Commentary

Open data vital for San Francisco’s Bike Share

bike share

Finally, a bike-sharing program is coming to San Francisco! What Europeans figured out years ago will be a reality in the Bay Area by this August. The plan is to put 700 bikes at 70 different stations in the City and throughout the Bay Area—where residents can quickly hop on a bicycle at one station, and drop it off at another. Appallicious is very excited about this new program, not only because we’re looking forward to hopping on these new bikes ourselves, but also in order for the program to be successful, the utilization of open data will be key. That’s why I’ll be joining sf.citi and the San Francisco Bike Coalition at Yammer on Wednesday, for a conversation about the launch of the new program and how open data and the tech community at large fits in.

Once the bike share program starts, it’s going to be extremely important to know where the heaviest demand for bikes are at certain times during the day, and certain days during the week. It’s safe to assume that on a Monday morning, you’re going to need more bikes in residential areas, and less in the Financial District, since commuters will be biking to work. But with any program like this, unexpected variables are bound to come up, and this is where open data will come in.

The bikes and bike stations will most certainly have a GPS component where the city will be able to track bikes in use, and the amount that have been checked in or out at each station. Companies like Appallicious will then be able to synthesize this data and not only help the City of San Francisco figure out where and when the heaviest demand for bikes is, but can also inform citizens through mobile applications how many bikes are available at a specific station at any given time. Just like the features on the SF Rec and Park App we developed allows you to find parks, playgrounds, dog parks, picnic tables, and more — we could also bring bicycle availability right into the app! It will be just like checking the availability of a ZipCar at a nearby parking garage.

Once this raw data is available to Appallicious, there are quite a few steps before it can be packaged and presented to bike riders in a way that will help them figure out bike availability, or to city leaders who need to know which stations need more bikes, and which ones need less. The idea of the public sector providing the private sector with information like this is nothing new. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive guaranteeing that GPS signals would be available at no charge to the world when sucha a system became operational, in the wake of a Korean Airlines flight that was shot down after accidentally flying into Russian airspace.

The Obama administration has continued to promote the idea of “sustainable innovation” that President Reagan helped start. The GPS directive from Reagan has created a $250 billion a year navigation industry. Think about GPS companies like Garmin or applications like Google Maps that rely on GPS—without Open GPS, these companies would have never have been created, and we’d still have stacks of paper maps from AAA stuffed in our glove compartments!

With this renewed push for open data, through President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, there is a chance for the United States to build a new, thriving and successful industry through information released to the public by city governments. As more and more information is released by cities all over the country and the world, companies are going to be able to step up and provide new technology that allow citizens to access and benefit from this information.

In San Francisco, open data advocates like Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor David Chiu have just passed new open data legislation that will allow companies like Appallicious to create apps and change the way in which cities and governments are able to operate for years to come.

The possibilities are endless, and I am extremely excited to see how innovators and entrepreneurs find revolutionary ways of using this data to make bike sharing easier in San Francisco. Wouldn’t it be cool to integrate the bike-sharing program into the SF Rec and Park App? You could reserve a bike with your app and then take it for a tour of Golden Gate Park or see all the incredible art available throughout the city using the app. The open data movement has the potential to create a thriving, sustainable industry that can create millions of jobs, and a symbiotic relationship between the private and public sectors that could make both more effective, efficient, and profitable.

Open government’s double standard

Open Government

Despite open government calls for performance metrics and financial transparency in government, you’d be hard-pressed to find any of this for the movement behind it.

Over the past four years I’ve followed the contests, challenges, apps, projects, hackathons and people, and there’s been tens of millions granted to organizations and individuals with little structured insight into the movement’s inner workings or even its return on investment.

There’s no visualization or centralized, accessible open data platform that highlights how much is granted to whom, and how these individuals are affiliated with one another. There’s no Influence Explorer or Clear Spending for open government. There’s no regular feedback loop or “OpenGovStat” review that publicly reviews satisfaction or effectiveness to evaluate whether these efforts are solving issues of real importance.

Perhaps we make the assumption that because this is open government “the movement,” it is free from politics, connections or influence, but even the most well-intentioned people and professions fall victim to these traps, especially when unchecked.

As we watch the Knight Foundation News Challenge process begin to allocate millions of dollars to open government efforts, I’d like to see them “double down” on viability and financial clarity within the movement.

