Month: January 2012

San Francisco posts Open311 RFP

San Francisco has published a request for proposal to integrate Open311 with the city’s CRM software, Langan. Bid submissions are due February 3.

For questions or more information, contact Janelle Kessler at

From the RFP:

The 311 Customer Service Center seeks solution strategies and pricing schedules for Mobile and Web self service enhancements complying with the Open311 specification. The solution will provide public access to the City’s CRM application using the Open311 standard via an end-to-end connection from the web and mobile clients. City expects to license an existing software system, with defined enhancements to that system during the implementation.


City and County of San Francisco Request for Proposals for Open311 to Lagan CRM integration


City and County of San Francisco Request for Proposals for Open311 to Lagan CRM integration

How San Francisco can get its gov 2.0 groove back

San Francisco

There’s been a great deal of discussion lately around the topic of government innovation, especially here in San Francisco, with the appointment of a new chief innovation officer, a new “civic accelerator,” a new venture with a consortium of Bay Area technology companies and a new technology and innovation task force led by SF Mayor Ed Lee.

All signs point to a bright gov 2.0 future for SF but, before we get too excited, let’s look back so we can learn how to best overcome the past two years of innovation inertia.

These critiques and ideas aren’t meant to minimize the great open government work that’s been accomplished by key former and current officials. Good people inside SF’s government are doing the best they can with the resources and mandate they have, which much of the time appears to be limited.

Despite having one of the nation’s first open source procurement policies, initiated by former mayor Gavin Newsom in 2009, you’d be hard-pressed to find a line of code that’s not proprietary. One SF official once told me he almost lost his job advocating for the city’s use of open source software.

The city’s apps showcase was created using the open source platform WordPress, as was the open collaboration initiative website PolicySF, now both relics of the Newsom years. The latter has been abandoned completely and the former, apart from a site redesign, has been tucked away into oblivion. Newsom’s mayoral website,, was also developed in WordPress, however, Lee’s site at the same domain appears to now be powered by .asp.

Despite having one of the nation’s first open data directives, SF has yet to establish an aggressive mandate to make city data more public. In fact, the directive is no longer even accessible. SF’s open data portal, DataSF, had recent dataset additions in December, however, has been lackluster in its growth or general promotion of its offerings.

Since the launch of DataSF, the same applications have been touted as examples of open data inspiring entrepreneurial innovation. Those same apps are still the sole reference points for journalists, even as recent as this week.

One of the city’s most prominent open data applications, EcoFinder, is no longer available for download on iTunes. The app launched to much fanfare and featured in major news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Today, it is non-existent.

One unnamed civic startup tried collaborating with city officials in 2011, requesting access to specific departmental data, only to be told it didn’t have the capacity to do so. After seeing a demo of the startup’s app, the department managed to find the resources to mimic its functionality and launched an app of its own. The department has yet to make the data accessible and essentially monopolized a market when it could have simply fostered entrepreneurial innovation and saved taxpayer dollars.

When it comes to fostering civic entrepreneurship, the true shining star of SF’s open data efforts is Routesy, developed by Steven Peterson and sells for $4.99 on iTunes with a 4+ rating. To the city’s credit, it released the transit data, but not without a fight, and then just got out of the way. Routesy wasn’t developed with the help of a civic accelerator or hackathon. It was developed by an entrepreneur who leveraged public data to create an application which he now sells through a private sector platform and is forced to maintain a sustainable commercial offering by meeting the demands of the market and building on its success.

That’s civic innovation.

Ed Lee can change all of this, and he doesn’t need a task force to do it.

Here are a few ideas.

Build the best mayoral website in the world

The best way to show the rest of government you’re serious about making SF the next “City 2.0” is to practice what you preach. Build the best mayoral website in the world and, to prove you’re agile and truly grok the lean startup principles, launch it within the next month and leverage the civic surplus of the city’s world-class developer and designer community to help you do it (see New York City’s Reinvent hackathon).

Use ‘Built in SF’ technology

The SF Bay Area is home to the world’s most innovative technology companies, including Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and WordPress, to name just a few. Leverage these technologies and promote your use of it. As mentioned before, build the city’s web infrastructure on WordPress, host monthly tweetups and live YouTube question and answer sessions, document your days with Instagram. The opportunities to use these tools to better communicate with the city’s residents and promote the ‘Built in SF’ technologies are endless. NYC Mayor Bloomberg is a pro at this.

