Month: July 2010

Open source in government: Who was first?

Brian Purchia of Burson-Marsteller has a post here on GovFresh about the value of open source to unions. His argument pivots on cost-savings. I think you could make a more expansive argument that includes risk mitigation and innovation, but describing the advantage to unions is an interesting angle I hadn’t seen before.

I noticed that Brian repeated the misunderstanding that San Francisco had the nation’s first open source policy. I don’t want to diminish his larger argument, but it’s important that we give credit where credit’s due. So for the record:

  • July 1, 2004: OMB issues OMB-04-16, making clear that open source can be used in the Federal Government
  • October 16, 2009: The US Department of Defense CIO issues a memo reiterating that open source software is commercial software for procurement purposes, and encouraging DOD branches to include open source when they’re picking software.
  • September 30 2009: Portland, OR is the first city to issue an open source policy.
  • January 7, 2010: California‘s open source policy is published.
  • February 1, 2010: San Francisco, CA issues their open source policy.

These are just what I could find, of course. If you know of others, let me know! If you’d like to see a comprehensive history of open source battles in national and state governments around the world, CSIS maintains an annual survey intuitively titled “Government Open Source Policies“. Even just skimming it, you’ll be surprised at how little progress the United States has made in open source policymaking.

An open source union movement

Earlier this year, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ignited an open source movement in government when the city approved the nation’s first open source software policy. Now, another movement — labor may be getting behind this effort. I have been asked to speak with Local 21 of Professional & Technical Engineers (IFPTE/AFL-CIO) today about Gov 2.0 initiatives I helped lead for Newsom and why unions should embrace open source technology.

Open source saves union jobs

San Francisco’s legislation came about from a combination of factors, but the primary one was the City wanted to save money without laying off employees. Reducing the millions of dollars that were being spent on software licensing fees and other proprietary software was a no brainer for city leaders facing a half a billion-dollar budget deficit.

The first-of-its-kind policy requires that open source be considered equally to commercial products when buying new software. Instead of paying software-licensing fees year after year, under the direction of the City’s CIO, Chris Vein, and the Department of Technology the City opted to train employees with new skills.

San Francisco decided to invest in people and a new open source government.

It all started with a tweet

Last week, former Local 21 President Richard Isen (an app developer for the City of San Francisco) and I were talking about what I should talk about later today. He reminded me how the open source movement in San Francisco government started with a tweet.

Eighteen months ago, Mayor Newsom was at Twitter headquarters for a conversation about technology in government. During the town hall Newsom received a tweet about a pothole. He turned to Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams and said let’s find a way for people to tweet their service requests directly to San Francisco’s 311 customer service center.

Three months later, San Francisco launched the first Twitter 311 service, @SF311 allowing residents to tweet, text, and send photos of potholes and other requests directly to the City. As it turns out, Isen was the app developer on the project.

Working with Twitter and using the open source platform, CoTweet Isen turned @SF311 into reality. Normally, the software procurement process for something like this would have taken months. Instead from idea to implementation it took less than three months. Oh and the latest reports show @SF311 is saving the city money in call center costs.

Security in open source

Craig of Craigslist always reminds me when talking about open source to highlight the added security and stability of open source over proprietary software. I won’t get into it here but I recommend reading Sun Microsystems President & COO Bill Vass’ blog about the topic, “The No. 1 Reason to Move to Open Source is to IMPROVE Security.”

Unions for open source

Since the launch of @SF311, San Francisco has continued to utilize open source software to expand city services while reducing costs and implementation times from to the first national API for government. Meanwhile, open source legislation has spread from California to Vermont.

Unions should join the Gov 2.0 effort and make the open source movement their own. Demanding that more local governments pass open source legislation will save taxpayers money and protect union jobs.

British Columbia Climate Action Secretariat James Mack on Apps 4 Climate Action

British Columbia’s top climate protection official and Gov 2.0 Radio host Adriel Hampton discuss how hackers and open government data are helping Canada tackle global warming (British Columbia Climate Action Secretariat James Mack on “Apps for Climate Action).



Lockheed goes open source. Blankenhorn hates it.

