Month: June 2014

Oakland vendor API requirement a big step for municipal open government

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

To get an idea of how badly Oakland needs to upgrade its digital infrastructure, you just need to read this one line from Tuesday’s city council staff report:

“Legistar 4.8 has not been upgraded since purchase in 1997 & has reached the limits”

Limits in this case being the massive limitations of the current technology to support better civic engagement and discussion and no ability for our community to access the critical data held in the legislative system in Oakland.

There are many big changes desperately needed in Oakland’s civic tech stack, and this one is long overdue. Our ancient legislation software was the reason Miguel Vargas and his crew struggled so hard to complete the build-out of our Councilmatic system, however with this upgrade, we’ll now use a similar system to other major cities which means both improved, user facing functionality, as well as a much easier deployment of a more robust Councilmatic that has been tailored for this version by folks in Philadelphia and Chicago.

We’ve been waiting for over two years, so it’s exciting that this finally gets approved by the Finance Committee. While the software upgrade itself is an important step for our city, more important was witnessing the ways our staff and elected officials have adapted their thinking about technology, data, code and procurement.

Two years ago there was nothing to brag about, not much to be proud of in Oakland’s use of technology and our lawmaking. Today, we saw a pivotal moment for our city.

It turns out that there is something in addition to the basic software the vendor, Granicus, can offer – an application programming interface – if you’re not a tech geek, this essentially means a robot (code, not real) that takes in requests form various people, programs, companies and dishes out the information requested in digital form.

In this case, the API is something Granicus has built, but has not made available to cities that have not required access to it – almost no one to date (New York City is just now struggling to get this sorted out and seems to be on the right track). 

Before approving the purchase, Councilmember Libby Schaaf asked the committee to require that Granicus provide an API as part of the contract requirements. No one in Oakland has ever unbundled the contracted software from the date before (aside form the unintentional effort with SeeClickFix that came with an API we didn’t need to request).

This means that Oakland gets a new legislative publishing and video streaming system, but we also get direct access to all the data in this system – machine-readable data that allows local hackers and engineers to build alert systems on specific issues and neighborhoods, custom tools to help people stay informed about what our government is doing and, well, anything you may want to do with full access to the data about our decision-making and public meeting track records.

After the meeting, I emailed LaTonda Simmons, our city clerk who is the manager of this whole system to thank her for moving this and making it possible to unlock this data. I was concerned the lack of specificity about the API being public would somehow bite us in the ass. I was wrong. 

Her response was encouraging. Folks in city hall are listening, and it turns out geeks can make a difference:

Hi Spike – I spoke to Granicus immediately after to Finance.  They reconfirmed they will turn on API. And yes, your feedback and that of many others will be important in this process.  More to come and thank you for your support also.  I must add that this wouldn’t have been possible without Bryan making it move.  Looking forward to the next CityCamp event.  Chat soon.

-= LaTonda S.

People in the city are really starting to get this stuff, and it’s going be awesome as it becomes the norm – less bundling of contracted software with built in, accessible open data.

Introducing GovPress


After several years of talking about and conceptualizing, and months of development, I’m proud to formally (and finally) announce the release GovPress, a simple, elegant WordPress theme for government.

Since we launched version 1.0 just a few months ago, it has been downloaded more than 30,000 times from by governments, nonprofits and educational institutions around the world.

For those who’ve been following our work on this project, the original iteration was called GovFresh WP, however, we renamed it GovPress for the formal release so that it met WordPress branding guidelines and could be included in the official WordPress theme gallery.

The entire process of bringing GovPress to market has been an amazing experience, getting feedback, questions and, especially, thank you notes from people all over the world. I’ve learned a ton about building a solid civic hacking project and will soon write more about this so that it may help others working through their own ideas.

Finally, I can’t thank Devin Price enough for all his support in making this happen.


SF reboots open data efforts

Port of San Francisco (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Port of San Francisco (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

It took a while for San Francisco to get a serious open data effort off the ground, but now that new chief data officer Joy Bonaguro has had some time to take lay of the land, she’s ready to roll.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know people working both inside and outside of the City (or in partnership),” writes Bonaguro in her first blog post as CDO. “Along the way, I’ve been learning a lot about our challenges with data use and access, but I’ve also learned a great deal about some amazing work.”

Bonaguro will soon publish the city’s three-year strategic plan, but you can get a preview from her recent presentation to the city’s Committee on Information Technology.

Part of the next phase of SF open data includes a much-needed overhaul of the city’s data platform, DataSF, the heavy bureaucratic lift of consensus-building and collaboration and working with the local civic hacker community to re-purpose the data in creative ways.

For those who want to give feedback on the current platform, there’s a survey for that.

I recently had the opportunity to meet and talk with Bonaguro, and it’s refreshing to see someone with so much energy working in this role who is genuinely focused on a long-term commitment to the job, building a sustainable internal data movement and collaborating closely with key stakeholders.

Her user design/experience background will also redefine and expand a role that has traditionally been limited to more of developer mindset. Given that the former is accustomed to collaborating on mutually-agreed solutions, this should play well in building consensus and expediting the city’s next phase in open data.

Follow DataSF updates on Twitter at @DataSF and at the new blog, DataSF Speaks.

Don’t sell products, tell stories

Photo: Jordan Raynor

Photo: Jordan Raynor

Jordan Raynor, a Co-founder of Citizinvestor (a crowdfunding and civic engagement platform for government projects), released a book today chronicling the first two years of the civic startup’s life. The book, Startup Stories: Lessons Learned from a Startup’s Launch, Grind, and Growth, is available for half-off today only. The following is one of the book’s twenty short chapters.

While I was in Tampa for another infamously humid summer, my Co-founder, Tony DeSisto, was spending six weeks in beautiful Rhode Island visiting family. This was a tradition for Tony and his family, one that I had learned to live with as his startup spouse. Our long-distance relationship meant fewer trips to Lin’s Hibachi Buffet and more time on Google Chat. One chat in July 2013 started one of the greatest stories we have had the pleasure of telling at Citizinvestor:

Tony: Central Falls RI just signed up on site and emailed me scheduling a call later today

Jordan: sweet

Tony: could be good press … one of the only US
cities to go bankrupt
could have nice redemption angle

Jordan: wow
would be amazing press

Tony: will do

Jordan: GO meet with them!
How far away are they?

Tony: gonna offer it its RI nothing is over 30 minutes away

For more than a year, Tony and I had been selling our product to cities touting our technology, success rate, and the fact that Citizinvestor was free for cities to use. My academic background is in public relations, so I’m constantly looking for the stories behind my companies. While we had some good stories to tell to accompany our pitch of Citizinvestor, we had yet to find “the one.” Tony and I would constantly talk about the need to “find our Pebble” – a reference to the paper watch that crowdfunded more than $10,000,000 on The Pebble quickly became shorthand for an amazing story of the promise of crowdfunding. As soon as the City of Central Falls signed up for Citizinvestor, we instinctively knew that we held our own precious pebble in our hands.

In 2010, Central Falls became the first city in Rhode Island history to file for bankruptcy. Two years later, the Mayor resigned his post due to charges of corruption. If any group of citizens had an excuse to distrust and disconnect from government, it was the people of Central Falls. Following the Mayor’s resignation in 2012, the City elected his successor, 27- year-old James Diossa, with the daunting task of leading the City out of bankruptcy and restoring trust between City Hall and its citizens. And now they were looking to Citizinvestor to help do just that.

Of the hundreds of cities we have pitched Citizinvestor to, we have only met with a handful of them in person. But because Tony was already in Rhode Island, it was a no-brainer for him to meet with the Mayor and his staff in Central Falls. When Tony called to brief me on the meeting, he informed me that Stephen Larrick, our main point-of-contact in Central Falls, had assembled all of the department heads to attend the meeting and offer ideas for projects the City could crowdfund on Citizinvestor. Someone pointed out that when the Mayor asked students what they wanted him to focus on, they overwhelming asked that he clean up the trash that littered the one-square-mile city. The students had identified the trash as a source of shame for their city. Knowing that much of the litter originated from the flimsy trash cans that were easily knocked down in the park next to City Hall, Larrick devised a plan to replace the bins with trash and recycling bins made of steel. But the City didn’t have the $10,044 they needed to make the project happen. The Mayor, Larrick, Tony, and the department heads came to a consensus that crowdfunding these trash bins would be the perfect first project on Citizinvestor. After the meeting, Larrick emailed Tony to say that, “Since the bankruptcy, it’s been rare to see our department heads excited and willing to share positive ideas, so the excitement they showed yesterday over Citizinvestor was very encouraging.”

I couldn’t have asked for a better story to tell; and the major media outlets agreed. CNBC published one of my favorite headlines about the launch of Central Falls’ first Citizinvestor project: “Issue municipal bonds? No thanks, we’ll crowdfund instead.” told the story beautifully, saying that “economically strapped cities around the country can’t afford basic improvements. If Central Falls meets its goal, it could serve as a model for other municipalities to follow.” These were the talking points we had been pushing for months, but it took a great story for the concept to be understood by the masses.

The amazing cleanup day our intern Daniel organized helped visualize in the physical world what Citizinvestor was all about: empowering citizens to invest in their community. These citizens were telling a powerful story of civic engagement by investing their time and their money to restore their city. A few weeks after the cleanup event, the front page of The Boston Globe ran a story on how the City’s efforts on Citizinvestor were helping Central Falls establish “a new identity, as a model of creative, modern, interactive government.” Soon after the story was published, the project reached its goal of raising $10,044 to install the steel trash bins.

With our beautiful pebble in hand, we showed it off to anyone who would listen. Months after the project reached its funding goal, Mayor Diossa wrote an op-ed to The Providence Journal saying that the “citizens who contributed to our first Citizinvestor project demonstrated the deepest level of civic engagement,” and that the City of Central Falls is now “a model for what civic engagement should look like in the 21st century.”

To this day, in nearly every speaking engagement, media interview, and pitch to a city, we make sure to tell the incredible story of Central Falls. In a startup, it’s easy to get in the habit of selling your product’s features, how it works, and why it’s a great value. While all of these things are important, I have found that they are secondary to telling great stories. Stories inspire us. They paint a picture of what is possible. Do everything you can to find, cultivate, and share the story you want told about your company.

U.S. DOT seeks chief data officer

The U.S. Department of Transportation is looking for a chief data officer. If you’re interested, brush up your resume quick because you have until Tuesday to apply.

From the position description:

You will be responsible for establishing a clear vision of the data managed in DOT and data-driven decision-making. The Chief Data officer’s role is to be a data strategist and adviser, steward for improving data quality, liaison for data sharing, and developer of new data products.

Application deadline is June 10, 2014 (peculiar because it was just posted June 6). The position pays between $124,995 to $157,100 a year.

Learn more here.