Here’s my “GovFresh Challenge” to open government movement leaders and those who fund it: heed your own philosophical approach to metrics and transparency and be more open and collaborative in providing better insight into how you’re leveraging resources.

By doing this, the movement as a whole is better able to assess what’s working and what’s not so that millions more aren’t wasted on pet rocks or efforts that, as they say in government, are non-mission critical. We’ve seen too many projects come and go with a sense of naivete, fanaticism and meme-making to not begin to honestly and publicly evaluate their effectiveness, learn from their mistakes and openly contribute to a better approach.

There’s a solid case to be made on open government’s return on investment. It’s now time for the movement to be more true to itself so we can better evaluate its own ROI.

I hope the open government movement takes me up on my challenge.

I don’t have millions to hand out, but I can guarantee you everyone will win.

San Francisco makes open data city policy

SF Mayor Ed Lee introduced open data legislation on October 15 that would create a chief data officer and promote the use of open data in city government. (Photo: City of San Francisco)

SF Mayor Ed Lee introduced open data legislation on October 15 that would create a chief data officer and promote the use of open data in city government. (Photo: City of San Francisco)

Today, open data and its power to transform a city and a nation by engaging tech savvy citizens will be on display at San Francisco City Hall. And just as importantly, companies that have been successful because of forward thinking open data policies will testify to our elected leaders about its importance. As a founder of one of these sustainable companies, Appallicious, I am proud to be speaking on behalf of the open data movement.

After hearing testimony from myself and others in the open data industry, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors will review and vote on new legislation that will strengthen the city’s open data initiatives and allow San Francisco to appoint a Chief Data Officer (CDO) to manage the City’s open data efforts.

More than three years ago the City of San Francisco launched DataSF.org, the city’s one-stop shop for government data. San Francisco was the first city to follow the federal government’s open government effort, Data.gov when it launched DataSF.org. Since then, more than 70 apps have been developed for city residents by civic innovators and companies– countless other cities and towns have been inspired to follow San Francisco’s lead and have enacted similar policies, providing residents with greater accessibility to government data.

San Francisco’s open data efforts have helped spur the creation of apps for citizens that makes it easier for residents to receive government services, actively participate in city policy and have saved the city a substantial amount of money. Behind these open data apps are new, civically minded companies, and a new industry that is starting to emerge in the land of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.  Companies like Appallicious100PlusRoutesy, and Zonability, that would not have been possible just a couple years ago are popping up in cities all over the country supported by amazing organizations like Code For America.

Back in October 2012, I was proud to join San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Supervisor David Chiu and San Francisco Rec & Park GM Phil Ginsburg as they introduced the revised open data legislation. These Gov 2.0 leaders used the event to highlight companies like Appallicious that are using open data to create apps and re-imagine our city. They launched the San Francisco Rec & Park app that Appallicious created using over 1,000 datasets for parks, playgrounds, and dog parks, along with transportation datasets so residents can get directions to all of the City’s attractions. All of these datasets are available on DataSF.org.

The SF Rec & Park app makes it easy for anybody to find city parks, playgrounds, museums, picnic tables, gardens, restrooms, news and events and more in the palm of your hand. Information is displayed with descriptions and pictures on a GPS enabled mobile map.

The SF Rec & Park app, which was recently named by Mashable as one of 7 open data apps every city should have, also will soon make it easier for residents to make reservations for a soccer field or picnic table, or apply for a permit when they need to host an event in a public park. All of this will be available through a mobile device or on the web, saving taxpayers and government workers time and money. No longer will you have to wait on hold or send multiple emails to confirm a picnic table reservation for a birthday party.

Open data apps like this are only the beginning of something much bigger that is being made possible by open data policies and government leaders that get its importance.

On his first day as President, Obama signed the memorandum on Transparency and Open Government to spur innovation at the Federal level for private sector development. This move inspired progressive cities like San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia to create their own open data legislation at the local level.  This has led to an emergent new industry, unparalleled innovation, job creation, revenue, and collaboration between government and the private sector not seen since President Reagan’s decision to open up the Global Positioning System in the 1980s.

Organizations like Code for America and Citizenville, as well as private companies like Appallicious and the SF Rec & Park app are living, breathing examples of the new industry first created by President Reagan in the 1980s and rejuvenated by President Obama.

Stay tuned, a whole new industry is starting to take form powered by open data on a local level, creating jobs, revenue, and never before seen citizen and government.

