Month: October 2013

Breaking the wall in Chicago

Photo: Josh*m

Photo: Josh*m

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the wall.

Over the past few years, the civic innovation movement has grown tremendously. It’s exploded really. Ten years ago, who would have imagined that Chicago would be a national leader in open government data? Five years ago, who would have thought that the idea of citizens using open source software to help solve civic problems would catch fire on a global scale? Two years ago, could we really have guessed that not only would we be hacking at open government data on a weekly basis – but those meetings would be national model?

There has been a lot of work done these past few years. However, we’ve now hit the wall.

What’s the wall? The wall is the set of challenges that prevent the civic technology movement from progressing further. These challenges include: expanding the community, civic and digital literacy, procurement reform, and creating startup opportunities through civic app development (sustainability).

cruising the sea wall

Chicago Sea Wall, by Jesus Arellanes

Challenge One: Expanding the community

Civic hacking has moved beyond a niche thing and has hit the mainstream. When the White House starts hosting civic hackathons, that’s a sure sign that we’ve hit the big time. However, even with civic hacking’s new found popularity (national holiday included) we still are missing people at the table. Our tent, while open to all, has not reached the size and diversity that it necessary to move forward. With events like Girls Do Hack and Englewood Codes, Chicago is taking the right steps, but we’re not there yet.

Civic innovation at its best occurs when technologists collaborate with front line problem solvers at government agencies, non-profit organizations, or volunteer activists. While Chicago’s community has made great strides in this area – I don’t believe this particular point has hit the mainstream. We’re still in the ‘Look! Wizardry!” stage – which brings us to challenge two.

Challenge Two: mixing digital and civic literacy

It was recently asked of the Chicago tech community, “Why can’t we make an app that can reduce violent crime?” Of all the issues that affect our city, violent crime that robs the city of its youth is certainly one of the more important topics that we can be working on.

However, technology in-it-of-itself isn’t a panacea. No computer program, no matter how sophisticated, can replace the expertise of somebody who has been working in the trenches for years wrestling with our most thorny civic issues. No app will ever replace the volunteer at a women’s shelter or the patience of a neighborhood school teacher. There is a subject matter expertise in civic organizations that can’t be picked up overnight any more than somebody can learn to code in a few weeks.

While we talk a lot about digital literacy,  we have to acknowledge that there’s a civic literacy side to civic innovation, too. The best civic apps are built because the developers acknowledge this and build the app around the needs and challenges of the front line activists. The more this movement does to engage and co-opt front line leaders from civic organizations, the more impact our projects will have.

On the flip side, there appears to be a lack of digital literacy on the side of some policy makers. The continued use of PDF files as ‘open data’, the misunderstandings of how the internet works, and the debate about the Stop Online Piracy Act show that at times the people responsible for technology policy are not necessarily technology experts. Contrast this with the City of Chicago’s technology plan which was written by a team that had a deep understanding of both technology and civic issues. Whenever possible, the movement has to ensure that both digital and civic literacy issues are addressed.

Challenge Three: Procurement

We’ve become very adept at hosting hackathons and building civic apps. (And there’s still  useful – particularly in newer communities) However, hackathons – no matter how great the ideas that are borne out of these events – will not push us forward if our governments are unable to actually purchase and use them.

There is a huge gap between technology in the private and public sectors. The recent botched rollout of demonstrates just what bad procurement policy gets us. A procurement policy designed to ensure the government does not get sued or robbed instead of purchasing the best software possible has done exactly what it was designed to do: Make it difficult to sue the government.

This is not to imply that the entire procurement process should go out the window. People have gone to jail for stealing and cheating the city. It will be immensely challenging to balance the need to protect the interests of the city and be good stewards of taxpayer money while getting the best software that serves the needs of residents.

The biggest advantage of tackling procurement will be that it will open door to making civic innovation truly sustainable.

Challenge Four: Spurring (and growing) civic startups

Chicago has the data, the talent, and the infrastructure to be at the center of the civic technology market. However, as of now there are only a handful of companies active in this space.

