Bay Area Rapid Transit Web Services Manager Timothy Moore discusses the recent upgrade of its flagship website, BART.gov, including a Drupal migration, embracing agile development, encouraging third-party developers to build off its open data and APIs, and plans for the future.
(photo by duluoz cats)
This is old news, and I’ve been meaning to post sooner, but I absolutely love Memphis, so I can’t help myself.
Memphis announced it will develop its new website using the open source platform Drupal and OpenPublic. Mediacurrent, Linx Consulting and Phase2 Technology will collaborate on the project.
Firmstep has launched a new service called AchieveCity, a Web-based government platform powered by the Drupal distribution OpenPublic (developed by Phase2 Technology) and hosted in the Amazon EC2 environment.
Firmstep says five municipalities will go live in August, and those signing up now will launch beginning in September. Founder and CEO Brett Husbands talks with GovFresh about the new service.
What’s the technology driving AchieveCity and why is this important?
For the customer we try to keep the technology understanding to a minimum. We are working to get AchieveCity to be easier to try than setting up a wordpress site. Reducing set-up overhead by hosting as SaaS allows people to focus on CMS functionality rather than thinking about technology and makes it easy to try, it also means we can keep improving it more easily than with installed software.
The technology used is the OpenPublic distribution of Drupal 7 built by Phase2. This distribution is government focused and well proven by Phase2 who worked on www.whitehouse.gov and www.house.gov and that heritage is baked in. For any government organisation proven security and scalability are a pre-requisite. We have extended it, and we are making those contributions back to OpenPublic. The “Apps” model makes sense, and any developer can make an app and contribute it.
Drupal in Government has a really strong case and lots of good examples. Picking the most widely used CMS technology, estimated at 1.4% of all web use, is a good choice. With so many big organisations with complex needs using it, there are great reference sites and we are able to focus on what it does without getting bogged down in technical considerations, that have already been solved.
What features will municipalities have access to?
A great city website that looks nice, and is easy to manage. There is a lot out of the box with Drupal7, and then OpenPublic adds much more too. A great thing about the technology we are using is that it is easy to add more. A non-exhaustive list of AchieveCity.com features includes: Scalability, Robust WYSIWYG Editor, News Room, Breaking News, Page Preview, Search Site, Page Versioning, Blog, Website Statistics, Media Gallery, Content Organization, Taxonomy, Accessibility, RSS Feeds, Breadcrumbs, Intranet, Public Contact Form, Styles, Automated Logout, Publishing controls, Site Map, Calendar, Registrations for events, Maps, FAQs, Document Handling, Notifications.
We expect with each new customer more features will be added and best practices identified – and that will give a multiplier or network effect as each customer making an improvement makes that improvement available to everybody.
How are you going to sustain AchieveCity if it’s free?
The technology is free, and will always be free – the software and data are portable to other providers or can be taken in-house.
Obviously there are operating costs that we experience including hosting, bandwidth, and maintenance that we have to meet – and reaching the scale of use that those costs become an issue will be a nice problem to have that will be easily solved without disrupting service to customers. For the coming period we see this as an investment in a platform for government that we can easily afford to make. Inevitably there will be a need for services around the site and also for charged-for extra modules – we see that future revenue as being sufficient to continue to run the CMS service for free.
What type of government is a good fit?
In the pre-launch phase we have been working with several cities, a state, and a state agency, and departments within a large city. So we haven’t found an “ideal size” yet. The key feature is that they want to improve their website and be decisive.
I was really happy to have Patrick Lajeunesse present about Agriculture Canada’s experience using Drupal as a prototyping tool. As you can see from his presentation, with a small team of communications staff they were able to set up both a Drupal and WordPress prototype to explore their needed functionality.
I wanted to focus a bit more on why this makes so much sense for so many organizations, but especially government agencies. The implementation of web tools has improved significantly over the last decade and it is no longer something that needs to be left to IT to model.
Defining the requirements is hard
Most folks who need a website haven’t had recent experience building them. It’s relatively easy to visualize what you want, but it’s quite different to be able to define it in a generic way that allows a developer to understand the technical functionality that is required. Often the usability/design requirements are barely defined in the initial proposal.
Websites can be very complicated. If you were defining the requirements for a car would you want to have paid for most of it’s creation before you could sit behind the wheel and see how it felt to drive around the lot?
Wish lists vs requirements
Without having an experienced project manager who has successfully lead a team through developing for the web, you’re likely to end up with a requirements document that largely contains people’s wish lists. It’s really great to have a list of potentials, but having a list of neat things that people find on other sites isn’t going to get your organization what they need.
It’s always easier for folks to focus on the glossy design elements that they’ve seen in other sites. I’ve seen way too many RFP‘s where people have talked generally about wanting many of the features that popular sites like Facebook and YouTube have without understanding the costs and complexity of successfully implementing it.
Taking a long time to define the requirements first is problematic
I think that When Failure Is Intolerable is right on when describing a very frustrating form of failure to be “when someone spent a lot of time and money researching something that could only be learned experientially.”
Many web projects fit this mould. Successful websites are always ones which are experimental and are reacting to the needs of its users after carefully watching their behaviour. Strangely, most web projects do not allow space for experimentation & adaptation.
Needs change faster than requirements
A good requirements document does take some time to establish, particularly if it is being developed by a team. Even if there are other models to work from, it can take quite a while in any government department to settle on the final requirements. After that it needs to be sent off to procurement officers to manage the contracting before any real work begins on the site.
The Internet is constantly changing. Most people’s expectations don’t change quite so quickly, but you don’t want to be launching a website a website which already looks and feels dated. Accommodating social media sites like Twitter and Facebook is the latest trend, but these sites are changing too.
Prototypes are better than wireframes
Having a rough stage where workflow is defined and broad paths are sketched out is very important for any large project, however there is nothing that can replace a quick, functional prototype for users to determine how they want it to work.
