Month: July 2011

AchieveCity to offer municipalities free, open source government platforms


Firmstep has launched a new service called AchieveCity, a Web-based government platform powered by the Drupal distribution OpenPublic (developed by Phase2 Technology) and hosted in the Amazon EC2 environment.

Firmstep says five municipalities will go live in August, and those signing up now will launch beginning in September. Founder and CEO Brett Husbands talks with GovFresh about the new service.

What’s the technology driving AchieveCity and why is this important?

For the customer we try to keep the technology understanding to a minimum. We are working to get AchieveCity to be easier to try than setting up a wordpress site. Reducing set-up overhead by hosting as SaaS allows people to focus on CMS functionality rather than thinking about technology and makes it easy to try, it also means we can keep improving it more easily than with installed software.

The technology used is the OpenPublic distribution of Drupal 7 built by Phase2. This distribution is government focused and well proven by Phase2 who worked on and and that heritage is baked in. For any government organisation proven security and scalability are a pre-requisite. We have extended it, and we are making those contributions back to OpenPublic. The “Apps” model makes sense, and any developer can make an app and contribute it.

Drupal in Government has a really strong case and lots of good examples. Picking the most widely used CMS technology, estimated at 1.4% of all web use, is a good choice. With so many big organisations with complex needs using it, there are great reference sites and we are able to focus on what it does without getting bogged down in technical considerations, that have already been solved.

What features will municipalities have access to?

A great city website that looks nice, and is easy to manage. There is a lot out of the box with Drupal7, and then OpenPublic adds much more too. A great thing about the technology we are using is that it is easy to add more. A non-exhaustive list of features includes: Scalability, Robust WYSIWYG Editor, News Room, Breaking News, Page Preview, Search Site, Page Versioning, Blog, Website Statistics, Media Gallery, Content Organization, Taxonomy, Accessibility, RSS Feeds, Breadcrumbs, Intranet, Public Contact Form, Styles, Automated Logout, Publishing controls, Site Map, Calendar, Registrations for events, Maps, FAQs, Document Handling, Notifications.

We expect with each new customer more features will be added and best practices identified – and that will give a multiplier or network effect as each customer making an improvement makes that improvement available to everybody.

How are you going to sustain AchieveCity if it’s free?

The technology is free, and will always be free – the software and data are portable to other providers or can be taken in-house.

Obviously there are operating costs that we experience including hosting, bandwidth, and maintenance that we have to meet – and reaching the scale of use that those costs become an issue will be a nice problem to have that will be easily solved without disrupting service to customers. For the coming period we see this as an investment in a platform for government that we can easily afford to make. Inevitably there will be a need for services around the site and also for charged-for extra modules – we see that future revenue as being sufficient to continue to run the CMS service for free.

What type of government is a good fit?

In the pre-launch phase we have been working with several cities, a state, and a state agency, and departments within a large city. So we haven’t found an “ideal size” yet. The key feature is that they want to improve their website and be decisive.

See a sample site or learn more.

USDOT in the social media slow lane

photo by freephotouk

photo by freephotouk

The U.S. Department of Transportation is officially nowhere to be found in social media circles, but DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is everywhere, including Facebook, Twitter and Flickr (no Creative Commons). DOT does have an official YouTube channel, but most of the recent videos include LaHood in his “On the Go” video chat series.

While I’m all for high-level U.S. government officials engaging with citizens via social media, LaHood, a former seven-term politician prior to becoming Transportation Secretary, still appears to be on the campaign trail, making his persona the prime focus for the entire department. In fact, LaHood is the only Cabinet member to follow this practice. With the exception of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Facebook page being promoted on ED’s homepage (they do have an official Facebook page), no other agency follows this protocol.

Here’s why DOT is short-sighted in its approach to social media:

  1. No long-term strategy: When LaHood leaves, presumably the accounts go with him. Even if they’re the property of the U.S. Government, the branding transition back as official DOT accounts will be cumbersome. Basically, the next communications/social media department will start from scratch.
  2. No one knows Ray LaHood: With all due respect, he seems like a great guy, but no one outside of Washington, DC, knows who heads what agency. Everyone, however, knows what DOT is.
  3. It comes off as self-serving: When the agency itself doesn’t have social media accounts, but the Secretary does, the impression is that he’s still running for office or using his position to build influence for future gain.

