of hackers convened on the Devnuts co-working space in Northern Liberties to build applications using SEPTA data and APIs.  This event produced a number of useful applications, and also had the full cooperation and support of SEPTA staff.  In addition, several weeks after the event, Mike Zaleski – Director Emerging and Specialty Technology at SEPTA – organized a unique event to bring the civic hackers into SEPTA for a behind the scenes tour and a showcase for SEPTA employees.

OpenData Race and the Road Ahead in 2012

The road ahead into 2012 for open government and open data in Philly was set with the launch of the OpenData Race in August.

The OpenData Race was a competition open to not-for-profits that want to obtain data from the City of Philadelphia to further their missions and to better serve their constituencies.  It called on not-for-profits to nominate data that is not currently available through the OpenDataPhilly site or through other sources to be released by the city in an open format.  The top nominations received cash prizes, and the OpenDataPhilly team is now working with the City of Philadelphia to facilitate the release of the winning data sets.

The winning data sets – announced at the Crowdsourcing at the Intersection forum in October – will fuel a new series of civic hacking events in 2012 and continue the virtuous cycle that was begun this year with newly open data leading to greater civic participation and the development of useful civic applications.

Code for America will be back to Philly next year, and 2012 is shaping up to be another productive one for the open data movement n Philadelphia.

Open Gov Champions for 2011

Now that 2011 is almost complete, I think its fitting to single out several people who have helped shape the landscape of the open gov movement in Philadelphia.  These are by no means the only individuals who helped push things forward this year – the movement, by definition, is open and encompasses lots of people from a wide array of backgrounds and skill sets.  That, in my mind, is what makes it so potent.

However, when I think about the open government movement in Philadelphia it is hard to imagine how it would work without these people.

Robert Cheetham – President and CEO of Azavea.  Robert was one of the driving forces behind OpenDataPhilly and the OpenData Race.  His firm built the platform that runs OpenDataPhilly.org, and he has helped launch it as an open data platform in other cities. His knowledge of technology and Philadelphia government ,and his passion for civic improvement make him the “Godfather” of open data in Philly.

Christopher Wink – Co-founder of publishing strategy firm Technically Media and its technology news site Technically Philly. Chris believes in open government and open data down to his bones, and it shows in his tireless coverage and support for open government events. Technically Philly sponsored pretty much every single civic hacking event in Philly in 2011, and was another driving force behind OpenDataPhilly and the OpenData Race.  Chris is one of the most progressive thinkers on open data that I know, and I think his vision will help chart the path that we travel down for years to come.

Jeff Friedman – Manager of Civic Innovation & Participation in the Office of Mayor Michael A. Nutter.  The “inside man” for open data in Philly, Jeff is a tireless advocate for Code for America, civic participation and changing the way government engages citizens.  Jeff has helped bring together smart passionate people in Philly over the past year to help move the open government effort forward.

OpenDataRace Begins in Philadelphia

OpenData Race

Several months ago, with the unveiling of the OpenDataPhilly website, the City of Philadelphia joined the growing fraternity of cities across the country and around the world to release municipal data sets in open, developer friendly formats. But the City of Brotherly Love did things a bit differently than most of it’s contemporaries.

The city actively partnered with outside parties, private firms, not-for-profits and universities to help set the direction of the city’s open data efforts. The OpenDataPhilly website itself, although it’s brimming with data collected and maintained by the city, was developed by the geospatial and civic application firm Azavea, and is not hosted or operated by the city.  The website, and the larger open data effort in Philadelphia, operates under the stewardship of a group made up of both public sector and private sector partners.

This unique partnership has raised innovative opportunities for collaboration.  This is clearly evident in the latest efforts by the OpenDataPhilly team to solicit ideas from those in and around Philadelphia about the specific data sets that should be opened up by the city, formatted for developers and researchers and released through the OpenDataPhilly site.

Last week, the OpenDataPhilly team, in partnership with Azavea, NPower Pennsylvania, Technically Philly and the William Penn Foundation launched the OpenData Race.

