Author: Mark Headd

Participation and the cult of catalogs

“Anonymous access to the data must be allowed for public data, including access through anonymous proxies. Data should not be hidden behind ‘walled gardens.’”
8 Principles of Open Government Data

In the world of open data, there are few things that carry more weight than the original 8 principles of open data.

Drafted by a group of influential leaders on open data that came together in Sebastopol, Calif., in 2007, this set of guidelines is the defacto standard for evaluating the quality of data released by governments, and is used by activists regularly to prod public organizations to become more open.

With this in mind, it was intriguing to hear a well-known champion of open data at the Sunlight Foundation’s recent TransparencyCamp in Washington, D.C. raise some interesting questions about one of these principles, typically considered sacrosanct in the open data community.

Andrew Nicklin (formerly at the helm of open data efforts for both the City and State of New York, and now Open Data Director for the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University) asked TransparencyCamp attendees to consider some of the implications of the sixth principle on open data – which calls for non-discriminatory access to data. This principle is generally taken to mean that users of open data should be able to access it anonymously and that governments should not require users to identify who they are or what they plan to do with the data as a condition of accessing it.

While there is obvious merit to this principle, Andrew observed that when governments know who is using their data and how they are using it, there are enormous opportunities to enhance the data and make it more useful for data consumers. If governments don’t understand what user’s want, providing useful data that can meet their needs is difficult – strictly enforcing anonymous access to data may end up being be an impediment to better understanding what data users actually need.

Without being directly critical of the principle or the original intentions behind it, Andrew made a thoughtful suggestion for open data advocates at TransparencyCamp to consider. To me, these comments highlight an important issue facing the civic technology community and governments themselves – one that almost no one is talking about.

When it comes to building the infrastructure of open data – putting in place the pieces of technology that users will leverage to find and use government open data – very little thought seems to be given to what users – data consumers – want or need.

The idea of “build with, not for” has become a central tenant to how civic technology solutions are designed and implemented. Yet this idea seldom applies to the platforms that governments use to make open data available, which form the foundation of many civic technology solutions.

Costs and benefits

“Funding is the most cited barrier to implementing or expanding open data initiatives.”
Empowering the Public Through Open Data

A recent collaborative effort between the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy and the USC Price School of Public Policy produced a hugely valuable report on the current state of open data in the 88 incorporated cities comprising Los Angeles County.

Based on surveys and interviews with city officials on their open data efforts, this report provides unique insights into the ways that government leaders view open data. Among the findings – government officials surveyed for the report consider funding to be the most significant barrier to expanding work on open data. This isn’t a surprise, and this sentiment is likely not unique to the Los Angeles County area.

But when taken together with other findings, it can seem counterintuitive. Along with citing funding as a constraint, government officials expressed a preference for commercial open data catalogs over open source (or free) alternatives. These commercial solutions – some of which impose non-trivial costs on local governments – appear to meet a perceived need on the part of government officials in that they are viewed as making it “easier to publish [data] and put it in the hands of the citizens.”

Commercial software generally tends to fare better in the government procurement process than open source software, so this outcome isn’t all that shocking. But it’s worth noting this contradiction in the findings of the USC report between the cost constraints limiting more progress on open data and the reported preference for (sometimes pricy) commercial open data catalogs.

Cost aside, there are a few reasons why upfront investment in a commercial open data catalog may not be the best way to start a new open data effort.

Architecting participation 

The web … took the idea of participation to a new level, because it opened participation not just to software developers but to all users of the system.
– Tim O’Reilly, The Architecture of Participation

First, and somewhat ironically, public information on the cost of commercial open data portals can be hard to come by. Another report on municipal open data efforts in southern California found a wide disparity in what different governments – some just a few miles apart, and almost identical in population – pay for commercial open data catalogs. This can make it difficult for governments to know if they are getting good value for the price being paid.

In addition, commercial open data catalogs often come with visualization, mapping and charting tools out of the box. This can make it easier for governments to augment open data offerings by showing what can be done with it. Though these offerings may come at an additional price, some may view them as a way to help advocate open data to internal skeptics – a picture (or a graph, or a chart) is worth a thousand words as the saying goes.

From a user needs perspective, this approach feels very unidirectional – this is government telling the data community what it believes is important, not the other way around. There are a host of examples of sophisticated visualizations and applications being built with government data by outside data users. And while this approach requires outreach and engagement, there is an ever-increasing abundance of tools available for members of the data community to use to create maps, visualizations and new applications.

These two approaches – out of the box vs. community built – are not mutually exclusive. We can see a number of examples of governments using commercial open data catalogs to engage with external data users that produce useful, valuable visualizations and apps – New York City, the City of Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco are all great examples of this dual approach.

However, open data efforts in all of those cities have benefited from robust technology and startup communities and often visionary leadership. Almost all of these cities have a long tradition of civic hacking. For cities that don’t have these assets (or have them in smaller quantities), outreach and engagement to nurture and build a data community will be a crucial factor in the long-term success of an open data program. These cities – many of them smaller and with more limited resources – may also feel the cost constraints of implementing an open data effort more acutely than larger cities.

It’s fair to say that the next wave of cities that adopt open data programs may face a very different set of challenges than the cities that have come before them.

Putting Users First

“The procurement model of government digital services generally leads to services that satisfy policy needs, not user needs.”
Government Technology Procurement Playbook, Code for America

The time feels right to rethink how cities put in place the basic infrastructure of open data.

At last year’s Code for America Summit, I gave a talk on how open data was being adopted in small to midsized cities in the U.S. In researching my talk, I found that while larger cities have almost all implemented some form of open data program, less than 20% of the 256 incorporated places in this U.S. with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 have an open data program.

Open data in this country is still – almost exclusively – a big city phenomenon.

Efforts to address this imbalance are underway – the What Works Cities initiative (of which the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins is a key part) is now working to bring open data and data-driven decision making to 100 mid-sized cities. More and more, small and mid-sized cities are starting to look at open data as a key driver of government innovation.

We are now at a juncture where we can not only help a new cohort of cities adopt open data, but to help ensure that these efforts embrace the principle of “build with, not for” from the ground up. If we’re going to be successful, it’s important that we question long-held beliefs – like the original 8 principles of open data – to ensure our efforts are most efficiently aligned with the outcomes we desire.

It’s worth considering whether commercial open data catalogs provide the best option for the next wave of cities that are embracing open data to succeed and build a healthy data culture, both inside and outside of government.

But whatever foundation we choose to lay for the next phase of open data, we’ll need to make sure we’re putting user’s needs first.

(Note – the term “cult of catalogs” is not my own. I first heard it used by Friedrich Lindenberg, though others may have used it as well.)

The collaborative state

“Civic Hacking” is the awareness of a condition that is suboptimal in a neighborhood, community or place and the perception of one’s own ability to effect change on that condition. The apps are incidental.

In 2008, civic hacking was the furthest thing from my mind.

At the time, I was working for a small company in Southwestern Virginia that built payment and telephony systems for local governments. I had left state government behind 5 years prior – after working for almost a dozen years in two different states in both the legislative and executive branches – to become a full time technologist. My job enabled me to expand my knowledge of software development, VoIP and telephony systems design and made me feel “connected” to government.

