Commentary

4 ways the federal government can improve plainlanguage.gov

Source: plainlanguage.gov

Source: plainlanguage.gov

Managed by the Federal Aviation Administration, plainlanguage.gov, the federal government website tasked with helping agencies write better for those it serves needs renewed attention. While momentum on better government digital services is in full-swing, it’s time to re-invent how plain language is presented.

Here are suggestions for making it better:

Move ownership from FAA to 18F

FAA should focus on planes, not plains.

18F is taking the lead on a more accessible content guide and is focused on providing scalable, up-to-date holistic information on service design. 18F is the appropriate home for plainlanguage.gov (also usability.gov, but that’s another day).

Present plain language clearer

First-time users to the homepage are met with random information that appears to be addressed to those that are familiar with the concept of plain language, when it should be targeting first-time user and those wanting to learn more.

The only way to understand what this site is actually about is by clicking a “What is Plain Language?” at the bottom of the page, and it’s fairly inaccessible beyond the homepage.

Without creating context and describing the intent upfront and universally, the opportunity to effectively convey its importance is lost.

Make a web version of the guide

While there are .pdf and .doc versions of the plain language guide, there is nothing truly web-accessible. This could be done in a day’s time by re-purposing 18F Guides Template and empowering someone to copy/paste this information into markdown or HMTL.

Given that the web is the primary mode of communications, those managing the plain language program should lead by example.

Re-design plainlanguage.gov

The website needs to be simplified with a more accessible color palette, navigation and content structure. Given that it appears not much has been does with it since 2011, it’s definitely time for a refresh.

Thank you

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

Every day I get to engage with entrepreneurs, public sector innovators and journalists on re-imagining and re-energizing how government works, what it means to be “civic,” and this year has been an incredible one for many friends and colleagues.

Special congratulations and thank you’s to public and private sector organizations, including CivicActions, NuCivic, Agile Government Leadership, DataSF, 18F, U.S. Digital Service and the California Government Operations Agency.

Thank you to the many entrepreneurs that reach out and share their ideas, enthusiastically accept feedback and believe there is no greater business venture and way to leverage your technical talent than trying to make a more pleasant, civil society. There’s startup life, and there’s civictech/govtech startup life. Speaking from experience, the latter takes much more empathy and mettle.

Thank you to my friends and colleagues in the media including, but not limited to, Alex Howard, Micah Sifry, Goldy Kamali, Camille Tuutti and Troy Schneider for continuing to cover progress and make the industry more timely, relevant and beholden to principles of openness and innovation.

Thank you to Dustin Haisler, Brian Purchia and Alissa Black for regularly checking in and serving as sounding boards.

Thank you especially to Aaron Pava, Henry Poole, Elizabeth Raley, Kevin Herman, Jeff Lyon, Alex Schmoe, Andrew Hoppin for being collaborators and friends throughout 2015. I’ve never looked forward to a new civic year like I am with 2016.

For those of you reading this or have ever read or shared anything here on GovFresh, thank you <insert fist bump here>.

The work we do is hard and often thankless. Keep plugging away.

Thank you.

9 reasons why Vets.gov is the future of federal government websites

Source: Vets.gov

Source: Vets.gov

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a beta version of Vets.gov, and it’s the future of federal government digital development.

Here’s why:

Service-focused

Gone are the carousels, clunky blocks of information and seemingly self-serving updates on what the agency secretary is doing.

Instead, the user interface is focused on its core customer needs. There are limited graphics and calls to action, and the homepage especially shows discipline and confidence in its restraint, focusing on two user stories and popular, behavior-driven “Quick Links.”

Beta

This says it all:

“This site is a work in progress. We’re designing in the open.”

Secretary Robert McDonald explains why the agency is designing in beta. More on VA’s approach to beta and development methodology.

HTTPS

18F initiated HTTPS by default late last year, and this is important because it offers visitors the guarantee of a secure and private connection.

You can read more about HTTPS and why it’s important for government to adopt here, here, here, here and here.

No navigation

This is a bold and welcome move. No navigation menu and a focus on search and strong footer links shows confidence in design that emphasizes page-specific information with simple options to locate more or start from the beginning.