The OpenData Race is a competition open to not-for-profits that want to obtain data from the City of Philadelphia to further their missions and to better serve their constituencies.  It calls on not-for-profits to nominate data that is not currently available through the OpenDataPhilly site or through other sources to be released by the city in an open format.  The top nominations will receive cash prizes, and the OpenDataPhilly team will work with the City of Philadelphia to facilitate the release of the winning data sets.

This competition is a departure from the traditional kinds of contests that derive from municipal open data efforts, which typically take the form of hackathons or application building contests.  It builds on the idea behind the latest “Big Apps” competition in New York City – which asked competitors to name the kinds of open data apps they would like to see developed – by asking consumers of municipal data which data sets they would like to see opened up and released to the public.

Any not-for-profit can nominate a data set by registering with the OpenDataPhilly site and submitting a nomination before the deadline on September 29th.  The OpenDataPhilly team will also be working with the winners of the OpenData Race to facilitate events aimed at building civic applications that use the new data in early 2012.

The partnership in Philadelphia between city officials, not-for profits, private firms and universities has produced a unique atmosphere for the development of an open data movement.  With the launch of the OpenData Race in Philadelphia, the city and those that live and work there will now start to reap the benefits of this innovative partnership.

For more information on the OpenData Race, and to signup to nominate data, go to the OpenDataPhilly website.

Open government hackathons matter

Open government hackathons matter

The civic hackathon – a gathering (either virtual or physical) of technologists for a few days or weeks to build civic-themed software – remains one of the more durable manifestations of the open government movement.

Hardly a week passes without the announcement of a new event or contest – sometimes more than one. As I’ll explain more fully in a moment, this is a good thing.

The civic hackathon is also, increasingly, one of more analyzed facets of the open government movement.

There are more and more smart, engaged people talking about ways to make civic hackathons better – to help ensure that the software these events produce is of higher quality and has a longer lasting effect. This is also a good thing.

Some of the more enlightened analyses on methods/strategies for improving civic hackathons that have crossed my radar of late (by no means a complete list) are the following:

Also worth a read is a recent post on TechPresident by Nick Judd (always a thoughtful contributor on this topic).

In reading much of what is written on the subject of civic hackathons lately, it’s easy to take away a feeling of concern – even skepticism – about their real value.

The constant lament I hear is that civic hackathons don’t work (or don’t work well enough) because many of the apps that are developed as part of these events are not sustained long-term. Some don’t survive the weekend.

I have for some time tried to dispel the notion that this is the only measure (or even one of the most important) of a civic hackathon’s success. And in this post, I will try again.

I <3 Hackathons

I’ve got a thing for civic hackathons.

I was a competitor in the very first Apps for Democracy that took place under Vivek Kundra in Washington, DC, and I was also a competitor in the first Apps for America contest put on by the Sunlight Foundation.

Since then, I’ve been a participant in lots of other civic hackathons and coding events as either a participant, organizer and sponsor (sometimes as more than one).

I’m currently organizing a Philadelphia civic hackathon and helping to organize another in Baltimore. I am a part of not one, but two entries in the FCC’s Apps for Communities competition.

Yeah, I like hackathons.

This doesn’t always make me the most objective person in discussions about whether civic hackathons “work,” but I believe my multifaceted experience with these events has given me insight into other factors that can be used to evaluate their success.

I think civic hackathons can be bigger than the apps the generate. With some forethought and planning, these events can generate benefits that resonate well beyond the end of the award ceremony.

I think it’s a mistake to judge the success of a hackathon solely on how long the apps it produces “live” afterwards.

It’s also a mistake to try and improve hackathons by focusing exclusively on strategies for sustaining apps in the long term. This misses some of the most important benefits that can be generated by these events.

Whether we’re judging past success of civic hackathons or trying to improve future performance, it’s time to get beyond the apps.

You Get What You Plan For

I’m by no means suggesting that striving for long-term adoption of apps generated at civic hackathons is a trivial or unimportant thing. Far from it.

I’m currently working with a group in Philadelphia that developed an app as part of a recent Random Hacks of Kindness event, to identify funding and supporters to help support operation of the app long-term.

