Month: February 2010

FreshWrap: This week’s posts

A wrap-up of this week’s posts:

New: ‘Fresh from: Adobe’

Adobe is our latest Fresh from contributor. First up from Adobe Government is Rob Pinkerton‘s piece Why is the Grateful Dead like USSOUTHCOM when it comes to open government?

You can keep track of the latest from Adobe at adobe.govfresh.com.

As mentioned earlier, the purpose of this feature is to better understand what’s on the minds of vendors working in the trenches and how their work applies to open government initiatives and Gov 2.0 in general.

Why is the Grateful Dead like USSOUTHCOM when it comes to open government?

Despite contemporary wisdom that traditional journalism is in decline, the 150+ year-old publication known as The Atlantic hasn’t lost its edge for writing substantive and thoughtful news commentary. I love this month’s article, Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead, where Joshua Green argues that the Grateful Dead pioneered Internet business models before there was an Internet.

If you are interested in understanding how open and collaborative communities form across distances, look to the legions of Deadheads who connected, followed and enabled one of the most culturally and financially successful bands in history. The Grateful Dead gave their music away for free and it elevated demand, innovation and participation.

This same phenomenon is what the Obama Administration is striving for with open government – give the data away freely and allow innovation and participation to follow.

What I liked best about the Grateful Dead analogy and its application to open government is the concept of ‘strategic improvisation.’ The Dead thrived and survived for decades by constantly improvising on their strategy, which they could do because their openness enabled a unique flexibility. They were responsive to their fans and changing business conditions in the same way we hope government can be responsive to citizens and changing agency mission conditions. Strategic improvisation is a critical concept to embrace. The Grateful Dead contradicted industry practice and forfeited major revenue streams by allowing their loyal fan base to tape live performances, but it generated even greater success through community adoption.

So what does this have to do with the U.S. Military’s Southern Command? USSOUTHCOM certainly doesn’t come to mind when thinking about the Grateful Dead or open government … or disaster relief for that matter. But recently United States Southern Command contradicted strict interpretation of mission strategy when it decided to re-purpose its cloud based Defense Connect Online system as a local emergency response platform within hours after the Haiti earthquake. USSOUTHCOM’s collaborative and adaptive response harnessed critical resources and expertise to the region more quickly than anyone thought possible.

Aneesh Chopra described the inspirational response as “a function of commonwealth that is the foundation of open government.” He made these remarks during his keynote at the State of the Union for Technology event Tuesday, coincidentally hosted by the Atlantic (and not so coincidentally sponsored by Adobe). Aneesh did not use the term strategic improvisation or cite the Grateful Dead, but the significance of the behavior is the same. USSOUTHCOM is not trained for earthquake response, they provide force protection and logistics support in the southern region of the globe. But the community and technology they have developed to support their core mission made them well suited to adapt to the changing mission requirements of the region.

When government agencies begin to view their community as an improvisational amplifier of their mission strategy, great things can happen. I doubt USSOUTHCOM or Chopra would expect to find parity with the Grateful Dead, but if the traditionally conservative management consultants are finding value there, then why not? To borrow from the title of the Grateful Dead’s popular album, open government through strategic improvisation could become an American Beauty.

You can read more about Defense Connect Online here. I recorded a brief video of my thoughts on Chopra’s keynote at the Atlantic event here:

Introducing Sunlight Live

What if we were able to “cover” live events in a new way using government data that we’re able to compile and connect it to political events and personas of the day?

Today we’re going to take this idea to the next step by beginning to connect government data such as campaign contributions or lobbyist meetings to a political event in real-time. As Republican and Democratic leaders come together to debate health care in a public forum, Sunlight is going to provide an alternative to the mainstream media’s coverage. In a replicable pilot we are calling Sunlight Live, our team will connect data such as the aforementioned lobbying contributions or “revolving door”connections the meeting’s participants may have, and put them right next to the video feed, as any particular politician is speaking.