Digital Analytics Program

The General Services Adminstration’s Digital Analytics Program is an important effort to provide visibility into federal web traffic, and Vets.gov is participating in the program, as should every federal agency.

Active feedback

In the bottom right corner, there’s a feedback mechanism that allows users to give input on various aspects of the website.

“When you post an idea to our feedback forum, others will be able to subscribe to it and make comments,” says the site.

Having an open forum such as this allows users to see what’s been submitted and provides more transparency into the feedback. Most sites use a contact form which leaves the user wondering when and if it will ever be addressed.

Playbook

The Vets.gov playbook provides all aspects of the team — editorial, design, development — with guidance to build a unified website based on core principles and processes.

Open source

The website has its own GitHub repo where you can download, fork, issue a pull request or add feedback. From the playbook, it appears it’s using Foundation and U.S. Web Design Standards for front-end development, both of which are open source.

Easter egg

Hidden in the comments of the source code is the Abraham Lincoln quote, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” While this is mostly interesting to me and anyone else who might be looking at the code, it’s an important, constant reminder to everyone working on this project why and who they’re building it for.

Congratulations to the team working on this. While the GitHub contributor list (go Danny Chapman!) is short, I’m sure there are many others behind it, and they should be proud they’re taking a bold step and setting the standard for how federal websites should be built.

How to not be the next USAspending.gov

USAspending.gov

Source: USAspending.gov

Rightfully so, there’s somewhat of a backlash to the newly re-designed USAspending.gov that launched today.

The site has never really lived up to its potential, but hopefully this will begin to change now that it has moved beyond past issues and could get support from 18F and U.S. Digital Services.

NextGov has a short historical overview of the vendor issues related to its storied past, FierceGovernmentIT’s Molly Bernhart Walker has a great post with respect to the release’s impact on businesses who rely on the service as part of their core offerings, as does Washington Free Beacon’s Elizabeth Harrington related to the impact on transparency.

Regardless of the vendor drama and complexity around delivering data specific to USAspending, here is a simple formula for any government working on the release of a new public-facing website:

  • Data first, design second. Regardless of what the site looks like, the data should be publicly accessible via an application programming interface or bulk download. Every government website that launches from here on out should have a data strategy and execution plan before a web design and development one, and this includes a legal understanding that no vendor can ever claim ownership of government data.
  • Open the analytics. It’s important for everyone (internal and external stakeholders) to have access to the same information to understand how well a site is performing and have visibility into current user behavior. This aids in the next point.
  • Get public feedback. Getting feedback based on expert opinion, whether it’s on the particular subject matter of the website or general digital strategy, a public request for information is essential. Per the above point, it’s important for everyone to have access to the analytics to help drive feedback, as well as realize when that feedback is right or wrong.
  • Go into beta. It’s unclear to me why this is rarely done, but having a beta version of the website allows for a softer launch that takes into account early feedback and is a foundation for the next two points. You’re not going to deal with a major public outcry if it took four weeks to build something and are constantly iterating over the days, weeks and months after the initial launch.
  • Get public feedback on the beta. Most government agencies launch public betas but fail to publicly display or respond to feedback so that others can see and comment. Using GitHub issues is a great way to do this, because those comments can be easily baked into the next point.
  • Make changes based on analytics and public feedback. This eliminates internal decisions to include unnecessary features, like homepage sliders or photos of the mayor in the header, and instead focus on real user needs.
  • Make the source code publicly-available at all times. I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation, but code developed for government purposes should be accessible, commentable and contributable at all times.
  • Provide a public roadmap. A roadmap allows the public to have insight into what is currently being developed or considered for development. This shouldn’t be overthought, but more of insight into the focus for the next four weeks. This lets those not directly involved understand what they can expect in the next release without being surprised by a radically new design.
  • Regularly and publicly document updates. Blogging what’s been done and why is important in effectively communicating new changes. GOV.UK does a great job of this. Currently, we see this in the form of nothing or an obscure accepted pull request or code push on GitHub. Never underestimate the importance of the narrative.

The history behind USAspending.gov is an interesting anecdote on building a complex, data-focused website. The previous vendor-related drama and data complexity make it somewhat unique, but by no means should it or any other government website be hindered by a simple, iterative approach for introducing a new citizen-focused, public-facing digital service.