Given the flexibility of Drupal and the range of modules and themes that are already out there for this free software platform, most of a site’s functionality can be roughed out quickly to enable people the ability to get some understanding of how the site will work.
Most people need to be able to get a feel for what they are going to build before they commit to do it. In an age where non-architects can download a tool like Google’s SketchUp and create a 3D model of their cottage before building it, we can see the value of visualizing a plan.
Creating content is hard!
This won’t come as a surprise to communications folks, but producing content is difficult. Understanding how your content will fit within the structure of your site is important. No amount of time whiteboarding your site, developing requirements documents or wireframing your site will help prepare the content.
However, building a solid prototype will allow you to write up, critique and visualize how you want your visitors to actually use your site. You can experiment placement and organization of real content that you will be able to use to help your site go live as quickly as possible. We do know that some people still use Word documents to generate the content of their websites before it’s launched, but that’s really a waste of everyone’s time.
Patrick describes how his team in Agriculture Canada used this approach:
“One of the benefits to prototyping in Drupal for us was that we can put real content in and see how it flows from page to page. It also allowed us to use the prototype to do usability testing on that content. For example, you can have a test subject try to find a piece of information. This tests the whole site – the navigation and IA, link and button labels, and the actual content in the pages as well. That would be very difficult to do without a real representation of what the finished site would be, and while you could do that with static HTML or a dedicated prototyping tool, it’s just easier with a CMS like Drupal.”
To try to pull in another metaphor, it’s real estate agents generally will want to show a house that has furniture in it and art on the walls rather than one that’s completely empty. They do this because it’s much easier for everyone to understand how a house will function if you don’t have to imagine everything. The same idea applies to websites, most people need to see where the content fits & flows when they are navigating a site.
Prototyping doesn’t require IT support
Organizations may find that their communications teams have the skills required to set up Drupal or WordPress site to build a prototype before they take it to IT or send it out as an RFP.
Prototypes can be easy to set up. Using tools like Drupal, you can experiment with what you would like and work with your team to define what else you need. Open source tools like Drupal can empower communications teams to define and experiment with technology which is available to them (it can be set up on any desktop and doesn’t require special hardware or expensive software to run).
At the end of the prototyping phase a working example can be either handed over to IT to review before it goes live or used as a benchmark for them to develop in whatever technology they prefer. The communications team would also be left with a development environment which allows them to test out future phases or ideas for the site.
This approach would no doubt increase the effectiveness of any large web development projects.
The debate over whether (OSS) is good for government is over. A close look will reveal the discussion has moved on to one of two things: 1) the necessary, but subsequent implementation questions to be sorted out – security, regulation, procurement, etc. or 2) organizational confusion about how to take the first step. In either case, the precedent of value has been established both within government and elsewhere to allow us to now move on to the natural next set of issues.
Open source software is here to stay
So the discussion must turn from ‘whether to use’ open source to ‘how to make it work’ for government. These discussions should be especially welcome in the government IT environment – long dominated by IT projects that take too long, cost too much, and never seem to hit the mark by the time they are deployed. Corporate and non-profit organizations of all sizes have been able to demonstrate significant financial, operational and strategic value using open source. Also, we have the precedent and models set by the server stack – Linux has become the dominant operating system and Apache, the webserver for the majority of the world’s most important web servers.
The problem is that taking advantage of the open source opportunity at the application level creates paradoxes for government IT. Our system doesn’t know how to take advantage of free and open software at the application level – government is used to building everything custom or customizing products that already cost a ton to license – ‘there is a catch here somewhere for us’ goes the thinking about OSS.
Rather than move quickly to take advantage of affordable and innovative open solutions, government loses momentum and gets bogged down by concerns over whether it is practical or even ethical to use contributed code: Can we use something that is free? How can we procure it then? Can we use code contributions from the outside world? Will it be secure? Can we contribute our own code to the rest of the world?
Drupal works for open government needs
As if the argument to adopt open source needed more kindling, enter the administration’s unrelenting push for Open Government – with a huge online focus and component. Now we are seeking *new* ways to quickly establish mechanisms to promote transparency, participation, and collaboration in online dealings between the government and its citizens. Yet successful user collaboration solutions are already implemented on all kinds of sites.
The case for free, collaborative software which is developed, tested and vetted in the open by an efficient base of innovative developers has been clearly made when you consider the the open government mandate. These are use-cases made for a platform like Drupal – the ability for a user to respond to content and policy online through commenting, rating, sharing, voting, and an endless array of other social media integration is perfect.
As I have said in prior posts on this site “Drupal is up to this challenge”. This is what we use it for and where it performs best. At this week’s Gov2.0 Expo, a group of my colleagues will try to convince you of this point in a session entitled Drupal and Social Publishing Strategies for Meeting the Open Government Directive.
I realize that is going to take some time for government CIOs and web managers to be fully convinced – as it did with publishers, non-profit execs, education administrators and decision makers in dozens of other industries. For sure, the commercial vendors and embedded custom implementers have other ideas about how to construct the next wave of gov2.0 – and they likely have some good solutions to promote too. But open source Drupal is my choice for this particular set of tasks and here is what I think we can do to help prove that.
We need a government community open source CMS option
In late 2008, my company, Phase2 Technology initiated an effort to put together and then release an open source packaged version of Drupal that would help online publishers of news, magazines, and other publications get started with Drupal right away. We called it OpenPublish, it was a big success, and it is going stronger than ever now. From that project, we learned that Drupal can be made significantly more useful, less intimidating and more powerful through a distribution targeted at a specific set of industry challenges.
So after wrestling with putting government sites on Drupal over the last two years, we have decided to launch a similar project we think will help government and Drupal find each other faster – in the same sort of way as OpenPublish was able to married up publishers looking for the advantages of open source with Drupal. We are calling this project OpenPublic because of the similarities and because we see it as the public sector equivalent of the same experiment.