My contention here is that this is but one of the benefits to come from this civic hacking event generally, and from this software application specifically.

Not only did the efforts of my team result in an app – they resulted in a previously unavailable data set being published for others to use.  The app my team worked on helps people in Philadelphia locate farmer’s markets and food retailers that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reimbursement through text messaging. The data behind this app is now available for anyone that wants it, either through an API that supports geo-spatial queries or as a downloadable file in a commonly used format.

The data our app needed to operate was “liberated” in the process of building the app. It is now available for anyone else to use, tweak, modify or expand.

That was our plan, and whether we are able to secure longer-term support for our app, and receive assistance in promoting it, this liberated data will live on.

I’m not the only person that has made this argument. Clay Johnson – formerly of Sunlight Labs – has emphasized repeatedly the need to build a community around app contests. This is another positive outcome that can have long term benefits that is not directly related to how many apps are actively being used six months after a civic hacking event.

I noted with some excitement the number of elected officials and political candidates that attended the recent Summer of Smart hackathons in San Francisco. This is a great way to expose public sector employees and officials to the power of civic hacking.

It’s an approach I am using in the upcoming Apps for SEPTA coding event I’m helping organize in Philadelphia, where officials from the Mayor’s office (who’ve never been to a hackathon before) will be in attendance.

I’ve argued in the past that one of the key benefits of civic hackathons is that they stretch traditional notions of public service delivery and show governments what is possible to do with their data. I can’t think of a more effective way to do this than through a civic hacking event.

There is also the very real potential for these events to generate reusable components – open source software that can be used by other developers or governments to build civic applications down the road.

Nick Judd of TechPresident said this much more eloquently than I:

“With each hackathon, some of the detritus — bits of code, training videos, documentation, the right people trading email addresses — becomes scaffolding for the attendees of later ones.”

The benefits that are achievable through civic hackathons go far beyond just the collection of apps that get developed in the course of a weekend.

But the impetus is on organizers and supporters of such events to plan for these benefits, and to nurture them after the event is concluded. You get what you plan for, and if event organizers don’t plan past the end of the weekend then the potential for a missed opportunity is real.

Civic hackathons are bigger than the apps they generate – they always have been.

Many, though, are now just realizing how far the benefits of these weekends of caffeine-fueled hacking extend.

The Road ahead for Open Baltimore

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the state of the open data program in the city of Baltimore.

At the time, the buzz from a day of civic hacking with data released by the city was still palpable and the developers of an application built in the wake of this event stood ready to release it for public use with a full marketing push.

Questions remained about how developers would be authorized to use city data for commercial applications, and – perhaps more importantly – how often the data released as part of the Open Baltimore initiative would be refreshed and maintained.

At the recent Baltimore Data Day event – organized by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance – I had an opportunity to meet Rico Singleton (CIO for the City of Baltimore) and some of his staff to talk about Open Baltimore.

Based on what I heard from Mr. Singleton and his staff, I think that significant questions about the open Baltimore initiative still remain, but I am now more convinced of the city’s commitment to open data and to the long-term success of the program.

An outsider’s perspective

I don’t live in Baltimore so I sincerely hope that my perspective on the city’s open data program will be interpreted for what it is: a representative view of the many people who have friends or family there, who visit often, who care deeply about the state of the city, and who are interested in building civic apps for Baltimore.

To the extent that there are political undercurrents to what is happening with open data in Baltimore, I’m detached from them. I won’t (and can’t) vote for any political representative in Baltimore and I don’t (and won’t) contribute money to any of their campaigns.

I have, however, worked with other cities to provide advice and support for their open data programs – most notably the cities of San Francisco and Philadelphia – and I enjoy being active in the civic hacking ecosystem.  Outside of the city of Baltimore, I don’t think you’ll find a bigger supporter of the Open Baltimore program or someone rooting harder for its long-term success.

I was encouraged by what I heard from Mr. Singleton and his staff last week at Baltimore Data Day, but long-term success for Open Baltimore still seems somewhat in doubt.

