I’m always inspired talking and working with entrepreneurs trying to solve big civic problems, especially those who realize much of the challenge lies within modernizing and empowering internal government operations, so it was great to finally meet with Govtech Fund Founder and Managing Partner Ron Bouganim this week.
The 18F Delivery team released a “Partnership Playbook” that aims to help federal agencies understand what to expect when working with 18F, and the gem within is play number two, “We work with an empowered product owner.”
Citizens simply glaze over when they are confronted by a sea of large numbers with many zeros. These figures need to be relatable to the person reading the data. Otherwise, open data is just more data that dies on the vine.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a beta version of Vets.gov, and it’s the future of federal government digital development.
The Welsh Government released a report of its findings on how local government in Wales can better leverage digital technologies and realize significant savings while still providing quality, scalable citizen services.
A California bipartisan oversight committee, the Little Hoover Commission, has issued recommendations on how the state can bring a more customer-centric government to residents and visitors.
Seneca Systems CEO Chris Maddox shares the inspiration behind the new constituent relationship management system, Romulus.
“No ugly, old IT” jumped out at me when I first reviewed DataSF’s strategic plan, “Data in San Francisco: Meeting supply, spurring demand,” and it still sticks, mostly because someone inside government was so bold as to make this a priority and openly communicate it and also because this should be a mantra for everyone building civic technology.
Enabling internal government tech shops to quickly stand up applications in a secure testing environment is fundamental to quick prototyping, and 18F’s new Cloud.gov is a major step in realizing ultimate IT flexibility.
Based on “extensive user research,” the Federal Communications Commission has launched a beta version of fcc.gov that aims to make the site “more useful and accessible to FCC stakeholders.”
Oakland is looking for its next chief information officer to help position the city “at the forefront of American cities in its use of technology.”
After reading Ashlee Vance’s new Elon Musk biography, I find myself wondering whether we should really worry about bad government websites, and instead chalk them up as inspiration for those who will change the world.
“Anonymous access to the data must be allowed for public data, including access through anonymous proxies. Data should not be hidden behind ‘walled gardens.’”
– 8 Principles of Open Government Data
In the world of open data, there are few things that carry more weight than the original 8 principles of open data.
Drafted by a group of influential leaders on open data that came together in Sebastopol, Calif., in 2007, this set of guidelines is the defacto standard for evaluating the quality of data released by governments, and is used by activists regularly to prod public organizations to become more open.
With this in mind, it was intriguing to hear a well-known champion of open data at the Sunlight Foundation’s recent TransparencyCamp in Washington, D.C. raise some interesting questions about one of these principles, typically considered sacrosanct in the open data community.
Andrew Nicklin (formerly at the helm of open data efforts for both the City and State of New York, and now Open Data Director for the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University) asked TransparencyCamp attendees to consider some of the implications of the sixth principle on open data – which calls for non-discriminatory access to data. This principle is generally taken to mean that users of open data should be able to access it anonymously and that governments should not require users to identify who they are or what they plan to do with the data as a condition of accessing it.
While there is obvious merit to this principle, Andrew observed that when governments know who is using their data and how they are using it, there are enormous opportunities to enhance the data and make it more useful for data consumers. If governments don’t understand what user’s want, providing useful data that can meet their needs is difficult – strictly enforcing anonymous access to data may end up being be an impediment to better understanding what data users actually need.
Without being directly critical of the principle or the original intentions behind it, Andrew made a thoughtful suggestion for open data advocates at TransparencyCamp to consider. To me, these comments highlight an important issue facing the civic technology community and governments themselves – one that almost no one is talking about.
When it comes to building the infrastructure of open data – putting in place the pieces of technology that users will leverage to find and use government open data – very little thought seems to be given to what users – data consumers – want or need.
The idea of “build with, not for” has become a central tenant to how civic technology solutions are designed and implemented. Yet this idea seldom applies to the platforms that governments use to make open data available, which form the foundation of many civic technology solutions.
Costs and benefits
“Funding is the most cited barrier to implementing or expanding open data initiatives.”
– Empowering the Public Through Open Data
A recent collaborative effort between the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy and the USC Price School of Public Policy produced a hugely valuable report on the current state of open data in the 88 incorporated cities comprising Los Angeles County.
Based on surveys and interviews with city officials on their open data efforts, this report provides unique insights into the ways that government leaders view open data. Among the findings – government officials surveyed for the report consider funding to be the most significant barrier to expanding work on open data. This isn’t a surprise, and this sentiment is likely not unique to the Los Angeles County area.
But when taken together with other findings, it can seem counterintuitive. Along with citing funding as a constraint, government officials expressed a preference for commercial open data catalogs over open source (or free) alternatives. These commercial solutions – some of which impose non-trivial costs on local governments – appear to meet a perceived need on the part of government officials in that they are viewed as making it “easier to publish [data] and put it in the hands of the citizens.”
Commercial software generally tends to fare better in the government procurement process than open source software, so this outcome isn’t all that shocking. But it’s worth noting this contradiction in the findings of the USC report between the cost constraints limiting more progress on open data and the reported preference for (sometimes pricy) commercial open data catalogs.
Cost aside, there are a few reasons why upfront investment in a commercial open data catalog may not be the best way to start a new open data effort.
The web … took the idea of participation to a new level, because it opened participation not just to software developers but to all users of the system.
– Tim O’Reilly, The Architecture of Participation
First, and somewhat ironically, public information on the cost of commercial open data portals can be hard to come by. Another report on municipal open data efforts in southern California found a wide disparity in what different governments – some just a few miles apart, and almost identical in population – pay for commercial open data catalogs. This can make it difficult for governments to know if they are getting good value for the price being paid.