We think Sunlight can offer a unique live perspective on the debate in the midst of the media frenzy, by focusing not on the merits of health care, but on the money, connections, and influence data to which we have created access. In addition to displaying data from Sunlight and its grantees’ projects, our staff will once again be live blogging, facilitating online conversation via Twitter, and engaging the open government community in research as the debate unfolds. We don’t yet know exactly what we’ll need or what will work best … but that’s the point.

We’ll be getting things started at 10 a.m. with the beginning of the meeting. Hope you’ll join us!

Open Gov Blog Challenge: Share your ideas to get more open gov ideas

My first answer to Andrea DiMaio’s Open Government Ideas Look All the Same: Are You Surprised? piece is a question:

Open Government Critiques Look All the Same: Are You Surprised?

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to Andrea or others actively engaged in critiquing the open government initiative and collaboration process. I’m just tired of not hearing concrete ideas from them on how to better engage citizens.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the problem isn’t necessarily the process, it’s the challenge of communicating government initiatives to a disinterested public. Rather than sitting on the sidelines or Saturday evening quarterbacking, government needs help from the private sector (and not on a bill-by-the-hour type of help).

Here’s my challenge to Andrea and other Gov 2.0/open government/public policy gurus and enthusiasts:

Come up with 3 ideas and blog about them. Title the post “My 3 ideas to get more open government ideas.” Tweet it to the #gov20 and #opengov Twitter streams (you can bet the appropriate people are paying attention).

Due date: Monday, March 1

Time to put great minds to good use. Use your enthusiasm and expertise to help government spread the word.

Looking forward to everyone’s ideas. Especially Andrea’s.

A Peace Corps for Programmers

Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice From Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice edited by Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma, ISBN 978-0-596-80435-0. Copyright © 2010 O’Reilly Media, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The federal government should fire me. Like the thousands of other contractors who develop software for government agencies, I am slow, overpaid, and out of touch with the needs of my customers. And I’m keeping the government from innovating.

In recent years, the government has become almost completely dependent upon contractors for information technology (IT). So deep is this dependency that the government has found itself in a position that may shock those in the tech industry: it has no programmers of its own; code is almost entirely outsourced. Government leaders clearly consider IT an ancillary function that can be offloaded for someone else to worry about.

But they should worry. Because while they were pushing the responsibility for IT into the margins, the role of IT became increasingly central to every agency’s business. Computing might have been ancillary 20 years ago, when the only computers were the mainframes in the basement. Average employees never had to worry about them. But today, a computer is on the desk of every civil servant. Those servants rely on their computers to do their jobs effectively. Every day, they encounter new problems that could be quickly solved with a bit of web savvy, were there only a programmer there to help.

And they desperately do need help. Imagine not having Google to quickly find information; no Facebook or LinkedIn to find new colleagues; no instant messaging to communicate with those colleagues once you found them. Imagine having to ask for permission every time you wanted to publish content online, instead of being able to do it quickly and easily with a wiki or weblog. This is the state of computing in the federal government.

SIDEBAR

On top of keeping the government from innovating, the dependence on contractors hurts the country in much more tangible ways. In February 2003, a few weeks into my job as an intelligence analyst with the Department of Defense (DoD), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia officially changed its name to Serbia and Montenegro. My job was to maintain an enormous database of facilities in Eastern Europe, including labeling each one with a country name. But the tool we used didn’t have an option for “Serbia and Montenegro,” so on the day of the name change, I emailed the contract officer in charge of the database with a simple request: “This country changed its name. Could you please update the tool to reflect this?”

Doing so would have taken a computer programmer less than five minutes. But instead, he used that time to respond to my email:

“We’ll consider it for the next version.”

In other words, his current contract—written months prior—didn’t account for changes in the geopolitical landscape, so there was no paperwork explicitly authorizing him to make this change. To do it, he would have to wait until the contract was renewed (months or years from now) and the government allotted funds for this five-minute job. It wasn’t his fault; he was no doubt aware of how easy it was to make this change. But doing it without permission from either his boss or the government would spell trouble. Yugoslavia didn’t exist anymore. Except inside our office, where we had to wait for a contract to make it so.

