Month: February 2013

Help crowdfund this open source city book

The Foundation for an Open Source CityJason Hibbets is a great guy and a true leader in the open government community, and he is asking for your support in helping fund the first 500 copies of his upcoming book, “The Foundation for an Open Source City.”

I’ve read early drafts, and this is an important book for government and the general civic technology community.

From Jason:

In my book, I explore what it means to be an open source city using Raleigh, North Carolina as an example. I highlight the elements of the open source culture there and provide insight into Raleigh’s government policies and economic development in order to create a guide for other cities who want to or are currently pursuing an open source city brand.

Whether it’s $5 or $500, please take the time to contribute and help Jason get this book published.

Is San Francisco sittin’ on the dock of the open data bay?

San FranciscoIn October 2012, in the form of proposed legislation, San Francisco announced it would appoint a chief data officer to “be responsible for sharing City data with the public, facilitating the sharing of information between City departments, and analyzing how data sets can be used to improve city decision making.”

Nearly five months later, the city has yet to follow through on its open data promise.

“Making City data available to everyday citizens will help government explore new solutions to old challenges,” said Mayor Ed Lee in a press release announcing new proposed open data legislation. “Changing Open Data policies can unleash the creativity of the private sector so they can help us improve City services that impact our lives, from transportation, to how we access our parks, to how we request City services, making San Francisco the leader in Gov 2.0.”

“Strengthening our Open Data law will help us use technology to make government more efficient and accountable,” said SF Board President David Chiu from the same release. “San Francisco created an incredible model for government encouragement of Open Data, but now we need to take our efforts to the next level.”

Unfortunately, San Francisco missed a great opportunity to position the new appointee during this past weekend’s 2013 International Open Data Day Hackathon, and there are no signs it will do so in the immediate future.

When Philadelphia issued an executive order in April 2012 announcing a CDO position, the city appointed Mark Headd within three and a half months.

In the city with a technology culture that prides itself on rapid execution, what is taking so long to finalize the legislation and getting the position filled?

FreshWrap: Code Corps, open data census, Philly property calculator, Hawaii data bills

Here’s what made my radar this week. Share your open government news in the comments.

Hawaii has not one, but two open data bills in the works.

Philadelphia launches an open data-powered calculator to estimate real estate tax under its Actual Value Initiative (Mayor Nutter video, more from Philly MDO and deeper details here).

The Open Data Census tracks the state of open data globally.

Register for next week’s CivicMeet Vancouver.

Ottawa launches its second “Apps4Ottawa” contest.

Name That Neighborhood: Click that ‘hood! was built by Code for America’s 2013 Louisville fellowship team.

Oakland jumps on transparency bandwagon and pulls ahead of SF in the Bay Bridge Open Government Series.

Alissa Black: Sunshine May Disinfect but It Does Not Always Lead to Engagement

Germany’s open data portal gets slammed.

Four years in the making, Sunlight launches Open States (video).

Fees impede government transparency.

UK: Public sector staff know open data matters but fail to get government plan (I blame Dominic Campbell).

Is unequal participation open government’s unresolved dilemma?

New York City launches Code Corps, a kind of Code for America for emergency and disaster recovery.

San Francisco’s new License123 gives small business owners all the permits they need to open shop in SF.

Nick Grossman at it again: When venture capital meets networked activism.

Videos from NYC Data Visualization With Web Standards meetup.

Max Ogden on open data:

BillTrack50 wants to make it easier to search, engage with legislation

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.

BillTrack50Karen Suhaka shares her vision for BillTrack50.

Give us the BillTrack50 elevator pitch.

BillTrack50 provides convenient and user-friendly 50-state legislative data to both citizens and those with a professional interest.

What civic problem does BillTrack50 solve?

We are making it easier for citizens to research what their state legislature is doing about topics of interest to them, and look at trends and across the country generally.  We’ve also given them the information they need to follow up with their representative, if they like.  More importantly we have tools to help individuals and organizations more easily share information about pending legislation.  For example see:  The embedded bill tracker is our stakeholder page tool; we keep the basics updated — add relevant bills that get introduced, keep up with the latest status, votes, etc. Then the mayor of Missoula can add whatever additional information they would like to share with their residents, such as their position on each bill.