We believe the project can be successful and provide substantial value to government sites if we can achieve these 7 tenets that are lacking in current CMS options for government:
1. Low barriers to entry.
Someone from, or on behalf of, the government should have the immediate ability to start or prototype a project without an RFP, procurement cycle, Statement of Work or contract vehicle. Download, test, try out and play with it for free. Today. No strings attached.
2. Demonstrable return on investment.
It should be easy to prove that that the tax payer is getting high value for services, without wasteful scenarios in which the government is putting large investments directly into reinventing functionality that exists elsewhere or overpaying for commercial licenses to use relatively generic functionality (e.g. core CMS publishing).
3. No proprietary technology or vendor lock-in.
The solution can’t trap the federal government into a proprietary technology or forced monopoly experience that either requires repeated contractual awards, recurring fees or licensing costs to a single company that is the sole provider of technology expertise.
4. Low total cost of ownership.
It should be easy to prove if agencies are paying a premium over the course of ownership via post-purchase fees that do not involve the delivery of additional value. The government cannot grant annuities to vendors that continue to add cost based upon the justifications that were created because proprietary technology was used.
5. True technical flexibility.
The government must be able to modify the solution to meet continually evolving needs and be able to improve, modify, maintain and grow the solution over time.
6. Community innovation & contribution.
The government should benefit from the continued contributions of the open source technical community at large as it relates to inheriting solutions to similar problems and . It should gain from the innovations of this larger pool of talent.
7. Minimal barriers to extend.
The government should have the ability to get free and open access to knowledge, code, training and best practices on the platform – to the extent that others are willing to share – but not required to withhold.
OpenPublic: A community solution
OpenPublic is being developed as a community effort with Phase2 taking what we have learned from building Drupal distributions to lead the efforts, but we – by no means – want to go at this alone. In fact, we believe the quality of the solution and the value it can provide are both infinitely improved by community participation.
So we are looking for both people with technical experience in open source (Drupal preferably) and the business of government itself.
We are also actively looking for feedback and help from the opengov community that haunts events like the Open Government Workshops, the Gov2.0 Summit and Expo, the Open Government & Innovations conference and Transparency Camp. We are looking for the people that hang out and read GovFresh, GovLoop and the Sunlight Labs blog. We want the inputs of people on the Gov2.0 Heroes List and on Twitter lists like this, this and this.
If you believe in the same things and want to help, then please email us (openpublic at phase2technology.com) to let us know of your interests and share your ideas.
Version 2.0 of USAspending.gov launched this week and includes a cleaner, more elegant user interface and search filtering on all federal government spending. The new site was developed in Drupal and is partially hosted on NASA’s Nebula cloud service.
USAspending.gov first launched December 2007 as part of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) of 2006 that required the Office of Management and Budget to ‘establish a single searchable website, accessible to the public at no cost’ on all federal government spending.
From USAspending.gov What’s New in 2.0?:
- Compare spending across agencies â€“ understand types of agency spending understand types of agency spending
- View agency spending dashboards – see how and where agencies are spending money and who the recipients are
- Explore spending trends with interactive charts â€“ use interactive motion charts to see how spending trends have changed from year to year
- See spending where you live â€“ use interactive maps to see dollars being spent in your state
- Quickly find what you are looking for â€“ use interactive search features to customize your search across multiple dimensions
- Filter, analyze and share â€“ share your feeds, exports and results with friends via social book-marking and RSS feeds
- Analyze contract and award transactions â€“ review all transactions for a single contract or award in one simple list
- Download bulk data â€“ download all spending data for offline analysis
- Get spending updates every day â€“ access new spending data on a daily basis
- Expect more transparency â€“ look for more spending data in the future as 2.0 is engineered to support full FFATA compliance
Drupal is an open source platform and content management system (CMS) for building dynamic web sites. Supported by a vibrant developer community, Drupal is establishing itself as a leader among social software solutions. Having already gained a small but significant share of the domestic and worldwide public sector CMS market, the solution appears on-track for continued growth. The expanding list of high-profile government organizations adopting the solution, along with its recent recognition by industry analyst Gartner as a visionary product in the marketplace, will only accelerate its growth.
One of the most important â€œfeaturesâ€ of Drupal is the breadth and depth of its community. This was made evident recently when DrupalCon 2010 San Francisco attracted over 3,000 attendees. Within this community, there is widespread support for leveraging Drupal to innovate new public sector solutions. In fact, one of the keynotes of this yearâ€™s three DrupalCon keynotes (and the only sector-specific one) was entitled â€œOpen Source in Government,â€ which featured representatives from the White House and New York Senate. The overwhelming sentiment shared by these officials and others is that the strength of the Drupal Community is a key reason why the public sector is embracing the solution. In conjunction with the emergence of Drupal enterprise service providers, the growing Drupal Community extols confidence in the platform and its long-term innovativeness, security, and supportability. (Disclaimer: Michael Walsh served on the DrupalCon keynote panel as the moderator.)
Gov 2.0 Radio interview with Andrew Hoppin (New York Senate) and Michael Walsh (Forum One Communications):
DrupalCon Keynote Discussion with Dave Cole â€“ White House, Andrew Hoppin â€“ New York Senate, and Michael Walsh â€“ Forum One Communications
As an open source solution, Drupalâ€™s success is tied to the Drupal Communityâ€™s ability to innovate new modules (plug-ins for Drupal that extend, build, or enhance Drupal core functionality) to address marketplace needs. The modules can take two forms: contributed modules (shared under the same GNU Public License as Drupal) and custom modules. While the public sector benefits from many of the same contributed modules that are in use by other sectors, a number of public sector modules have been created by government for government, and subsequently contributed back to the Drupal Community, as outlined below. These modules now form a growing code base â€“ specific to Drupal â€“ which public sector organizations can quickly leverage for their own requirements. By reducing development costs and improving the efficiency of government web site design and development, modules like these are helping to justify the business case for Drupal for an ever-expanding list of organizations.