Here is what I heard, and what I would suggest to Mr. Singleton and MOIT for making Open Baltimore a smashing long-term success.

An Open discussion

Baltimore Data Day provided an opportunity for myself and Mike Brenner (a passionate advocate for open data in Baltimore and organizer of the Civic Hack Day) to meet Rico Singleton in person.  I wanted to use this opportunity to discuss what I thought about Open Baltimore.

Mr. Singleton was very approachable, friendly and eager to talk.  His time was somewhat limited at the event, but we had a chance to chat briefly about the Open Baltimore initiative and I was able to express some of the concerns that I have heard from others in and around the open data movement in Baltimore.

Chief among them was that the data in the Open Baltimore site is quickly becoming stale.  For example, some of the more prominent data sets are now quite old – data on 311 service requests is only current to January, and parking citation data is only current to March.

If developers are going to use city data to build civic apps (or if activists and community leaders are going to use it to advocate for those they represent) this data must be kept more current.  Mr. Singeton (and MOIT staff at the event) seemed to understand this concern, but none offered a clear and convincing response to how the city would address it.

Two representatives from MOIT staff were on hand to talk at the Baltimore Data Day event as well – Heather Hudson (the full time program manager for Open Baltimore) and Tom Jones (technical support for Open Baltimore and other MOIT initiatives).  Both discussed in some detail an effort by the city to provide more realtime updates to the Open Baltimore site, particularly for high demand data sets like parking citations.

Both Hudson and Jones seemed excited and passionate about this effort, but neither provided specifics on when this process or system would be put into regular use.  While I was initially very excited to hear about this effort, it was pointed out to me by others afterwards that this discussions has been going on for some time.

In the limited time that was available, I asked both Hudson and Mr. Singleton if the city would be willing to endorse and actively participate in another data hacking event focused on the use of city data to build civic apps.

Both thought it was a good idea and accepted the offer.  Mr. Singleton shook hands with myself and Mike Brenner on it before departing for another event.

The Road ahead for Open Baltimore

I’ve said this before and I truly believe it – the City of Baltimore’s open data program has some of the key ingredients needed for real long-terms success.

Chief among them – in my opinion – is the selection of Socrata as the platform for serving data sets.  The Socrata platform is just awesome and the company is a leader in the open data movement, helping develop standards that benefit any government wishing to start down this road.

In addition, there is a passionate and active developer community in Baltimore – as evidenced by the attendance at and enthusiasm from the Civic Hack Day organized earlier this year.

But to capitalize on these things, I believe that Mr. Singleton and his staff need to do some things differently.

Communication

The city needs to do a better job communicating with developers about what it is doing to improve the Open Baltimore site and in soliciting feedback on how it can do things better.Neither the city’s forums on Open Baltimore or the Open Baltimore twitter feed are especially active (one can almost hear the crickets).

How is the city communicating with the technology community about Open Baltimore? Am I missing something? I see lots of discussion in social networks like Facebook from the technology community in Baltimore, but almost nothing from the city on what it’s hopes, plans or intentions are for Open Baltimore.

On a personal note, it registered rather sharply with me that neither Ms. Hudson nor Mr. Jones from MOIT is on Twitter (I specifically asked about this). Mr Singleton is at best an infrequent Twitter user and none of them seems to be active on Facebook.

It’s telling that although several people I talked to had heard about the city’s efforts to push realtime data to the Open Baltimore site, no one seems to know what the timeline for this effort is. Beyond the discussion with Hudson and Jones at Baltimore Data Day last week, I’m not aware of any specific data sets being named as candidates for this effort either (Hudson indicated that parking citations are part of the beta “realtime project”).

Developers may not be happy with the frequency of updates to particular data sets, but they would be far more understanding if they had clear information on what was being done behind the scenes to enhance them.  Without good information, ominous conclusions are more likely to be drawn.

Moreover, I think it would be great to see MOIT tell the story behind this push for realtime updates. I got the sense in talking with MOIT staff last week that this is a rather unique effort among cities that use the Socrata platform.  What a great story to tell – I’m sure the technology community in Baltimore would love to hear it.