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.

Breaking the wall in Chicago

Photo: Josh*m

Photo: Josh*m

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the wall.

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

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

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

cruising the sea wall

Chicago Sea Wall, by Jesus Arellanes

Challenge One: Expanding the community

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

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

Challenge Two: mixing digital and civic literacy

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

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

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

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

Challenge Three: Procurement

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

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

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

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

Challenge Four: Spurring (and growing) civic startups

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

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

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

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

Breaking the wall

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

San Francisco: Driving the boundaries of open data

Port of San Francisco (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Port of San Francisco (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

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

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

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

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

National implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

An open letter to venture capitalists frustrated with the federal government shutdown

Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelreuter/4068776519/">historilla</a>

Photo: historilla

Lately, what’s happening between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is starting to catch the ire of some venture capitalists who, like many Americans already, are starting to publicly vent their frustrations.

Two in particular stand out.

TechStars founder Brad Feld:

And Y Combinator founder Paul Graham:

As a fellow citizen, I couldn’t agree more with their sentiments, however, I’m equally embarrassed by the VC community’s inability to focus its attention on entrepreneurial ventures that matter and could play a vital role in changing all of this.

Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s darling startup incubator, has a long list of funded companies, none of which have a significant pitch on democratizing the political process or offering much-needed technology solutions to the bureaucracy.

Likewise, TechStars’ portfolio of funded ventures has not one civic-focused startup. According to its own official stats, the average company funding amount is $1.5 million. With 28 companies having failed, that’s a good $30 million dollars that could have easily gone into worthwhile, perhaps less-risky, civic ventures.

From grassroots campaign tools to fixing the bureaucratic minutiae of government procurement and everything in between, there are civic entrepreneurs chomping at the bit to get a fraction of funding in the range of just those losses.

If you’re a VC frustrated with the federal government shutdown, here’s my advice:

  • Fund 10 percent of your portfolio to civic-focused ventures aimed at solving bureaucratic technology issues or the campaigns and elections process.
  • Pivot your expectations for these ventures. The civic vendor market has a much longer sales cycle than those in the private sector. You’ll need patience, but estimates place the government IT market at $140 billion.

Unlike your average citizen (or furloughed public servant), VCs like Feld and Graham can have a huge impact beyond voting or voicing concerns to elected officials. They can play a major role in disrupting markets and if there’s one industry that could use some disruption, it’s the government services industry.

Pundit (amongst many other other notable accomplishments) Vivek Wadhwa effectively summarizes Silicon Valley’s sentiment in a recent Washington Post column “Silicon Valley shrugs off Washington shutdown“:

Perhaps it is best this way. Rather than fighting unproductive and destructive battles about budgets and health insurance, our innovators are chugging along inventing technologies that will make industries more productive and reduce the cost of healthcare. They are doing what they do best—looking forward, competing, and collaborating. Someone has to save the economy after all. Our politicians certainly won’t.

While I couldn’t agree more with Wadhwa on the “chugging along” part, more entrepreneurial and VC energy needs to focus on problems that will solve the state of our civic affairs. Saving the economy is important, but if all we’re left with is another mobile advertising platform or photo sharing social network, are we really better off as a country?

The good news is, appropriately, Democracy.com, a “global social platform for participatory democracy and political engagement,” launched this week with $2 million in seed funding. Other companies, too, have found funding to make a go at it, such as NationBuilder and SeeClickFix.

My intention isn’t to single out Feld or Graham. I have much respect for both of them. They have created amazing communities of innovators and inspire and mentor entrepreneurs everywhere beyond just their work with Y Combinator and TechStars.

I’d just love to see them and their peers take a meaningful lead on leveraging their influence and capital to change the entrepreneurial focus of the startup community. The best way they can do that is to start funding ventures that directly impact foundational aspects to a stronger civil society.

Yes, it will take some serious VC pivoting, but if you care about your country, it’s worth the investment.

Let democracy be your exit strategy.

America needs a .gov backup plan

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

The federal government is closed indefinitely as are many of its websites, including data.gov, a foundation of U.S. entrepreneurial innovation and public information.