For the civic innovation movement to be sustainable, people have to be able to work full-time and earn a living creating civic apps. The only way this will be through spurring and growing civic technology companies. Civic startups, like those in Code for America’s accelerator program, are starting to grow and find customers around the country. With as much talent and data that exists in the city, there is an enormous opportunity for Chicago civic startups.

The other challenge that comes with creating a civic startup is building products that are designed well, function easily, robust, and meet the needs of customers. That requires more than simply forking an existing open source project, but rather a full-time campaign to work through those issues. It’s hard work that will require the full support of the entrepreneurial community.

While Chicago enjoys a great civic innovation ecosystem, it will take leadership from the entrepreneurship community, the civic hacking community as well as the City of Chicago to create an ecosystem that spurs civic startups. (In addition to real procurement reform at the federal, state and local levels.)

Breaking the wall

The good news is that we have the momentum and none of the challenges presented here are insurmountable. The civic innovation movement is on track to reshape the relationship between government and is citizens. However, we can’t rest on our laurels. It’s time to roll up our sleeves are start breaking the wall.

Can Clay Johnson save federal government procurement?

Clay Johnson (Photo: Joi Ito)

Clay Johnson (Photo: Joi Ito)

Clay Johnson has been talking about procurement and how it’s America’s big problem since (at least) 2010, and he has yet to let up.

Knowing Clay, he’s not going to, so let’s give him a shot at fixing it.

What Clay had to say about procurement in 2010, before he became so well-versed on the subject, will resonate with many given our current technology crisis:

Both the liberal and the conservative ought to jointly care about federal procurement. From “gov2.0” to financial reform to healthcare to defense, there isn’t a single political issue that the federal procurement process does not impact. If you’re a healthcare advocate, for example, how government buys things will greatly affect any form of universal healthcare’s cost. If you’re pro-security, I’m sure you want government to have the best flak vests and armor available. You want procurement to work.

Let’s face it, when most people hear the word “procurement,” their eyes glaze over before falling into a deep coma.

Clay brings procurement to life as if it were a puppet show, leaving us captivated, laughing, engaged, wanting more. He’s the Aneesh Chopra meets Todd Park meets Jim Henson of procurement and he may be the one who can save us.

But more than that, he has the chops.

Clay is currently co-founder of the new startup Department of Better Technology, whose flagship product, Screendoor, includes an easy-to-use public-facing RFP listing platform. Previously, he served as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow with Project RFP-EZ. Working at Sunlight Foundation and Blue State Digital, he proved he can execute technology and build community around a cause.

He’s co-authored a white paper, “7 Simple Ways to Modernize Enterprise Procurement.” He served on California’s Task Force on Reengineering IT Procurement for Success that produced recommendations to improve large IT procurements.

Here’s more from Clay on the recent technology issues related to

All this and he loves the intersection of technology and procurement more than anyone else in America.

If you have doubts, watch Clay discussing procurement at this year’s Code for America Summit:

I’m not naive to think one person can make wholesale reform happen overnight, but we have strong examples that appointing the right person with the right personality in the right C-level role at the right time can be a game changer.

We’ve seen this in technology with the appointments of the nation’s first chief information officer (Vivek Kundra) and chief technology officer (Aneesh Chopra) and, subsequently, Steven VanRoekel and Todd Park. None of them are in the weeds coding (Clay will be), but they served as linchpins for opening the doors to opportunity. They created plans and roadmaps with agency deliverables. They brought hope to the disgruntled innovators fighting the good fight within government.

Sure, they’ve ruffled feathers, but that’s what was needed for government technology and needed even more for procurement. And, if you don’t already know this, I can assure you, Clay Johnson is not afraid to ruffle feathers.

Appoint Clay Johnson as U.S. chief procurement officer.

He may be the one who can save us.

FreshWrap: meets Rap Genius, DOD open source FAQs, Code for America 2014 and more

A wrap-up of this week’s civic technology and open government news.

Ontario gets an open data portal:

CGI’s congressional testimony is now on Rap Genius for public comment.

We the People petitioners want access to source code.

D.C. has a new open government initiative.

New FCC CIO launches blog, joins Twitter.

.gov designer: Danny Chapman

Why the Navy needs to open source its future. now lets politicians respond to petitions.

FAQs on open source and the Department of Defense.

Quantcast traffic on ‘hidden by the owner.’