Go back to the (data) fundamentals

What’s old is new again, and that applies particularly to public data. Open data advocates applauded the city’s launch of DataSF, but little has been done or championed since. As proven by the Routesy example above, the easiest approach to sparking innovation is to release the data and get out of the way. Solicit feedback from the private sector on what data it would like access to, mandate agencies evaluate and release data, only procure software that has the functionality to push data outward and require every agency to prominently link directly to DataSF.

Leverage the civic surplus

Bypass procurement hurdles and limited development resources and leverage SF’s world-class designer and developer community to help build the fundamental technology infrastructure, such as agency websites and applications, especially for projects such as Open311 implementation. Host monthly “HackSF” codeathons at City Hall to build off specific requirements, developed by agencies or in collaboration with volunteer developers, and create a consistent sense of civic community.

Open source the infrastructure

Open source is a fundamental component of open government. Start by re-launching your website using open source software, preferably WordPress given the company’s affiliation with SF, and challenging (or mandating) other departments do the same, recognizing them with a monthly award or acknowledgement ceremony.

Give citizens a dashboard

Former Newsom advisor Brian Purchia recently recommended SF adopt the federal government’s IT Dashboard to help the city save money on technology projects and provide better insight into what its working on. Go beyond IT. Provide visualizations into all of SF’s public expenditures. It’ll keep you honest and make citizens happy.

These are the low-hanging fruits to true civic innovation and can be done over the course of a few months. An agile government and its leaders can implement and empower others to execute now, especially in a city who’s essence is the antithesis of bureaucracy.

We’ll know soon enough whether Lee truly groks the startup mentality of his constituency, just as NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore are doing, and can help SF get its gov 2.0 groove back.

‘Hacking Democracy’ and open source voting

Hacking Democracy, released in 2007, documents the improprieties and lack of security around proprietary voting software vendor Diebold Elections Systems. It’s incredible to see a group of citizens with little technical background become so passionate about a broken system that they delve deep into the intricacies of vote calculation, but also crack the code on an easily-penetrable software program.


“I think we, as election officials, need to be a little bit more demanding from the vendors as to the technical specifications of this equipment. The vendors are driving the process of voting technology in the United States. I would much rather at this point I think focus on allowing citizens to select technology that satisfies their needs.”

I’m not a voting software expert, but after watching this, I want to learn more about the work of the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation and organizations like it.

Would love to hear feedback and thoughts on the subject from others who know more about this.

PTI makes 2012 local government IT predictions

The Public Technology Institute released its list of “What’s Out and What’s In?” technology predictions for 2012 based on interviews with local government IT executives and vendors who service city and county governments.

For the most part, the lists are no-brainers with the exception of “CIO as Chief Innovation Officer” and “Mobile apps for information” trends.

As I’ve written before, innovation shouldn’t be departmentalized or pegged to one person, but should be encouraged based on clearly defined roles and objectives. As far as mobile applications are concerned, they’ll proliferate, but lean, smart governments will begin to build mobile-friendly websites or open their data for others to develop off, rather than invest in separate platforms and build multiple applications in-house.

Any comments on the predictions?


  • CIO as Chief Information Officer
  • E-Government
  • Custom software apps
  • Windows 7
  • Virtual reality
  • iOS (not really!)
  • Netbooks
  • PCs
  • Power through owning
  • Proprietary
  • Government owned data centers
  • Outdated emergency plans
  • Websites for information
  • Professionalized
  • BYOBottle


  • CIO as Chief Innovation Officer
  • M-Government
  • Software as a service
  • Windows 8
  • Augmented reality
  • Android OS
  • Tablets
  • Ultrabooks with touchscreens
  • WiFi
  • Power through sharing
  • Open Source
  • Cloud computing
  • Energy Assurance Plans
  • Mobile apps for information
  • Consumerized
  • BYODevice

LA beta tests first website redesign in 14 years that looks just like the one done 14 years ago

Government Technology reports that Los Angeles is beta testing a new website, the first major redesign in 14 years, but a cursory review of the homepage leaves me wondering why the city spent $100,000 on a usability expert to get essentially the same site it’s had since 1998.