If your city is new to the open data movement, please ask your elected leaders to take the Citizenville Challenge and bring open data policies and innovation to your community. And take a second to support the open data movement by applauding Appallicious’ submission to the Knight Foundation News Challenge and others that are transforming the way government and citizens engage and communicate.

Corrections: “Open Government Act” was changed to “memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.” Reference to “Open GPS” was changed to “Global Positioning System.”

‘Making’ government

MIT Technology Review Editor David Rotman’s commentary on the difference between makers and manufacturers applies to what’s happening with government these days around open data applications, open source software development and civic hackathons.

Rotman’s editorial is a critique of former Wired editor and author Chris Anderson’s new book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.

Substitute ‘government’ with ‘industry’ and ‘civic hacker’ with ‘maker’ in the excerpt below:

But to get anywhere near Anderson’s lofty goal of revolutionizing industry, individual makers and small startups will have to collaborate not only with each other but also with large industrial firms. And to do that, the maker movement will need to be more curious and knowledgeable about how stuff is actually made.

If the government ‘maker’ movement can grok this, 2013 will be the year of the civic hacker.

More importantly, the ‘large industrial firms’ (government) must realize they play a crucial, proactive role in encouraging this.

(HT Alex Howard)

Don’t disrupt government. Revolutionize it.

I’ve always been cool to the term “disruption,” especially how it has recently been used to address changing the way government works.

“Disruption” has a ring that’s unappreciative and dismissive of hard-working public servants. It paints a picture of bureaucrats unwilling to think different. Its hint of arrogance that “we know better and will do it with or without you” has always bothered me.

Fortunately, we now have a more productive, collaborative alternative.

During his TechCrunch Disrupt keynote, Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey called for an alternative, settling instead for “revolution.”

Below is an excerpt of what best summarizes why the latter is more appropriate with respect to civics, and how those leading the “government disruption” charge should re-evaluate the semantics behind it.

Dorsey:

“Disruption is like an earthquake. Disruption has no purpose. It has no values. It has no organizing principle. It has no direction, and it has no leadership … This is not what we want to bring into the world.

“What we want to bring into this world is revolution. Revolution has values. Revolution has purpose. Revolution has direction. Revolution has leaders.

“Revolution looks at the intersection ahead and pushes people to do the right thing, and it doesn’t always have to be loud. It doesn’t always have to be violent. It’s just as powerful in its stillness.

“We don’t want disruption where we just move things around from point A to point B. We want a direction. We want a purpose, and we want to combine forces and we want to cooperate to get there.

“What I challenge you do to today is pick a movement. Pick a revolution and join it … Pick something that you believe in. Pick something you want to make an impact in and then question everything and be a founder and be an entrepreneur inside those organizations and inside that movement.”

Video:


My commitment to Honolulu open government

The recent Open Government Pledge on Honolulu.Govfresh.com brought a moment of pause for me as I watched all three Mayoral candidates respond with a YES within minutes of each other. I am one of the three candidates and the incumbent Mayor, Peter Carlisle. When I see the other candidates take the Open Government Pledge it makes me wonder what that really means to them. For me, since talking office in October 2010 my administration has lived the Open Government ethos. It’s not a campaign slogan or a bullet point on a city presentation. It is a philosophy I hold dear and have brought people into my administration that can make it happen.

Gordon Bruce, Director of the Dept of Information Technology (DIT) and his Deputy Director Forest Frizzell embody this open philosophy. Bruce was the Director of DIT for six years when I was elected and he laid the groundwork for an IT infrastructure common across the various city departments. I felt it important to keep Bruce on board and have him continue the work he started 6 years ago. He and his Deputy, Forest Frizzell have continued to make more information about the city available through open datasets and collaborative interactions with the public.

In 2011 Honolulu was recognized as the #1 Digital City by the Center for Digital Government and Government Technology. We also build a collaborative environment with our civic minded tech community during a CityCamp in December 2011. The motivation was to encourage an open dialog between the community and City officials on what kinds of issues can the community help solve with access to data. In January 2012 the City sponsored a first ever Civic Hackathon which resulted in several application prototypes. By April 2012 we had our first community generated app called DaBus that provides Bus routes, Bus Stop locations and arrival times based on open Bus APIs. This means you and your family can make reliable transportation plans.