I felt like I was still working to help governments use technology more efficiently – which was the focus of the last several years of my public service – because my company was building tools that were used by governments. In reality, I was probably more unsatisfied with my current “connection” with government than I had realized.

In the Fall of that year I came across an announcement about a contest that was taking place in the District of Columbia that seemed quite extraordinary to me. The DC government had published dozens of data sets to a public website in highly usable formats and was inviting outside software developers to do interesting things with this data. Winners would be chosen and given cash rewards, along with a chance to be singled out by the Mayor at a public ceremony.

I instantly knew that I wanted to participate – even though I neither lived nor worked in DC. I entered the contest, submitted my application, won the silver medal in the “independent developer” category and got a $1,000 check for my efforts.

For this, and many other reasons, I have been bullish on civic hacking ever since.

FROM APP CONTESTS TO CIVIC HACKING

“Ultimately, apps contests are having a positive long-term economic impact, regardless of whether they deliver useful technology. They have catalyzed a community of technologists inside and outside of government who are committed to improving the lives of residents and visitors.”

– Anthony Townsend, Smart Cities

After the initial wave of government app contest spurred by the Apps for Democracy contest in DC, the world of civic hacking went grassroots, with community sponsored events popping up all over the country. The last several years have seen the creation and spectacular growth of the Code for America Brigade, which has helped to create civic hacking groups in dozens of cities in the U.S. and other countries.

Today, a great deal of civic hacking occurs outside of app contests, or even hackathons themselves. It is a regular activity that occurs each week or month in Code for America Brigades and other groups. A great example that I like to point to is the Detroit Water Project, which came together when the co-creators connected via Twitter. The project didn’t require a hackathon or similar event, or even a physical meeting between the creators to get started.

SXSW Slide
A slide I used during a presentation discussing civic hacking at the SXSW Interactive Conference in 2012

App contests and the early wave of organized civic hacking events has helped spur the development of a large (and growing) community that can now come together and interact more fluidly. The solutions being developed by these groups are increasingly potent and I think are appropriately viewed as part of the answer to the problems governments face in using technology to do their jobs.

THE THREE-LEGGED STOOL

Of the many different policy options put forward in the last few years aimed at improving the way governments implement technology, I think there are three primary themes we can identify:

To solve the overarching problem, I think each of these three approaches are needed to some degree – a balance between them must be struck so that they act like the metaphorical “three-legged stool.” Of these three remedies, the one that requires the most radical perceived departure from the way that governments currently operate is the third – turning government into a platform.

Certainly the scope to which the current procurement process must be changed is vast, and governments have a long way to go to replicate the capacity for successful IT project management that we see in private sector organizations. But progress on these fronts involves changes – as dramatic as they may need to be – to existing processes, not the invention of brand new ones.

The idea of creating government as a platform, and enabling agencies to work collaboratively with outside parties (outside of traditional contract vehicles) to develop applications for their constituencies can seem like the most radical change. It requires governments to abdicate some control to new partners, to develop mechanisms for engaging and collaborating with these partners and to reimagine their role in the IT service delivery chain – to no longer be the unilateral creator of solutions used by and for government, and to become an enabler that incentivizes others to build them.

Despite the perceived novelty of this approach in the world of technology, there is actually a long history of reliance on outside volunteers to deliver important government services – one that continues today. In fact, there is a rich spectrum of examples that we can observe in the contemporary operation of government that involves government reliance on outside volunteers to deliver essential public services.

I believe that these examples hold the key to informing how governments should collaborate with outside civic hackers to develop new solutions that can improve the performance of government and the quality of the services they deliver.

DISSATISFACTION AS A FOUNDATION FOR ACTION

The video above was captured in September 2013 in the UK, and shows a group of people heading home after a night out on the town. The surprising thing about this footage is that it didn’t capture people behaving badly – in fact, it shows the group working collaboratively to fix a damaged bike rack.

Distilled to its essence – this is what civic hacking is. It is the awareness of a condition that is suboptimal in a neighborhood, community or place and the perception of one’s own ability to effect change on that condition. There is no prerequisite that civic hacking involve technology or software, it only needs to involve people willing to help fix problems – apps are incidental to the larger goal of fixing a community problem.

In a way, civic hacking is the manifestation of dissatisfaction with government services. And while there has probably always been some level of dissatisfaction with the performance of government, the spread of open data and powerful, cheap tools for using this data to build new apps allows citizens to design their own interfaces to interactions with their government.

There is an abundance of examples we can point to where outside parties develop solutions on top of government provided or maintained data – to fill a role or address an issue that would ordinarily fall under the official responsibilities of a government agency. In Philadelphia, there are a number of efforts underway to encourage therepurposing of vacant properties, even though official responsibility for this falls under the duties assigned to specific government agencies. These outside efforts are enabled by the deliberate release of property information by the City of Philadelphia.

Before civic hacking, it was not possible for people to custom tailor an interaction with their government to their liking, or to change that way that government information and services were presented. Now it can be quite easy to do this. This presents an enormous challenge to the bureaucracy, and – in many ways – an enormous opportunity.

AN ABUNDANCE OF SKEPTICS

Despite the popularity of hackathons, and the strong growth of civic hacking across the country, it’s not difficult to find people that criticize civic hacking, or question its long-term impact.

In my experience most people that are skeptical of the potential impact of civic hacking have either been to very few (if any) actual civic hacking events, or conflate government sponsored app contests – that were quite common several years ago – with the larger civic hacking movement. Some even question the motives of those that promote civic hacking and suggest that it may be nothing more than a sham meant to take advantage of skilled but inexperienced workers in an unfavorable job market.

In an unfortunately misguided analysis of civic hacking (currently in draft form), Melissa Gregg of Intel states:

“As an enactment of civic intent, hackathons parochialize the ambition of democratic participation to topics that attract the data and technical means for impact in the course of a day or a weekend.

Even organizations focused on fostering innovation in cities can be critical of civic hacking. A 2012 “field scan” of civic technology for the group Living Cities said:

Energetic, enthusiastic volunteering in ‘hackathons’ and other partnerships are not enough to create sustainable change in cities. Although hackathons are popular, their approach to problem solving is not always driven by community needs, and hackathons often do not produce useful material for governments or citizens in need.

I think both of these criticisms fail to see civic hacking as a larger movement that exists outside specific events that happen on a weekend here and there, and both miss the very important point that the apps created at any specific event are often not the primary focus of the hackathon.

In his excellent summary for running a civic hackathon, Joshua Tauberer says:

Think of the hackathon as a pit-stop on a long journey to solve problems or as a training session to prepare participants for solving problems.

The civic technology community has become increasingly aware of the need to ensure that solutions are developed in collaboration with those that are meant to benefit from them. Civic hacking groups are developing new ways to include the users of civic application into the development process, to better ensure that their preferences and viewpoints are considered. In many ways, I think its fair to say that the amount of time and energy currently focused on ensuring user input in the development of civic apps probably outpaces the amount invested in the development of official government apps.

But most of all, what strikes me as relevant in these criticisms of civic hacking is the derision – whether explicit or implied – of the volunteer nature of it. I disagree that the volunteer nature of civic hacking means that it does not have value, or that it can not have a long-term impact. In fact, there are a number of examples that we can point to where governments partner with volunteers to provide important public services.

A LONG HISTORY OF VOLUNTEERISM

Government collaboration with volunteers may be new to the world of technology, but in other areas of public service delivery it is quite common.