Danny Chapman: Where’s the beta?

U.K. official urges U.S. government to Adopt A Digital Core.

Chicago’s Tom Schenk on open data in Chicago.

Louisville ‘open by default.’

SeeClickFix CEO Ben Berkowitz TED Talk on government for the 21st century.

Fed open open data policy requirements get an extension.

NIST seeks comments on preliminary cybersecurity framework.

An open data declaration.

Chicago CTO John Tolva steps down.

UK’s new guidance for government devices.

What Code for America looks like in 2014.

Did we miss something? Add your links in the comments …

ArchiveSocial helps keep government social media on the record books


GovFresh highlights the products and start-ups powering the civic revolution. Learn how you can get featured.



Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

ArchiveSocial enables public sector organizations to embrace social media by minimizing risk and eliminating compliance barriers.

What problem does ArchiveSocial solve for government?

Laws requiring “freedom of information”, and hence record retention, are critical for government transparency. Governments at all levels are struggling with social media records, and most are non-compliant. It is often cited as a top 5 technology issue, and many public entities are limiting usage or refraining from social media entirely.

ArchiveSocial eliminates the compliance risk that is (a) preventing some government agencies, especially at the municipal level, from having any social media presence, and (b) preventing those agencies that do have social media accounts from fully engaging with citizens and not just using these platforms as one-way communications tools.

Citizens benefit from increased engagement with their government, and the promise of government transparency (i.e. freedom of information) being fulfilled.

What’s the story behind starting ArchiveSocial?

In 2011, Anil Chawla was developing consumer social media applications when he stumbled upon the idea for ArchiveSocial. It was clear that social media had become an “official” communication channel for most businesses and government agencies, but that these organizations were struggling with record keeping.

He originally intended ArchiveSocial for private businesses in regulated industries, but while talking to a friend at a brewery, heard that some government colleagues were copying and pasting tweets in order to satisfy open records requirements. As it often happens with beer, he had a eureka moment: retention of social media records was becoming a major pain-point across the public sector, and ArchiveSocial had exactly the right technology to solve it.

ArchiveSocial started a pilot archive with the North Carolina State Archives — a leader in digital preservation efforts — in early 2012, and soon after we began reaching out to municipal governments. Within a year, ArchiveSocial had acquired state & local government customers across more than a dozen US states and was archiving social media for federal agencies such as U.S. National Archives. We also worked with government partners such as North Carolina, South Carolina and the City of Austin to launch Open Archives of their social media records. The strong need for our technology, and the overwhelmingly positive response in government, inspired us to focus on the public sector and ultimately led us to joining the Code for America accelerator this year.

What are its key features?

ArchiveSocial is a robust social media archiving solution that goes well beyond a simple data capture to ensure that records are maintained in a forensically sound fashion. It archives additional content related to the record such as high-resolution photos and background images. It preserves relationships between records and ensures that the necessary context is maintained in the archive. Most importantly, ArchiveSocial is designed so that government agencies can easily locate and make sense of the records when they need them.

ArchiveSocial is a pure SaaS solution, and allows any sized organization to start archiving in minutes with zero IT deployment.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Customers pay based on the number of records they produce in a month, starting at $49 per month for up to 100 records. We offer a free 30 day trial (no credit card required) on our website.

How can those interested connect with you?


.gov designer: Danny Chapman

Danny Chapman

.gov designer is a regular GovFresh feature profiling the people behind public sector design.


Danny Chapman
Director of design, NIC

When did you first become interested in design?

I grew up spending a great deal of time in art galleries with my parents, so that cultivated my interest in art and design. At the same time, I started tinkering with websites as a teenager, creating terribly clunky websites on GeoCites, figuring how HTML worked. In college I majored in art history while taking classes in music, ceramics and computer science. Eventually I figured out I could combine the two worlds.

How did you get into .gov design?

After years of working on websites on the side, I decided to pursue website design as a career and was looking for work. I found an ad for a design position working on — Rhode Island’s government web portal, (powered by eGovernment company NIC), and the rest was history. Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to work on eGovernment projects across the country, from New Jersey, Maryland, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Hawaii, and recently as a Presidential Innovation Fellow assigned to projectMyUSA.

