Month: August 2010

The future of the government forges

The GSA is currently planning forge.gov, which is widely assumed to be based on forge.mil, the much-discussed collaboration platform from the Defense Information Systems Agency, or DISA. forge.mil is a pretty incredible idea: a single destination for testing, certification, and software development in the Defense Department.

It sounds obvious, but the idea remains revolutionary. For the first time, there would be a single repository for source code that could be shared between the hundreds of agencies, commands, and programs in DOD. Developers would be able to share their work in a familiar, web-based environment. A previous version of forge.mil was pulled for unknown reasons, but the current iteration is based on the TeamForge product from CollabNet. If you’ve used SourceForge, you get the idea. The DOD is the largest consumer, and one of the largest developers of software in the world. Much of this software is redundant, locked up by vendors and integrators, can’t work with other software, and nobody remembers how to maintain it. There’s no doubt forge.mil was long overdue.

It’s dangerous, though,  to assume that forge.mil is a useful template for forge.gov. I think forge.mil could lead forge.gov down the same road as core.gov and other failed attempts to encourage source code reuse in government. To understand why forge.mil can be useful and simultaneously poisonous to forge.gov, you have to first understand how the DOD does software.

COTS vs. GOTS

Before, say, the mid-1990s, much of the DOD’s software was owned by the government. GOTS, or “Government Off-the-Shelf” as it’s now called, was built and maintained by the DOD and its contractors. This was appropriate for some military-specific systems, but the strategy outlived its usefulness when the government could no longer keep up with commercial enterprises. For many pieces of common software, like operating systems, spreadsheets and web browsers, the open market produced more innovative and higher-quality products. So down came the order: use commercial software. COTS (“Commercial Off-the-Shelf”) was ascendant.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and the other integrators no longer write as much software from scratch. Instead, their business model has changed. They now glue commercial software together, and wrote code to fill in the gaps. Their business model, however, remains the same. Instead of seeking rent on the proprietary software they’ve written on behalf of the government, they seek rent on the integration work they’ve done.

This is a lucrative business: the latest UAV is composed of hundreds of software systems, some commercially available, some written by the integrator. If I’m the integrator, I’m the only one who knows how all the pieces go together and I can charge a handsome sum to anyone who’d like to field their technology on my platform. Think of Apple’s locked-up App Store, but flying through the air with a missile strapped to its belly.

There’s nothing nefarious about this, of course. Integrators are doing what the market commands, and controlling access to platforms is an perfectly legitimate business model. It discourages reuse, though, which means that it’s difficult for the DOD to effectively use the software it purchased or developed. You can read more about this strange market and its consequences in the excellent “Losing the Softwar(e)” by my friend and fellow Open Source for America member, John Scott.

Openness as a Desperate Act

So Rob Vietmeyer of DISA decided to borrow from the principles of the open source community and Internet governance. A more open and transparent development process at DISA could remove barriers to reuse, encourage collaboration, and discourage proprietary or closed systems. COTS software is still king, but where the government needs to control its own integration, set its own standards, and exercise stewardship over its own infrastructure, it can still develop its own GOTS solutions — this time, in an open, collaborative manner. Where GOTS was once insular, slow-moving, and highly proprietary, it can now be produced at lower cost and with lower barriers to entry for new innovations. Because this “Open GOTS” is built using familiar open source methods, the projects have a fighting chance of working together.

The Walled Garden and the Moral Hazard

So far, the DOD software problem sounds similar to the government software problem. Don’t misunderstand forge.mil, though. It’s not your typical open source development environment. If you talk with the forge.mil project team, like Guy Martin of CollabNet, he’s quick to correct you if you compare forge.mil to SourceForge. forge.mil is something very different. With all the challenges of this profoundly broken market, forge.mil had to make some serious sacrifices.

The first thing you’ll notice about forge.mil is that you can’t get to it. Access to forge.mil is severely restricted. To get access, you must have an official DOD Common Access Card (CAC) or have a DOD employee sponsor you for an “ECA Certificate”. Dave Wheeler of the Institute for Defense Analysis describes it as “gated development.” On the mil-oss mailing list, this is referred to as the “CAC Wall”.