The government can no longer afford to outsource IT. It is core to the government’s business. If the government intends to do IT right, it should wean itself from outsiders like me and start doing the job itself.

What’s so wrong with contractors? Nothing, really; the problem is the processes they have given rise to. The pervading philosophy is that government is slow, inefficient, and incapable of quickly adapting to change, while private companies do things better, faster, and cheaper. In many cases, this is true; the government is by no means a well-oiled machine. But software is one thing that contracts do not speed up. Software developed under contract is much slower and much more expensive than any other form of software development still in practice. Here is how the typical IT contract evolves:

1. A low-level government employee complains to her boss about a problem. This could be anything from a bug in an existing piece of software to a gaping hole in her agency’s IT security. The boss has no programmers on hand to solve the problem, so he dismisses it.

2. More and more people complain about the problem until it gets attention from higher levels. But even thinking about a solution is expensive—months of paperwork must come before a contract is awarded and someone finally starts writing code—so the problem remains unsolved.

3. The problem leads to a calamity—a website is hacked, classified information is stolen, or electronic voting booths break down on Election Day—and leaders are finally motivated to solve the problem.

4. Procurement officers write a list of requirements for the ideal solution. Because they have little direct experience with the problem, they survey the workforce to get a sense of what’s needed.

5. The workforce’s version of the problem is condensed into a document called a Request for Proposals, or RFP. The RFP is then distributed to potential bidders, who will respond with a proposed solution and a bid based entirely on the contents of the RFP. Contractors cannot go directly to the users, the people who know the problem best. The RFP is therefore an indirect, highly edited communiqué from the user to the contractor, a substitute for the invaluable direct interaction between user and coder that guides any successful software product. But it’s too late: contractors are from here on out trying to solve what they believe the problem to be, not the problem that really is.

6. The contract is awarded. Months or years after the problem was first noticed, the first line of code is written. Over the coming months, the winning bidder will develop the solution off-site, hidden from the eventual users who could be providing valuable feedback.

7. The solution is delivered. Because the target users had such a small part in the development process, the solution falls short. It is hard to use and comes with an 80-page manual.

It should now be clear why the government is so far behind the times: it isn’t allowed to solve its own problems, relying instead on people who do not understand them. Two glaring faults doom the contracting process to failure. First, the development process is vastly different from that of today’s most popular software. Modern web applications are persistently watching their users and adjusting their code to make it faster and more user-friendly. Adventurous users can begin using these applications before they’re even finished, giving the developers invaluable insight into their users’ preferences. Without this constant feedback, the developers risk spending years on a product in private, only to reveal it to the public and find that nobody wants to use it. Such products are so common in government that they have earned their own moniker, named for their eternal home: shelfware.

Second, the paperwork required to simply start coding takes time and money. So, to even consider solutions, the problem has to be severe enough to justify months of bureaucracy. Why go through all that trouble just for a problem that would take a week to solve? The logic makes the taxpayer ill: the bureaucracy actually wants high price tags. The result is an organization full of easy problems that get no attention until they are big, expensive, and ready to boil over.

Tipping Point: The Extinction of Pencils

One such problem that may soon boil over is the terrorist watch list. For years, the list—created to monitor suspected terrorists and keep them from flying on commercial airliners—had inconvenienced innocent travelers. The problems were evident, but they weren’t bad enough to justify asking for help.

Then a toddler was kept from boarding a flight. Then a senator. At some point, this problem crossed the threshold, and the government issued an RFP for an improved database to manage the list. The $500 million contract was awarded to Boeing and a smaller company. After months of development, a congressional investigation discovered that the soon-to-be-deployed database could not perform basic searches for names, and was missing huge stores of valuable data. The National Counterterrorism Center had spent half a billion dollars on a tool that, while certainly complex, could not do things that you and I do every day from our home computers.

Why so much money for something that seems so simple? This frame of mind—that technology projects should be big, expensive, and time-consuming—has honest beginnings. Twenty years ago, computing was a niche. The government used computers to encrypt the president’s phone calls, simulate nuclear blasts, and predict the weather. The government paid private companies lots of money to build very complex systems. That’s OK, because tasks such as these required lots of computing power, so the biggest, baddest, most expensive system was usually the best. It didn’t matter that these systems were hard to use, because the only people using them were computer scientists. The builder of the system understood the user—the builder and user may have even worked side by side—and if the user ever needed the system to do something it couldn’t, that user probably had the skills to tweak the system. Computers were left to the computer people. Everyone else still used pencils.

But computing is now everywhere. Computers long ago fit on our desktops. Now they fit in our palms. But the government still acts like computers fill basements, and if you could sit down at a government desktop, this outdated mindset would be immediately apparent: on the screen would be websites reminiscent of the mid-1990s, without any of the web-based productivity and collaboration tools that define today’s Web. Expensive supercomputers still matter. But so do cheap, light web applications. Small, unassuming tools can change the way an organization does business. Such tools are commonplace online, but they do not get a second look from a government that expects and needs its technology to be expensive. Meanwhile, independent developers are at their keyboards, proving themselves willing to help a government that, as we’ll see, is slowly opening its arms to them.

Competition Is Critical to Any Ecosystem

One of the reasons the Web has better tools than the government is competition.

Take airfare as an example. There are countless websites that help you buy plane tickets, each of them constantly improving their tools and layouts to make you happier. And if you aren’t happy with those sites, you’re free to start your own business and compete with them. But when the government contracts new software, it gets only one product out of it. Instead of many choices, users have only two: use this tool, or use nothing.

Web developers know that the first attempt at an innovation almost never works, and that it takes many attempts before someone gets it right. For every Facebook, there are countless Friendsters. Given one chance, you’ll likely end up with one of the latter. If the government wants better software, it has to start creating and acquiring more software.

In the past year, two promising government projects have chipped away at this problem. Washington, D.C.’s Apps for Democracy competition let independent developers build web applications for a shot at prize money. The D.C. government’s $50,000 investment bought it 40 tools in 30 days. The District got to keep every contribution but only paid for the really good ones.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Intelligence Community is becoming an unexpected leader in engaging everyday developers. To provide more analytic tools to their workforce, they have released BRIDGE, an open development platform akin to Facebook’s: now, any software developer can build a tool and provide it to intelligence analysts. If the analysts like it, the government buys it. If it’s junk, your tax dollars are saved.

This approach worked for Facebook: it gained 30,000 new tools in two years, and got other people to do all the work. Most of these new tools fall into the junk category, but many others are invaluable. The community finds the good ones and makes them more visible. It is the same principle that governs our economy: we buy the dish soap that works, and the bad ones go away. We should expect the same practice from our government, whose very job is the promotion of market economies and democracy. Apps for Democracy and BRIDGE are a welcome departure from contract-based software.

But while these projects are giving government employees more options, they haven’t filled in all the gaps. Who will maintain software that was built not by a global firm, but by an independent developer who is juggling multiple projects?

And what about user feedback? Neither of these projects addresses the fact that government software is built by people unfamiliar with government users. Apps for Democracy produced useful tools for D.C. residents, but little for D.C. employees. And applications on the Intelligence Community platform are hobbled by the world’s biggest firewall: intelligence analysts use these tools on a top-secret network that doesn’t allow them to communicate with the outside world. As long as the government keeps developers outside its walls, those developers have no hope of solving the government’s technology problems. The civil service needs an infusion of technical talent. The civil service needs intel techs.

Creating a Developer Corps

Decades ago, the intel tech (also known as “mission support” at some agencies) was a specialist in the Intelligence Community who helped analysts with now-defunct technologies: setting up the light table to look at satellite imagery, making mimeographs, and so on. Unlike today’s tech support staff who sit in the basement or in Bombay, these experts sat among the analysts and were solely dedicated to the analysts’ mission. And because they were government employees, they were at the analysts’ disposal whenever help was needed.

But then personal computers arrived. Software made the intel techs’ tools obsolete. The light tables vanished. The intel techs soon followed. It is the opposite of what should have happened: IT’s role in intelligence analysis—and every other government function—has grown tremendously, while the government’s in-house technical talent has dwindled. Government employees’ need for technical help has never been greater, but there is nobody there to help them.