I was really pleased to read the announcement that Lockheed Martin's social networking platform, EurekaStreams, was released as an open source project today. Lockheed is a very conservative company, and while they're happy to use open source internally and on projects for their customers, this is their first experiment with actually running a project themselves. I think it's a big deal, not just for Lockheed Martin, but for large corporations who are considering a more open, more innovative approach to software development. And yet, Dana Blankenhorn hates it:

I don’t see anything in Eureka Streams I can’t do in Drupal, or a number of other high-quality open source projects that have existed for years. Lockheed has reinvented the wheel — why?

So here's the nice thing about the open source community: competition. If I think I've come up with a better way to solve a problem, it can easily compete with the incumbents. Low barrier to entry, we say. Let the best ideas win. Unless, apparently, the best ideas come from a company I don't like.

Then things start going sideways:

The author of Eureka Streams, who goes by the name Sterlecki at Github, has left no previous tracks there. Linkedin lists the same picture as belonging to Steve Terlecki, a Lockheed software developer.

The stuff’s legit, so we’re left again with the question of motive. Is the military-industrial complex reaching out to open source, is this just proof of press reports showing our spy efforts have more bloat in them than a Macy’s Thanksgiving float, are we being co-opted, or am I just too suspicious?

Wait, what? Open source advocates have, for years, been trying to encourage more code to come out from behind corporate skirts. Where companies can build business models around governing and supporting open source projects, we want them to take the plunge. If more code is open, that makes everyone smarter. And that, my friends, is exactly what Lockheed Martin did today. Someone who probably never contributed code in their lives just gave the community a project they've been working on for months, or even years. I think that's amazing. In return, this brave developer gets painted as a nefarious secret agent out to steal our thoughts and bug our laptops. Or whatever.

So here's the great thing about open source: we can prove Blankenhorn wrong. They use the Apache license, and it's on Github. We can go through the code and find backdoors, secret plans, and mind-control rays. This reminds me very much of the reaction to the release of SELinux. Conspiracy theories everywhere, but code is auditable and now it's in the mainstream Linux kernel. Do we really want to throw out these contributions, when code doesn't lie? When it's so easy to ensure there's nothing nefarious inside?

You can feel however you like about Lockheed Martin or the US Department of Defense. You can choose to contribute to the project, or not. You can choose to use the software, or not. But is it in the community's interest to summarily dismiss contributions based on those preferences? Lockheed's thousands of developers are sending up a trial balloon. If they fail, we lose access to those developers forever.

I think this kind of fearmongering is exactly what prevents large corporations and government agencies from releasing their code. These knee-jerk reactions harm the open source community at large. We pride ourselves on our meritocracy. A 14-year-old in his mom's basement is the same as a 30-year-old Lockheed developer is the same as a UNIX graybeard. You are just as good as your contributions. We need to welcome Lockheed's contributions, not throw them back in their face. Whether the project is useful or not, they've enriched the open source community. Let them succeed or fail on their own merits. If they do fail, we hope that they'll do better next time. Maybe this is a Drupal-killer. Who knows? Let's give it a try.

The opposite of open government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government, citizen developers join forces to build new Federal Register 2.0 Website

Federal Register 2.0The Federal Register has launched a re-design of its Website, The new site is XML-based and was developed using open source code (now available on GitHub).

“The Daily Journal of the United States,” the FR is managed by the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) and serves as “the legal newspaper of the U.S. government and contains rules, proposed rules, and public notices of federal agencies, as well Presidential documents.”

U.S. Archivist David Ferriero said this about Federal Register 2.0 on the White House Blog:

“Federal Register 2.0 takes into consideration the 21st century user and turns the Federal Register website into a daily web newspaper. The clear layout will have tools to help users find what they need, comment on proposed rules, and share material relevant to their interests. In addition to greatly improved navigation and search tools, the site will highlight the most popular and newsworthy documents and feature each agency’s significant rules.”

The idea for the re-design originated from Sunlight Labs’ Apps for America 2 contest. Developers Andrew Carpenter, Bob Burbach and Dave Augustine from WestEd Interactive built, “The Federal Register at your fingertips” and won second place. They caught the attention of OFR, who contacted them to help with the official re-design.

A list of new features can be found here and more information about GovPulse and its technology can be found here here.

Video history of the Federal Register and overview of Federal Register 2.0:

Video overview with developers:

Frugal innovation: What governments can learn from emerging markets

Many governments are facing a perfect storm: smaller budgets, less staff, higher citizen expectations, retiring baby boomers, legacy systems and broken processes among other obstacles.