The CAC Wall has some unintended consequences, and raises some very difficult questions. First, it prevents many well-meaning developers who don’t work for the Defense Industrial Base from helping the projects inside. There are literally tens of thousands of developers behind that wall, and forge.mil keeps that group partitioned from both the public and government employees without CAC or ECA credentials. The bargain is that by keeping these undesirables out, they carve out a sense of safety so skittish program managers are more likely to host their code. The cost of that sense of safety is a much smaller audience than they could muster hosting on more public platforms.

The CAC Wall also creates a dangerous an incentive to split communities. What happens if someone in the DOD wants to hack on a piece of open source code? They’ll host the hack at forge.mil, and the public could never see those hacks again. If I’ve licensed my project under an open source license, it’s because I want others to contribute. If that code disappears behind the CAC Wall, I’m cut off from tens of thousands of DOD developers. This “forge.mil fork” scenario is serious business. It’s a scenario where everyone loses.

Finally, the CAC Wall may create a moral hazard for the developers who live behind it. In the open source community, folks are very careful about what code they commit, and since they’re never really sure who’s a friend and who’s a foe. In a community where everyone’s “trusted,” developers can become complacent, making them more vulnerable to poorly written or hostile code.

Despite these real concerns, the CAC Wall still makes sense for forge.mil. DISA has some very legitimate security concerns about the code that’s being developed. They’ve weighed that risk against the advantages of public scrutiny, cooperation with external projects, and they’ve made the informed decision to keep the code behind the “CAC wall”,  and to their credit they encourage forge.mil developers to contribute patches upstream wherever possible instead of hosting on forge.mil.

forge.mil as Role Model

So we have a kind of Judgement of Solomon in the forge.mil platform. Because of its very unique market dynamics, the DOD needs to take advantage of open source projects, the open source development model, encourage collaboration, and reduce its reliance on proprietary platforms. But for that to happen, DISA had to put all the work behind the CAC wall.

forge.mil has attracted the attention of other agencies. How could it not? The DOD has the worst-case scenario: the gravest problem, the most complex market conditions, and the most dire consequences. So other CIOs take notice and the press on this forge.mil experiment has been relentless.

This brings brings us to the news that the GSA’s Dave McClure is planning forge.gov, a civilian counterpart to forge.mil. This is exciting. This is also terrifying, because they seem to be following the forge.mil model by restricting access to only US citizens. Guy Martin says:

I realize that putting up a barrier to entry in the form of positive identification of US citizenship and a vetting process will irk some who believe that everything should be free and open…

Consider me irked. I want to be perfectly clear about this: the compromises made in forge.mil are dangerous for forge.gov. If forge.gov were to follow the forge.mil “CAC Wall” approach, it will permanently damage the “Open GOTS” movement.

forge.gov cannot be forge.mil

forge.mil may be instructive and inspiring, but it’s a corner-case and fraught with compromises that have diminished its utility. In the case of forge.gov, it would be hosting unclassified code for civilian agencies. There’s no need to create a “trusted” environment. There’s no need to verify the citizenship or security clearance of its participants. The standard open source mechanisms are more than sufficient: only project leaders can commit code to the repository, a semiformal review procedure for patches, and so forth. In any case, I’m struggling to imagine why the repository would be better secured by allowed access to 300 million people. Let’s agree that making US citizenship a prerequisite is counterproductive, unworkable, unnecessary and most important: it’s un-American.

The entire country of Jordan has adopted the VA’s VistA software for their national healthcare system. Countless overseas researchers collaborate with their US counterparts through open source projects. When we share our source code with the world, it improves the quality of the software and is, in fact, a uniquely practical kind of diplomacy.

Since we don’t need to control access to the projects as we do in forge.mil, I have to wonder why we would need a prescribed set of tools for hosting each project. TeamForge is a fine piece of software, but there are literally dozens of viable alternatives. Developers are very picky about their tools, and extremely picky about the version control systems that are at the heart of these code repositories. If we presumptuously select tools on their behalf, we create an unnecessary barrier to entry.

The ideal forge.gov is two forge.govs.

With this in mind, we should break the forge.gov project in two.

First, forge.gov is useful as a catalog of open source projects that are used and created by the civilian government, many of which happily reside on agency websites or public repositories already. Forge.gov could be the way that projects and developers easily find each other. The Freshmeat or Ohloh of government, if you like. Let’s call this the forge.gov Catalog. The forge.gov Catalog would be as inclusive as possible, tracking the progress of every Open GOTS project we can find.