If they still existed, today’s intel techs would be developers. They would be deploying web applications for new needs the moment they arose. They would mash up data and make it easier for both civil servants and private citizens to consume. They would do the things that contractors do today, only immediately—no paperwork necessary—and with users at their side. The intel tech must be resurrected for the Internet age. The government must hire web developers and embed them in the federal bureaucracy.

The government needs to hire the people who have been fueling the web application boom for the past 10 years. They are young programmers who created revolutionary tools from their dorm rooms, and they are small firms with virtual offices who stumbled upon a new way of doing business. The trouble is, most of these people are not compatible with government culture. They like working from p.m. to a.m. They don’t like ties. They seek venture capital, not pay grade bumps. Are they supposed to move from one coast to another and indefinitely trade in their lifestyles for something completely different, not knowing when they would return to their old lives? That is asking too much.

But what if these in-house developers weren’t standard government hires on entry-level salaries? What if their time in the government wasn’t a career, but a mission akin to a term in the Peace Corps or Teach For America? A program marketed and structured as a temporary “time abroad” would let developers help their country without giving up their careers and identities.

Now is the perfect time for such a program. Silicon Valley’s interest in D.C. has never been as great as it is now. Technology icons are encouraging developers to quit creating banal tools and instead put their energy into things that matter. And it’s working: several prominent Internet entrepreneurs have become full-time civil servants. Many more have contributed software tools to programs such as Apps for Democracy and BRIDGE. Apps for America‡—a federal take on Apps for Democracy sponsored by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation— received 34 submissions during its first iteration, and 46 more on the second. Geeks want to help government. The government just has to give them the right invitation.

Like the Peace Corps and Teach For America, terms in the Developer Corps would have a time limit. Whether this limit is six months or six years, I do not know. But a limit of some kind is important. First, it will be easier for developers to make the leap if they know they will eventually return to their current careers.

Second, being detached from an agency’s pay scale and career plan will give the participants the freedom to experiment and—more importantly—to fail. Failure is a key part of innovation. Technology firms know this, and their employees are used to working in atmospheres that encourage failure. If they don’t try new things, they’ll be killed by their competition.

Not so in government. Unlike private companies, a government—at least ours—is relatively safe from competition, and thus doesn’t feel the need to be constantly reinventing itself. Things are fine how they are. The populace views failed government projects as little more than a waste of taxpayer dollars. No career-conscious government employee wants to take on such a risk. So, to succeed, the Developer Corps’ participants must have the same freedom to fail that they did in their former jobs. The knowledge that their terms will end on a set date will quell the fear of failure that plagues the average government employee.

The greatest threat to this program is lack of permission. If red tape keeps developers from being productive, they will end up wasting their time fixing printer jams instead of writing code.

Developers work quickly. They can implement ideas within hours of conceiving them, continuously deploying, checking, modifying, and redeploying their code dozens, hundreds, thousands of times along the way. Doing this never requires anyone’s approval. But within each government agency are multiple offices that must vet code before it is deployed: system administrators, information security officers, lawyers, and so forth.

Developers will never get anything done with such thick bureaucratic walls between them and their work. Wasting their talent is the fastest way to destroy the corp’s reputation. They must be given authority to code what they please. Not all agencies will grant this authority. Such agencies must not be allowed to participate in the Developer Corps. (Participants in restrictive environments would never get anything done anyway, so there is no harm in barring uncooperative agencies.)

Finally, this program should take a page from a new organization called Code for America (http://codeforamerica.org). CFA recruits coders to work with government offices for set terms, but at the municipal level instead of federal. About to enter its inaugural iteration, CFA’s participants will work with their respective governments remotely from a shared space in California. This communal coding environment will let participants enjoy networking events, guest speakers, and the creative energy generated by each other’s ideas.