Realizing that opening up data and encouraging collaboration does not happen over night I issued a letter to all my department heads to bring focus to my ongoing commitment to open government. We also launched Data.Honolulu.gov to showcase the datasets, budgets and date visualizations that we are continually making available. Through our 2012 engagement with Code for America we recently released Adopt a SirenRoute View and Art Finder. All of these websites are showcased on our website Can-Do.Honolulu.gov where we feature websites and applications made by citizens and City employees alike. Just this past month we conducted the first ever Write-a-thon that brought community together with City subject-matter-experts to help answer citizen generated questions. We took this user-centric approach to bring simplicity and clarity to our community’s frequently asked questions. Essentially, we heard questions from people from in the community about what they wanted the city to answer, and we will provide those answers at answers.honolulu.gov.

My administration integrating technology with government in an effort to increase transparency and engagement. Others might say YES to this Open Government Pledge but I can demonstrate a track record of performance. As I said in my letter to the departments, “By freely sharing data amongst the citizens of the City and County of Honolulu we hope to develop opportunities for economic development, civic engagement and create a more informed citizen.” That has been and continues to be my pledge.

Mahalo,
Peter Carlisle

What happened to Manor?

Ines Mergel asks a great question about a government 2.0 icon emblematic of the potential local open government had in its nascent heyday way back two years ago:

What happened, Manor?

For those unfamiliar with Manor and its young gun superstar and former CIO Dustin Haisler, Manor was symbolic of the “small town startup” that could strategically leverage modern technology to better serve citizens and run more efficiently while still keeping IT costs to a minimum. Haisler leveraged QR codes, WordPress, Google Apps, engagement platforms and other experimental technologies that brought Manor into the digital 21st century.

Today, that Manor is gone.

Haisler eventually left for the real startup world, and it appears the baton was either not properly handed off or just dropped altogether.

I asked Haisler about this, and here’s his reply via email:

I think this shows the need for a few things:

(1) Forming a social norm around innovation and experimentation in government, which requires significant measurement and reporting in order to combat the risk that comes along with a change in administration.

(2) Government innovation programs should not be run solely from within City Hall. There should be controlling interests from community stakeholders (businesses, non-profits, academia, etc.)

(3) The need for education. Current and future leaders of government agencies need to be educated on the business value that comes from using participatory technologies within government.

This presents a unique opportunity to reinvent civic innovation within Manor (where I still live) from a truly grassroots perspective driven from the community.

Design is inherently subjective, so it’s difficult to argue whether the new site is prettier than the previous version, however, there are several non-aesthetic components now missing from Manor’s previous “beta city” vision that should be standard in all new government websites:

  • no integrated content management system (it appears they’re now using Google Blogspot to post site updates, but these are separate from the site’s primary pages)
  • less prominent social media accounts (previously, Manor had a Facebook, Twitter and Flickr presence, but now only Facebook is accessible, albeit hidden)
  • no commitment to open source (previous WordPress theme was developed and made freely available to any government)
  • no site search
  • no accessible email or online contact form
  • no open data portal
  • no open 311 reporting
  • URLs no longer mapped to cityofmanor.org domain
  • basic disregard of 508 compliance

I’m not familiar with Manor’s current operations and technological leadership but, judging by its new website, I concur with Mergel that “they apparently went back in time and put up a horrific website in a design that reminds me of the early days of the Internet.” (disclaimer: I helped set up and design the previous version)

Whatever the reason for the set-back, there’s a lesson to be learned in how to better transition an IT environment developed by a tech-savvy CIO to leadership that appears to be less informed on today’s technological standards.

Most importantly, it’s seems there’s an opportunity here for the Gov 2.0 community to come together and address how small towns manage IT sustainability and help those that are less tech-savvy better understand and implement strategic, experimental and open technologies.

How can we do this?

Help government communicate better

Measured Voice President Jed Sundwall writes “Why We’re a Civic Startup” on the company’s blog to highlight why it applied to the Code for America Accelerator program.

Kudos to him for openly acknowledging Measured Voice’s application, but also articulating a mission-driven motivation, which I believe is important for any business, especially those serving government.

More importantly, Jed sheds light on a fundamental civic need, but also one where there’s currently little market competition: helping government better communicate to citizens.

Jed and I have talked about government communications at length, and I’ve written about this in the past. Unlike founders of many civic startups, he has worked closely with government and gets its culture and inherent challenges. He is truly serious and passionate about this, especially as it pertains to how government can best leverage social media.

From his post:

While there are many social media management tools, none are focused on government, and none focus as closely as we do on the most important component of government social media communications: clear, strategic messaging. As more government organizations are pushed to communicate via social media, we aspire to be the tool agencies choose to develop professional, mission-driven, social media communication teams.

Our wildest ambition is to help improve the clarity of language used in public facing government communications.

and:

Our #1 goal as a company is to do work that we’re proud of. If we can help government organizations communicate more effectively with citizens, we’ll improve millions of people’s experiences with the government. The chance to work on these kinds of problems is what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Much of the Gov 2.0/open government movement focuses on data, transparency, open source, apps and other technology solutions without addressing the fundamental challenge of effectively informing the common citizen and meeting them where they are, which more often these days is through social media. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard local government representatives say they know they need to get on Twitter or Facebook, but have no understanding of where to begin.

As we build more agile, affordable technology solutions for government, let’s also focus and allocate resources on helping it better communicate to citizens.

How do you measure the value of Gov 2.0?

Creating sustainable, meaningful civic contributions to government is something I’ve addressed before, and it’s something that continues to elude us in the form of civic applications and hackathons, despite the overwhelming attention given to each.

Related to this point, FutureGov founder and CEO Dominic Campbell’s recent tweet resonates with me:

So much of the hype surrounding Gov 2.0 achievements is relegated to applications (or ‘crapplications’ as one prominent U.S. city CIO once said to me) and hackathons that fail to truly address bigger accomplishments that could be made with less hype. There’s an understandable driver for some of this hoopla: organizational awareness, community building, media hits that drive funding, ego, self-satisfaction or even actual results. Some are valid, but my fear is that much of it is driven by self-interests or misguided intentions.

Are the number of apps built off open government data of value regardless of their utility or usage? Are hackathons without direction or specific goals that fail to build on sustainable, long-term objectives a waste of time?

Should our Gov 2.0 leaders and funders have a more solid plan of action to better harness our civic surplus? With all the money and hype being driven to certain areas of the movement, it’s more important than ever for them to show leadership and deliver real, measurable results, as Dom says.

How do you measure the value of Gov 2.0?

Voter ID and Civic Innovation

Since 2008, there has been a wave of voting law changes that impose barriers to the ballot box. Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of “Bloody Sunday,” called the new laws “the most concerted effort to restrict the right to vote since before the Voting Rights Act.”

The right to vote is being chiseled away by voter ID laws that require voters to show government-issued photo ID in order to vote.

Cost of Freedom Project Logo

In December, the Department of Justice blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law on the grounds it would make it harder for minorities to vote in violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Mississippi and Texas voting ID laws also must be pre-cleared but Texas is not waiting. The Lone Star State filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to speed up a decision.

Strict photo ID requirements will be in place in at least five states – Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin — In November. With Election Day less than nine months away, voters without an official photo ID cannot wait for the challenges to play out at the Justice Department and in the courts.

In Wisconsin, for instance, voters must navigate “The 4 Proofs.”

I am a founding member of the Election Protection Coalition. Still, looking at the infographic makes my head hurt. More worrisome, it discourages voters from completing the application process. So I presented the problem of TMI (read: disenfranchisement by design) at Random Hacks of Kindness and the Hackathon for Social Good. Citizen programmers developed solutions to quickly provide voters with information on how to get a voter ID.

During Social Week Washington, DC, I gave a demo of the Cost of Freedom web-based app developed by Kin Lane, API Evangelist for CityGrid.

Users in Wisconsin can forget about “The 4 Proofs.” Instead, in four clicks or less, they will be able to access information about the state’s voter ID requirements, how to obtain a certified copy of their birth certificate (the document that’s typically produced to establish one’s identity), and the location, hours and directions to the Office of Vital Records using public transit.

I also gave a live demo of the Cost of Freedom text-based app developed by Jack Aboutboul, Twilio’s API Evangelist. Twilio is making an in-contribution of text message services to promote voter education.

To commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we plan to launch the Cost of Freedom App on April 4, 2012.

I will post regular updates about the Cost of Freedom Project and other initiatives that are using civic innovation to protect the right to vote. The conversation about voter ID also gives us an opportunity to raise awareness about disruptive technologies in the public sector beyond election administration.

For more information, please visit us at Facebook.com/CostofFreedom. You can sign up to receive notice when the Cost of Freedom App is launched. Continue reading