There are still projects that need an infrastructure, of course, and forge.gov could provide that. The forge.gov Repository would be provided by the GSA as a service to agencies, and provide a complete development environment. Here, I’m thinking of github or SourceForge.

I think by splitting these roles, and avoiding the dreaded CAC Wall, we can include the largest possible group of contributors and take best advantage of the excellent open source work that’s already underway.

Am I missing something here? Is there a national security concern that I’m overlooking? Is there an advantage to a homogeneous set of developer tools that I don’t understand? Let me know.

Getting the BrightIdea: Crowdsourcing in government and enterprise

Gov 2.0 Radio talks with Matt Greeley of BrightIdea. BrightIdea has powered innovation campaigns for the government of Ireland, City of San Francisco and has a new contract with the U.S. State Department. It’s also the platform behind the $200 million GE Ecomagination Challenge. We talk with company co-founder Matt Greeley about challenges and best practices in ideation, innovation and crowdsourcing for government and enterprise.

[audio:http://www.blogtalkradio.com/gov20/2010/08/30/government-20-radio.mp3]

SF government innovators, entrepreneurs to showcase civic value of open data, open government at sf.govfresh

sf.govfreshI’m very excited about GovFresh’s first event next week, sf.govfresh, September 1, 2010, 6:00-9:00 p.m. Admission is free and will held in a beautiful space at Adobe‘s San Francisco offices (special thanks to Adobe for hosting and sponsoring this event).

The goal of sf.govfresh is to bring together public servants, citizens, civic developers and social entrepreneurs to network and learn more about San Francisco’s innovation, technology and open government initiatives. Together we can learn how government is changing the way it works and how we as citizens can change the way we work with government.

Presenters include:

Learn more:

Hope to see you there!

Granicus Open Platform delivers government content from the cloud direct to citizens

A while back I met with Granicus in their San Francisco offices and discussed the Granicus Open Platform, a cloud-based, software-as-a-service approach to delivering government content. Small towns, major cities, counties and a handful of state and federal agencies use the service (full list), which includes live stream public meetings, legislative management, training and citizen engagement and more.

Granicus CEO Tom Spengler sat down with GovFreshTV and discussed cloud-based software, open government and how his company fits into the picture:

15 federal government mobile apps for citizens on the move

When USA.gov launched a new look earlier this year, it released a mobile apps showcase to feature federal agency mobile applications to help citizens in their everyday lives. Here’s 15 you shouldn’t be on the move without.

Health and sustainability

Alternative Fuel Locator

Alternative Fuel LocatorVehicles that run on alternative fuels, or a combination of alernatives and gasoline, are becoming more and more popular – just yesterday I saw a new Jetta converted to run on vegetable oil! I’m holding out till I can get an alternative fuel flying car. In the meantime one of the downsides to, say, electric vehicles or those that run on hydrogen, natural gas, propane, you name it, is that they can be difficult to refuel if you’re traveling. We’re not quite at the point where electric vehicle charging stations are as ubiquitous as gas stations!

That’s where this app comes in. Find places to refuel your alternative vehicle – no matter what type of fuel you use – while you’re on the go and perhaps not familiar with the nearest station. It uses familiar, easy-to-navigate Google technology to map fueling stations, list contact information and business hours, and provide detailed driving directions and an instant phone connection.

Now you’re free to take to the open road in your alternative fuel vehicle!


EPA Mobile Web

EPA Mobile WebWhat really caught my eye with this app was the easy access to “Greenversations” – which is the EPA’s blog. But the mobile capabilities are nice to have when needing easy access to details and news about our environment.

Though the details here are probably nothing a quick Google search couldn’t turn up, sometimes it’s nice to skip the middle man so to speak, especially if you know what you’re looking for!


Fuel Economy.gov

Fuel Economy.govSometimes it’s discouraging to know just how much of a carbon footprint you’re leaving behind. But it’s necessary to educate yourself about what your contributing so you can know what to do about it. This app helps you figure out just that – as it specifically pertains to your vehicle. The results might be cringe-worthy but the knowledge can help you take the steps to rectify what ever earth not-so-friendly habits you’ve picked up.

This is an especially good resource when looking to purchase a new car as you can easily asses what type of fuel economy, fuel costs, annual petroleum use, and the carbon footprint of your possible vehicle.