The federal program I’ve proposed in this chapter should incorporate a similar communal environment. While coders will spend their days at their respective government agencies, group housing will let them discuss their work over dinner and drinks, allowing the creative process to continue after hours. And select days could be dedicated to meetings with government leaders and tech luminaries, visits to other agencies, and networking. Such events will help ensure a D.C. term is a boost to a coder’s career instead of diversion from it.

Conclusion

Our government agencies need the ability to develop their own software. Keeping them from doing so prevents them from providing vital services that we all pay for. No story makes the case for this capability better than that of Jim Gray.

Gray was a technology pioneer who, during a sailing trip in early 2007, disappeared off the coast of San Francisco. The Coast Guard searched for him for three days and could not find him. They called off their search.

But a group of determined people kept looking. They had imagery satellites take fresh pictures of a swatch of sea outside the San Francisco Bay. If Gray was out there, he and his boat were now on film. But they were left with hundreds of photos, each big enough to cover a wall. A handful of people could never review the images in time to save Gray. So, a team of software developers converted those large photos into lots of smaller ones, which were then posted to a website where the public could review them. Clicking on a possible sighting sent a report to a flight crew, which then searched the area in question. Noticing that the images were blurry, another team of programmers contributed code that automatically sharpened the images. The entire system was created from scratch in just a few days. And it was done without any help from the government.

This effort was coordinated entirely by private citizens with the help of publicly available technology. Though he was never found, Gray inspired the largest collaborative search party in history. Twelve thousand private citizens reviewed more than half a million images. It is an amazing story of teamwork and ingenuity. Inspiring. Soul-stirring.

But also frustrating: why didn’t our government do this the moment Gray was reported missing?

It is tempting to use this story as a case for more self-governance: if the public can do it and the government can’t, why not go with it? Instead of equipping the government to do what private citizens already can, let’s just do their jobs for them from our home computers.

The Web has made it simple to form ad hoc groups and coordinate their actions, and we will continue to see cases where such groups fill the government’s shoes. But such cases will not be the norm. Our populace cannot govern itself just yet. There are too many critical functions that we cannot yet take over. We do not have battleships. We cannot run elections. Some private citizens guard our borders, but that doesn’t mean they should.

We will need a formal government for the foreseeable future. Our government should be at least as capable as a quickly organized group of virtual volunteers. It will certainly have the budget for it.

Meet the hackers behind OpenGov Tracker

The federal government may have closed during #snowmageddon 2010, but Jessy Cowan-Sharp and Robbie Schingler didn’t. They created OpenGov Tracker, a Website that tracks citizen ideas for federal agencies related to the Open Government Directive.

Cowan-Sharp shares what inspired them and how they did it.

Why did you create OpenGov Tracker?

In its own way, the public consultation process happening on IdeaScale right now is a historic activity, but so few people know about it. We thought that a single access point would give a sense of the participation on all the different sites, a window into the discussions happening, build some excitement, and inspire people to participate. We also thought maybe a bit of healthy competition would emerge between the different agencies, spurring additional participation. Finally, we wanted to call out and celebrate the ideas of those people who have made valuable contributions, so we promoted the most popular ideas across all agencies.

What’s the development story behind it?

When we realized the IdeaScale site had an API, we grabbed the ideas for the NASA site and started playing around. Seeing that each idea object included counts of comments, votes and lots of other information, we realized it would be easy to pull out those basic stats, calculate a few additional ones and aggregate them for all the agencies. So, we started building. The way the sites are set up, you have to register separately for an API key for each of the agencies, which wasn’t so bad– but of course then it turned out that although each agency has the same set of nominal categories, each is represented by a different category ID in the backend. This makes sense when you realize that IdeaScale is used to supporting multiple, completely stove-piped clients. But that was a fun hour or so of tediously building an index to match up the category names with each agency’s numeric category IDs.

As the number of ideas started going up, we realized that our numbers looked wrong. Upon closer inspection it turned out that the API was truncating result sets at 50. We were worried that as soon as any agency had a category that went above 50 ideas, the site would basically be useless. But IdeaScale was really helpful, and lifted the limit for us. We really appreciate that.

