Month: January 2013

NationBuilder brings community software to government

GovFresh highlights the products and start-ups powering the civic revolution. Note: This is not a product promotion or endorsement. Learn how you can get featured.

NationBuilderNationBuilder Vice President of Community Adriel Hampton introduces the company’s newest offering, NationBuilder Government.

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

NationBuilder Government is a unified web, communications and CRM database solution – at less than $100 a month for most entities (yes, really).

What problems does NationBuilder solve for government?

Governments of all sizes struggle with listening well to feedback from a growing number of communications channels. The challenge is to provide better customer service, and to do it cost effectively.

NationBuilder is a unified organizing platform that’s designed to improve the efficiency of communications and constituent/customer service staff.

What’s the story behind NationBuilder?

We’ve been around for a few years, but just launched our Government Edition earlier this month.

Jim Gilliam founded the company after personally seeing the power of people connected by the internet as family and friends helped him get a double-lung transplant six years ago. I met Jim in 2009 while I was running for Congress, and joined NationBuilder as employee number 3 in May 2011.

Doing internet software for government better, more efficiently, is extremely important to me. There’s no reason to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for these technologies.

Why should governments use your SaaS product and not an open source alternative?

Haha, I asked for that, right? So, open source projects have greatly helped to lower the costs of providing services over the web. We use a number of open source technologies including Ruby on Rails and PostgreSQL and Liquid (a templating language that we’ve helped extend) – that allow companies like ours flourish at very low cost.

Instead of paying millions of dollars a year in licensing, we’re able to offer end-to-end solutions to cities and officeholders for just hundreds of dollars a year.

Open source products are never free for government – they require technical staff and consultants. We value transparent pricing and require it from our partners, and provide a comprehensive, regularly updated solution that does not require a tech team to implement or maintain.

What are NationBuilder Government’s key features?

Interactive websites, email and text blasting, and constituent services tracking.

With NationBuilder, a government office can manage events, log and track issues, send email newsletters, and manage social media communications and an entire website all in one place.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Our pricing is based on the size of your database – the smallest plans are $19 a month, a large city with 50,000 people on its email list would pay $499 a month with no limit on administrative users.

How can those interested connect with you?

Gaming the future of government

Connected Citizens

On January 22-23, the Institute for the Future will host Connected Citizens, a 24-hour collective forecasting game to “to rethink and reprogram government services for a complex and connected world.”

IFTF Research Director Jake Dunagan shares the vision behind it and how you can participate.

What’s the objective behind Connected Citizens?

The goal of Connected Citizens is to bring together people from around the world to rapidly generate as many forecasts, ideas and comments about civic technology and citizen engagement as possible in a 24-hour period.

How will it work?

Using our Foresight Engine, a platform we’ve developed to facilitate collective forecasting, players can come to www.connected-citizens.org at noon pacific time on January 22, watch a scenario video we created to spark conversation and begin playing forecasting cards. Cards are limited to 140 characters, but the conversations are threaded together, and can grow to dozens of cards. Game mechanisms allow players to accrue points based on number of responses and special awards given by our game guides.

What are its longer-term goals?

The long term goals of Connected Citizens are associated with ongoing initiative at IFTF called the Governance Futures Lab. The Lab will explore new governance structures and processes, and bring together a community of social inventors to tackle the biggest challenges of governance in the 21st century. Also, all the data from Connected Citizens will be available, and we encourage others to use, analyze, or visualize it as they see fit.

How can people connect with you to learn more?

People can visit www.connected-citizens.org and register now for the game, and follow our blog at www.blog.connected-citizens.org for more information and updates.

CivicMeet January: Sacramento, SF, Vancouver

CivicMeet

January CivicMeets will be held in Sacramento, San Francisco and Vancouver (Rumor has it Oakland is starting one soon).

Dates/locations:

Sacramento
Jan. 24, 7:00-9:00 p.m.
Register

San Francisco
Jan. 22, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Register

Vancouver
Jan. 23, 5:30-8:30 p.m.
Register (waiting list)

Get involved

Is Piwik government’s ‘open’ alternative to Google Analytics?

Piwik

I was recently tipped off to the open source web analytics software Piwik and wondered how viable an option it is for government as an alternative to Google Analytics.

Piwik has an impressive list of features and has been downloaded more than one million times. While it doesn’t appear to be heavily-adopted by the public sector within the United States, there are a number of international governments using the software.

Curious to learn more, I asked one of its creators, Matthieu Aubry, to address some of the security, privacy and scalability issues that might be of concern to those in the public sector interested in using it.

Why would government consider an open source analytics software like Piwik when Google Analytics (and others like it) are already free?

One of the principle advantages of Piwik is that you are in control. Unlike remote-hosted services (such as Google Analytics), you host Piwik on your own server and the data is tracked inside your MySQL database. Because Piwik is installed on your server, you enjoy full control over your data.