BMI Calculator

BMI CalculatorIt’s no secret that Americans are getting more and more obese. But this app helps prove that knowledge is power! It’s one of the most popular tools on the NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Web site and provides a way for users to quickly and relatively easily get the information on their Body Mass Index (BMI) – is a reliable indicator of total body fat, which is related to the risk of disease and death.

In addition to that, the app provides links to healthy weight resources on the NHLBI Web site. So once you have the knowledge, you can actually do something about it. To be honest, I’m not sure I want the knowledge about my detailed BMI, but at least once I know what’s going on I can find healthy ways to address any problems that might be associated with my discovery!


My Food-ipedia

My Food-ipediaHere’s a conundrum: America is fast become an obese nation – yet many of us aren’t getting enough of the recommended food groups our bodies need. This mobile site helps you find nutrition information for just about every type of food you could consume! Cataloging the contents, calories, ingredients and so forth of over one thousand foods, this site gives you quick access to calorie amounts, contribution of a food to the five food groups, and number of “extra” calories in a fod from solid fats, added sugars, and alcohol.

It makes it easier to start of your journey toward healthy living by providing access to basic nutritional information. And if you’re already on the healthy living journey, the site can be useful for one-off inquiries about foods you’re about to eat or buy.


UV Index

UV IndexI often mistakenly assume that since I live in an often-foggy city like San Francisco I don’t have to worry as much about my sun exposure. Of course that’s a faulty notion and one that this site will seek to disabuse you of!

Simply enter your city or zip and the site will tell you how strong the sun will be in your area, what the index means how to protect yourself and so forth. I happened to check it today and it was a good thing I did – normally-foggy San Francisco had a UV index of nine today which is only one notch down from extreme exposure! Who would’ve thought?!

It’s especially useful as a mobile app so you know how much you need to cover up before heading out for your day.


General government

White House App

White House AppOne of the things the Obama administration vowed to do was create more governmental transperancy within the White House, and you can’t say they aren’t trying! In case Facebook notifications, Twitter updates and email alerts weren’t enough, you can access this app for the latest news from the blog and newsroom, featured videos and photos, and live video streaming of White House events with President Barack Obama.


USA.gov Mobile

USA.gov MobileThis mobile site makes it easy to access the important governmental information you’re looking for. Some mobile sites are tricky to navigate or make it difficult to find what you’re looking for on the mobile version, but this site is streamlined to help you access governmental data from a number of federal, state, and local government websites and contact your government by phone or email.


America.gov Mobile

America.gov MobileSlightly different from the USA.gov mobile site, the America.gov moile site provides mobile access to the State Department. They have a place for all the usual suspects like daily news updates, video segments and podcasts, but I think the thing it could be most useful for is the visa information it provides and the location information for various US embassies around the world. There’s been more than a few times while I was traveling when I’d wished for such easy access to embassies!


Government agencies

FBI’s Most Wanted

FBI's Most WantedIt’s likely that for most of us, under no circumstances will we be part of apprehending or spotting a wanted fugitive. That said, this app is epic! It’s simply the list of the FBI’s top ten most wanted but it’s still a pretty cool feature to be able to pull that list up on your phone with the ease of opening an app! The app includes the Top Ten Most Wanted, Most Wanted Terrorists, and Missing Children.

And if you do happen to have information on any of these cases, each picture has a link to provide the FBI with whatever knowledge on the fugitives. This application allows you to quickly identify Most Wanted criminals or missing children – which the average person could definitely find helpful.


FEMA Mobile

FEMA MobileIt seems like there are an endless number of jokes about how handy this application could’ve been years or even months ago, with various disasters, but it’s always best to be prepared and you never know what’s waiting around the corner. Really not trying to be a downer, but there’s no better time than the present to think about the future.

Plus, this mobile wesite for the Federal Emergency Management Agency does more than just provide advice and helpful information if you are in the middle of a crisis or natural disaster. The site also gives helpful information about how to be prepared for these situations and what to do to aid in recovery. To borrow from the Boy Scouts: be prepared! Don’t wait till you need this site to learn about how it can help!


Find Your Embassy

Find Your EmbassyI’ve mentioned how helpful I’ve thought it would be to have an app or a website that assists travelers with finding their embassies while abroad. I’ve never been in so dire a situation that I’ve needed the embassy (although I’ve been close!) but the smart move when you travel is to know where the embassy is in whatever city you’re traveling to. Again, it’s one of those things you need to know about before you need it!