Engagement

Our motivation in asking Mr. Singleton and Ms. Hudson to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with local organizers for another Civic Hack Day was simple – I think the city needs to engage consumers of open data (i.e., developers) more directly.Other cities and states that have embarked on open data programs have undertaken multifaceted efforts to engage developers and overtly communicate with them that the government wants them to use its data to build awesome things. This is noticeably absent from the Open Baltimore initiative.

While I would personally love to see a full on app development contest in Baltimore, I think another Civic Hack Day with the city’s explicit endorsement (and full participation) would go a long way toward communicating with developers that the city wants their help in turning city data into useful end products.

It’s also worth noting that Baltimore Data Day itself represented something of a missed opportunity for engagement on Open Baltimore. The event would have been a perfect fit for a presentation on the status, and future goals of Open Baltimore and there were many participants at the event who would have benefited from some time with Mr. Singleton.

(Another open data pioneer in Baltimore – Shea Frederick, one of the creators of SpotAgent – was unable to meet with Mr. Singleton or his staff at the event as they did not arrive until almost midday.)

In my opinion, the City should do more to reach out to the developer and tech communities in and around Baltimore. They are your best possible allies for making Open Baltimore a success.

I look forward to seeing the Open Baltimore initiative become successful in the long term, and I hope that this advice (from one interested outsider) can help make a difference.

Experiments in open data: Baltimore Edition

A lot of my open gov energy of late has been focused on replicating a technique pioneered by Max Ogden (creator of PDXAPI) to convert geographic information in shapefile format into an easy to use format for developers.

Specifically, Max has pioneered a technique for converting shapefiles into documents in an instance of GeoCouch (the geographic-enabled version of CouchDB).

I was thrilled recently to come across some data for the City of Baltimore and since I know there are some open government developments in the works there, I decided to put together a quick screencast showing how open data – when provided in an easily used format – can form the basis for some pretty useful civic applications.

The screencast below walks through a quick demonstration of an application I wrote in PHP to run on the Tropo platform – it currently support both IM and Twitter use.

Just send an address in the City of Baltimore to one of the following user accounts along with a hashtag for the type of location you are looking for:

  • Jabber / Gtalk: baltapi@tropo.im
  • Twitter: @baltimoreAPI

This demo application interacts with a GeoCouch instance I have running in Amazon EC2 – you can take a look at the data I populated it with by going to baltapi.com and accessing the standard CouchDB user interface. I haven’t really locked this instance down all that tight, but there really isn’t anything in it that I can’t replace.

Besides, one of the nice things about this technique is how easy it is to convert data from shapefile format and populate a GeoCouch instance. Hopefully others with GIS datasets will look at this approach as a viable one for providing data to developers. (If anyone has some shapefiles for the City of Baltimore and you want to share them, let me know and I’ll load them into baltapi.com.

There are a number of people in Baltimore pushing for an open data program from their city government, and I have heard that there are some really cool things in the pipeline. I can’t wait to see how things develop there, and I want to do anything I can to help.

Hopefully, this simple demo will be useful in illustrating both the ease with which data can be shared with developers and the potential benefit that applications built on top of open data can hold for municipalities.

Introducing GovFresh Voice

One of the more striking ironies of the Gov 2.0 movement is that despite the development of scores of new technologies, protocols, platforms and networks for enabling sophisticated interactions between citizens and their governments, a large number of people prefer to interact with their government the way they have for a long time – using the telephone.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that many citizens are looking to new channels when communicating with government:

“Citizen interactions with government are moving beyond the website. Nearly one third (31%) of online adults use online platforms such as blogs, social networking sites, email, online video or text messaging to get government information.”

But the same study also found that the granddaddy of communication technologies (the plain old telephone) still reigns supreme as the method for citizens to contact government:

“As we found in our last survey of e-government in August 2003, telephone contact is the overall most preferred contact method when people have a problem, question or task involving the government. Currently, 35% of Americans say they prefer using the telephone in these circumstances, a figure that is relatively unchanged from the 38% who said so in 2003.”