From the memo released by the White House referencing .gov agency action:

If an agency’s website is shut down, users should be directed to a standard notice that the website is unavailable during the period of government shutdown. If any part of an agency’s website is available, agencies should include a standard notice on their landing pages that notifies the public of the following: (a) information on the website may not be up to date, (b) transactions submitted via the website might not be processed until appropriations are enacted, and (c) the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.

Regardless of what’s happening between the opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, why is America in this situation, and what can we do to ensure it never happens again?

In the case of Data.gov, Sunlight Foundation makes a great case that government APIs aren’t a backup plan and offers its own suggestions:

  • Publish downloadable bulk data before or concurrently with building an API.
  • Explicitly encourage reuse and republishing of their data. (Considering public reuse of data a risk to the public is not recommended.)
  • Document what data will remain during a shutdown, and keep this up all the time. Don’t wait until the day before (or of) a shutdown.
  • Link to alternative sources for their data. Keep these links up during a shutdown.

Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd answers part of the issue in a recent post, where he advocates a community-based approach to hosting public data:

The City of Philadelphia has designated the community-built Open Data Philly website as it’s official data directory for open data – we’re the only big city in the country (maybe the only city period) that does not unilaterally control the data portal where city departments publish their data.

We see informal, reactive examples of Philadelphia’s strategy happening via organizations like Code for America, who has mirrored Census Bureau TIGER shapefile data.

These suggestions and options are a great first step, but what about the entire .gov ecosystem?

There is an enormous amount of information Americans can’t access that isn’t structured data, most noticeably in the form of nasa.gov, the website that hosts information about our country’s space operations.

When a hurricane is making its way to destruction, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issues a warning to potentially impacted areas to take appropriate safety measures. Areas seriously hit receive immediate federal funding to ensure the affected communities are stabilized in a timely manner.

What federal agency is responsible for preserving our data economy and ensuring public information is accessible during a national emergency, in this case a government shutdown?

What contingency plan is in place to ensure our .gov ecosystem is available when a political storm hits?

Here’s my 2-point .gov backup plan:

  • Develop all web operations in non-licensed, open source software. This enables others to re-purpose this technology in an efficient manner free from financial and legal restrictions.
  • In the event of a potential shutdown, release all code and content to the public through platforms such as GitHub (this should be done regularly anyways).

This simple plans ensures entrepreneurial ventures and civic communities can rally to stand up these operations in the event of an emergency.

The Federal Chief Information Officers Council is tasked with maintaining the integrity of America’s IT infrastructure. They’ve done a great job of facilitating plans for mobility, security and even a more digitally-attuned government, but it’s time to set in place a national .gov backup plan.

Whether it’s the CIO Council, FEMA, General Services Administration, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy or all of the above, when our government is open for business again, let’s get the appropriate leadership together and move forward on a stronger contingency plan that can weather the next political hurricane.

Tipping my open government hat

Alex Howard

Alex Howard

I first met Alex Howard in Los Angeles at Gov20LA a few years ago. This was shortly before he joined O’Reilly Media as its Washington correspondent covering the open government/Gov 2.0 beat.

Since then, he has covered every inch of open government, from open source to open data and everything in between, in a way that has been key to maintaining its relevance over the past three years.

Alex is passionate about his craft and his prolificness is its byproduct.

Yesterday, as I stepped off the plane in SFO, I saw this tweet from him that caused me to reflect on not only his work but the open government movement as it’s progressed since we first met:

When I saw it, I was happy for him for moving on to what I assume is a great opportunity to continue his rise to journalistic stardom. Seeing it also reminded me of the great work he’s done and the important role he’s played in fostering open government’s adoption.

For those paying attention to this space three years ago, we would have never imagined the progress that’s been made since, and Alex has been a tremendous part of facilitating that.

I don’t know what his future plans are, but I’m sure he’ll play an active role in continuing to share the work of civic technologists everywhere. Like many in this community, it’s not just a job for Alex. It’s the way he sees the world.

I just wanted to take a moment and this space to thank him for all his work. Despite living on opposite coasts, I’ve had the pleasure of spending many hours talking with him about this stuff, and I hope to continue that conversation as we watch him rise to the top in his next endeavor.