So use and bookmark this mobile site, especially if you’re a traveler. Knowing where “home base” is while in a foreign country is crucial – but you likely won’t really need the knowledge until it’s too late to research it! Plan ahead and take a look around this mobile site.


NASA App

NASA AppAh, NASA. As a space brat whose dad worked with NASA and subsequently went into the space and satellites field in the Air Force, this app is probably my favorite and holds a particular power over me! The NASA app provides all kinds of news and information about the space program including videos and info on its operations – like the shuttle or the Mars rover.

But I can’t lie – one of the best things about this app is the awesome space images, pictures and photography. Oh, and you can plot the launch schedule too. And there’s info on the International Space Station. Ok – there are a lot of really cool things about this app and it’s perfect for space geeks like me or anyone else wanting to know more about the wild blue yonder.


U.S. Postal Service Tools

U.S. Postal Service ToolsIf you’re anything like me, you’re likely using post offices less and less. But when you need one, you need it ASAP: for things like sending birthday or holiday gifts, FedExing a lost rent check, or overnighting something your sister left when she came to visit.

This app helps ease your time of postal crisis by providing easily-accessible information on post office locations, collection boxes, pick up services, zip codes and more.


Veterans Affairs Mobile

Veterans Affairs MobileSometimes, waiting to answer an important question till you’re at your home computer just won’t cut it. When it comes to things like veterans benefits, healthcare, info for returning service members, their healthcare, mental care, education and so forth – you’ll need answers as quickly as possible. Which is why this mobile site is so crucial. Providing info and access to all these areas and more, the mobile site is easily accessible and gets vets the info on the services they need ASAP!


Spook developer speaks!

Matthew BurtonI had a chance to talk with Matthew Burton, the former intelligence analyst turned open source cause celebre who just launched a tool that helps frame and understand arguments with imperfect evidence. It’s based on method called Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH), which has been around for quite some time. Matthew and his friend Josh Knowles, though, have a tool that allows the ACH method to be used by multiple participants simultaneously. It’s fascinating stuff, so I’m grateful that he took the time to talk with me.

On a personal note: I’m delighted to see that Matthew is a fellow emdash enthusiast, as you’ll see below.

First, tell me a little about ACH and how you first became interested in the method.

In the fall of 2005, Dick Heuer, the creator of ACH, contacted me after reading an article I’d written for Studies in Intelligence. The article was about how Intelink could benefit by being more like the Web. Dick had been wanting for some time to build a Web-based, multi-user tool for ACH, so he asked me to build it. I spent the following summer at DS&T, interviewing ACH practitioners and trainers.

Intellectually, the most fascinating aspect of this project has been its applicability to groupthink and dissenting viewpoints. When I started, the Intelligence Community was still feeling the effects of Iraq WMD blowback. Dick referred me to a book, “Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes,” by Irving Janis (ISBN: 0395317045). It’s a fascinating book. Janis evaluates several US policy failures from the 20th century. He not only makes it clear that a groupthink tendency had a hand in misguiding groups of otherwise brilliant men (they were all men); he also pinpoints the moments where much-needed dissent and skepticism were quashed by the desire not to disrupt the camaraderie that comes with consensus.

In my summer at DS&T, I learned that this was a problem with ACH as well. The existing software couldn’t record multiple viewpoints, meaning dissenting opinions evaporated; and analysts had to state their opinions in front of everyone else instead of from the pressure-free environment of their desks. I saw a real opportunity to make a dent, however small, in the problems that lead to intelligence failures.

Are you dogfooding? Has the hyper-rationality of ACH slipped into your real life? Did you apply ACH when you asked your wife to marry you? :)

Ha! Fortunately, I can weasel my way out of that question just by explaining the purpose of ACH. It’s a tool for discovering facts–either has already happened, or what will happen in the future.  When it comes to questions that involve personal preferences, it’s not going to work so well, because its goal is to keep you from thinking subjectively about objective matters, not help you objectify the subjective.

Were you a developer first, or an analyst first?