For many governement agencies (outside the United States), respecting the privacy of their citizens is a critical aspect, and it would be complicated to send their visitors data to Google for various reasons. When using Google Analytics, all traffic patterns are sent to Google, which can figure out a lot about these individuals from data mining across all websites in the world using Google Analytics (more than 60% of all websites). Laws like the Patriot Act in the United States makes it theoretically possible for the U.S. governement to get access to this valuable data without due process.

Piwik is a great alternative for governement to take back control of their data, respect their visitors’ privacy and keep costs manageable. If you are using Google Analytics and starting to use Piwik, you can import your Google Analytics data history into Piwik.

Is there commercial support available?

We provide Piwik premium support as well as consultancy services for Piwik setup, special configuration, management of your Piwik and implementation of custom features (part of our roadmap or not, included in core or custom plugins).

In 2012 we have seen an impressive increase in popularity about Piwik, and we have been lucky to work with many customers (startups, big enterprise, web agencies, advertising networks) to implement and tune Piwik for their needs.

Also, the community offers free support in our active Forums.

The product tracks visits, so can I set it up to comply with the government privacy rules?

Piwik is the leading web analytics software when it comes to respecting user privacy.

Privacy is “built-in” Piwik, with four main features that enable advanced privacy policies:

Step 1) Automatically Anonymize Visitor IPs
Step 2) Delete Old Visitors Logs
Step 3) Include a Web Analytics Opt-Out Feature on Your Site (Using an iFrame)
Step 4) Respect DoNotTrack preference

Can it scale to handle the kind of traffic a government agency would get?

If you have a few hundreds visits/page views per day, Piwik should work fine “out of the box.”

In the last year we have made major performance improvements. Piwik can now scale to millions of page views per month and/or to thousands of registered websites. At least two users even broke the one billion page view counter in Piwik.

Contact us for professional support and guidance about managing a high-traffic Piwik server.

Demo video

9 ways to make your government website better (Part 1)

I spend a lot of time on government websites.

I probably hold the world record for number of government website visits.

Having recently gone on a whirlwind, marathon tour of the .gov web, I was a little more than taken aback by what I perceive to be standard web practices that are consistently not being used by government.

In an effort to help others, here’s a random, whimsical list of recommendations I have for government website designers, developers and social media managers to help make the web user experience better for citizens and journalists (I’m calling this “Part 1” because I may revisit this in the future with additional recommendations).

Be responsive. Any government that doesn’t incorporate responsive web design into their websites from now going forward is not thinking strategically. This is not a complicated request of your web team or vendor, especially if you’re launching a new site. Just tell them “we want responsive design.” Before you develop a mobile website or application, invest that effort and resources into integrating responsive web design into your web presence. This will save you time, money and the citizen experience will be seamless and much more enjoyable.

Don’t create separate websites for agencies and senior-level executives. I’ve often clicked on a link to an agency or executive-level official only to find myself in a completely different place on the Internet. The user experience is disjointed, and it’s a waste of money to develop an entire web project for what could be folded into a uniform interface and development environment.

Get a content management system. It’s clear many government websites still are using static pages. Adopting a content management system not only separates the design from the content, but it forces you into a different mindset with respect to delivering information to citizens. If money is an issue, there are a number of world-class, free content management systems you can use.

Create a /social page. Everyone is using Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and other social media platforms. Government is no exception. Create a single page on your website (yourdomain.gov/social) that serves an agency/executive directory with all related social media accounts, including email subscriptions and RSS feeds. Give users one page to see all the ways they can connect with you. Make this accessible from every page of your website.

Incorporate reliable search. This is a little tougher, but in a world of Google, most web users these days are search-savvy, and it will be the first option used to find information (especially if you site isn’t well-organized). As with content management systems, there are freely-available search options to incorporate into your site relatively easy (and free).

URL/social media naming conventions for senior positions should be generic. When I see an elected official using a URL naming convention that incorporates his or her name, I see a lost opportunity for continuity. As a citizen, if I’ve bookmarked your page or followed your account on social media platforms, I lose a critical connection with government once you leave office or move to a different position. It’s fine for an official to have his or her own account, but there should always be an official, regularly updated companion.

Create an agency contact page. Similar to /social, an accessible /contact page that includes agency listings with email, phone, mail contact is critical, especially for journalists. As with /social, make this accessible from every page of your website.

Give Flickr photos some love. Photos are one of the most powerful ways government can communicate with citizens. They’re also a great resource for bloggers, journalists and online news outlets. When uploading to Flickr (or any other photo-sharing platform), make sure to flag as government work or no rights reserved so that others know they can freely repurpose (most government works are, but it’s confusing to see “All rights reserved”). Also, be sure to add titles and descriptions (including date and location) for context.

Make it easy to subscribe via email. Email is still a valuable way to connect with citizens. Create a simple subscription form and request just an email address. The more fields you add, the less likely someone will subscribe. One recent form required name, email, phone and address. You don’t need any of that.