The vast majority of firefighters serving the Untied States are volunteers – 69% according the National Fire Protection Association. So cemented in our national psyche as a symbol of selfless public service are volunteer firefighters that it was used as the template for the Code for America Brigades that are now growing in cities across the country. But there are many other examples where the government collaborates with volunteers to provide important services.

The AmeriCorps service program – created under the Clinton Administration – is a federal program to recruit young adults to service in their community. This program was specifically designed not only to attract volunteers to help deliver important services, but also to facilitate professional growth in volunteers themselves and provide work experience. We can see many of these same objectives playing out in the world of civic hacking, where some communities are introducing a new focus on skill development and technology literacy.

Neighborhood watch groups, adopt-a-highway programs and community cleanupgroups are additional examples where volunteers are helping to provide a service that would ordinarily fall to government alone to provide. In the City of Philadelphia, there isa formal program to designate citizens who have the support of their neighbors as “Block Captains” – this individuals act as the liaison for a community and interact directly with designated employees within city government. It is worth noting that these Block Captains are given official standing with the city (each is issued an ID card) and provided with support materials and training.

These are just a few examples of the long history that governments have in collaborating with outside partners that volunteer their time, skills and expertise. But what is interesting to me is that there is very little discussion about the role of civic hacking in this larger picture of volunteerism.

Why does government collaboration with other kinds of volunteer groups seem do differ so much from civic hacking?

WORKING TOWARDS MORE EFFECTIVE CIVIC HACKING

We should say to critics in the media or elsewhere that failure is an essential part of government, just as it is in private enterprise. And the cost of failure should be tiny, dwarfed by its rewards…It’s much better to fail fast, fail cheap, and then put things right at a fraction of the cost.

– Mike Bracken, On Policy and Delivery

One of the things that governments face the most challenges in adopting as part of how they build and implement technology is agile development methodologies that employ iteration and failure as tools to develop better products. For a variety of reasons, this approach can be hard for government to adopt.

Civic hacking groups, however, present an enormously valuable potential partner for governments – they can help develop and test a variety of different solutions outside of the traditional government contracting and procurement processes that can be used to see what works, and (perhaps more importantly) what doesn’t.

It’s agile development by proxy – or could be, if governments were able to see the value of stronger relationships with civic hacking groups.

One of the common themes that emerges when we look at the different kinds of volunteer activities that governments rely on to help provide important government services is that they have the official sanction of the government. This point is probably easiest to see with volunteer firefighters, but it is common with other volunteer groups as well. Adopt-a-highway programs use signage on roadways to designate the groups responsible for cleaning them, and Philadelphia Block Captains are given ID cards and an appointed liaison from the city to assist in their efforts.

This official sanction from government seems to be missing when it comes to civic hacking groups.

To be sure, it is not uncommon – particularly in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago – to see city representatives regularly attending civic hacking events. But the presence of these people represents an ambiguous commitment from government primarily because most civic hacking events take place after hours or on weekends. Are these individuals attending in their official capacity, or as enthusiastic volunteers themselves? It’s not always clear.

The one investment that governments have always made in the volunteer activities that support their efforts are resources – typically financial. In fact, it is the lack of resourcesthat has most directly impacted the success of these volunteer efforts.

I think that civic hacking needs to be viewed in this broader tradition of volunteerism in America – a tradition that is important to the effective and efficient delivery of public services. Governments need to officially recognize and partner with outside hackers and technologists – not unlike what was tried in New York City under the Bloomberg Administration.

In addition, governments must invest in the resources to support civic hacking – most importantly, governments need to provide high quality open data and other “raw materials” for creating new solutions.

We can’t underestimate the importance of the official sanction and support that other kinds of civic volunteerism receive from government. It’s what defines these efforts and sustains them.

It’s time for us to see civic hacking as an essential component of the Collaborative State and recognize its place in the proud tradition of volunteerism that has helped to strengthen this country.

Five ways governments can encourage civic startups

2012 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Civic Startup.”

With the growth of the open government movement and more and more governments embracing open data, we see an increasing number of useful civic applications being developed.  Every weekend hackathon spawns multiple projects that could potentially live on as a successful venture or company.

Some hackathons are specifically geared toward producing viable companies – this is exactly the approach that was taken at last November’s “Education Hack Day” in Baltimore.  At that event, the idea was to set up winners with as much expert advice and opportunity as possible to launch a business around their weekend project to help teachers.

Generally speaking, a “civic startup” is a startup company with a focus on civic improvement or social good.  They look and act just like other kinds of startups, but their aims are somewhat loftier.  ElectNext and SeeClickFix are a good example of a civic startups – their aim is to become profitable and viable (just like other startups), but if these ventures are successful they will impact people far beyond their direct customer/user base.

Everyone benefits when voters are more engaged and participate more regularly in elections, or when city neighborhoods are cleaned up.  We all get something out of the success of civic startups like ElectNext and SeeClickFix , whether we use them directly or not.  In this sense, we can describe these kinds of startups in economic terms – civic startups are those that generate a positive externality.

Some civic startups are direct consumer of open government data, like RailBandit which uses data published by public transit agencies.  Other civic startups – thought this type seems especially rare – might potentially offer goods and services directly to governments through the standard procurement process.

There are ways that state and local governments can help startups and encourage the startup community.  Some governments (usually at the state level) provide early-stage funding for technology companies – the Maryland Venture Fund is a good example of this.  State and local tax policy can also be used foster and encourage high tech startups.  But these options have become more challenging for governments in recent years because of financial strain and tight budgets.

In 2012, I believe that state and local governments will connect the dots on open data and begin to see it as a viable economic development tool for encouraging the development of new businesses and the creation of civic startups.

Here are five steps that governments can take to help encourage and foster the growth of civic startups in 2012:

1. View open government data as an economic development tool

Transparency and visibility are the most common arguments used to justify open government data programs, and the are both strong and compelling.  But there is another argument this is just as compelling – that by releasing data collected and maintained by government agencies in useful, developer-friendly formats that governments can encourage the development of new businesses.

I’ve made this argument before, as have many others.  It’s time for governments to adopt the mindset that open data is a tool in their economic development tool kits.  This change in thinking will directly impact the quantity and the types of data sets that are opened up for developers to use.

2. Codify open data requirements

If entrepreneurs are going to build businesses around open government data, they’ll need certainty that such data will be released in a complete and comprehensive fashion, and that it will continue to be released in the future.  Attracting investment for civic startups will be more difficult without this level of assurance and commitment from governments.

A good example of open government data drying up can be seen in Philadelphia. Until early 2009, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health had published a listing of restaurant inspections on its website. This kind of data has been used in several municipalities as the basis for new civic applications, and both Chicago and New York City publish this information for developers.  However, in early 2009 Philadelphia stopped publishing this information, and the web page where it once resided is no longer active.

It’s hard to build a business around data that might not be there in the future. That’s why governments need to formalize their commitment to open data.  Mayoral directives and executive orders – like Baltimore’s – are great.

Ideally, however, this commitment should be enacted in statute so that it is less likely to change even with the election of a new mayor or governor.  This will give civic startups greater certainty and allow them to more easily attract investment.

3. Reform the government procurement process

I think it’s awesome that public sector CTO’s like Chicago’s John Tolva are taking about civic startups and encouraging business development through open government data.

In a recent blog post, Tolva mentions the Chicago Lobbyists project which is powered by data released by the city.  In his post, Tolva points to the group behind this website’s decision to respond to a city RFP for an online lobbyist registration system as evidence of progress:

Clearly the process was eye-opening. Consider the scenario: a small group of nimble developers with deep subject matter expertise (from their work with the open data) go toe-to-toe with incumbents and enterprise application companies. The promise of expanding the ecosystem of qualified vendors, even changing the skills mix of respondents, is a new driver of the release of City data.

As encouraging as this development is, it seems pretty unlikely to have the the desired impact unless significant changes are made to the city’s procurement policies.

In their RFP response, the Chicago Lobbyists group described the Chicago procurement process this way:

Responding to an RFP for the City of Chicago is a herculean task… this approach to an RFP results in proposals from one type of contractor: firms that are very large and able to jump through all the hoops that the City has to ensure the minimum amount of risk and liability for the City itself.

I don’t mean to single out Chicago here – Tolva and his boss (Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel) are among the most enlightened public officials in the country when it comes to open data and citizen engagement.  Chicago’s procurement practices are probably more like procurement practices in other cities than they are different.

Pubic procurement policies weren’t built with startups in mind.  But given the vast sums spent by state and local governments on technology and software, this could be an immensely powerful avenue for encouraging new businesses and civic startups.

4. Showcase civic applications and companies

One of the most effective and lowest cost steps states and local governments can take to support and encourage civic startups is to showcase civic apps.

I’m always amazed when I see cities – like Baltimore – that have robust, developer-ready open data portals yet no centralized listing of apps built with city data.  What’s the point of encouraging developers to use your data if you’re not going to then encourage citizens to use their apps?

Both San Francisco and Philadelphia have nice application showcases that could easily be emulated by Baltimore and other cities.  There are also other, stand alone app directories – like City-Go-Round for transit apps – that developers should be encouraged to utilize when promoting their applications.

5. Manage expectations

If civic startups are anything like their non-civic counterparts, many of them will fail.  This is the reality of the startup ecosystem – lots of companies, many of them with great teams, awesome technology and a hot idea, just don’t make it.

The failure of civic startups – whether powered by open data or selling directly to governments – shouldn’t be used as the basis for political outrage.  A failed civic startup doesn’t translate into an indictment of a government’s open data program, although some might try to characterize it this way.

Although there isn’t anything to stop those that want to use the failure of civic startups as a way to make political hay, supporters and advocates can go a long way toward mitigating this if expectations are properly managed.

Open data and civic apps aren’t a panacea for the problems of governments, they are but one tool in the vast toolbox that governments have available to them to provide services to citizens and do all of the other things we expect governments to do.

The interesting thing about the idea of civic startups is that if governments embrace open data and encourage it’s widespread use, they may find that they are able to encourage new business development while at the same time making their own burdens a little lighter.

Baltimore Open Government 2011 Year in Review

Baltimore City Hall - Photo by wallyg

Photo by wallyg

Following up on my previous post for the City of Philadelphia, this post describes what happened on the open government and open data fronts in the City of Baltimore in 2011.

OpenBaltimore Launches

The open data movement in Baltimore officially began with the unveiling of the OpenBaltimore data repository in January, 2011.

Running on the Socrata platform, OpenBaltimore launched to great excitement in the Baltimore technology community, many of whom had been advocating for a civic hacking event in the city for some time.

In the span of just a few weeks, Baltimore seemed to go from zero to 100 on open data.  The SODA API built into the OpenBaltimore platform seemed to dovetail perfectly with requests from the developer community for Baltimore City to give them the raw materials to build civic apps.

Civic hacking soon ensued.

Civic Hacking

In February, the very first civic hacking event took place in Baltimore.  This wasn’t the first hacking event to take place in Charm City, but it was the first to happen after the City published open data sets for developers to build civic apps with.  And that’s exactly what they did.

In early February, software developers, journalists and civic activists converged on the Emerging Technologies Center in Baltimore’s Canton Neighborhood to build civic apps.  One of the great things about this event (in addition to the visible enthusiasm of the developers that attended) was the fact that Socrata had their lead developer evangelist on site, working along side the Baltimore developers to use the City’s new open data platform.

This event would set the tone for much of the civic hacking that was to take place in Baltimore for the remainder of the year.

Later in the year, a second civic hacking event would take place at Digital Harbor High School in the City’s Federal Hill neighborhood.  This highly successful event – Education Hack Day – was focused on the needs of teachers and schools, and brought educators and technologists together for a successful weekend of app building.  This event was recognized as a runner up for “Best Civic Hackathon” in the recent GovFresh Awards contest.

The Search for an OpenGov Champion

The OpenBaltimore site was launched at something of an odd time as it relates to Baltimore City government and politics.

The City actually decided to build an open data portal before the man that would become the City’s CIO (Rico Singleton) was in his current position.  The very real potential existed for the OpenBaltimore project to be lost in the shuffle as the incoming CIO asserted his new authority and lined up resource to execute his own priorities.

In addition,  2011 was an election year in Baltimore, with the sitting Mayor (Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the former City Council President who took over the office when her predecessor resigned amid a scandal) running for a full term.  There was speculation in the technology community that the launch of OpenBaltimore was nothing more than a political ploy – a hollow nod to the calls from local developers for open data and a good way to shore up the Rawlings-Blake Administration’s record on transparency.

Mayoral elections can wreak havoc on open data programs.  Civic activists in Baltimore needed only to look a few miles to the south – to the District of Columbia – to see the dramatic change that a mayoral election can have on the direction of a municipal open data program.  The District – once a pioneer in the open government movement – has fallen almost completely off the OpenGov radar following the defeat of former Mayor Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary in September of  2010.

Real questions about Baltimore City’s commitment to open data were raised leading up to the Baltimore Mayoral primary.  I myself had a chance to weigh in on this issue – ultimately, I felt that the City’s commitment to open data was genuine and that there was great potential for civic engagement and change.

One of the most interesting and valuable events of the year served as a vehicle for addressing many of these concerns and fostering an open discussion between the technology community and the Baltimore City CIO.

Dubbed, “BmoreSmart Meets City Hall,” the event was organized by Kate Baldow and brought dozens of interested parties to Baltimore City Hall to engage in a dialog with CIO Rico Singleton.  A frank, honest and open discussion took place and those that attended learned a lot about the challenges that face Baltimore and the plans for the future of open data.

Coming Full Circle on 311

Baltimore was the first city in the US to use the 311 designated dialing code and a centralized call center to field citizen requests on non-emergency issues.  So it was fitting that in 2011 Baltimore joined the ranks of cities to deploy an Open311 API.

In connection with this announcement, Baltimore also launched 311 apps for the iPhone and Android, and launched a Twitter account for tracking 311 service requests.

Baltimore’s embrace of Open311 looks like it will be one of the most productive avenues for engaging developers to build civic apps to help the city.  It would be great to see some outreach in this area in 2012.

The Road Ahead in 2012

In the past several weeks, Baltimore City CIO Rico Singleton has been on a tear – releasing scores of new data sets to the OpenBaltimore platform.  He’s hired a Chief Digital Officer for Baltimore and conducted the interview via live video stream, with questions for each of the candidates solicited from the local tech community via Twitter.

The deep pool of talented people in Baltimore that want to use city data to build useful civic apps was evident in some truly innovative projects that developed through the course of the year.

Following the Civic Hack Day in February, Shea Frederick began work on what would become SpotAgent – an app that uses data from OpenBaltimore to find safe parking in the city.  Beyond just being a great app, and a great example for municipal officials of what can be done with city data, Shea’s work highlighted an important issue for OpenBaltimore – the frequency of data updates.  With Shea’s strategic prodding, the city began a pilot project to update parking violations (and other data sets) much more frequently, making them more valuable for everyone.

Shea teamed up with other talented Baltimore developers Jonathan Julian and James Schaffer for Baltimore Vacants – a project to provide more usable information on who owns vacant properties in Baltimore.  Jonathan was also one of the stars of the Education Hack Day in Baltimore (his team won first prize) and he blogged about his experience at the event to encourage others to take up civic hacking.

Another vacant property project was taken on this year by Mike Subelsky, a talented developer who announced several weeks ago that he wanted to take on a “free software project” as both a way to learn new skills and to kick start a viable project.  Mike ended up working with Kate Bladow and Baltimore Slumlord Watch on a project to identify who owns vacant properties.  Mike was gracious enough to not only work on the project, and to publish all the great data he was able to pull together, but also to write a detailed blog post about the experience.  Mike’s post is worth the read for those interested in the value of open data.

If the City of Baltimore fully commits to engaging this smart, talented community of developers and civic activists in 2012 it will be a banner year for the open government movement in Charm City.

Open Gov Champions for 2011

Baltimore’s community of civic-minded hackers is deeper than most cities, so the following is by no means an exhaustive list of those who have contributed to the open government movement in that city.  But as I said previously with the list I put together for Philadelphia, when I think about the open government movement in Baltimore it is hard to imagine how it would work without these people.

Mike Brenner.  Mike is a tireless advocate for open government and open data.  He was the very first person I ever became aware of calling for civic hacking events in Baltimore, and he was the primary organizer for both of the events that took in Baltimore this year.  Like others in the Baltimore technology community, Mike has heard the siren call of the Big Apple and Silicon Valley and he’d be a huge success in either place.  But he’s a Baltimorean at heart and he cares deeply about his city.  Every city should be so lucky as to have someone like Mike Brenner working to make things better.

Dave Troy. Dave is a successful entrepreneur whose been around the block more than once. Like so many others in the Baltimore technology community, he cares passionately about his city and wants to make it work better and smarter through the innovative use of technology. Dave’s idea to use LinkedIn data to visualize the relationships between people in the Baltimore community was one of the most interesting and creative uses of data that I saw all year. Dave’s leadership will hep propel the open government movement in Baltimore forward in 2012.

Rico Singleton. He’s got a lot on his plate – outdated technology infrastructure, budget woes and more projects than you can shake a stick at – but everything I saw from Baltimore’s CIO this year tells me he’s in the OpenGov game to win it.  There are certainly enough challenges in Baltimore to justify putting OpenBaltimore on the back burner, but Rico continues to push things forward with the release of new data sets and the constant improvement of the OpenBaltimore site.

Philadelphia Open Government 2011 Year in Review

Philadelphia

Photo by vic15

The time of year-end reviews and top 10 lists is now upon us, so I’m compiling the details of a watershed year for open data and civic hacking in two cities where I’ve seen huge leaps made in 2011 – Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In this first installment, I’ll focus on the “City of Brotherly Love” and highlight some of the events and developments of the past year that made it such a special one for the open government movement there.  In the next installment, I’ll do the same for “Charm City.”

Code for America Launches in Philadelphia

2011 began with enormous potential for the growth of the open government footprint in Philadelphia because of a group of coders and designers that came to town as part of Code for America (CfA).  Philadelphia was one of the CfA partner cities for 2011, and the group of fellows that came to town in the early part of the year wasted no time in making their presence felt.

The group tore into it’s work, and kicked of a series of informal hackathons that primed the pump for much of the civic hacking that was to come later in the year.  To my knowledge, these events were the very first of what could be called “civic hacking” events to take place in Philadelphia, and I thought their impact was hugely important:

“What I was most impressed with was the ability of this event to highlight to those that were there what is truly possible when government data is open to and usable by developers. It provided an object lesson for all those there on the true potential of civic hacking…

“Having the Code for America fellows in Philadelphia, and having them essentially kick start civic coding using city data, has accelerated the awareness of what is possible. I think people would have achieved the awareness that was realized yesterday eventually, but the CfA fellows got people there sooner.

Throughout the year, in addition to its primary mission in Philadelphia, CfA and the fellows that were a part of it were involved in a number of different aspects of the open government evolution taking place in that city.  Whether as speakers, supporters or participants in other civic events, the “CfA effect’ was an important component of what happened in Philadelphia this past year on the open government front.

OpenDataPhilly and Philly Tech Week

In late April, Philadelphia made big waves in the open data world by launching its own unique open data repository.

Announced at the kick off event for the very first “Philly Tech Week,” the OpenDataPhilly.org website and data repository was unveiled with great fanfare.  The unique approach taken by Philadelphia has turned out to be a key to it’s success:

“The city actively partnered with outside parties, private firms, not-for-profits and universities to help set the direction of the city’s open data efforts. The OpenDataPhilly website itself, although it’s brimming with data collected and maintained by the city, was developed by the geospatial and civic application firm Azavea, and is not hosted or operated by the city.  The website, and the larger open data effort in Philadelphia, operates under the stewardship of a group made up of both public sector and private sector partners.”

The follow up to the launch of the OpenDataPhilly site was quick, and turned out to have some lasting impact in the Philly open government movement.

At the end of Philly Tech Week, Technically Philly convened a hackathon that took place in conjunction with BarCamp News Innovation at Temple University.  The hackers at this event focused their attention on property data within the City of Philadelphia, and developed a web app built from “liberated” Office of Property Assessment data that made the data more easily searchable.

This theme of searchable property records has continued to resonate in the open data and journalism communities, and the app originally built at that initial post-OpenDataPhilly event continues to be actively developed and used.

Hackathons and more Hackathons

Following Philly Tech Week, several other fruitful hacking events were organized in Philadelphia that have helped develop more open data and APIs in Philly, and more useful civic applications.

In June and December, Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) events were held at Drexel University, organized by Drexel PhD candidate Mike Brennan.  Both events have produced nationally recognized civic applications.

The June RHoK event produced PhillySNAP – a text messaging application that helps people locate SNAP vendors that sell fresh produce in their neighborhoods.  This application received an honorable mention in the FCC’s Apps for Communities contest.

The December RHoK event produced Sheltr – a mobile web application that provides food and shelter information for those seeking to assist the homeless.  This application was named “Best Social Service Application” in the recently completed GovFresh Awards contest.

In October, a group of hackers convened on the Devnuts co-working space in Northern Liberties to build applications using SEPTA data and APIs.  This event produced a number of useful applications, and also had the full cooperation and support of SEPTA staff.  In addition, several weeks after the event, Mike Zaleski – Director Emerging and Specialty Technology at SEPTA – organized a unique event to bring the civic hackers into SEPTA for a behind the scenes tour and a showcase for SEPTA employees.

OpenData Race and the Road Ahead in 2012

The road ahead into 2012 for open government and open data in Philly was set with the launch of the OpenData Race in August.

The OpenData Race was a competition open to not-for-profits that want to obtain data from the City of Philadelphia to further their missions and to better serve their constituencies.  It called on not-for-profits to nominate data that is not currently available through the OpenDataPhilly site or through other sources to be released by the city in an open format.  The top nominations received cash prizes, and the OpenDataPhilly team is now working with the City of Philadelphia to facilitate the release of the winning data sets.

The winning data sets – announced at the Crowdsourcing at the Intersection forum in October – will fuel a new series of civic hacking events in 2012 and continue the virtuous cycle that was begun this year with newly open data leading to greater civic participation and the development of useful civic applications.

Code for America will be back to Philly next year, and 2012 is shaping up to be another productive one for the open data movement n Philadelphia.

Open Gov Champions for 2011

Now that 2011 is almost complete, I think its fitting to single out several people who have helped shape the landscape of the open gov movement in Philadelphia.  These are by no means the only individuals who helped push things forward this year – the movement, by definition, is open and encompasses lots of people from a wide array of backgrounds and skill sets.  That, in my mind, is what makes it so potent.

However, when I think about the open government movement in Philadelphia it is hard to imagine how it would work without these people.

Robert Cheetham – President and CEO of Azavea.  Robert was one of the driving forces behind OpenDataPhilly and the OpenData Race.  His firm built the platform that runs OpenDataPhilly.org, and he has helped launch it as an open data platform in other cities. His knowledge of technology and Philadelphia government ,and his passion for civic improvement make him the “Godfather” of open data in Philly.

Christopher Wink – Co-founder of publishing strategy firm Technically Media and its technology news site Technically Philly. Chris believes in open government and open data down to his bones, and it shows in his tireless coverage and support for open government events. Technically Philly sponsored pretty much every single civic hacking event in Philly in 2011, and was another driving force behind OpenDataPhilly and the OpenData Race.  Chris is one of the most progressive thinkers on open data that I know, and I think his vision will help chart the path that we travel down for years to come.

Jeff Friedman – Manager of Civic Innovation & Participation in the Office of Mayor Michael A. Nutter.  The “inside man” for open data in Philly, Jeff is a tireless advocate for Code for America, civic participation and changing the way government engages citizens.  Jeff has helped bring together smart passionate people in Philly over the past year to help move the open government effort forward.

OpenDataRace Begins in Philadelphia

OpenData Race

Several months ago, with the unveiling of the OpenDataPhilly website, the City of Philadelphia joined the growing fraternity of cities across the country and around the world to release municipal data sets in open, developer friendly formats. But the City of Brotherly Love did things a bit differently than most of it’s contemporaries.

The city actively partnered with outside parties, private firms, not-for-profits and universities to help set the direction of the city’s open data efforts. The OpenDataPhilly website itself, although it’s brimming with data collected and maintained by the city, was developed by the geospatial and civic application firm Azavea, and is not hosted or operated by the city.  The website, and the larger open data effort in Philadelphia, operates under the stewardship of a group made up of both public sector and private sector partners.

This unique partnership has raised innovative opportunities for collaboration.  This is clearly evident in the latest efforts by the OpenDataPhilly team to solicit ideas from those in and around Philadelphia about the specific data sets that should be opened up by the city, formatted for developers and researchers and released through the OpenDataPhilly site.

Last week, the OpenDataPhilly team, in partnership with Azavea, NPower Pennsylvania, Technically Philly and the William Penn Foundation launched the OpenData Race.

The OpenData Race is a competition open to not-for-profits that want to obtain data from the City of Philadelphia to further their missions and to better serve their constituencies.  It calls on not-for-profits to nominate data that is not currently available through the OpenDataPhilly site or through other sources to be released by the city in an open format.  The top nominations will receive cash prizes, and the OpenDataPhilly team will work with the City of Philadelphia to facilitate the release of the winning data sets.

This competition is a departure from the traditional kinds of contests that derive from municipal open data efforts, which typically take the form of hackathons or application building contests.  It builds on the idea behind the latest “Big Apps” competition in New York City – which asked competitors to name the kinds of open data apps they would like to see developed – by asking consumers of municipal data which data sets they would like to see opened up and released to the public.

Any not-for-profit can nominate a data set by registering with the OpenDataPhilly site and submitting a nomination before the deadline on September 29th.  The OpenDataPhilly team will also be working with the winners of the OpenData Race to facilitate events aimed at building civic applications that use the new data in early 2012.

The partnership in Philadelphia between city officials, not-for profits, private firms and universities has produced a unique atmosphere for the development of an open data movement.  With the launch of the OpenData Race in Philadelphia, the city and those that live and work there will now start to reap the benefits of this innovative partnership.

For more information on the OpenData Race, and to signup to nominate data, go to the OpenDataPhilly website.

Open government hackathons matter

Open government hackathons matter

The civic hackathon – a gathering (either virtual or physical) of technologists for a few days or weeks to build civic-themed software – remains one of the more durable manifestations of the open government movement.

Hardly a week passes without the announcement of a new event or contest – sometimes more than one. As I’ll explain more fully in a moment, this is a good thing.

The civic hackathon is also, increasingly, one of more analyzed facets of the open government movement.

There are more and more smart, engaged people talking about ways to make civic hackathons better – to help ensure that the software these events produce is of higher quality and has a longer lasting effect. This is also a good thing.

Some of the more enlightened analyses on methods/strategies for improving civic hackathons that have crossed my radar of late (by no means a complete list) are the following:

Also worth a read is a recent post on TechPresident by Nick Judd (always a thoughtful contributor on this topic).

In reading much of what is written on the subject of civic hackathons lately, it’s easy to take away a feeling of concern – even skepticism – about their real value.

The constant lament I hear is that civic hackathons don’t work (or don’t work well enough) because many of the apps that are developed as part of these events are not sustained long-term. Some don’t survive the weekend.

I have for some time tried to dispel the notion that this is the only measure (or even one of the most important) of a civic hackathon’s success. And in this post, I will try again.

I <3 Hackathons

I’ve got a thing for civic hackathons.

I was a competitor in the very first Apps for Democracy that took place under Vivek Kundra in Washington, DC, and I was also a competitor in the first Apps for America contest put on by the Sunlight Foundation.

Since then, I’ve been a participant in lots of other civic hackathons and coding events as either a participant, organizer and sponsor (sometimes as more than one).

I’m currently organizing a Philadelphia civic hackathon and helping to organize another in Baltimore. I am a part of not one, but two entries in the FCC’s Apps for Communities competition.

Yeah, I like hackathons.

This doesn’t always make me the most objective person in discussions about whether civic hackathons “work,” but I believe my multifaceted experience with these events has given me insight into other factors that can be used to evaluate their success.

I think civic hackathons can be bigger than the apps the generate. With some forethought and planning, these events can generate benefits that resonate well beyond the end of the award ceremony.

I think it’s a mistake to judge the success of a hackathon solely on how long the apps it produces “live” afterwards.

It’s also a mistake to try and improve hackathons by focusing exclusively on strategies for sustaining apps in the long term. This misses some of the most important benefits that can be generated by these events.

Whether we’re judging past success of civic hackathons or trying to improve future performance, it’s time to get beyond the apps.