What’s the story behind starting BillTrack50?

I am a serial entrepreneur, and most of my businesses have revolved around compiling publicly available data from state governments, and making it useful to consumers and businesses. After selling my last company I started looking for ideas for a new business. I came across the concept of online legislation tracking, and thought it would be great to break it wide open, and make it available for free for everyone.

We launched in March of 2012, and already have close to 2,000 registered users. However anyone can read bills on the site, registered or not, and in January of 2013 we passed 1,000,000 bills read on the site. People are embracing the ability to share bills they think are important; some share privately to an internal group, but most share publicly.

I think there are lots of smart people in our country, and somewhere someone has a good idea about every challenge we face. I want to get those people informed, and connected, to build a better country for everyone. It especially behooves people in government to stay aware of, and participate in, the democratic process as it relates to their area of expertise.

What are its key features?

Anyone can search for bills or legislators for free, and get a wealth of up-to-date information.  Subscribers can save searches, set up alerts, and share their bill feed with others. The key feature that make all of our services useful is that the bill text and other information is open to everyone. So it’s easy to put our widget on your page to share bills you care about, and your readers can click through and learn more without any barriers. We also have a tool to make it easy to rate legislators and create a graphical, interactive scorecard on your site.

We have also processed all of the bills into uniform structured xml, which allows us to so some neat tricks, like comparing bill texts to see what has changed between revisions.  Having the bills as data also allows me to do fun mathematical analysis, which I share on my blog.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Basic access is free. Searching for bills requires you to register, which is free, you just need to give us your name and email. Subscriptions to save searches and user our other tools start at $500/year. See our product comparison matrix for more details.

How can those interested connect with you?


Oakland pulls ahead of SF in the Bay Bridge Open Government Series

OaklandIt hasn’t garnered the accolades San Francisco historically has, but it appears Oakland is starting to pull ahead in the Bay Bridge Open Government Series.

The active OpenOakland team, with its weekly meetup, first CivicMeet Oakland, community-driven open data platform, CityCamp Oakland, Oakland Wiki and upcoming Open Data Day Oakland hackathon, is quickly becoming the civic hacker model for all other metropolitan areas.

The city is also showing signs of open government adoption, including its willingness to collaborate with OpenOakland, launching a new official open data portal and hosting Code for America fellows this year.

While San Francisco has adopted some of the above, with the exception of the CfA fellows program, much of its open government achievements were accomplished during the Gavin Newsom years. And, surprisingly, an organized civic hacker community has yet to emerge.

In recognition of OpenOakland’s work, Oakland’s city council recently passed the following resolution:


WHEREAS, Open Data represents the idea that information such as government databases should be easily and freely available to everyone to use and republish without restrictions; and

WHEREAS, Open Data increases transparency, access to public information, and improves coordination and efficiencies among agencies and partner organizations; and

WHEREAS, access to public information promotes a higher level of civic engagement and allows citizens to provide valuable feedback to government officials regarding local issues; and

WHEREAS, this month Oakland has formally announced the launch of its open data platform “,” that will serve as the central repository of the City of Oakland’s public data, such as data on crime, public works, public facilities, and spatial data, allowing all users to freely access, visualize and download City data, enabling public scrutiny and empowering the creativity of civic-minded software developers; and

WHEREAS, Oakland was honored to be selected as one of only ten cities in America to participate in the 2013 Code for America (CFA) program, where three CFA fellows will work with the City to identify web-based solutions to break down cumbersome bureaucratic processes and emerge with better systems that will help cut costs, increase efficiency, and provide better service to the public; and

WHEREAS, Open Data activists have recently founded the civic innovation organization Open Oakland – a Code for America Brigade, which meets every Tuesday evening in City Hall, bringing together coders, designers, “data geeks,” journalists, and city staff to collaborate on solutions to improve Oakland’s service delivery to all citizens of Oakland; and

WHEREAS, on December 1, 2012 Open Oakland produced the first ever “CityCamp Oakland,” inside city hall, where over 100 stakeholders came together to discuss solutions to improve Oakland; and