- GovDelivery Integration – Provides integration with the GovDelivery On-Demand Mailer service, a web service for GovDelivery customers that sends messages directly based on configured account information;
- Node Embed â€“ Improves web site compliance with accessibility standards for specific content types;
- Akamai â€“ Enables integration with the Akamai Cache Control Utility (CCU) Web Service, thereby supporting the purge/invalidation of cached URLs in the Akamai Global Network in response to different site events;
- Context HTTP Headers – A set of context reactions that allow developers to set HTTP Response Headers for each context on a site and thereby add new metadata and instruct servers on how to manage specific pages, such as cache scheduling;
- Whitelist â€“ An Input filter that can be used to specify and limit outside domain names that can be referenced in content created on your web site;
- OpenLegislation – Retrieves legislation information from the NYSS OpenLegislation search engine.
Senior members of the Drupal Community have been championing the value of distributions for some time. These â€œready to useâ€ solutions offer developers pre-configured Drupal installations, usually including a selection of modules and themes coupled with Drupal core. The value of distributions is that they provide the developer community with extensible solutions that can be rapidly implemented to meet the functional and technical needs of a specific sector/vertical. This supports economies of scale in open source development by eliminating the need for each independent developer or development shop to develop their own baseline solution for the common set of requirements for a given sector/vertical. This allows developers to focus more on derivative innovation and reduces the total cost of feature development and software defect fixes. For these reasons, distributions are a critical component to the growth of Drupalâ€™s adoption, especially in the public sector. As Dries Buytaert says: â€œWithout Drupal distributions, (the Drupal Community) won’t be able to successfully compete with commercial vendors.â€
Downloaded over 125,000 times, Acquia Drupal is a social publishing platform developed by Acquia to simplify the development of interactive, community-based publishing web sites that feature both editorial and user-generated content. By selecting only the most important modules for online communities (e.g., blogs, articles, forums, mashups, and web content), Acquia Drupal enables developers to quickly stand-up high-quality web sites that can be easily customized to meet the specific needs of their users. This GPL licensed distribution is available for free download and organizations can turn to Acquia for 24/7 private paid support. (Disclaimer: Forum One Communications has implemented web sites for clients on Acquia Drupal.)
Pressflow is a specialized distribution of Drupal developed by Four Kitchens which features extensive performance, scalability, availability, and testing enhancements required to support high traffic sites. One of the key features of Pressflow is that it supports multi-tier proxy layers. Since no version of Drupal can properly handle this architecture, this is a key benefit of the distribution. To date, Pressflow has been implemented by a number of governments and multilateral organizations, including the United Kingdom and World Bank.
Downloaded over 90,000 times, Open Atrium is a collaboration platform distribution developed by Development Seed to meet the knowledge management needs of large and mid-sized government organizations. The platform provides â€œout-of-the-boxâ€ team collaboration functionality, including blogs, wikis, microblogs, and content dashboards, that enables web developers to rapidly deploy highly customizable social intranets and extranets. This free and open source solution therefore allows a growing number of organizations to substitute proprietary social business software solutions (such as Salesforce and Jive) with Drupal. Within the U.S. federal government, the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Veterans Affairs have already adopted the platform. Looking ahead, one of the platformâ€™s key strengths is its supportability, as demonstrated by the growing ecosystem of open source development shops implementing the solution and the recent announcement that the platform will soon feature private paid support. (Disclaimer: Forum One Communications has implemented web sites for clients on Open Atrium.)
Currently under development by Acquia and its partners, Drupal Commons will be a free, open source distribution designed to make the process of building intranet and extranet community sites easier and less costly than commercial social software applications. Slated for official launch this summer, Acquia expects that Drupal Commons will enable the Drupal Community to more easily develop web sites and web applications that require basic social collaboration functionality, including blogs, status updates, and social networking, coupled with seamless document sharing through customized wikis, group discussions, task reminders, and activity streams. Like Acquia Drupal, Drupal Commons will be commercially supported by Acquia.
As the age-old adage goes, â€œthe proof is in the pudding.â€ Perhaps no better driver exists for the adoption of an emerging software solution than real-world examples of successful implementations for comparable requirements. In the last few years, the list of successful adoptions of Drupal by domestic and worldwide public sector organizations has exploded. This is especially true of federal, state, and local governments in North America and Europe, particularly in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. To illustrate this point, the showcase below features some of the most important examples of government and multilateral organization web sites and web applications currently powered by Drupal.
In 2009, the White House decided to re-launch WhiteHouse.Gov on Drupal. The decision to power one of the most targeted web sites in the world with an open source content management system garnered significant interest from both media and industry. The White Houseâ€™s decision and associated media coverage helped validate Drupal as a mainstream CMS solution for all-levels of government.
New York Senate
The implementation of Drupal by the New York Senate demonstrates the potential for Drupal at the state level. Experimenting with the platform, the organization was able to extend the existing platform through new innovations specific to their organizational needs, including OpenLegislation and Whitelist.
United States Army
The U.S. Armyâ€˜s Black History Month web site, ForLoveofLiberty.Net, features powerful, audience-centric design (including interactive Flash-based elements) and deep integration with social media sites (including YouTube, Flickr, and Issuu). Designed primarily for students, educators, and veterans, the site serves as a great example of how government organizations can use social publishing to bring history to life and enable public discourse on important topics. (Disclaimer: Forum One Communications developed ForLoveofLiberty.Net for the US Army.)
U.S. Department of Education
Drupal is the foundation behind the Department of Education’s main organizational web site. The site demonstrates how a federal department or agency can leverage Drupal to help make information, resources, tools, and funding opportunities more transparent and accessible to citizens.