Of course a few agencies chose their own route instead of IdeaScale, so we haven’t included them. I’m of two minds on this. I think it’s great if agencies have their own vision for things and do something different and unique to them, since it shows they’re interested. At the same time, as a developer, it really helps us promote your stuff when there’s a common interface for accessing it. It would be neat to see us collectively put some thought into common interfaces, where feasible, for data objects on government sites and projects.

I always fail to appreciate how time consuming presentation is. Pulling out the data was much easier and faster than tweaking the layout and style. But it’s important you do that well, or obviously no one will stay on the site long enough to look at those numbers. Thankfully, Robbie’s pretty good at that part!

The site is built in using Python with Tornado as the web framework. We’re in the process of adding in MongoDB as a backend data store. It took about two evenings and two full days before we deployed it.

What features do you plan on adding in the future?

Right now the site focuses a lot on numbers. We’re working on a few additions that will bring out more of the actual content to highlight the diversity of contributions. I love looking over the tags and the titles, and appreciating how different the ideas are, how different the focus of each agency is, and how each one has its own microcosm of terminology, challenges and touchy issues. It’s actually really educational to scan the lists of ideas and learn what’s happening in the different agencies.

When we first released the site, it was just what we call a “tinyhack,” a quick and dirty project to get something useful up and running. We weren’t even saving the data. But a lot of people have asked for the ability to look at contributions over time, so now we’re growing up the code a little bit, adding a proper data store on the backend. That will also enable us to easily display trend lines, pull out more content, etc.

But there’s only another 25 days to go, so we need to optimize value provided and time to deployment. That said, we’ll make sure the data continues to be available after the consultation process is over so more fun stuff can be done by those who want to.

€1m-plus fund for ideas to move Ireland forward

Earlier this week, President Mary McAleese launched a search to find two “game-changing” ideas that will help secure prosperity and jobs for Ireland.

The initiative comes in the form of a competition – Your Country, Your Call – that is offering two winners a cash prize of €100,000 each and up to €500,000 for implementation of their ideas.

The initiative describes itself as “a competition to ignite imaginations and inspire thinking.”

The goal is to pick two truly transformational proposals so big that, when implemented, could secure prosperity and jobs for Ireland. Proposals that could help change the way we do things, allow businesses to grow, employment to be created and prosperity to flourish.
[…] Your Country, Your Call is all about Ireland. It’s about helping to create sustainable employment and prosperity, whilst at the same time generating hope, confidence, and positive thinking.

Economic gloom

On launching the initiative President McAleese said the mood of the country was currently one of pessimism and deep disappointment. Unemployment in Ireland currently stands at nearly 13%, the highest in more than 15 years. This, along with a recent budget of severe cuts to public services, has led to deep public anger and resentment with the state of the economy.

The President, however, said Ireland had “formidable brain power” and, if utilised, the country could go forward again:

We need fresh thinking and action to shake off these doldrums and get us into forward gear. Ireland has formidable brainpower and a determination forged and tested over many generations. Your Country, Your Call is a challenge to this generation to come up with workable proposals capable of helping to put Ireland back firmly on its two feet.
[…] It is hoped that Your Country, Your Call will become a “mind meitheal,” which will generate interest and debate in families, workplaces, clubs, organisations, institutions, schools, colleges, communities, promoting positive thinking, faith hope and confidence in our country’s future.
[…] Your Country, Your Call is essentially an act of faith in our brain-power and our ability to create an exciting and realizable landscape of opportunity for our country and our people. It is now officially open for your proposals. So get talking, thinking and proposing.

President McAleese, who is patron of the initiative, said the winning projects might involve new ways of doing everyday things or might identify a completely new industry or service. They could be in any area, from education and sport to science and tourism, from agriculture and religion to arts and industry.

Process

Those interested have until April 30th to lodge their idea through the website YourCountryYourCall.

The thousands of ideas expected will be sifted throughout the summer. These will be distilled down to the 20 most viable which will be considered at the semi-final stage of the competition. These finalists will be assigned a coach for a 6-week period, who will work to help them develop their proposals.