Hopefully LaHood and DOT’s communications team can change lanes quickly and embrace a more comprehensive and sustainable social media strategy. Citizens (and taxpayers) deserve a more refined, strategic approach to outreach.

If not, does AAA service social media?

Here comes the Neighborland


Neighborland is a new ideation crowdsourcing startup that gives citizens a “fun and easy way for residents to suggest new businesses and services that they want in their neighborhood.”

Founded by Candy Chang, Tee Parham and Dan Parham, and funded by the Tulane Social Entrepreneurship program with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, it launched in alpha mode this June in New Orleans.

Co-founder Dan Parham shares his thoughts on the new venture.

What’s the story behind starting Neighborland?

Neighborland started as an off-line art project called ‘I Wish This Was‘ from one of our founders, Candy Chang. ‘I Wish This Was’ received great response from the residents of New Orleans and the press, and we realized there was potential for a new type of civic input tool to collect the same kind of conversation from the city’s residents. We took what we learned from ‘I Wish This Was’ and built a quick prototype of Neighborland in December.

In January, we applied for some grants, and Candy received an Urban Innovation Challenge Fellowship from Tulane University in February for Neighborland. The fellowship is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Candy spoke about “I Wish This Was” at TED in Long Beach in February on the TED-U stage, and announced that we were working on Neighborland.

We’ve been working on the platform this spring with our co-founder and Chief Engineer, Tee Parham. We just launched the alpha softly on June 1st. We will be doing a series of events in New Orleans this summer to promote the platform to all neighborhoods in the city. We are focused on accessibility through both analog and digital input from the residents of New Orleans.

We are currently looking for partners in New Orleans to help make some of the smart, feasible ideas on Neighborland a reality. We are also seeking angel investment, which will help us to roll out to other cities this year.

How is it different from other crowdsourcing tools?

We are 100% focused on making things happen. Our goal is to create a community, and empower them with information, tools and resources to effect real change in New Orleans. Our success metric is the number of new sustainable businesses that open here with Neighborland’s support.

Right now, we’re trying to facilitate a very specific civic conversation, so the design of the product is very different than other tools. We’ve worked closely with our community here in New Orleans to create a simple, fun, and intuitive design. The minimalism of the interface evokes the design of Candy’s public installations, and our upcoming street installations will amplify this connection.

Finally, our business model is different–we’re not charging cities to use the platform. We’re creating a new type of survey page that developers, property owners, and entrepreneurs can use to connect with neighborhood residents during the development process. We also hope to be able to sell marketing insights about neighborhoods as our community grows.

How do you plan to work with municipalities to leverage Neighborland?

We’ve thought a lot about how brands successfully engage with their audiences on Twitter. What if city leaders engaged with residents concerned about neighborhood development in a similar way? We are working closely with city government leaders in New Orleans to figure out the best methods for responding to input and providing resources, and will scale this out to other cities for our national launch (September 1st).

What have you learned so far?

We have a passionate and vocal community, and we listen to their feedback. We’re focusing on making it easier to discover interesting and popular ideas; displaying ideas on maps; combining similar ideas into trends; enabling messaging between supporters; and providing resources to help evolve ideas into reality. We posted some information and pictures from our first user research “hackathon” here.

Connect with Neighborland on Facebook or Twitter at @Neighborland.

Why the next SF mayor needs to understand open government

San Francisco mayoral candidates at SFOpen 2011, June 16. (photo by GovFresh)

San Francisco mayoral candidates at SFOpen 2011, June 16. (photo by GovFresh)

In August of 1993, San Francisco officially adopted the Sunshine Ordinance, a law that allowed any citizen to request city documents, records, filings or correspondence, attend meetings of any group that meets with the Mayor or city department heads and make any meeting of the governing bodies of certain local, state, regional and federal agencies attended by City representatives public.

We were pioneers in transparency and one of the first cities in the entire country to give our citizens this type of access to our government.

At the time, it was a revolutionary ordinance that would change the way San Franciscans engage with their representatives and inspire similar laws throughout the country.

Fast forward to 2011 where the internet has changed everything about the way we interact with our government and lead our lives.

The brick wall that used to stand between decision makers and the people they serve is eroding and there is an unprecedented level of access to our lawmakers, power brokers and elected officials.

If my parents wanted to hear from their congresswoman or supervisor when they were my age, they would have to write a letter and might wait weeks or even months for a response. In today’s world, we can post a question to an elected official on their Facebook page and hear back the same day. But in the age of Wikileaks, social media, blogging and hackathons, has our local government really caught up?

During my time as an intern in the New Media Office at the Obama White House, I oversaw weekly Facebook live chats between Senior Administration officials and the White House’s over 100,000 Facebook fans. My job was to read the questions coming in through the Facebook feed and send them on to the moderator. There was nothing more thrilling than seeing someone from their home in Ohio or Montana or California ask Ben Rhodes to explain his national security policy in Washington DC and get an answer in real time. That’s open government.

Yet despite the fact that we live in a city that is home to Twitter, Yelp, Zynga and many other leading tech companies our local government hasn’t quite caught up with the private sector we serve. Especially when it comes to using the technology available to us to keep our citizens aware and engaged and allowing them access to the inner workings of our city. That is essential if we want them to feel that they have a stake in the type of government we hope to create.

When President Obama first came into office in 2009, his administration made a commitment to transparency, participation and collaboration with with a pledge to strengthen an open government

Inspired by this effort, Luke Fretwell and Brian Purchia at GovFresh drafted a similar pledge that has already been signed by eight mayoral candidates: Joanna Rees, Phil Ting, Dennis Herrera, Leland Yee, David Chiu, Bevan Dufty, Michela Alioto-Pier, and John Avalos. Though spearheaded by a Gov 2.0 effort, the pledge recognizes that open government isn’t just about technology, as written:

“Open government is the movement to improve government by making government more transparent, participatory, collaborative, accountable, efficient, and effective. Open government will help build the public’s trust and satisfaction in government, will improve government’s delivery of services, and will create new opportunities for innovation.”

The reality is that one of the best possible ways to make government more collaborative, effective, and efficient, is to use the internet and the technologies available to our great city to create the opportunities for innovation that the pledge alludes to.

We’ve fallen behind on this effort and if we want San Francisco to be a leader in technology, it’s about time that we speed back up. The next Mayor of San Francisco will be responsible for making this a reality, so they better understand what open government means and have a plan for how we can enact it.

SF developers, journalists, civic activists kick off second Summer of Smart hackathon

Summer of Smart

It’s 9:15 on Friday night, and there are about 100 people milling around the GAAFTA headquarters. Wandering around, you hear one group talking about using current and historical MUNI data to, in the words of GAFFTA’s co-founder and Chairman Peter Hirshberg, “make the bus chase you, rather than you chase the bus.”

Another group is creating an app that works with the Mayor’s office of Housing and Redevelopment to show available apartments and co-working spaces in realtime. A third group wants to crowdsource available sustainability data to compare buildings in the city.

GAFFTA’s second Summer of Smart hackathon is off and running, and it’s bringing together architects, building engineers, journalists, Android developers – pretty much anyone you can imagine who might be interested in making their city a better, more responsive and more innovative place to live.

The first SoS, held the weekend of June 24th, focused on community development and public art. Of the seven projects that hackers put together over the roughly 24-hour hackathon, about half are still being worked on a month later, a much higher percentage than most hackathons have, says GAFFTA research director Jake Levitas.

What makes SoS different? It’s by design, says Hirshberg. “We picked areas that matter to the city,” he said, “Where you would naturally get geeks and activists who cared so they would stick around and become part of the dialogue. Some hackathons are more commercial, sometimes you’ll have one that’s around social media data and everyone shows up to show off the API from their startup. But this one is pulling people from the community, and so you get this really interesting group of people who really care about this type of data who have more of a diverse background, and are interested in producing results at urban scale.”

The final SoS hackathon, focusing on public health, food and nutrition, will be held the weekend of August 19th. The best projects from the three weekends will be presented to city officials and mayoral candidates at the Commonwealth Club on October 6th.

Five strategies to revive civic communication from The Aspen Institute, Knight Foundation

Last March, the Aspen Institute and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released the white paper Civic Engagement and Community Information: Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication (below). The report was by Peter Levine, director of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Included are action item recommendations for Congress, federal agencies, state and local governments, school systems, colleges and universities, foundations and citizens.

From the report:

In short, it remains to be seen whether the new communications media alone are adequate to the task of civic renewal. But certainly the old civil society is in deep decay, and we must rebuild our public sphere with new materials, as our predecessors have done several times in the past.

Strategies overview:

  1. Create a Civic Information Corps using the nation’s “service” infrastructure to generate knowledge
  2. Engage universities as community information hubs.
  3. Invest in face-to-face public deliberation.
  4. Generate public “relational” knowledge.
  5. Civic engagement for public information and knowledge.


Civic Engagement and Community Information: Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication

The 411 on the 311: Q&A with Commons founder Suzanne Kirkpatrick

Suzanne KirkpatrickWe asked new 311 iPhone app Commons co-founder Suzanne Kirkpatrick to share her thoughts on the new venture, 311 and trends in open government and Gov 2.0.

What inspired you to create Commons?

Sometimes moving to a new place gives you a fresh perspective on routine activities. When I moved to NYC two years ago, I was surprised to see so many opportunities for neighborhood improvements near my home and school, and I was fascinated by NYC’s highly utilized 311 citizen reporting system. It was clear to me that NYC citizens care about improving their city, and that our City government is committed to listening to its citizens.

But one thing that struck me about these analog and digital methods of reporting was that people were not reporting as a community — they were reporting as individuals — many people reporting in parallel without any shared awareness of one another’s activities. I then thought about designing a virtual social system that mimics the town hall meeting, where one person reports a problem or suggests an improvement, and 49 people “vote it up” (or in today’s terms, “like” it). In today’s super connected world, we need a civic engagement system designed to support conversation among many people at once – and that is how I came up with the initial idea for Commons.

Then I started thinking about the ways that I could connect to my new neighbors on the issues that I care about in our neighborhood, while on the go and in short bursts of focused time and energy, kind of like playing a game that is on-going over time and is something that you keep coming back to check and make a move. Citizens are now used to having a digital presence that is de-coupled from our traditional notions of time and space.

We have apps for citizen reporting of problems and complaints, like 311, SeeClickFix, FixMyStreet, and we have apps for sharing ideas for improvement, like Give A Minute (Local Projects), but I have this notion that these two worlds should be united in one as they seem like two sides of the same coin to me. I believe these two methods complement each other for a more complete civic engagement experience, and Commons aims to fulfill this vision.

I’m a graduate student at ITP in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where I study interaction design, social software, and creative technology, a graduate researcher at the NYU Polytechnic Social Game Lab, spring intern at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Digital Coordination, and summer intern at Apple doing mobile user experience design, so I spend a lot of my time these days thinking about the intersection of these things.

Aren’t there enough 311 apps out there? How is Commons different?

We think Commons is one of the first in a new genre of “civic gaming”, a new approach to take citizen reporting social. It’s a mobile, location-aware civic media app for urban communities that merges methods from traditional citizen reporting tools, with gaming mechanics and social voting.

We hope that Commons will challenge the ways in which people think about their role in their communities, and in civic life in general. We hope it will transform the way that we as citizens engage with one another about the issues and places we share in common, and how we approach solving many of our own problems before government even gets involved.

Commons provides a fun and constructive outlet for what is usually a frustrating experience of complaining about how broken your city is. And it goes way beyond reporting a pothole — in fact, if you report a pothole in the game, you most likely won’t win very many votes or kudos from your fellow neighbors because the game is designed to reward creative solutions and collaborative problem-solving. We already have apps and websites for reporting potholes, like SeeClickFix and FixMyStreet in the UK, and like the NYC Daily Pothole, so we’re not aiming to create another one.

In our 3 playtests and on actual game day, players said they really liked the positive social mechanics and voting aspect of the game, and how ‘community leaders’ seem to naturally emerge from the streams of activity.