Nearly every element of the current site is retained on the new one in either the same location or slightly re-arranged. Arguably, elements of the current version are much more helpful, such as direct links to connect with LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

One noted “major change” is a dynamic sidebar, updated every seven days, that generates information based on the city’s call center activity. According to GT, LA’s web services manager says, “If for example, there are high winds and then are a lot of calls about trees that are down, we might see that as one of the top requested services.”

In a real-time world, seven days is too late. The winds have come and gone and so should this redesign.

Overview of similarities to the current website and beta version:

  • Same 3-column layout
  • Same logo location
  • Same search location
  • Same navigation design treatment (and close to same taxonomy)
  • Same “highlights” box and location
  • Same mayor box (moved from left to right sidebar)
  • Same council box (moved from left to right sidebar)
  • Same neighborhood resources box and location
  • Same 311 box and vertical location (and font!)
  • Same quick links dropdown boxes
  • Same adopt a pet box and location

And that’s just the homepage.

LA needs to start from scratch, follow New York City’s approach to engaging the city’s designer and developer communities and deliver a website made for citizens living in 2012. Taxpayers deserve better.

Click images to expand visual comparison with noted similarities:


Simplified alternative perspective:


Jay Nath named San Francisco chief innovation officer

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Jay Nath has been appointed Chief Innovation Officer for the City and County of San Francisco. More about Nath at here on GovFresh and SF.GovFresh.

Nath on the value of a city innovation officer:

My interview with Nath, then Director of Innovation, and SF Chief Information Officer Jon Walton:

[audio:|titles=SF CIO and Innovation Director discuss city’s tech progress innovation]

Nath presents at sf.govfresh, Sept. 1, 2010, San Francisco:

Pittsburgh makes successful migration from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced the city has successfully transitioned its email service from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps for Government. According to the announcement, the city will save an estimated 25 percent in email support costs.

“Adopting Google Apps aligns with our goals to utilize the best, most innovative technology in order to modernize our government, cut costs and improve operational efficiencies,” Ravenstahl said. “We’re very excited about this new service and I’m very proud of all of our employees for adopting it so swiftly.”

(HT Sid Burgess)

Five ways governments can encourage civic startups

2012 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Civic Startup.”

With the growth of the open government movement and more and more governments embracing open data, we see an increasing number of useful civic applications being developed.  Every weekend hackathon spawns multiple projects that could potentially live on as a successful venture or company.

Some hackathons are specifically geared toward producing viable companies – this is exactly the approach that was taken at last November’s “Education Hack Day” in Baltimore.  At that event, the idea was to set up winners with as much expert advice and opportunity as possible to launch a business around their weekend project to help teachers.

Generally speaking, a “civic startup” is a startup company with a focus on civic improvement or social good.  They look and act just like other kinds of startups, but their aims are somewhat loftier.  ElectNext and SeeClickFix are a good example of a civic startups – their aim is to become profitable and viable (just like other startups), but if these ventures are successful they will impact people far beyond their direct customer/user base.

Everyone benefits when voters are more engaged and participate more regularly in elections, or when city neighborhoods are cleaned up.  We all get something out of the success of civic startups like ElectNext and SeeClickFix , whether we use them directly or not.  In this sense, we can describe these kinds of startups in economic terms – civic startups are those that generate a positive externality.

Some civic startups are direct consumer of open government data, like RailBandit which uses data published by public transit agencies.  Other civic startups – thought this type seems especially rare – might potentially offer goods and services directly to governments through the standard procurement process.

There are ways that state and local governments can help startups and encourage the startup community.  Some governments (usually at the state level) provide early-stage funding for technology companies – the Maryland Venture Fund is a good example of this.  State and local tax policy can also be used foster and encourage high tech startups.  But these options have become more challenging for governments in recent years because of financial strain and tight budgets.

In 2012, I believe that state and local governments will connect the dots on open data and begin to see it as a viable economic development tool for encouraging the development of new businesses and the creation of civic startups.

Here are five steps that governments can take to help encourage and foster the growth of civic startups in 2012:

1. View open government data as an economic development tool

Transparency and visibility are the most common arguments used to justify open government data programs, and the are both strong and compelling.  But there is another argument this is just as compelling – that by releasing data collected and maintained by government agencies in useful, developer-friendly formats that governments can encourage the development of new businesses.

I’ve made this argument before, as have many others.  It’s time for governments to adopt the mindset that open data is a tool in their economic development tool kits.  This change in thinking will directly impact the quantity and the types of data sets that are opened up for developers to use.