I actually wouldn’t call myself a developer even now. I maintain the ACH code, but most of it was written by my friend Josh Knowles, a classmate from ITP who’s collaborated with me on several projects. But I’ve been a geek for a long time, having been neck-deep in the Web since I was 15. I took that knowledge–and my expectations for the national security structure’s technological prowess — into my job at DIA. That led to disappointment, so I channeled that negative energy into a desire to change how this place works.

Does your analyst interest complement your developer interests, or are they two separate things?

Most of the development projects I work on are meant to fix a problem that is consuming me, whether it be intelligence analysis, legislative transparency, or political campaigning. I mentioned I’ve been a geek for a long time. But I consciously avoided studying computer science in college because I didn’t want to code for it for its own sake, as an end; I didn’t want to end up building Web sites for online pet stores. Very soon after joining the government, I realized that my interest in technology could be used to further a bigger goal, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

If you developed this tool while a contractor, how did you end up with this code? What kind of hurdles did you have getting a copyright?

Josh and I developed the code ourselves, so that’s why I have the copyright. We did it in collaboration with both Dick and a DC consultancy called Pherson Associates. The Phersons—two retired CIA veterans—have been training analysts to use more structured analysis techniques like ACH for years, so they and Dick were there to make sure the software doesn’t betray the methodology. We built this for an intelligence community platform called A-Space, which was supposed to cater to outside developers, much like Facebook opened its platform to third-party app developers. But it’s been two years since A-Space launched, and neither the development specifications nor the purchasing mechanics have been defined. In that time, our own lives have changed: I’m an entrepreneur handling multiple projects in New York, and the Phersons are neck-deep in their growing training business, so it makes sense for us to take the ACH software in a direction that keeps us from having to maintain dozens of licenses while still allowing us to shepherd it. That means open source.

I know you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about licensing. Can you walk me through your thinking, and how it’s evolved?

It hasn’t evolved so much as led me in infinite loops. My goals for open sourcing the code are in some ways conflicting: I think ACH can help the world make better, more fact-based decisions, so I want it to be as widely adopted as possible. But I’ve been on a personal crusade to change the way the government buys software—namely, they should spend less on it and avoid vendor lock-in. So these two goals pull me simultaneously away from and toward copyleft. Beyond copyleft, the intricacies are so fine that I find myself unable to really comprehend the eventualities that my various options would lead to. When I reach that point in my thinking, I realize that I’m probably overthinking it, so I stop. Then I do it all over again.

It sounds like you feel as though open sourcing the code would lead to less use in the government? Can you unpack that for me a bit?

I feel as though certain FOSS licenses would lead to less government adoption than would other FOSS licenses. Specifically, the government relies on lots of proprietary legacy systems that would be contaminated by GPL code. And any intelligence agency that modifies the code would be loathe to share those modifications back to the world. So according to some people I talk to, the GPL is a non-starter. However, other people say that the copyleft provision would not be invoked simply by providing GPL code to government users, as such code is only being used internally. Different people have different opinions about the GPL’s acceptability in government, which makes me think that the fate of the software depends less on my licensing decision than it does on the worldview of the prospective user.  This realization takes me back to the end of that thought loop, where I feel like I’m overthinking it.

Who do you imagine using this software, beyond government? If I work in a group of analysts, it makes sense — but do you imagine other, commercial uses? Non-commercial?

On the commercial side, anyone whose profession requires them to use the facts at hand to figure out a puzzle: pathologists, investigative journalists, detectives, investors. I’m really excited about the non-commercial side. It’s been frustrating to watch political discourse in our country devolve into nonsense that is less about the facts and more about what “feels” right. This attitude is beginning to take hold of the policy process as well, and that’s bad news. I’m under no illusions that ACH matrices will start appearing on the Senate floor, but the idea of using ACH-backed arguments to explain policy proposals to lawmakers is intriguing.  I think this falls in line with the mission of Expert Labs, and I plan to reach out to them and see if we can do something cool together. I also think universities are a good fit for ACH, as college is all about challenging your preconceived notions and teaching you the meaning of rigorous research.

If I’m a developer who’s intrigued by the ACH idea, how can I help?

Go to http://competinghypotheses.org. There, you’ll find the repository, the code documentation, and information on how to join the community.

[The site will be live in about two weeks, Matthew and Josh are working furiously on it, I’m sure. For now, you can sign up to get notified when it’s up.]

So what’s next for you and Josh? What other projects are you working on?