The Economist recently featured a special report on innovation in emerging markets. This report discussed how companies in the emerging markets, especially India and China, are forging ahead faster and smarter than the rest of us here in the so-called rich countries.

One of the articles within this report caught my attention. It discussed in detail the concept of ‘Frugal Innovation (login required).’ I think this concept applies to government organizations during these tough economic times. The companies mentioned in the article have mastered the ability to constantly squeeze costs out of everything they do while continuing to reach more and more customers. Applying this approach to government can help local, county state and provincial organizations deal with the position they find themselves in today where budgets are tight yet citizen and management expectations are increasing every day.

Frugal innovation doesn’t mean just coming out with low-end products or services. It involves rethinking the whole process of how you do work in a way that helps minimize costs while still allowing for increased service levels. The article offered several examples of companies in emerging markets that have adopted frugal innovation to deliver better results, and I got thinking about how governments can adopt the same mindset.

There are three key concepts that I think governments can adopt from these emerging markets. These are quite bold statements and not always possible for governments, but you would be surprised to know that they are already taking place in governments across North America.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Focus on your core business and contract out the rest – Governments are realizing that they are in the business of protecting and serving the citizens and not in the business of writing software applications. This is one reason why we are seeing a huge push towards Commercial Off The Shelf solutions and away from custom applications. This also applies to how governments deliver services. The City of Arlington, Texas, has a program called Code Rangers, where citizens are trained in the most common code enforcement violations to help with bylaw enforcement issues and has outsourced several inspections to third party firms all because they know their core focus.
  2. Use existing technology in imaginative new ways – The world where every department within a government organization bought their own siloed workflow application for its own purpose where it didn’t have to share data with the rest of the organization are gone. Also gone are the days where governments could easily find and retain talented IT staff to sustain all those applications. When Province of Nova Scotia was asked to quickly develop a tax rebate system by the Premier, it had a couple of options: build from scratch or see what existing technology they can leverage. Within a matter of months, Nova Scotia had a rebate system up and running on a COTS platform. The City of St. Paul, Minnesota has leveraged its existing permitting software to also automate its internal IT support and ticketing functions. On a personal note, I’m excited to see that governments are using existing technology in such creative and imaginative ways. This imaginative thinking has helped government agencies deliver more services with less costs, effort and resources.
  3. Apply mass production techniques in new and unexpected areas – If you were to walk into the first floor of city hall or the building department of City of San Jose, CA, City of Arlington, TX, or Orange County, FL, you will see a well laid out and planned One Stop Shop for Permitting. Where previously, the permitting process was disjointed, these organizations have setup a One Stop Shop to manage large volumes of customers in a streamlined and efficient manner. The sheer volume of applicants these organizations face has forced them to rethink their processes, specialize its people, and leverage various technologies to deliver the required results.

These are tried, tested and true concepts that have been proven successful in business and are being proved in governments today. Challenge yourself, your team, and your organization to adopt the ‘Frugal Innovation’ mindset, and I promise you, you will be building a stronger foundation for the future.

In discussion with Australian Sen. Kate Lundy

In Discussion with Sen. Kate Lundy: The G2R crew talks with Sen. Lundy about Australia’s recent Declaration of Open Government, the AU Government 2.0 Taskforce, public sphere discussions around open government, the National Broadband Network (delivery of a fiber at 100Mbps to over 90 percent of Australians, with rural areas getting 12Mbps via wireless or satellite), and the controversy over a proposed Internet filter in Australia.



Zuck, Biz, Caterina pitch Code for America Fellows program to developers

In a new public service announcement from Code for America, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Biz Stone and Flickr/Hunch founder Caterina Fake pitch Code for America’s Fellows program, which aims to recruit developers and designers for public service-oriented development projects. The spot also features CfA Executive Director Jen Pahlka, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and CfA Board member Tim O’Reilly.

From CfA on the Fellows Program (application here):

If you’re a developer, designer, or product manager with a desire for public service, this is your opportunity to build the next generation of Gov 2.0 apps for city governments. By leveraging your unique skill set, you will bring improved access to information and government accountability to the local level, and you will change the way citizens and cities work together.

CfA ‘What if …?” PSA:

Tim O’Reilly interviews Jen Pahlka: