Author: Jason Hibbets

Creating a citizen movement for open government

Creating a citizen movement for open government

Originally posted on Image: CC-BY-SA with attributions to

How do you get techies, govies, and citizens to identify, collaborate, and start creating solutions for your local government? Host a CityCamp.

It’s easier than you think. The first CityCamp Raleigh started as a conversation about citizen engagement, but we realized that we could do more than just talk about it. A dozen people came together over 12 weeks to make CityCamp Raleigh a reality. Over 225 people attended three days of collaboration, sharing, and encouraging openness–focusing on improving access to data and solutions for local government.

Three themes emerged over the weekend, all twists on open government:

Create a citizen movement

The following conversation took place on the first day of CityCamp Raleigh (over Twitter), and it resonated with me because events like CityCamp can influence citizen participation in government. The comments were both critical and encouraging:

@RogerTheGeek (Roger Austin) – Why I am not enthusiastic about #ccral as a geek citizen? The political landscape changes every election. All past work is flushed. Bummer

@adrielhampton (Adriel Hampton) – @RogerTheGeek You have to create a powerful movement that is community owned. That’s how you beat political cycles. #ccRal

Adriel is spot on. He also highlights one of the reasons why CityCamp Raleigh was successful—it was citizen-led. Passionate citizens came together to plan and execute this event. Now that it’s over, it’s transitioning into a movement. And it’s still citizen-led.

We were fortunate to have City Councilor Bonner Gaylord co-chair the planning committee and Jonathan Minter, City of Raleigh IT director, on the planning committee. But we also had citizens with passion about making CityCamp more than a conversation. If this was run by a city department, I don’t think we would have pulled the three-day event off with less than 12 weeks of planning. The red tape would have been impossible to cut through.

Creating a citizen movement doesn’t happen overnight. The potential CityCamp Raleigh has to provide leadership and advocacy in the open source, open data, and technology space is immeasurable. The future opportunities of this citizen-led movement will make a big impact on the direction the city takes with open data and could redefine citizen participation.

Eliminate email for feedback

Kevin Curry posted an observation that highlights my next theme, how to get feedback on city initiatives. And it involves ditching your inbox to improve transparency.

Interesting: both panels have raised the idea of abandoning email as a mode of interacting with local gov #ccRAL

Government isn’t the only place where email has become a burden. And some people have already considered (or attempted) giving up their email. How are they able to do that? By taking advantage of different social platforms and tools to communicate with the people they need to reach. By choosing the right tool for the right job , and making sure everyone you want to know can still find you, communication is not interrupted–the theory is that it is made more efficient.

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to lead a group of citizens reviewing the draft of Raleigh’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan. (This is a planning document that outlines the growth areas and objectives for the city over the next 20 years.) For this review, the planning department choose to use on online portal called Limehouse to collect comments and feedback.

While it’s not open source, it was better than the alternative—emailing city staff. Email is not transparent. Sure, we can request all the comments collected be posted on a website somewhere, but that’s not direct communication, nor is it timely. Someone has to compile and copy all that data. So we liked the direction taken with the use of the portal.

Limehouse was a central place where you could comment on individual paragraphs of the plan. Not only could you submit your comments, but you could see what others were saying. You could agree or disagree with those comments as well.

Using email to share feedback with local government only goes so far. It’s a great tool for communication, but not so much for collaboration, sharing, and transparency. Avoiding email for feedback might actually help city employees do their jobs. Instead of being stuck at their desk answering emails, they can use their skills more efficiently.

Create opportunities for citizens to collaborate with city staff

Another positive result was the engagement and collaboration between city staff and citizens. The dialog between city employees and citizens was happening before CityCamp, but on a much smaller scale–usually one-on-one and dependent on very specific issues. People usually wait until they have a problem to make contact (examples include technical support or surveys). The collaborative atmosphere at CityCamp Raleigh allowed the dialog to flourish between these stakeholders without the added burden of conflict, and without having to wait for an issue to occur.

In one session, the editor from a local online publication was explaining how they mapped out tornado damage from mid-April using city-provided data. What amazed me was that the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) manager from Raleigh, Colleen Sharpe, was sitting just a few seats down, and was able to provide immediate additional insight.

Colleen told us how the inspectors collected the data and how the GIS department was able to prepare the entire data set so it was usable and open. The GIS department made the disaster data available to the public very, very quickly–less than 48 hours after meeting the 72-hour Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deadlines for damage assessment. This quick turnaround is now a model for other municipalities who need to collect and publish data in this type of disaster scenario.

What’s next?

The future for CityCamp Raleigh looks bright. The planning committee is already exploring an approach that would lead to an event in 2012. In the meantime, there are a few things that are critical for continued success:

  1. Follow-up with the teams who presented ideas. See where they are, what they’re doing, and if their proposal is making any progress.
  2. Host monthly meet-ups with speakers and different topics. We want to keep the momentum going and meeting on a regular basis is one way to achieve that.
  3. Advocate for an open source directive—ours is currently before our local city council.

CityCamp Raleigh was a huge success. Not only was it a fulfilling experience for me personally, but a great team of people came together to get work done, and share a positive experience with government planning. We all had something in common—we want our city to be a better place to live. And we want other people to share that passion.

If you want to be a part of a movement that has tangible results over the course of a weekend, host a CityCamp. Your local government leaders will thank you for it—especially if you invite them along for the ride.

Raleigh, NC—the world’s first open source city

I started pondering what qualities would define an open source city a few months ago when my friend Tom Rabon mentioned it to me one day. I was curious how the city I live in, Raleigh, NC, could attract other open source companies and be the world’s hub for open source and a leader in open government. How could Raleigh be the open source capital of the world, similar to what Silicon Valley is to technology and Paris is to romance?

I think the answer can be found in both the government and the people. First, our government has to be willing to embrace the open source way of doing things. They need to be transparent in their handling of business and foster citizen participation. Citizens need to be willing to participate and contribute their time and knowledge. Both need to embrace rapid prototyping to explore new ideas and innovative solutions.

But what sets Raleigh apart from other places? What makes Raleigh ready to be an open source city over New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, Beijing? I sat down with the mayor of Raleigh, Charles Meeker, to explore what makes a city open source.

Mayor Meeker was elected in 2001 and has since grown accustomed to the open source way, primarily by learning about Red Hat and the open source development model. As an attorney, it’s no surprise that Mayor Meeker understands the benefits of collaboration and shared knowledge. Let’s find out why the City of Raleigh is ready to stake the claim as the world’s first open source city.

What one big opportunity, outside of technology, has the best chance of being solved the open source way (i.e., through collaboration, transparency, sharing, meritocracy, rapid prototyping, community, etc.)?

The use of more energy-efficient lighting is one area the City of Raleigh has focused on and where we are seeing returns. We are actively promoting and sharing our experiences with other municipalities, including testing how much electricity is being used and the quality of light being produced. Sharing this information is a big part of our experience.

The City of Raleigh has over 40 LED installations with an average savings of $200k/year on electricity costs. The payback is typically 3-5 years (considering capital costs). It’s a great option for remote parking. You can easily install a few solar panels and not have to add new lines and infrastructure. The possibility for cities around the world to adopt energy efficient lighting is a great opportunity—the City of Raleigh wants to be a part of that story and to be known as an early adopter. Spreading the word on LED lighting with the help of our partner, Cree, is important to us.

What are your thoughts on open government or gov 2.0, and what can the city of Raleigh do to have a more open and transparent government with its citizens?

First, all of our meetings are open to the public, with very few exceptions. The real challenge is to take advantage of the expertise from all of our citizens. There is a lot of great talent out there that can help solve real problems for the city.

One way is through new boards, like the new rail board we established, and how their advice and recommendations are handled by the city. Issues around storm water and utility fees have allowed us to tap into the expertise of our citizens to lead to better solutions.

Rail is an area that will be ongoing for the next 3-4 years. We have many experienced individuals out there that are willing to share their knowledge and apply what they know to help formulate future decisions on rail.

Having the public see what we’re doing and provide the right recommendation is an asset that is underutilized, but we have had success, such as when the storm water management board made recommendations on how to better manage flooding. The City Council was able to use the expertise from the board to make better policies around storm water management.

What qualities make a city open source?

Three things come to mind:

  • Willingness to share
  • Willingness to receive information
  • The right attitude to be innovative, creative, and try new things

Citizens need to be willing to adopt to the future. Open source is a strategy we are using to move forward.

Why is Raleigh primed to be the world’s first open source city?

Our citizens are ready for Raleigh to move forward and be more open source focused. The technology is successful. Raleigh is ready to be the worldwide hub for open source.

The advantage Raleigh has is around growth and jobs. We’d like to see the convention center host more open source focused conferences. We’d love to see a bunch of smaller Red Hats, start-up companies and established companies, come to the area because we embrace open source.

Partners are also a big part of the answer. The Convention Center, Visitor’s Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and other partners need to embrace open source and highlight it as part of our economic development strategy.

How do you use the open source way in your everyday life?

In the law firm I work at, I try to provide information to younger attorneys. Sort of a sharing of the trade secrets to help them succeed faster. And quite frankly, one of the hardest things for any person in public office is to listen. I’ve found that listening is 70-80% of the job. You have to fully understand what is going on in order to make an informed decision.