We’re big fans of Stack Overflow, the Q&A community for developers. We think it could be a great platform for answering citizens’ questions about government: navigating bureaucracies and legal codes is very daunting, and finding answers to simple questions—how do I amend my tax return, how do I fight a parking ticket, how do I get a permit—can be extremely frustrating.  Government agencies are experts at making you wait in lines and on the phone. We know that they answer the same questions many times a day, and that private citizens can usually add valuable information (“Don’t go at 1 pm, it’s really busy”) that the government employees can’t or won’t provide.  We’d like to form a community of confused citizens and people who are willing to help them, so in between ongoing projects, we’ve been sketching out how we want to accomplish this — whether it should be done through Stack Exchange, whether we should build our own, etc.

[You can learn more about the project at http://govdecoder.com/.]

Finally, what’s your favorite government open source project?

I’ve never seen it in action, but DHS’s Virtual USA project sounds remarkable. On top of using open source software to build it, the objective of the project is to break another government taboo: sharing information with other agencies and levels of government. Having been an intelligence analyst who relied a lot on mapping tools and was constantly frustrated by the inability to share geographic data even within your own building, it’s apparent that if Virtual USA delivers, it’s going to dramatically change how first responders work.

# # #

I want to thank Matthew for taking the time to speak with me. I think the project is fascinating, and I can’t wait for it to launch.

Using Drupal as a prototyping tool

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.

Open San Diego, Go.USA.gov, USA.gov with Captura Group’s Jed Sundwall

We talk with Jed Sundwall of Captura Group about Open San Diego; Go.USA.gov, the .gov URL shortener; engaging Hispanics online, including those who prefer Spanish and prefer English; and the USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov social media strategies, and why they’re remarkable.

Listen

[audio:http://www.blogtalkradio.com/gov20/2010/08/16/jed-sundwall–better-gov-starts-at-home.mp3]

Are the reasons for using Twitter different across party lines?

TwitterThis post is meant to summarize a recent and well-publicized study of ours for those in the Gov 2.0 community who are interested in the key results, but do not have the time to read the paper.

It has been well documented that Republicans have a greater affinity to Twitter; despite the leading Twitter user being President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Our study asks: are the reasons for using Twitter different across party lines?

Data from the Twitter adoption decisions of the 111th House of Representatives suggests “yes.” Based on an empirical method that is used to back out latent preferences associated with adopting Twitter, the analysis yields the following:

1. Republicans who have sponsored a large number of bills are the most likely to adopt Twitter, while Democrats who have the strongest electoral support (from 2008’s election) are the most likely. But so what?

2. Well, the number of bills and the 2008 electoral support proxy for the perceived benefits associated with outreach and transparency, respectively.

a. Outreach operates as a means to diffuse information that works to a politician’s advantage, with the ultimate goal of (perhaps) getting bills passed. This advantage is especially useful if by using Twitter, a politician can generate public support for contentious policies, which in turn, yields support from ideological rivals they interact with – who also use Twitter. Our data seems to support this story, as Republicans who have sponsored a large number of bills and belong to committees with a lot of fellow Democrat Twitter adopters are the most likely to adopt.

b. Transparency is the conscience act of “being honest.” Politicians who have strong constituent support would conceivably have the most to lose by failing to maintain the public’s trust. However, politicians who have been in office for a number of years have most likely developed some level of trust, and are therefore less inclined to make conscience displays of transparency, like adopting Twitter. Our data seems to support this story, as Democrats who have the strongest electoral support and the least number of years in office are the most likely to adopt Twitter.

Outreach and transparency are both valuable to a healthy democracy, and to some extent, it is re-assuring that Twitter use is motivated by both reasons. An interesting counter-factual situation would be if the Republicans were the majority party. We may therefore ask in that situation: Is the desire to reach out to (opposing) voters strongest for “losing” parties? Our study certainly hints that Republicans are not only motivated to use Twitter as a means to reach out to their own followers, but also to Democrats, as they are more likely to use Twitter in cases where their district was overwhelmingly in favor President Barack Obama.

All-in-all, it would seem like Twitter is good for the whole Gov 2.0 idea. If Republicans are using Twitter as a means for outreach, then more bills may be passed (note: this has yet to be tested empirically, and still remains an open question for researchers). If Democrats are using Twitter as a means for transparency, then the public benefits from the stronger sense of accountability. Sounds like a more productive government to us.