Following the 6 week coaching period, each semi-finalist will be interviewed. Out of these interviews 5 finalists will be chosen to participate in a two-day event that will conclude with awards being presented by President McAleese.

Ideas

In the first two days after the site was launched it received over 40,000 hits. More than 1,700 users have registered, submitting some 650 ideas, nearly 900 comments and over 2,600 votes. The current most popular idea, with over 230 votes, surrounds the creation of a Talent Tank where businesses can get in touch with people who have the skills they need and will work for free to showcase their talents.

Other ideas which have received popular support include: how the Health service can save money, the creation of an Irish sea Tunnel and the development of the railways. Some ideas, however, such as relocating the Vatican to Cavan look less certain of achieving popular support.

Competition backing

The competition is being governed by a charity, An Smaoineamh Mór, who will oversee the idea process and also coordinate the development of the two winning ideas.

The initiative is being largely supported by “corporate entities” and a “small amount” from government. An Smaoineamh Mór, chairman Dr Laurence Crowley said the identity of those who are providing the funds – capped at €150,000 – would be revealed in due course, but that €2 million of the estimated €2.5m required had already been secured.

Cisco and other IT companies based in Ireland are expected to be supporters of the imitative.

Get Thinking!

A television advertising campaign began this weekend to encourage people all over Ireland to enter the competition. It features prominent Irish personalities such as singer Christy Moore, writer Cecelia Ahern and broadcaster Olivia O’Leary.

Summary

While the use of Idea platforms has been widely used within corporations and other countries – witness the Open Government movement in the US – such a campaign soliciting ideas from citizens is relatively new in Ireland. While we’ve had the Ideas Campaign, it did not offer a prize fund, nor significant development opportunities for proposals.

The fact that this initiative has an engaged and powerful patron, along with significant financial resources, suggests it will be able to engage people in a way other requests for ideas on economic renewal have not.

While the process conforms to suggestions from experts on how to solicit ideas and engage the public, more transparency is needed on how ideas will be brought forward to solutions. Innovation platforms need to have 3 distinct phases. Citizen involvement in each phase – other than in the Participation stage – is not outlined, nor is the relevance of the voting mechanism i.e. we don’t know if the ideas with the highest number of votes automatically go through to the semi-finals, or if there is a judging panel involved. Having citizen involvement throughout the engagement and implementation phases could be a significant tool in successfully implementing the winning ideas.

Overall the initiative is a welcome and positive development. I’ve already submitted an idea and hope to help develop others on the site. The competition is not just restricted to Irish people, but is open to anyone who has suggestions on how to create sustainable employment and prosperity for Ireland.

It’s time to get thinking. Over to you – Is leatsa e.

More about ‘Your Country, Your Call’

Should government outsource long-term or crisis-related social media?

Just noticed this contract solicitation submitted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a ‘professional media services company with experience and reliability in the deployment and delivery of professional broadcast transmission equipment and crews to various locations … used during pre- and post-declared federal disasters to support the OEA in its mission to prepare and disseminate information to the public.’

Having an outside contractor be heavily responsible for this role detaches the agency from its mission-critical work. I can understand services related to training and establishing processes that can then be left for agency employees to execute, but on-call assistance? Long-term or crisis-related social media and outreach should be the agency’s core focus.

What do you think?

From the solicitation:

FEMA’s OEA requires on-demand services of a professional media services company with experience and reliability in the deployment and delivery of professional broadcast transmission equipment and crews to various locations throughout the contiguous United States, Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealths of Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. These services are used during pre- and post-declared federal disasters to support the OEA in its mission to prepare and disseminate information to the public.

The contractor(s) will be responsible for working with FEMA personnel to produce and deliver pre- and post-event information, including public communications, through national and local news media, agency social media efforts, and situational awareness support of: the Agency Administrator’s Office, senior leadership, the Disaster Operations Division (to include the National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) and all Regional Response Coordination Centers), Headquarters, Regional Offices, Joint Field Offices, Transitional Recovery Offices, Long Term Recovery Offices, and other DHS/FEMA facilities.

(HT Washington Technology)