Continue reading

New FCC CIO launches blog, joins Twitter

Federal Communications Commission Chief Information Officer David Bray announced Tuesday a new blog, Twitter handle and hashtag in an effort to open up communications on the agency’s technology strategy and operations.

You can follow Bray’s blog, “FCC CIO’s Connection Blog,” or on Twitter at @fcc_cio and the hashtag #FCCcio.

From the announcement:

As I begin my journey as CIO, I also am open to the different views and perspectives of the FCC Bureaus and Offices who each have critical missions and IT needs that we will support to the best of our abilities. Also, and most importantly since we live in rapidly changing times both in terms of the pace of technology advances and the tightening of budgets in government, communication across both the public and private sector is crucial to the success of the FCC’s IT endeavors. Through the power of communication and IT, we can transform what we can do together.

Bray was appointed FCC CIO in July.

We the People petitioners want access to source code

We the People

A new We the People petition opened Sunday calling for the federal government to make the source code publicly available “so we may help fix any found issues.”

From the petition:

It is believed that the enrollment issues with are likely due to poor coding practices in components that are unavailable to the world’s development community to evaluate. Code funded by taxpaying citizens should be made available to the general public as government funded development is generally public domain software. Please release the code so we may help fix any found issues.

The petition has more than 1,000 signatures, still a ways away from the 100,000 needed by November 19 to receive an official White House response.

More discussion on open sourcing can be found here, here and here.

In the meantime, the Department of Health & Human Services released a statement on Sunday saying it will bring in the “best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve”

President Obama addressed technical issues at a Monday speech at the White House:

San Francisco: Driving the boundaries of open data

Port of San Francisco (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Port of San Francisco (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

During last week’s 2013 Code for America summit at the Yerba Buena Center, officials from cities including Louisville, New York City, South Bend and New Orleans spoke about how open data had changed the complexion of their communities in public safety, citizen services and blight mapping.

Later this month, San Francisco’s Committee on Information & Technology will debate an amendment by City Supervisor Mark Farrell that beefs up the city’s groundbreaking open data ordinance. San Francisco is one of the nation’s most credible and influential voices in the open data movement, which seeks to make all data used by the government public and machine-readable.

This might not sound exciting, but it is a very big deal.

Open data drives economic opportunity, increases transparency and oversight of government activity from the obvious to the arcane. With open data, citizens can see not just how the sausage is made, but how the permits got issued to make it, what the government said about it and how much, specifically, it cost. Without open data, cops in one city don’t know that the guy they just ticketed for an open bottle of beer in the park is a sex offender from the next county who is banned from being in parks, or a wanted fugitive. The list of positive benefits to the broader community goes on.

National implications

The proposed changes provide clearer codification of the city’s open data standards: strengthening citizen privacy protections, setting deadlines for release of specific data sets and creating timelines of accountability. Laws governing technology must be flexible enough to evolve, so not to lag the pace of innovation. These proposals are specific deliverables that comprise evolutionary steps in what must be a living, breathing framework.

They would set concrete requirements for coordination staff, review of all city datasets and publication of catalogs of available data all within six months, and an updated implementation plan presented to the city within one year. These milestones are the very feedstock of a new generation of job-creating small businesses.

These tighter deadlines ensure the city government remains accountable and accessible to the public, so that they and the entrepreneur community are made readily aware of any new guidelines or data sets the city releases.

This has national implications, because it places rational and transferable structure and milestones into the ordinance, to make sure that this and other open data agendas aren’t just something that sound great at a press conference, but which collapse on implementation. This helps not just the 85 cities who sent representatives to the CfA Summit, but all of America’s cities.

Many complain that government is too slow, and that technology outpaces legislation. San Francisco has moved aggressively to set specific policies, milestones and deadlines towards measurable progress in increasing open data access, while maintaining the necessary broadness of legislation which is, in fact, sweeping.

The COIT committee has an opportunity to seize the moment by treating the city’s open data laws as starting points for a policy and culture of open government that includes the vigilant and attentive oversight needed to achieve its goals. We cannot lose the momentum for what can be this generation’s most transformative cultural shift in the very bureaucratic morass it aims to eliminate.