WHEREAS, Oakland recently launched a community engagement web site called
“,” to encourage community ideas, feedback and suggestions to help shape, grow and sustain the healthy future of Oakland; and

WHEREAS, “February 23, 2013 is International Data Day,” a day in which citizens around the world will gather to access Open Data, write applications, create visualizations, publish analyses, and encourage the adoption of open data policies at the local, regional and national government levels; and


WHEREAS, on February 23, 2013 at Oakland’s 81st Avenue Branch Library, Open Oakland, in honor of International Open Data Day, will host a day of “hacking” public data and building data visualization tools to help explain data and make stronger community-government connections; therefore be it

RESOLVED: That the City Council hereby declares February 23, 2013 as Open Data Day in the City of Oakland; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED: That in honor of International Open Data Day the City Council hereby recognizes and salutes Open Oakland founders Steve Spiker and Eddie Tejada; Oakland’s 2013 Code For America Fellows Richa Agarwal, Cris Cristina and Sheila Dugan, and Oakland’s Code for America sponsors: The Akonadi Foundation, The William H. Donner Foundation, The Robert A.D. Schwartz Fund, The Mitchell Kapor Foundation, Accela and Pandora, for their service to the City of Oakland and its citizens.

Park.IT or ticket

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.

Co-founder Manohar Kamath shares his vision for Park.IT.

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

When you drive into a busy city like San Francisco, the problem is where to park, as the parking occupancy is often over 95%. Second question, can I park here and will I get a ticket? creates happy drivers driving in cities like San Francisco, by helping them avoid parking tickets or tow away charges along with parking (street and garages) choices at their fingertips.

What civic problem does it solve?

People on average spend 20-30min of their time searching for parking. This adds to the city traffic congestion leading to unhappy drivers. Park. it Lite App help drivers find on and off street parking, obey city parking laws and reduce pollution from traffic congestion. Overtime with large user base, Park. it will have collected enough user data/behaviors to develop parking analytics which can help city government and local businesses to provide incentives for people to make San Francisco their favorite destination.

What’s the story behind starting

Myself (Manohar Kamath) and Calvin Liu are the founders of . The company was founded in the year 2010. We worked together in Semiconductor and EDA industry. I (Manohar Kamath) live with my family in Fremont and visit San Francisco often for business and pleasure. Every time I faced the problem of finding parking, may it be in the financial district, North beach, Fisherman’s wharf, AT&T Park, theatre areas etc. Invariably ended up parking in garages (which can be expensive) due to the fear of getting a parking ticket or being towed away not knowing the parking rules. Calvin on the other hand, has been living in San Francisco downtown for over 10 years and faces the challenge of having to remember to move his car for street cleaning and has gotten his car towed away due to parking sign changes. We also have stories from friends and family who are new to the city and have racked up hundreds of $$ of parking tickets. All of this, set us on the quest of solving this parking problem in metro cities.

We launched the first Beta version of the App (both on Android and iOS) in Dec 2011. This helped us in user validation. We started out with a subscription model (monthly and/or yearly) but soon found, people didn’t like to create accounts and provide credit card info. We also received feedback from users about usability. Inspite of these issues, we saw large number of users downloading and continuing to use it till today.

For the last several months we worked on fixing usability issues, removed the need for users to create accounts and provide credit card info. Beginning 2013, Lite was released.

What are its key features?

Find parking either around where you are at or near your driving destination in the following manner,

Specify a parking duration (30min to 3 days)

Enter your driving destination address (Type or Speak) OR select current location. Currently Speak (Voice to text) is only supported for the Android platform.

Choose to display only what is desired: No parking areas, Street parking and Garage parking

In-phone notification in case the specified parking duration is exceeded or instant alerts like active tow away, street sweeping, or incline parking. This saves you getting parking tickets from PEO (Parking Enforcement officer).

For metered street parking or parking garages, the cost per hour is shown.

If SFPark metered spaces with sensors are available, the number of open spaces are displayed on real time basis.

Displays (Red hat Pin) your parked spot in case you have forgotten.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Freemium model

Park. it Lite (Free version) with advertising currently available on Google Play and App Store.
Park. it Premium (paid version) with no advertising and special features will be made available in the future.

How can those interested connect with you?






FreshWrap: Advice to civic hackers, open data field guide, paint your city

There were a ton of great civic stories this week. I used to do a weekly “FreshWrap” highlighting these, and I’ll try do this regularly when I can, so here’s the first attempt back.

Here’s what made my radar this week.

Commentary on Knight’s open government challenge includes civic hacking advice from TechPresident Managing Editor Nick Judd and a reply from Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd and Upworthy senior engineer Ryan Resella. See also what Global Integrity says the challenge tells us about open government.

Didn’t know Nick Grossman was activist in residence at Fred Wilson’s Union Square Ventures, but here’s a great talk on peer progress and regulations 2.0. Will more VCs follow suit?

Socrata releases an “Open Data Field Guide.”

The Guardian Data Blog and Google are hosting a open government data visualization challenge.

Greece gets a CKAN-powered open data platform.

Does big data open government and foster innovation?

Open Banking Project aims to bring financial transparency to organizations.

Interested in speaking at the 2013 National Association of Government Webmasters National Conference?

Atlantic Cities profiles Derek Eder‘s work: Chicago’s Secrets, Revealed Through User-Friendly Apps

For the designers out there, Brand New links up to a microsite on New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual.

Take back your city with paint:

Visualize this: 32,000 DC Bikeshare Trips (VIDEO)

The Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C. has been on my dataviz short list since I first took a crack at Boston’s Hubway data last fall. At the urging of a fellow Urban Planning student and bona fide NYC bike nut, I set out to bring the D.C. system’s open data to life. (The Capital Bikeshare is run by Alta, who will also be implementing Citibike in NYC this year)

In the 32,000 trips included in the 5-day sample, rush hour surges, pulses of local traffic, cross-river commutes, and 3 a.m. Sunday morning “Rides of Shame” can be seen throughout the city.  Trip starts are represented by Blue dots, which quickly fade away.  If the trip ended at a different bikeshare station (as most do), a moving yellow dot appears, covering a straight-line path between the start and end station.  Weekday peaks occur at 9 am and 6 pm, and system appears to be well-used all day long on the weekends.

Capital Bikeshare opened their data in early 2012 and has been useful for visualizers and transit developers alike.

Funding open government

The Knight Foundation recently announced it is launching a news challenge beginning February 12 that will allocate $5 million in funding to innovative open government projects.

As part of the campaign building up to the initiative, Anil Dash wrote a great post on “lessons from open government so far,” with great insight everyone in the community should read.

Inspired by his and Knight Foundation director John Bracken’s post announcing the challenge, here are my own thoughts related to funding open government through the lens of, as Anil says, “the normal growing pains of a passionate group of people who are still so often figuring out the basics of what works.”

Build for government, not developers

To Anil’s point, “maybe our biggest civic issues can’t be addressed by apps that only run on costly, cutting-edge smartphones.”

He’s absolutely right.

Bracken writes the objective is to fund projects “working to make it easier for citizens to engage with government,” but there needs to be a slight, but important, tweak.

The overwhelming funding focus has been on what developers can build for themselves or other citizens rather than what they can build for government. While it’s much more interesting to build beautiful apps, there are fundamental tools government needs that can be provided at much lower costs than the market offers, mainly because of lack of awareness and inability to get started.

From my experience in talking and working with government managers, the fundamental problem isn’t citizen engagement. They’re more than willing to engage (One of my favorite stories is explaining how SeeClickFix worked and one city manager excitedly said, “You mean, citizens will help us prioritize what they want us to do?”).

The challenge government, especially local government, has is access to resources and new technology that leapfrog their outdated systems and makes it easier for them to perform day-to-day operations.

For example, a project I’ve been working on for a while now is a WordPress theme for government. There’s nothing special about the theme. In fact, by request of the three local governments I’m working with, it’s become embarrassingly simple. In the coming weeks or months, I’ll open source this for other cities to leverage, but there is a huge digital divide in understanding how to execute on getting a basic website up and running without having to pay tens of thousands of dollars they don’t have. All three government have zero dollars budgeted for websites, but because WordPress is a free content management system and some civic nut wants to help them, they’re emailing me at night on the weekends with questions (and generally excited about what they’re learning).

What I’ve discovered from my own quiet “civic hacking” experience is that the website is the fundamental aspect to open government. The three cities I’m working with will soon launch open source, no-cost content management system with machine-readable, XML-based feeds that start to solve many of the fundamental issues around data and transparency.

The rub is that building websites for government is neat, but it isn’t sexy (it can actually be pretty tedious – more on that in another post). In the past, I’ve been challenged talking with open government funders about the importance of this. Honestly, I can’t tell if they don’t get the technology or are just infatuated with it from a theoretical perspective or there’s just an embedded fascination with apps.

Open government funding needs to solve the fundamental, day-to-day technology issues facing government, many of which are trivial to those reading this, but are essential in better enabling core aspects of the movement (see also CKAN).

Fund disruptive technologies that will help government do its job better and more efficient.

Specifically, help solve local government’s digital divide.

Nurture community

One of my open government heroes is CityCamp founder and now Code for America Brigade leader Kevin Curry who, for the past few years, has dedicated himself to bringing developers together locally to focus on civic-oriented work.

A few weeks ago, I sat in on an OpenOakland CfA Brigade gathering where 15 people in an Oakland City Hall meeting room quietly worked on projects, designing, writing and coding away. They do this WEEKLY and are slowly building out an ecosystem of products to better serve the city, and in some cases, inspiring the city to follow suit. A city representative attended the meeting, and does so regularly, gave updates and was familiar and genuinely engaged with the group.

The monthly food and beverage stipend given to OpenOakland is just one simple way to make it easier for others to commit to connecting (as does having access to space).

In October, I created CivicMeet and open sourced the concept to anyone who wants to start one where they live. The idea is to establish a regular meetup that connects government and private sector innovators in an informal setting. Since it launched, there have been CivicMeets in San Francisco, Sacramento, Vancouver, Palo Alto (others are coming). This quick and loose adoption to me indicates there’s a market need for community building.

Efforts like CityCamp, CfA Brigade and CivicMeet are essential and fundamental to maintaining an organic, sustainable open government ecosystem. Enable local organizers to bring people together to discuss and work on solving problems. It’s an opportunity for both citizens and government to collaborate in a non-threatening and productive environment.

Fund the community.

Build measurables beyond the hype

There’s a hype-cycle mentality about open government initiatives, whether it’s focused on a new innovation office, a new C-level role, data platform or application or if Mashable or TechCrunch were there to write about it.

I’m not sure if it’s the need to meet press clipping numbers and maintain visibility or there’s just a lack of understanding in developing a longer-term institutional strategy of culture and technology change within government.

Some of this is, of course, is to be expected. There’s a political and public relations aspect to much of open government that feeds into the politician’s need to show progress, or the appearance of, on this front. My fear is that this is the primary driver in many cases. If so, we must accept that, but it also must come with deliverables and measured outcomes.

Open government is a marathon, not a sprint. Move the measurables beyond the hype.

Fund proactively

Disrupt your funding model.

There’s a passive, “come to us” mentality around foundation giving that resembles the funding approach of venture capitalists. My personal experience in the long past discussing ideas with some have been that they know little about the people and work being done beyond the tiny bubble of top-tier open government leaders and even less so about fundamental technologies, beyond an open data or crowdsourcing application, that drive government.

My open government challenge to Knight is to survey the community for unrealized opportunities and invest in them proactively. While I love the idea of crowdsourced discussions and submissions, it’s a passive approach to accelerating efforts that are evolving organically. If you sense opportunity or momentum, reach out and explore funding possibilities.

Fund proactively.

As Knight and other foundations, and even investors, begin funding open government initiatives, especially as the movement is gaining momentum, my hope is that it does so with the above in mind.

Five millions dollars can go a long way.

I commend Knight and others for funding this type of work. There are many passionate people ready to do great work for a great cause and it wouldn’t be possible without key financial contributions to a nascent movement powered by tons of idealism.

I’ll echo Anil’s sentiments: “I don’t mean to sound cynical or jaded; Indeed, I’m more excited about the potential of civic technology and open government than I’ve ever been.”