The â€œPortail du Gouvernementâ€ serves as the official French government portal. Like the White House, it serves as an important example of a trustworthy Drupal implementation by a high-profile government organization. It also demonstrates the ability for Drupal to easily support localized content requirements and customizable design.
City of London
The Greater London Authorityâ€™s web site demonstrates a successful implementation of Drupal at the local-level. This informative web site makes excellent use of the content management features of Drupal but also leverages social features to encourage public participation with their government and community.
U.S. Department of Commerce
The Department of Commerce chose Drupal to power its Open.commerce.gov site, which was launched in response to the Open Government Directive. The site provides a great example of how government organizations can achieve a simple, yet effective, implementation on Drupal that fosters transparency, accountability, and collaboration.
New Zealand ‘s Ministry for the Environment
NewZealand’s Ministry for the Environment chose Drupal to power its sustainability web site. The features of the site enable users to participate in polls, establish conservation and sustainability goals, discuss topics related to the environment, share ideas, and rate and comment on content. This site is a compelling example of how Drupal can be used by government agencies to shape behavior, change perceptions, and build momentum around important public policy and social issues.
Earlier this month, the World Bank launched Data.WorldBank.org, an open data initiative aimed at making the 2,000+ World Bank data indicators more transparent and accessible to the public. Using MapBox, OpenLayers and Flot, the World Bank was able to create a powerful data analysis and visualization web application supported by an intuitive user interface. This visually appealing site not only demonstrates the potential of off-the-shelf Drupal modules like Features, Context, and Views 3, but also points to the inherent extensibility of Drupal when properly coupled with other open source solutions. (Disclaimer: Forum One Communications was a subcontractor to the vendor who designed and developed this web site.)
United Kingdom Datastore
Whereas many other government sites utilize Drupal’s social and interactive features and emphasize citizen participation, the UK’s Data.gov.uk site builds on Drupal’s other skill set: content management. The UK leveraged Drupal’s content and database management capabilities to build a publicly accessible data store.
Young Professionals in Foreign Policy
While not specific to the public sector, Young Professionalâ€™s in Foreign Policyâ€™s organizational web site is a wonderful example of a Drupal implementation to support large, globally distributed user communities seeking to collaborate on foreign policy issues. The organizationâ€™s simple design reflects the tradeoffs international governmental and multilateral organizations can make to enable cost-effective social functionality with Drupal. (Disclaimer: Michael Walsh is the Chair of the Public Diplomacy and Cultural Relations Discussion Group at YPFP.)
The Obama Administrationâ€™sÂ Open Government Directive ordered Federal agencies to produce open government plans by April 7th, and while some advocates are disappointed, we have before us a bewildering number of initiatives to improve transparency, collaboration, and participation across the Government. It will not surprise you to learn that I spent some time looking for places where open source is being used in these plans.
Iâ€™m not sure I can recommend reading all of the plans cover to cover, but if youâ€™re an advocate or have a vested interest in the future of a Federal agency, these plans are fascinating peek into each agencyâ€™s interior life. Itâ€™s not just the content of the plans, which run from exciting to comical to mundane. You can also learn a great deal about how agencies view themselves from the way these plans are presented and marketed. It will come as no surprise that the Department of Justiceâ€™s rather unlovely document spends a lot of time thinking about reducing its FOIA backlog. The Department of Energy clearly understands itself to be a first a research organization, based on its flagship data sets. The Department of Defense plan is crisp, to the point, and focuses on getting theÂ behemothÂ to better collaborate and interact with other agencies, rather than the public.
The organizational psychology betrayed by these plans is for another post. My interest is in where agencies found open source. Iâ€™ve long advocated for open source as a concrete, tangible way to encourage collaboration between agencies and between the government and its citizens. I was pleasantly surprised, frankly, to see how many agencies agree. Hereâ€™s what I found, in no particular order.
US Agency for International Development
The USAID plan was a total surprise. I had no idea how many open source initiatives were being conducted by USAID. Page 30 contains this gem on their Global Development Commons work:
With over four billion subscribers in the world, the mobile phone is often the keyÂ to connecting and exchanging information with people in developing countries.Â The 2008 USAID Development 2.0 Challenge, implemented by the GlobalÂ Development Commons, invited innovators and entrepreneurs from around theÂ world to participate in a global competition to seek access to information andÂ build new connections to the global community. Crowdsourcing and OpenÂ Innovation have become increasingly important engines of innovation globally,Â leveraged by the commercial, non-profit, academic and government sectors toÂ identify opportunities and solve problems. USAIDâ€™s Development 2.0 Challenge yielded 115 submissions using high impact, low-cost, open source solutions.
The winner among the 115 submissions was theÂ RapidSMS Child Malnutrition Surveillance system, which â€œenables health practitioners to share and track childrenâ€™s nutritional information with the touch of a cell phone.â€
The agency also operates the Intra-Health OPEN Initiative, which is â€œaÂ suite of free open source solutions toÂ supply health sector leaders andÂ managers with a collection of newÂ tools.â€
Social Security Administration
The Social Security Administration is another open source underdog. Imagine all the pent-up innovation they can unlock once this project is underway:
We are in the process of creating internal capacity to host websites and applications based on open-source software solutions and we look forward to a lively exchange of ideas and program code within the growing Federal openâ€“source software development community;
As part of SSAâ€™s fifth goal, â€œmaking government more sustainableâ€, they see open source software as an essential tool:
We are a Federal leader in the use of Health Information Technology. Our work with the private sector may yield transferable ideas and tools. We will share our results and products as appropriate. For example:
- We look forward to sharing the products of our openâ€“source platform efforts across the growing Federal openâ€“source development community, as well as partnering with other agencies in future endeavors; and
- We are in the process of designing and developing an Electronic Technology Repository for communities of innovation. We expect this repository to employ openâ€“source social networking and other tools to permit users to better manage agency knowledge, avoid unproductive duplication of effort, and share experiences. The repository will support the storage of shared materials and project artifacts, discussion boards, wikis, blogs, subscription feeds, and other pertinent information. We envision sharing these resources with other Federal organizations as well.