You Get What You Plan For

I’m by no means suggesting that striving for long-term adoption of apps generated at civic hackathons is a trivial or unimportant thing. Far from it.

I’m currently working with a group in Philadelphia that developed an app as part of a recent Random Hacks of Kindness event, to identify funding and supporters to help support operation of the app long-term.

My contention here is that this is but one of the benefits to come from this civic hacking event generally, and from this software application specifically.

Not only did the efforts of my team result in an app – they resulted in a previously unavailable data set being published for others to use.  The app my team worked on helps people in Philadelphia locate farmer’s markets and food retailers that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reimbursement through text messaging. The data behind this app is now available for anyone that wants it, either through an API that supports geo-spatial queries or as a downloadable file in a commonly used format.

The data our app needed to operate was “liberated” in the process of building the app. It is now available for anyone else to use, tweak, modify or expand.

That was our plan, and whether we are able to secure longer-term support for our app, and receive assistance in promoting it, this liberated data will live on.

I’m not the only person that has made this argument. Clay Johnson – formerly of Sunlight Labs – has emphasized repeatedly the need to build a community around app contests. This is another positive outcome that can have long term benefits that is not directly related to how many apps are actively being used six months after a civic hacking event.

I noted with some excitement the number of elected officials and political candidates that attended the recent Summer of Smart hackathons in San Francisco. This is a great way to expose public sector employees and officials to the power of civic hacking.

It’s an approach I am using in the upcoming Apps for SEPTA coding event I’m helping organize in Philadelphia, where officials from the Mayor’s office (who’ve never been to a hackathon before) will be in attendance.

I’ve argued in the past that one of the key benefits of civic hackathons is that they stretch traditional notions of public service delivery and show governments what is possible to do with their data. I can’t think of a more effective way to do this than through a civic hacking event.

There is also the very real potential for these events to generate reusable components – open source software that can be used by other developers or governments to build civic applications down the road.

Nick Judd of TechPresident said this much more eloquently than I:

“With each hackathon, some of the detritus — bits of code, training videos, documentation, the right people trading email addresses — becomes scaffolding for the attendees of later ones.”

The benefits that are achievable through civic hackathons go far beyond just the collection of apps that get developed in the course of a weekend.

But the impetus is on organizers and supporters of such events to plan for these benefits, and to nurture them after the event is concluded. You get what you plan for, and if event organizers don’t plan past the end of the weekend then the potential for a missed opportunity is real.

Civic hackathons are bigger than the apps they generate – they always have been.

Many, though, are now just realizing how far the benefits of these weekends of caffeine-fueled hacking extend.

The Road ahead for Open Baltimore

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the state of the open data program in the city of Baltimore.

At the time, the buzz from a day of civic hacking with data released by the city was still palpable and the developers of an application built in the wake of this event stood ready to release it for public use with a full marketing push.

Questions remained about how developers would be authorized to use city data for commercial applications, and – perhaps more importantly – how often the data released as part of the Open Baltimore initiative would be refreshed and maintained.

At the recent Baltimore Data Day event – organized by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance – I had an opportunity to meet Rico Singleton (CIO for the City of Baltimore) and some of his staff to talk about Open Baltimore.

Based on what I heard from Mr. Singleton and his staff, I think that significant questions about the open Baltimore initiative still remain, but I am now more convinced of the city’s commitment to open data and to the long-term success of the program.

An outsider’s perspective

I don’t live in Baltimore so I sincerely hope that my perspective on the city’s open data program will be interpreted for what it is: a representative view of the many people who have friends or family there, who visit often, who care deeply about the state of the city, and who are interested in building civic apps for Baltimore.

To the extent that there are political undercurrents to what is happening with open data in Baltimore, I’m detached from them. I won’t (and can’t) vote for any political representative in Baltimore and I don’t (and won’t) contribute money to any of their campaigns.

I have, however, worked with other cities to provide advice and support for their open data programs – most notably the cities of San Francisco and Philadelphia – and I enjoy being active in the civic hacking ecosystem.  Outside of the city of Baltimore, I don’t think you’ll find a bigger supporter of the Open Baltimore program or someone rooting harder for its long-term success.

I was encouraged by what I heard from Mr. Singleton and his staff last week at Baltimore Data Day, but long-term success for Open Baltimore still seems somewhat in doubt.

Here is what I heard, and what I would suggest to Mr. Singleton and MOIT for making Open Baltimore a smashing long-term success.

An Open discussion

Baltimore Data Day provided an opportunity for myself and Mike Brenner (a passionate advocate for open data in Baltimore and organizer of the Civic Hack Day) to meet Rico Singleton in person.  I wanted to use this opportunity to discuss what I thought about Open Baltimore.

Mr. Singleton was very approachable, friendly and eager to talk.  His time was somewhat limited at the event, but we had a chance to chat briefly about the Open Baltimore initiative and I was able to express some of the concerns that I have heard from others in and around the open data movement in Baltimore.

Chief among them was that the data in the Open Baltimore site is quickly becoming stale.  For example, some of the more prominent data sets are now quite old – data on 311 service requests is only current to January, and parking citation data is only current to March.

If developers are going to use city data to build civic apps (or if activists and community leaders are going to use it to advocate for those they represent) this data must be kept more current.  Mr. Singeton (and MOIT staff at the event) seemed to understand this concern, but none offered a clear and convincing response to how the city would address it.

Two representatives from MOIT staff were on hand to talk at the Baltimore Data Day event as well – Heather Hudson (the full time program manager for Open Baltimore) and Tom Jones (technical support for Open Baltimore and other MOIT initiatives).  Both discussed in some detail an effort by the city to provide more realtime updates to the Open Baltimore site, particularly for high demand data sets like parking citations.

Both Hudson and Jones seemed excited and passionate about this effort, but neither provided specifics on when this process or system would be put into regular use.  While I was initially very excited to hear about this effort, it was pointed out to me by others afterwards that this discussions has been going on for some time.

In the limited time that was available, I asked both Hudson and Mr. Singleton if the city would be willing to endorse and actively participate in another data hacking event focused on the use of city data to build civic apps.

Both thought it was a good idea and accepted the offer.  Mr. Singleton shook hands with myself and Mike Brenner on it before departing for another event.

The Road ahead for Open Baltimore

I’ve said this before and I truly believe it – the City of Baltimore’s open data program has some of the key ingredients needed for real long-terms success.

Chief among them – in my opinion – is the selection of Socrata as the platform for serving data sets.  The Socrata platform is just awesome and the company is a leader in the open data movement, helping develop standards that benefit any government wishing to start down this road.

In addition, there is a passionate and active developer community in Baltimore – as evidenced by the attendance at and enthusiasm from the Civic Hack Day organized earlier this year.

But to capitalize on these things, I believe that Mr. Singleton and his staff need to do some things differently.

Communication

The city needs to do a better job communicating with developers about what it is doing to improve the Open Baltimore site and in soliciting feedback on how it can do things better.Neither the city’s forums on Open Baltimore or the Open Baltimore twitter feed are especially active (one can almost hear the crickets).

How is the city communicating with the technology community about Open Baltimore? Am I missing something? I see lots of discussion in social networks like Facebook from the technology community in Baltimore, but almost nothing from the city on what it’s hopes, plans or intentions are for Open Baltimore.