Even those that are rich in broadband Internet access seem to prefer to use the phone to contact government:

“…it is notable that the telephone remains relatively popular even among the technologically proficient, as one-third of home broadband (32%) and wireless Internet users (32%) say that the telephone is their favorite means of contact when they need to get in touch with government.”

This is not a new finding, and I have written about it many times before.

What is new are the opportunities that governments now have to leverage the ordinary telephone (and the sophisticated new ones as well) to provide improved customer service, and to enable citizens to proactively report issues in their community. A host of platforms and tools now exists that have significantly lowered the barrier to entry for smaller governments to build sophisticated communication applications.

These platforms are enormously more powerful than they were just a few years ago. With the tools that are now available to governments, its relatively easy to build sophisticated applications that serve multiple communications channels (phone, instant messaging, text messaging, and even social networks like Twitter) from a single code base. It’s never been easier or less expensive to build telephone and communication applications. Ever!

As part of the Manor.GovFresh event that will be taking place in Manor, Texas next week participants will be giving a “Gov 2.0 Makeover” to a small Texas municipality. As part of this makeover, I’m working with a company called Tropo to build a sophisticated cloud-based telephony system for De Leon Texas.

The GovFresh Voice project (which will run on the Tropo platform) will enable De Leon – as well as other towns and cities – to leverage the latest in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), speech recognition and cloud-based telephony. It leverages all of the functionality of the most sophisticated and powerful cloud telephony platform to empower a small municipal government to fully exploit a preferred communication channel to interact with its citizens.

The GovFresh Voice project is open source – the code is available on GitHub – can run on a commodity web server, is easily configurable and customizable, and requires no up front investment in expensive or sophisticated hardware. It’s cloud-based telephony at its simplest and most powerful.

The hope is to enable De Leon to use this new application and to show other towns what can be done with it. Ultimately, the plan is to donate the code for GovFresh Voice to the new Civic Commons project so that other municipalities can make use of it.

If this project sounds like something your town might like to use, or if you’d like to learn more about how telephones and other communication devices can be used to improve government service delivery, you should consider joining us for the Manor.GovFresh event.

Applying new technologies to old problems is part of what Gov 2.0 is about. Telephony might seem old school, but there has never been more opportunity than right now to exploit it cheaply and efficiently to improve communications between governments and their citizens.

The case for open transit data

This is an awesome short film from StreetFilms.org that convincingly lays out the case for open transit data.

Later this year, the State of Delaware will – for the first time ever – release all of its transit data in open formats. This is the result of a bill introduced this past legislative session by State Senator Bethany Hall-Long.

I’m hoping that there is a lot of excitement generated as a result of this data being released, and that our leaders in state government realize the potential benefits of opening up all kinds of government data.

It would be great to see state government engage local developers (from all over the Delaware Valley and the Philadelphia area) and have them build all sorts of cool civic applications with open data.

The opposite of open government

There has been some pretty good discussion lately going around the Interwebs about what Gov 2.0 and open government looks like. I can’t say that I agree with everything that has been thrown out there with a Gov 2.0 label on it, but I can say without equivocation that this is the opposite of OpenGov and Gov 2.0:

Water tests showing high levels of pollution at several industrial sites [in the State of Delaware] have been either not reported to the public or posted on obscure pages of the state’s website…

A series of articles running this week in the Delaware News Journal – the paper of record in the State of Delaware – details some shocking findings on water quality in Delaware. Turns out, the state had evidence of this poor water quality for months, but did next to nothing to share it with the public:

The News Journal learned earlier this year that in September tests of water from a well twice as deep as those sampled in 2005 found four pollutants at levels up to 800 times higher than any previously reported. Concentrations of one toxic compound, benzene, were 5,200 times higher than levels considered safe by the federal government. Neither the EPA nor DNREC [the Delaware Department of Natural Resource and Environmental Control] released the full report to the public at large, although the findings were posted six months ago by DNREC to a hard-to-find state Web page. No public hearing has been held to examine the new dangers.