Others have criticized open source as being irrelevant to the open government movement, but I think interagency collaboration doesnâ€™t happen anywhere near as often as it should, it can be made easier with open source, and itâ€™s outstanding that the SSA seems to agree.
Department of Defense
The DOD has been using open source software for years. Though I was a bit surprised that it wasnâ€™t explicitly mentioned in the DODâ€™s open government plan, and even more surprised that the much-hyped forge.mil project isnâ€™t referenced at all, the plan includes a number of initiatives that happen to take advantage of open source tools:
The Wikified Army Field Guide, based on Mediawiki, will allow warfighters to collaboratively edit the Armyâ€™s field manuals, allowing the documents to be more accurate and responsive:
â€¦as the battlefield changes rapidly, field manuals must keep pace.Â Under the traditional process â€“ in which a select few were charged with drafting and updating field manuals â€“manuals often failed to reflect the latest knowledge of Soldiers on the ground.
Using the same free software behind Wikipedia, the Armyâ€™s â€œwikifiedâ€ field manuals invite military personnel â€“ from private to general â€“ to collaboratively update the Army Tactics, Techniques and Procedures Manuals in real time.Â In so doing, the Army provides a secure means for battle-tested Soldiers to share their experience and advice from the field.Â Wikified Army Field Manuals ensure the men and women who serve our Nation have access to the best possible information when they need it.
This is a very exciting opportunity to capture all the innovation happening â€œat the edgeâ€ and quickly incorporate it into useful, official documentation. It makes so much sense, Iâ€™m surprised it hasnâ€™t already been done.
The plan also highlights XMPP, which is a tremendously popular instant-messaging protocol that runs, among others, Google Talk. It may surprise you to learn just how much XMPPâ€™s most popular implementation, Jabber, is already being used inside the DOD. The Defense Connect Online program uses Jabber to provide secure IMs inside the DOD, and they announced in November that this would be opened up to the outside world. Because they standardized on an open standard with robust open source implementations, literally dozens of different chat clients are now available to these non-DOD DCO users.
Itâ€™s interesting how both Jabber and the Wiki Field Manual projects aim to improve collaboration, and do so on highly collaborative open source platforms. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s an accident.
Department of Homeland Security
VirtualUSA is DHSâ€™ flagship initiative, which couldnâ€™t be more appropriate. From page 23 of the DHS Open Government plan:
On December 8, 2009, Secretary Janet Napolitano publicly launched Virtual USAÂ (vUSA), an innovative information-sharing initiative that draws on practitioner input toÂ help Federal, State, local and Tribal first responders collaborate to make fast, well-informed decisions. vUSA integrates existing frameworks and investments to provideÂ real-time access to operational informationâ€”such as weather conditions; traffic; theÂ location and operational status of critical infrastructure; fuel supplies; availability ofÂ emergency shelters and medical facilities; and other critical informationâ€”that allowsÂ users to improve situational awareness and to respond quickly in emergencies.
vUSA currently operates as two pilots â€“ one in eight southeastern states: Alabama,Â Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Tennessee; and the otherÂ in five states in the northwest: Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. InÂ Virginia alone, vUSA reduced response times to incidents involving hazardous materialsÂ by 70 percent.
VirtualUSA is much more revolutionary than this lets on. Itâ€™s a very disruptive piece of software in its space. FCW has a succinct overview of the projectâ€™s history and what it means for first responders. DHS is funding this project, based on open source and open standards, in part because it wants to encourage collaborative toolbuilding and cooperation among the states, and also because this capability is too important to be in the hands of a single GIS provider, like Google or ESRI. Because it is an open source project, and uses open standards, VirtualUSA ensures that critical assets are not locked into a single vendor, and simultaneously lower the barrier to entry for new GIS vendors.
Department of Commerce
On page 18 of the Department of Commerce plan, under â€œOpen Source Information Technologyâ€, we find some familiar prose:
Also emerging from Commerceâ€™s Open GovernmentÂ Ideascale community was a suggestion to â€œbecome more open through the increased use ofÂ open source software.â€ The Department has already begun using the open source tool,Â Drupal, for a number of its new websites and plans to increase this use in the future. UsingÂ open source technology will allow Commerce to develop new technologies and collaborateÂ more readily with the public and other government agencies, and within the DepartmentÂ itself.
To make this happen, the Office of the Chief Information Officer and the Office ofÂ Acquisition Management will be consulted to ensure that open source offerings are fullyÂ considered during procurement processes. That consideration will include the value that theÂ Department can receive through increased collaboration with the public and as a contributorÂ to open source communities.
Nothing short of victory at Commerce for Open Source of America, whose suggestion this was. Congratulations!
Department of Labor
Youâ€™ll find open source in the strangest places. Until I read Laborâ€™s plan, I didnâ€™t appreciate how much data the Department of Labor is responsible for analyzing and disseminating. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to find this initiative on page 29:
Create a â€œDeveloperâ€™s Cornerâ€
We plan to establish a â€œDeveloper Cornerâ€ on www.dol.gov/open that specificallyÂ targets and engages developers. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible forÂ developers to re-purpose our data, provide feedback, get technical help, bringÂ developers with similar interests together and, ultimately inspire the best possibleÂ uses of our data for the benefit of the public. Ideas under consideration include aÂ bug tracking system, RSS feeds for dataset changes, dataset versioning, publicÂ code competitions, data authentication, and an ideation platform to prioritizeÂ developer needs.
I think every department and agency that distributes data to the public (which is to say, all of them) should follow Laborâ€™s lead and establish their own Developer sites. Thereâ€™s no better way to stay engaged with this very powerful community.