I don’t think people need attractive game mechanics to want to get involved in community service or town hall meetings, or any other sort of activity. On the other hand, elements of fun and competitive play introduce opportunities for serendipitous social interactions and competing to do good, which I love. Doing activities with a thematic approach, or mission-centered perspective, helps keep people focused on the objective while having fun and making each individual’s input count.

How do you hope to officially integrate Commons with municipality 311 centers?

Commons is a social platform that leverages crowdsourcing and location-based reporting techniques to improve city services and standards of living. This civic engagement game is a way to connect citizens through the places they share in common, and to enable the government to fix the right problems, faster. Through Commons, local government can 1) receive accurate and timely information, 2) identify priority areas, 3) efficiently allocate resources, and, ultimately, 4) demonstrate accountability to its citizens.

Our goal is to build the next version of Commons as a cross-platform app on iOS, Android, (and possibly RIM in cities where it makes sense), with SMS integration and interoperability with Open311 technologies and read/write APIs for each city, so that 311 teams can integrate with Commons on the backend to pull its incoming data into their current operating centers and visualize trends from the data in realt-time.

It is our hope that the data gathered from Commons will be valuable to city governments and municipality 311 centers, whose mission it is to enable citizen-centric, collaborative government and to expand civic engagement through new digital tools and real-time information services.

What trends do you see occurring in open government / Gov 2.0 that you’re most excited about?

Commons is definitely Gov 2.1+, combining the powers of serendipitous social interactions, mobile crowdsourcing, and game mechanics.

Some of the rad trends in Gov 2.0 that I’m digging right now are: 1) cities supporting open data initiatives with read/write APIs, 2) mobile and location-based services, e.g. mobile banking, m-health, and m4d (mobile for development), 3) open standards for 311 services, like Open311, 4) citywide grassroots innovation contests, like NYCBigApps and DataSF App Contest, 5) open sharing of dev tools and code so we don’t all re-invent the same apps over again for each city, e.g. Code for America. I am also a huge supporter of bottom-up projects like Open Street Map, where citizens can collaboratively edit geographical data about their cities and neighborhoods and build useful and relevant maps from scratch.

Download Commons on iTunes.


Social Congress and the 21st century legislator

Brad Fitch, Congressional Management Foundation

Brad Fitch, Congressional Management Foundation

How is it possible, in the 21st century, that I can Skype with friends in China, keep up with my friends across the country via Facebook and exchange messages with the CEO of a startup I admire on Twitter, but yet when I try to communicate with my members of Congress, it seems like everything I do is swallowed up by the black abyss?

What? Maybe I should try tweeting to Senator Boxer, commenting on Rep. Nancy Pelosi‘s Facebook page or emailing Assemblymember Tom Ammiano? Come on, you’re joking, right? Doesn’t everyone in Congress think the Internet is a series of tubes?

Well, turns out I’m wrong. Not only is Congress up on their social media skills, but according to Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation:

Nearly 2/3 of staff surveyed (64%) think Facebook is an important way to understand constituents’ views and nearly 3/4 (74%) think it is important for communicating their Members’ views.

Fitch talked about how Capitol Hill perceives and uses social media at a #SocialCongress meetup Monday in San Francisco. He had some good news, bad news and interesting perspectives. (The full report will be released on July 26th.)

Bad news first: staffers agree that email and the Internet have made it easier for citizens to take part in public policy, but nearly 2/3 feel like they’ve reduced the quality of the messages they send, and less than half think that email and the Internet have increased citizen understanding of what actually happens in D.C. In other words, to quote Popvox CEO Marci Harris, “The internet has increased civic participation and lawmaker accountability but has not necessarily led to a more informed constituency.”

Great, now we have uninformed people writing to Congress. How does that possibly help our democracy? Well, as Thomas Jefferson said, “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” In 2005, CMF found that “Congress received four times more communications in 2004 than in 1995 – all of the increase from Internet-based communications,” and a 2008 survey by CMF and Zogby found that “43 percent of Americans who had contacted Congress used online methods to do so, more than twice the percentage that had used postal mail or the telephone.”