When it comes to environmental data, and data on contaminated groundwater, open government is not about citizen convenience or improved government efficiency. It is about giving people the information they need so that they can make informed decisions about their own lives and the lives of their families and children.

There is simply no excuse for this lack of initiative in sharing critical environmental information with the public. This is an important series of articles (more stories will be running all week at delawareonline.com) that underscores in my mind the important role played in our democracy by a strong independent media.

And yet, this particular story is one that should never have been written. To understand why, one must look back in time.

First, one needs to look back almost 2 years – to January 2009 – at the inauguration of the state’s current Governor, Jack Markell. In his inaugural address, Governor Markell stated proudly:

I pledge that my administration will be more transparent and accountable than any that have come before.

You need to look back almost 10 years, to when Mr. Markell was serving as the state’s Treasurer. He helped to launch the state’s nascent e-government initiative and led the drive to put government information and services on the web.

You need to look back to the early to mid 1990′s, when Mr. Markell served as an executive in technology and communication companies like Comcast and Nextel.

So how is it that the administration of a Governor who has proven technology chops, a history with the e-government movement and who has publicly committed to making state government more transparent can fail so spectacularly at opening government data to citizens?

In the answer to this question lie the hard lessons for those who would work to make government more transparent and open.

Lesson 1: The idea of open government has political resonance and broad support. The actual work to make government open, less so.

Any doubts about the political appeal of open government has been dispelled by the sheer number of high-level elected officials talking about it, and professing to support it. The idea of opening up government data for use by the public is one that has an almost visceral appeal. Who could be against such an idea?

But government officials that embark on initiatives to open government data typically run smack into the entrenched bureaucracy. Change comes very, very slowly to government and it is probably the hardest reality to face for those that enter government for the first time with hopes of changing things. Certainly Delaware is not the only government in the country where there is an obvious imbalance between the rhetoric about open government and the reality. Delaware officials are no doubt running into challenges in making good on Governor Markell’s promise of a more transparent government.

And this is exactly why open government advocates need to hold elected officials to their words. It is simply not good enough talk about open government. Actions speak louder than words.

Governments are only as open as the amount of data they release to the public. The proof is in the data. Period.

Lesson 2: Governments are (and probably always will be) reluctant to release data that casts a negative light on their performance.

There is a definite theme running through this series of articles on Delaware’s water quality problems that suggests the state’s environmental agency (DNREC) could have done a better job. And this underscores another important lesson for open government advocates – governments have a built in disincentive to release data that might cast them in a negative light.

The best example of this is probably making crime data (particularity the location of crimes) available to the public, an idea which still faces resistance in some places. The potential for such data to highlight shortcomings in policing and public safety are pretty clear, and yet such data can also be highly valuable to citizens.

Who doesn’t want to know how many crimes have been committed in their neighborhood, or what kind of crimes they were? Who doesn’t want to know if their drinking water is contaminated with potentially harmful chemicals?

Lesson 3: Negative publicity can be an open government advocates’ best friend.

As a result of the newspaper articles that have run, and will continue to run for the rest of the week, Governor Markell has now ordered agencies to do a better job at releasing information on water quality to the public:

Gov. Jack Markell ordered state agencies to improve their efforts, spokesman Brian Selander said. “Delawareans should have easier access to test results concerning the quality of our groundwater,” Selander said.

It’s too bad that it took a series of newspaper articles to provide the impetus for this order, but I think the public (and open government advocates) will take what they can get.

This experience reminds me a bit of the negative press the MTA used to get for keeping their data closed, and even threatening to sue developers for using it. Since then, the MTA has done a complete turnaround on open data – not only is its data now open, but the MTA actively engages outside parties to use its data to improve transit service.

Negative publicity is an effective (albeit a rather blunt) tool that every open government advocate should keep in their toolkit.

I mean this post as no personal criticism of Governor Markell. Certainly he has the ability to lead his administration to meet the standard he laid out in his inaugural address. I and many others hope that Delaware state government can emulate the experience of the MTA, and go from 0 to 100 on the open government speedometer. And soon!

Until then, though, I think I’ll go with bottled water.