Health and Human Services
The outstanding NHIN CONNECT project, which has a thriving open source community, got a mention on page 56 of HHSâ€™s plan:
Nationwide Health Information Network â€“ Direct
A key component of the Nationâ€™s emerging health information technology infrastructure is theÂ Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN) â€“ a set of standards, policies, and services thatÂ enable the secure exchange of health information over the Internet. â€œNHIN Directâ€ is the latestÂ development in the evolution of the NHIN. Itâ€™s an important effort to develop a â€œlightweight on-rampâ€ to the NHIN that will enable simple, direct exchanges of information betweenÂ providers, labs, pharmacies, and consumers â€” and which will be easy to adopt and implement.Â In a process that launched on March 1, NHIN Direct is being designed in close collaborationÂ with the community of potential users, with the entire process taking place in the open, inÂ public, on a NHIN Direct wikispace. NHIN Direct will then be implemented in real-worldÂ tests and deployments by members of the community â€“ with HHSâ€™s Office of the NationalÂ Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) playing a coordinating and conveningÂ role. The gist of the NHIN Direct strategy is to utilize a community-driven approach to ramp upÂ and power NHIN Direct-powered health information exchange.
I should mention that my employer, Red Hat, is involved in this project.
National Science Foundation
There was nothing explicitly about open source in the NSFâ€™s open government plan, but their plan is worth mentioning anyway, as the NSF already does a tremendous amount of work in the open source community. Hereâ€™s a search for â€œopen sourceâ€ on their web site, which yielded over 5,000 hits when I last tried it:
NSF regularly awards grants under the condition that software developed under those grants is given an open source license. Some very progressive thinking, and shrewd IP stewardship from the NSF folks, so weâ€™ll forgive them for not mentioning open source directly in their plan.
Department of the Treasury
Yet another revelation. Treasury plans to cultivate open source projects to facilitate collaboration between agencies and between Treasury and the public. Iâ€™ve written about exactly this kind of collaboration before, back in December, so Iâ€™m enormously pleased to see that Treasury agrees.Â Iâ€™ve emphasized my favorite passages here:
In the areas of transparency, participation, collaboration, and flagship initiative, Treasury strives to share its efforts acrossÂ Government to avoid duplication across agencies and to improve value/outcome of efforts. Treasury seeks to manifest cross-agency transferability in at least two of the following ways:
- Make training available to other agencies by opening up classes/webcasts to other agencies; providing slides, videoÂ and/or audio after the training; and posting on an e-learning platform.
- Name an advocate who gets the word out about what the agency has to share and invites other agencies to contact thatÂ person to learn from him or her.
- Design procurements for enterprise (where government is the enterprise) or in such a way that what is created can beÂ shared across government at no cost.
- Develop and post code so it can be shared with other agencies (open source or the contract written such that theÂ government owns the code.)
- Share platforms utilized by the agency with other agencies at no cost.
- Create participatory events across agencies with related missions.
- Collaborate on projects and challenges with the public and with the private sector in partnership with other federalÂ agencies that have similar missions.
- Share all materials, results, tools, and training that could be transferable to other agencies with the Interagency WorkingÂ Group as an efficient central dissemination mechanism.
The VA is an enormous consumer of information technology, and gained early recognition from the open source community for its public domain VISTA electronic health record platform. On page 22 of the VA plan, it becomes clear that the VA is expanding its use of open source to lower the barrier to entry for developers who want to help the agency:
A Virtual Installation of VistA Architecture (AViVA) is a recent innovation that we areÂ using to support collaboration. AViVA creates a universal user interface for theÂ electronic health record and includes prototyping of data connectors in order to securelyÂ link the AViVA platform to patient data from any source. The AViVA project incorporatesÂ HealtheVet as an update of the VistA legacy database system.
VAâ€™s current electronic hospital management system uses a graphical user interfaceÂ known as the Clinical Patient Record System (CPRS). CPRS data is stored in theÂ legacy data system known as VistA. CPRS requires installation on each machine thatÂ operates the program rendering the program difficult to scale and expensive to maintainÂ and update. AViVAâ€™s implementation improves this model in two ways. First, AViVAÂ creates a modular, web-enabled electronic health record system that can be easily andÂ remotely maintained. Second, Medical Data Web Services (MDWS), which can beÂ accessed by the Department of Defense, will allow the creation of applications for anyÂ data source to be plugged into the system.
AViVA is a very exciting program for the collaboration portion of our Open GovernmentÂ Plan and because we are committed to creating systems that allow health careÂ providers to collaborate to provide the best care for Veterans. AViVAâ€™s web basedÂ presentation layer will allow our doctors and nurses around the country to search patientÂ records as simply and succinctly as you can search for pizza on Google Maps and asÂ securely as the best retail financial service businesses. Additionally, AViVA createsÂ collaboration between VA and DoD, our partner in caring for our nationâ€™s heroes.Â Finally AViVA creates an open source platform that allows software to be shared withÂ entities outside of VA, creating opportunities for further innovation and developmentÂ beyond the agency.
National Aeronautic and Space Administration
â€œNASA is working to make open source software development more collaborative at NASA to benefit both the Agency and the public,â€ it says right on the first page of the NASA open government plan. Hereâ€™s an agency which has always relied on a vibrant research community, software developers, and a culture of innovation. Iâ€™m not surprised by their focus on open source, but I am delighted. Among other things, NASA will be sponsoring an open source code competition, has an entire section of their plan devoted to open source development, and will be developing their Nebula cloud computing system on open source software.
Itâ€™s fair to say that NASAâ€™s plan is the strongest Iâ€™ve seen for the open source community.
Who did I miss? What other opportunities for open source have you found in the open government plans? Leave a comment and let us all know!