In addition, commercial open data catalogs often come with visualization, mapping and charting tools out of the box. This can make it easier for governments to augment open data offerings by showing what can be done with it. Though these offerings may come at an additional price, some may view them as a way to help advocate open data to internal skeptics – a picture (or a graph, or a chart) is worth a thousand words as the saying goes.
From a user needs perspective, this approach feels very unidirectional – this is government telling the data community what it believes is important, not the other way around. There are a host of examples of sophisticated visualizations and applications being built with government data by outside data users. And while this approach requires outreach and engagement, there is an ever-increasing abundance of tools available for members of the data community to use to create maps, visualizations and new applications.
These two approaches – out of the box vs. community built – are not mutually exclusive. We can see a number of examples of governments using commercial open data catalogs to engage with external data users that produce useful, valuable visualizations and apps – New York City, the City of Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco are all great examples of this dual approach.
However, open data efforts in all of those cities have benefited from robust technology and startup communities and often visionary leadership. Almost all of these cities have a long tradition of civic hacking. For cities that don’t have these assets (or have them in smaller quantities), outreach and engagement to nurture and build a data community will be a crucial factor in the long-term success of an open data program. These cities – many of them smaller and with more limited resources – may also feel the cost constraints of implementing an open data effort more acutely than larger cities.
It’s fair to say that the next wave of cities that adopt open data programs may face a very different set of challenges than the cities that have come before them.
Putting Users First
“The procurement model of government digital services generally leads to services that satisfy policy needs, not user needs.”
– Government Technology Procurement Playbook, Code for America
The time feels right to rethink how cities put in place the basic infrastructure of open data.
At last year’s Code for America Summit, I gave a talk on how open data was being adopted in small to midsized cities in the U.S. In researching my talk, I found that while larger cities have almost all implemented some form of open data program, less than 20% of the 256 incorporated places in this U.S. with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 have an open data program.
Open data in this country is still – almost exclusively – a big city phenomenon.
Efforts to address this imbalance are underway – the What Works Cities initiative (of which the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins is a key part) is now working to bring open data and data-driven decision making to 100 mid-sized cities. More and more, small and mid-sized cities are starting to look at open data as a key driver of government innovation.
We are now at a juncture where we can not only help a new cohort of cities adopt open data, but to help ensure that these efforts embrace the principle of “build with, not for” from the ground up. If we’re going to be successful, it’s important that we question long-held beliefs – like the original 8 principles of open data – to ensure our efforts are most efficiently aligned with the outcomes we desire.
It’s worth considering whether commercial open data catalogs provide the best option for the next wave of cities that are embracing open data to succeed and build a healthy data culture, both inside and outside of government.
But whatever foundation we choose to lay for the next phase of open data, we’ll need to make sure we’re putting user’s needs first.
(Note – the term “cult of catalogs” is not my own. I first heard it used by Friedrich Lindenberg, though others may have used it as well.)
The U.S. Digital Service has soft-launched new U.S. Web Design Standards to “create consistency and beautiful user experiences across U.S. federal government websites.”
There have been countless, beautiful anecdotes on Jake’s compassion, humility and contributions, and there’s nothing I can add that would do justice to honor the influence he’s had on me other than to say, Jake, I miss you so much, and you will be with me always as I try to live up to the standards you set for those of us still here.
Last week, I was in New Orleans for the CivicActions corporate retreat, and presented to the team on the work done around Agile Government Leadership, and I wanted to share some of this here because, while there’s still much to do around changing government project management practices, we’ve accomplished a great deal over the past 18 months since its inception.
My fundamental suggestion is that government-run open data platforms be fully open source. There are a number of technical and procurement reasons for this, which I will address in the future, but I believe strongly that if the platform you’re hosting data on doesn’t adhere to the same licensing standards you hold for your data, you’re only doing open data half right.
Agile Government Leadership wants to learn more about the state of agile project management in government, its challenges and successes, and how AGL can better support the community.
The state of California has launched a $25K Find a New Way innovation contest that gives residents a chance “to identify areas of improvement within the state government and share their untapped expertise to create solutions.”
Continuing on my book cleaning spree, I wanted to highlight a few web product design and development books I’m getting rid of that are helpful for anyone focused on providing government digital services.
BallotPath founder Jim Cupples sent me a follow-up note, and it hits home two important points.
The White House continues to roll out a better mobile experience with a newly-designed White House blog.
As part of a new What Works Cities initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $42 million effort to help 100 U.S. cities “elevate and accelerate” their “use of data and evidence to engage citizens, make government more effective, and improve people’s lives.”
This year’s Code for America Summit is September 30 to October 2 in Oakland, California, and friends of GovFresh get a 10 percent discount.
I’ve created a GitHub repo to maintain feedback, comments and ideas anyone has related to GovFresh.
The federal CIO Council’s Innovation Committee has published an open data prioritization workbook and toolkit, including a data inventory tracker and prioritization matrix, to help agencies best evaluate and prioritize data for release to the public.
Agile Government Leadership is developing a “State of Agile Government” survey and is looking for feedback on best questions to ask.
There is a lot of shortsighted chatter around the state of Tennessee’s new branding efforts and, while I don’t have a strong opinion on the logo aesthetics, which has received criticism for its $46,000 price tag, it’s important to commend the holistic approach to uniformity and why this will benefit residents (and taxpayers) in the future.
San Francisco’s DataSF team continues to quietly and effectively demonstrate what an efficient, holistic and personable approach to open data looks like with the announcement of its year two plan and retrospective of the past year.
I recently discovered Silicon Valley venture capital firm a16z’s podcast series, and it’s a sign of the times that a VC is leveraging media in a way that not just promotes their portfolio companies, but also addresses the government and regulatory affairs issues Silicon Valley, startups and technology companies increasingly face.