On a personal note, it registered rather sharply with me that neither Ms. Hudson nor Mr. Jones from MOIT is on Twitter (I specifically asked about this). Mr Singleton is at best an infrequent Twitter user and none of them seems to be active on Facebook.

It’s telling that although several people I talked to had heard about the city’s efforts to push realtime data to the Open Baltimore site, no one seems to know what the timeline for this effort is. Beyond the discussion with Hudson and Jones at Baltimore Data Day last week, I’m not aware of any specific data sets being named as candidates for this effort either (Hudson indicated that parking citations are part of the beta “realtime project”).

Developers may not be happy with the frequency of updates to particular data sets, but they would be far more understanding if they had clear information on what was being done behind the scenes to enhance them.  Without good information, ominous conclusions are more likely to be drawn.

Moreover, I think it would be great to see MOIT tell the story behind this push for realtime updates. I got the sense in talking with MOIT staff last week that this is a rather unique effort among cities that use the Socrata platform.  What a great story to tell – I’m sure the technology community in Baltimore would love to hear it.

Engagement

Our motivation in asking Mr. Singleton and Ms. Hudson to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with local organizers for another Civic Hack Day was simple – I think the city needs to engage consumers of open data (i.e., developers) more directly.Other cities and states that have embarked on open data programs have undertaken multifaceted efforts to engage developers and overtly communicate with them that the government wants them to use its data to build awesome things. This is noticeably absent from the Open Baltimore initiative.

While I would personally love to see a full on app development contest in Baltimore, I think another Civic Hack Day with the city’s explicit endorsement (and full participation) would go a long way toward communicating with developers that the city wants their help in turning city data into useful end products.

It’s also worth noting that Baltimore Data Day itself represented something of a missed opportunity for engagement on Open Baltimore. The event would have been a perfect fit for a presentation on the status, and future goals of Open Baltimore and there were many participants at the event who would have benefited from some time with Mr. Singleton.

(Another open data pioneer in Baltimore – Shea Frederick, one of the creators of SpotAgent – was unable to meet with Mr. Singleton or his staff at the event as they did not arrive until almost midday.)

In my opinion, the City should do more to reach out to the developer and tech communities in and around Baltimore. They are your best possible allies for making Open Baltimore a success.

I look forward to seeing the Open Baltimore initiative become successful in the long term, and I hope that this advice (from one interested outsider) can help make a difference.

Experiments in open data: Baltimore Edition

A lot of my open gov energy of late has been focused on replicating a technique pioneered by Max Ogden (creator of PDXAPI) to convert geographic information in shapefile format into an easy to use format for developers.

Specifically, Max has pioneered a technique for converting shapefiles into documents in an instance of GeoCouch (the geographic-enabled version of CouchDB).

I was thrilled recently to come across some data for the City of Baltimore and since I know there are some open government developments in the works there, I decided to put together a quick screencast showing how open data – when provided in an easily used format – can form the basis for some pretty useful civic applications.

The screencast below walks through a quick demonstration of an application I wrote in PHP to run on the Tropo platform – it currently support both IM and Twitter use.

Just send an address in the City of Baltimore to one of the following user accounts along with a hashtag for the type of location you are looking for:

  • Jabber / Gtalk: baltapi@tropo.im
  • Twitter: @baltimoreAPI

This demo application interacts with a GeoCouch instance I have running in Amazon EC2 – you can take a look at the data I populated it with by going to baltapi.com and accessing the standard CouchDB user interface. I haven’t really locked this instance down all that tight, but there really isn’t anything in it that I can’t replace.

Besides, one of the nice things about this technique is how easy it is to convert data from shapefile format and populate a GeoCouch instance. Hopefully others with GIS datasets will look at this approach as a viable one for providing data to developers. (If anyone has some shapefiles for the City of Baltimore and you want to share them, let me know and I’ll load them into baltapi.com.

There are a number of people in Baltimore pushing for an open data program from their city government, and I have heard that there are some really cool things in the pipeline. I can’t wait to see how things develop there, and I want to do anything I can to help.

Hopefully, this simple demo will be useful in illustrating both the ease with which data can be shared with developers and the potential benefit that applications built on top of open data can hold for municipalities.

Introducing GovFresh Voice

One of the more striking ironies of the Gov 2.0 movement is that despite the development of scores of new technologies, protocols, platforms and networks for enabling sophisticated interactions between citizens and their governments, a large number of people prefer to interact with their government the way they have for a long time – using the telephone.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that many citizens are looking to new channels when communicating with government:

“Citizen interactions with government are moving beyond the website. Nearly one third (31%) of online adults use online platforms such as blogs, social networking sites, email, online video or text messaging to get government information.”

But the same study also found that the granddaddy of communication technologies (the plain old telephone) still reigns supreme as the method for citizens to contact government:

“As we found in our last survey of e-government in August 2003, telephone contact is the overall most preferred contact method when people have a problem, question or task involving the government. Currently, 35% of Americans say they prefer using the telephone in these circumstances, a figure that is relatively unchanged from the 38% who said so in 2003.”

Even those that are rich in broadband Internet access seem to prefer to use the phone to contact government:

“…it is notable that the telephone remains relatively popular even among the technologically proficient, as one-third of home broadband (32%) and wireless Internet users (32%) say that the telephone is their favorite means of contact when they need to get in touch with government.”

This is not a new finding, and I have written about it many times before.

What is new are the opportunities that governments now have to leverage the ordinary telephone (and the sophisticated new ones as well) to provide improved customer service, and to enable citizens to proactively report issues in their community. A host of platforms and tools now exists that have significantly lowered the barrier to entry for smaller governments to build sophisticated communication applications.

These platforms are enormously more powerful than they were just a few years ago. With the tools that are now available to governments, its relatively easy to build sophisticated applications that serve multiple communications channels (phone, instant messaging, text messaging, and even social networks like Twitter) from a single code base. It’s never been easier or less expensive to build telephone and communication applications. Ever!

As part of the Manor.GovFresh event that will be taking place in Manor, Texas next week participants will be giving a “Gov 2.0 Makeover” to a small Texas municipality. As part of this makeover, I’m working with a company called Tropo to build a sophisticated cloud-based telephony system for De Leon Texas.

The GovFresh Voice project (which will run on the Tropo platform) will enable De Leon – as well as other towns and cities – to leverage the latest in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), speech recognition and cloud-based telephony. It leverages all of the functionality of the most sophisticated and powerful cloud telephony platform to empower a small municipal government to fully exploit a preferred communication channel to interact with its citizens.

The GovFresh Voice project is open source – the code is available on GitHub – can run on a commodity web server, is easily configurable and customizable, and requires no up front investment in expensive or sophisticated hardware. It’s cloud-based telephony at its simplest and most powerful.

The hope is to enable De Leon to use this new application and to show other towns what can be done with it. Ultimately, the plan is to donate the code for GovFresh Voice to the new Civic Commons project so that other municipalities can make use of it.

If this project sounds like something your town might like to use, or if you’d like to learn more about how telephones and other communication devices can be used to improve government service delivery, you should consider joining us for the Manor.GovFresh event.

Applying new technologies to old problems is part of what Gov 2.0 is about. Telephony might seem old school, but there has never been more opportunity than right now to exploit it cheaply and efficiently to improve communications between governments and their citizens.