Most western governments have in the last decade developed an accessibility strategy for their websites, often based on WCAG 1.0. At the end of 2008, the WC3 announced the final version of WCAG 2.0 and the public sector is now struggling to keep up. In Canada there was a recent announcement about a revised Common Look and Feel (CLF). In the USA the Section 508 is in its first of six revisions, part of which will be to adapt to the new approach to standards. I’m not sure that most citizens will notice the changes to government websites, however for both people with disabilities and the tax payers, it will be a very big deal.
In a recent search it seems that the Government of Canada is seen to be a leader in the global public sector because of our CLF implementation. One of the greatest successes has been the enforcement of a common branding across the public sector. I used to call the CLF 1.0 the Common ugly Look and Feel because it really was boxy and bland, however, it’s gotten a lot better.
Most government sites are looking better than they did a decade ago. Branding shouldn’t force sites to be identical, but it’s important that citizens are able to quickly identify a site as that of their government. This effort should allow some shared learning between departments about best practices for the usability of websites as well.
The Internet has changed dramatically since 1998 when the USA Government released it’s Section 508 guidelines. Canada began developing it’s CLF standards this year, but didn’t enforce them until 2002 so it had an opportunity to look at other approaches to accessibility. The most significant of which was produced by the WC3, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) in 1999. This was the leading accessibility standard for almost a decade. Understandably, governments need some time before adopting a finalized international standard into their own policies.
In the revision process for Section 508 the CLF they will be carefully looking at WCAG 2.0 guidelines, which were released in 2008. Governments & industry leaders around the world are embracing the new standard, but there are also draft guidelines like the Authoring Tool (ATAG) 2.0 and WAI-ARIA which will respectively improve content authoring for people with disabilities and work to keep up with the rapidly changing web technology.
As more information from government is served through the Internet the more important it is that all of it is accessible to citizens with all levels of ability. This is not a light undertaking and this is critical to being a modern democratic country. Both federal governments have ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, have made a more serious commitment to serving all of their citizens.
There are a whole lot of government web pages, today Google indexed 414 million .gov and 102 million .gc.ca web pages. I’m sure that there are inaccuracies in this and duplicated web pages. I’m also not sure how Canada has just Â¼ of the web pages that the USA in this very simple comparison. There are probably many pages that aren’t listed with that domain or that simply have a policy of instructing search engines not to index. Regardless, it’s a huge responsibility to maintain this amount of content.
As governments try to keep up with citizen expectations they will be adding new technology like AJAX scripting to provide a more responsive interface for their users. This type of approach ultimately makes a web site more like a desktop application. Interactive applications are more complex for both security and accessibility issues as well.
The Internet is rapidly evolving and International standards will continue to rush to keep up with them. Whether it is WAI-ARIA adoption or HTML5, government agencies will need to adapt over time. Stricter regulations around web accessibility are in the works and accessibility approaches will be rushing to keep pace. All of this requires that governments begin to anticipate change and incorporate solutions that allow them to evolve with it to improve accessibility & reduce costs. As we’ve tried to outline in our Accessibility White Paper having a proactive approach to accessibility is key to success.
Government Is opening
The Internet has also given citizens an increased expectation for better access to their government. People want better access to the data that the government has collected on their behalf. Initiatives in the UK and USA to promote open data in government have clearly set a precedent, as have municipalities around the globe. The tools and standards for open data are established, but meaningful adoption has yet to be embraced across the board. Adoption of new standards like RDFa as is starting in the UK, needs to be applied in more pilots. For both internal and external audiences there are considerable cost savings to be made in providing machine readable versions of content.
Citizens are also looking for ways to participate with their government. People are now used to being able to leave comments, login to sites to interact with personalized content and even have sites remember what they are interested in. It can often be difficult to find information in government sites, but dynamic tools like this can be useful to ensure that citizens get the information they need quickly. This will require some significant re-thinking of how government manages, security, privacy & membership. It is very encouraging to hear that the US federal government has adopted an OpenID framework.
The blogosphere has also been very active in reviewing and critiquing the revised plans. Two designers have now contributed branding options for the CLF. Many people have offered critiques of the first revision of Section 508. Reactions and evaluations are often immediate on the Web and it is critical that governments learn to be responsive to this. David Eaves said it well: â€œA digital citizenry isnâ€™t interested in talking to an analogue government.â€
Change Isn’t Cheap
This is going to be a huge task. Simply keeping up with the legal responsibilities for governments to deliver hundreds of millions of webpages to all of it’s citizens is an enormous undertaking. However, it can be made much more manageable if government agencies embrace open source and open standards as they have in the United Kingdom. Several agencies in the USA have taken a lead on this including the US military. Openly supporting collaboration between government departments as well as organizations and individuals outside of government sector is surely the only way to keep up with the changing pace of technology.
Adoption of good free software tools like Drupal and WordPress that already have a huge user base to leverage is going to be key to ensuring that the government’s web pages are able to keep up with the changing demands. Drupal 7 is already implementing many WCAG 2.0 requirements in the core and also now has built-in RDFa support.
Whatever the new standards are adopted, it will need to be rolled out and evaluated on millions of web pages. The closer those standards are to the current WCAG 2.0 framework the easier it will be to use automated tools to evaluate it’s accessibility. New government standards should not just be a list of rules and examples, but there is a huge need to be interactive and provide as much access to re-usable code as they can. To be cost effective governments need to be investing heavily in setting up sample content management tools that they have permission to distribute and enhance between departments. It doesn’t need to favour open source solutions, but any solution which cannot be freely distributed, used and modified at least between government departments, is not worth investing in.
The best solutions within government need to be actively shared as widely as possible so tax payers aren’t having to be paying for every department to recreate the wheel.
Any implementation of government web standards needs to take into consideration the evolving nature of the web. Any solution for department sites that don’t easily allow for site wide changes to incorporated needs to be rejected. In the last few years the Canadian government has spent many millions adopting the CLF 2.0 guidelines. If in doing so they had incorporated forward thinking free software solutions future upgrades to their sites to make them more open and accessible would be much more affordable.