2. Codify open data requirements

If entrepreneurs are going to build businesses around open government data, they’ll need certainty that such data will be released in a complete and comprehensive fashion, and that it will continue to be released in the future.  Attracting investment for civic startups will be more difficult without this level of assurance and commitment from governments.

A good example of open government data drying up can be seen in Philadelphia. Until early 2009, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health had published a listing of restaurant inspections on its website. This kind of data has been used in several municipalities as the basis for new civic applications, and both Chicago and New York City publish this information for developers.  However, in early 2009 Philadelphia stopped publishing this information, and the web page where it once resided is no longer active.

It’s hard to build a business around data that might not be there in the future. That’s why governments need to formalize their commitment to open data.  Mayoral directives and executive orders – like Baltimore’s – are great.

Ideally, however, this commitment should be enacted in statute so that it is less likely to change even with the election of a new mayor or governor.  This will give civic startups greater certainty and allow them to more easily attract investment.

3. Reform the government procurement process

I think it’s awesome that public sector CTO’s like Chicago’s John Tolva are taking about civic startups and encouraging business development through open government data.

In a recent blog post, Tolva mentions the Chicago Lobbyists project which is powered by data released by the city.  In his post, Tolva points to the group behind this website’s decision to respond to a city RFP for an online lobbyist registration system as evidence of progress:

Clearly the process was eye-opening. Consider the scenario: a small group of nimble developers with deep subject matter expertise (from their work with the open data) go toe-to-toe with incumbents and enterprise application companies. The promise of expanding the ecosystem of qualified vendors, even changing the skills mix of respondents, is a new driver of the release of City data.

As encouraging as this development is, it seems pretty unlikely to have the the desired impact unless significant changes are made to the city’s procurement policies.

In their RFP response, the Chicago Lobbyists group described the Chicago procurement process this way:

Responding to an RFP for the City of Chicago is a herculean task… this approach to an RFP results in proposals from one type of contractor: firms that are very large and able to jump through all the hoops that the City has to ensure the minimum amount of risk and liability for the City itself.

I don’t mean to single out Chicago here – Tolva and his boss (Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel) are among the most enlightened public officials in the country when it comes to open data and citizen engagement.  Chicago’s procurement practices are probably more like procurement practices in other cities than they are different.

Pubic procurement policies weren’t built with startups in mind.  But given the vast sums spent by state and local governments on technology and software, this could be an immensely powerful avenue for encouraging new businesses and civic startups.

4. Showcase civic applications and companies

One of the most effective and lowest cost steps states and local governments can take to support and encourage civic startups is to showcase civic apps.

I’m always amazed when I see cities – like Baltimore – that have robust, developer-ready open data portals yet no centralized listing of apps built with city data.  What’s the point of encouraging developers to use your data if you’re not going to then encourage citizens to use their apps?

Both San Francisco and Philadelphia have nice application showcases that could easily be emulated by Baltimore and other cities.  There are also other, stand alone app directories – like City-Go-Round for transit apps – that developers should be encouraged to utilize when promoting their applications.

5. Manage expectations

If civic startups are anything like their non-civic counterparts, many of them will fail.  This is the reality of the startup ecosystem – lots of companies, many of them with great teams, awesome technology and a hot idea, just don’t make it.

The failure of civic startups – whether powered by open data or selling directly to governments – shouldn’t be used as the basis for political outrage.  A failed civic startup doesn’t translate into an indictment of a government’s open data program, although some might try to characterize it this way.

Although there isn’t anything to stop those that want to use the failure of civic startups as a way to make political hay, supporters and advocates can go a long way toward mitigating this if expectations are properly managed.

Open data and civic apps aren’t a panacea for the problems of governments, they are but one tool in the vast toolbox that governments have available to them to provide services to citizens and do all of the other things we expect governments to do.

The interesting thing about the idea of civic startups is that if governments embrace open data and encourage it’s widespread use, they may find that they are able to encourage new business development while at the same time making their own burdens a little lighter.

NIC wins $30 million Texas contract

The Kansas City Star reports e-gov services provider NIC won a $30-$35 million contract from the Texas Department of Public Safety. The contract runs through August 2016 and includes “motor vehicle inspection-related services, criminal history records, concealed handgun regulations and salvage regulation.”

The Star also says “according to NIC, the work will require a ‘significant investment’ by the company to rebuild the state agency’s database.”

That’s one serious schema.