I would love to hear from others on best practices or ideas not being leveraged but should be.

Civic accelerator Tumml to host ‘Urban Innovation and the Role of Government’ talk

Urban ventures accelerator Tumml will host a panel discussion, Uncharted Territory: Urban Innovation and the Role of Government, on January 28 from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. at the Hatchery in San Francisco (Register here).

The event will focus on the rise of urban innovators and how entrepreneurs and government can collaborate to further innovation and improve cities.

Panelists:

  • David Chiu, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors
  • Logan Green, Co-Founder and CEO of Zimride/ Lyft
  • Molly Turner, Director of Public Policy at Airbnb
  • Moderated by Peter Hirshberg, Board Chairman of the Gray Area Foundation For The Arts

See a related post on the subject from Tumml co-founders Clara Brenner and Julie Lein here.

Captricity frees government data from paper captivity

Captricity co-founder Kuang Chen. (Photo: Captricity)

Captricity co-founder Kuang Chen. (Photo: Captricity)

GovFresh highlights the products and start-ups powering the civic revolution. Note: This is not a product promotion or endorsement. Learn how you can get featured.

What

Captricity

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

Captricity solves the “paper problem,” unlocking digital, machine-readable data from paper quickly and accurately (even with handwriting).

What problem does Captricity solve for government?

Many government agencies still rely on paper-based data collection workflows, yet need machine-readable, digital data to function day-to-day and respond to increasing calls for open data and transparency. Getting the information off paper and into electronic systems is a major bottleneck: manual entry is slow, often inaccurate, and keeps government employees from directly serving citizens. Existing software options, meanwhile, are costly, hard-to-use and often not able to read handwriting.

Captricity offers an easy-to-use solution, combining the best of machine learning and human intelligence to capture digital data faster than manual data entry and more accurately than software-alone.

What’s the story behind starting Captricity?

Captricity was born of founder Kuang Chen’s graduate research at health clinics in Uganda. There, the relatively few trained health workers spend a disproportionately large share of their time wrangling paper files. They needed a better way to process large amounts of data collected on paper, like HIV treatment visit records. Chen began working on a new approach that would maintain the benefits of paper (the lights go out regrettably often) but also enable the benefits of electronic systems.

While completing his PhD at UC Berkeley, Chen thus teamed up with co-founder Jeff Lin, and former product manager at Microsoft (and rockstar – literally) to take Kuang’s notion of human-guided machine learning and turn it into a cloud-based service that anyone can use. Finally, as a Code for America Accelerator company, Captricity was introduced to the need that exists in government as well as the opportunity to advance open data initiatives; see our open data portal.

What are its key features?

First, the secret sauce (Captricity’s unique combination of human workers and advanced computer vision and machine learning), generates highly-accurate data far more quickly and at lower cost than manual data entry, but more accurately than computers alone could. This special combination also makes Captricity scale easily to meet your needs: you can upload 100 or 100,000 forms at a time – we just put more processing power behind your work. It also keeps your information private and secure.

Second, Captricity is a cloud-based service, so there are no drawn-out installations or pricy software upgrades (think Salesforce.com vs SAP). Set-up is fast and easy, and there are no contracts required, giving you the flexibility to upload however many forms you have, whenever you want. You can even go back and look at the actual handwriting or text that generated the digital data.

Finally, we’ve packaged all the complex technology in a simple, beautiful, easy-to-use interface that you can customize to your needs with no programming at all. If you can draw a box with your mouse, you can use Captricity. We’ve also released a mobile app and a RESTful API so that you can plug our service into a workflow or database/software application with as little hassle as humanly possible.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Users pay based on the number of pages they process and the amount of information they want to extract from each page. Currently, you pay just $0.20 per page to get your data processed; there are discounts for high volumes and the first 10 pages are free. You can check it try it out, totally for free, right now, at captricity.com.

How can those interested connect with you?

Video

Captricity demo from Captricity on Vimeo.

‘Making’ government

MIT Technology Review Editor David Rotman’s commentary on the difference between makers and manufacturers applies to what’s happening with government these days around open data applications, open source software development and civic hackathons.

Rotman’s editorial is a critique of former Wired editor and author Chris Anderson’s new book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.

Substitute ‘government’ with ‘industry’ and ‘civic hacker’ with ‘maker’ in the excerpt below:

But to get anywhere near Anderson’s lofty goal of revolutionizing industry, individual makers and small startups will have to collaborate not only with each other but also with large industrial firms. And to do that, the maker movement will need to be more curious and knowledgeable about how stuff is actually made.

If the government ‘maker’ movement can grok this, 2013 will be the year of the civic hacker.

More importantly, the ‘large industrial firms’ (government) must realize they play a crucial, proactive role in encouraging this.

(HT Alex Howard)