In this case, the good news and the bad news is kind of a mobius strip: more people are communicating with their elected officials. Those people may not be as well-informed as said elected officials hope them to be, however, the saying “the medium is the message” is more appropriate than ever when talking about the Internet. Senior managers and communications staffers on the Hill across the board said social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were vital to both communicating the Member’s views and understanding what constituents want. The key is doing more than just liking a status update, or leaving one-word comments on a link. To make an impact on your member of Congress, you have to discuss the impact of a bill on your state or district, give a reason for your support or opposition, or tell a story.

Gov 2.0 champion Tim O’Reilly asked the question that was on the minds of all the technologists in the room:

“It’s not just about reaching Congress,” he said, “but can we use technology to make Congress smarter? People in government are ready, they want to figure it out. We have to help them be more responsive, to be the government we wish we had.”

Can citizens get satisfaction?

Wendy LeaWhen we talk about open government technology, it’s often in terms of open data, open source software, social media or crowd-sourced ideation and 311 tools. What’s rarely discussed is a truly open, transparent and comprehensive platform where citizens can comment or ask government questions and get direct assistance from public servants or even their own fellow citizens.

New Web 2.0 customer service tools such as Get Satisfaction offer government an opportunity to connect with citizens online and real time in the most transparent way possible. While adoption is slow, and the NYC Comptroller’s Office are formally leveraging these options to address citizen service issues, share ideas, report problems and even accept praise.

Compared to the private sector, government has been slow to adopt this cloud-based, out-of-the-box option, but as the push for open and need for fiscal creativity become inevitable, ‘citizen relationship management’ is the new CRM.

We asked Get Satisfaction CEO Wendy Lea to share her advice on how government can leverage Web 2.0 tools to better connect with citizens.

Given the social software available today, where do you see the lost opportunities around citizen service?

It’s funny – we live in a democracy, and we have lots of formal ways for people to express their opinions to their legislators: elections, ballot initiatives, public hearings and so on. There are tried-and-true processes to collect, synthesize and act on the results of all those formal expressions of people’s will. But then, you have millions of people voicing opinions in these huge, informal – yet radically democratic – settings in social media. And what is government doing to be receptive to that feedback, digest it in a systematic fashion and then act on it, all in an open and transparent fashion? Not nearly as much it could. The structure just isn’t there.

That’s a huge missed opportunity – to listen and engage with citizens in a manner that isn’t surveillance, but has an open posture.

What are the biggest challenges around government adopting services like Get Satisfaction and how can they overcome them?

I think the biggest challenges are cultural. There’s fear of the unknown, and there’s the need to have policies in place to govern interaction with the public. Governments revolve around structure and process, and it takes a lot of time, energy and effort to get those into place, especially if you’re the first to implement something like Get Satisfaction. It’s like, do we stick our neck out and try it? What if it blows up? Can we wait and see if someone else does it first?

The other part of it is that there are an awful lot of ways for government to listen, both through traditional, offline methods, and through the many “listening” and idea apps out there. But there aren’t many applications – like Get Satisfaction – that are designed for engagement and dialogue. So you bump up against that fear of the unknown, and not having a precedent or procedure for open dialogue that’s designed for results. In order to overcome that, you’d need to see a mental shift from fear to anticipation – anticipation that by providing people with an open arena to express themselves, ask questions and submit ideas, you’re not exposing yourself, but you’re empowering others.

What are your (citizen service) recommendations for government?

1. Be helpful and use plain language.

Keep it simple, keep it friendly, don’t overload it with government jargon. Rethink how you talk to people, and how you convey information to them. Do it in a way that’s natural and friendly to them. This doesn’t have as much to do with social software, technology, or any of that – it’s more a reminder that it all boils down to communication and your organizational culture.

2. Use tools that are common in the real world: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and all the rest of it.

Part of being of the people and for the people is interacting with them and using the tools that they use; and going to them in their environment instead of expecting them to come to your environment.

3. Take service to people wherever they are – so that includes mobile, too.

Mobile-optimize all your services. Have a website that’s mobile-friendly, that offers services that people can actually complete on a mobile device. Right now, people have to drive all over town to go to the DMV, go to Social Security, go to the child services office. And a lot of that can be completed online, which, these days, means it can be completed on a phone.

Connect with Wendy on Twitter at @WendySLea or learn more about Get Satisfaction at