Featured open source

Philadelphia launches alpha city website

alpha.phila.gov

Source: alpha.phila.gov

Philadelphia has launched an alpha version of a new phila.gov.

The new site, located at alpha.phila.gov, is powered by WordPress with a custom theme that hopefully the city will open source at some point in the future.

To me, the site is perfect as is. It completely abandons outdated web features, such as the homepage carousel, gratuitous mayoral photo or city skyline, heavy graphics and department-centered focus on information presentation. The only change I’d recommend is going with standard casing (and not all-caps). In general, I love that the style is flat, light-weight, text-based, and works perfectly on all devices, much like what we designed for GovPress.

The text-based approach with limited, page-appropriate content and prominent search on each page shows restraint that we typically don’t see in government websites.

If WordPress is replacing the technology powering the current site (.asp), that’s another big win for the city.

Kudos to Philadelphia for winning on both the technology and design fronts with this.

Take a look at the site and share your feedback.

DHS report outlines challenges, opportunities of open source in government

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Open Security Technology projects released a report on the challenges and opportunities of open source software within government along with recommendations to address and overcome these.

The report “Open Source Software in Government: Challenges and Opportunities,” authored by David A. Wheeler, Institute for Defense Analyses and Tom Dunn, Georgia Tech Research Institute, is based on interviews conducted in 2011.

The report emphasizes the importance of case studies to highlight open source execution within government, bringing more awareness to support and warranty options, simplify code release processes and increase education around license guidance and procurement.

To no one’s surprise, issues such as fear of change, transition costs, contentment with incumbent software, lack of software expertise due to outsourcing and questions about security and code quality are inhibitors to government OSS adoption.

Key excerpt:

“Many contractors and government employees did not understand laws and policies regarding OSS. For example, a government employee stated “Federal departments are not in touch with the power already in their hands with existing policy. They are waiting for some legislation or executive order, and are not willing to stick their neck out.” Another government employee concurred, noting “There is no barrier to the use and development of OSS or public domain software.” Also, the interviewers encountered pervasive use of the term “commercial software” as an antonym of OSS. Yet U.S. law defines commercial software in a way that includes most OSS.”

Full report

Doubling down on government technology

Photo: Luke Fretwell

Photo: Luke Fretwell

We’ve recently seen an uptick in venture capital interest around government and civic technology startups, but before we enthusiastically celebrate these investments, we must ask ourselves whether this potential bubble will truly reshape government IT or simply leave us five years from now in the same place we are today.

During the Code for America Summit in September, Govtech Fund’s Ron Bouganim and Code for America Director of Products & Startups Lane Becker had a great “Emerging Startup Ecosystem” discussion about the the difference between civic and government technology, and the latter’s focus on solving inherent bureaucratic problems.

Bouganim’s closing comments have stuck with me since watching the interview, and they’re important for us all to think about as we commit to building technology solutions, whether it’s for internal government operations or public-facing citizen engagement applications:

“It is tough because it’s early. Clearly everybody in this room is transformers. These are the folks … that are at the front of this, so it’s tough, because you often at times feel alone, but I think there’s a growing community, and it’s only going to get better. So, I guess my fundamental advice is that if you’re really passionate about this space, and you really identify a big problem, you have to kind of double down on being an entrepreneur. It’s hard enough being an entrepreneur and, in an emerging space like gov tech, you have to double down on that, and I would just encourage you to stick with it.”

Announced in September, Govtech Fund will invest $23 million into government-focused technology ventures. Recently, Y Combinator also expressed an interest in the industry when it issued a request for startups that included those focused on the public sector. Andreessen Horowitz has already invested $15 million in OpenGov, focused on bringing visualizations to government budgets. Other startups such as Socrata and MindMixer have also received multi-million dollar infusions to build the future of public sector IT.

Given the consistent inability for government projects to deliver on time or on budget, especially in the light of recent, major IT failures, we’ve collectively identified the problem. While much of this is due to culture, bureaucratic procurement processes and waterfall project management practices, the fundamental issue with failed government IT is that it is built on proprietary solutions.

Because of this, not only do we not have access to code, more importantly, we lose an opportunity to create an ecosystem of community and collaboration that sustains itself. To put it in context of the latest civic meme, today’s government technology is built for, not with.

The early trend we’re seeing in government technology venture investments is that the focus is still on the proprietary. While this will have incremental benefits and provide short-term excitement with each new launch, they don’t address the bigger issue every government faces in harnessing control over their IT systems.

They’re locked down and locked in.

The argument you often hear when discussing open source with proprietary government technology startup entrepreneurs is that businesses need some form of competitive advantage to build a product and develop a customer base with enough runway to sustain itself longer term. While this makes sense in a commercial market, it addresses the needs not of government, but that of the entrepreneur. The technology may provide a cutting-edge, cloud-based, big data, mobile or social solution worthy of a press release or mention in the trades, but what is it doing to really change the IT conundrum we can’t seem to procure our way out of?

This isn’t to say these new technologies don’t have merit or their builders don’t have good intention. Indeed, some do, however, there’s a classic innovation wall proprietary government IT software hits when it has reached a certain level of customer acquisition and no longer needs to compete. Oakland’s recent insistence that Granicus open up its application programming interface is exhibit A on what happens when a vendor corners a government market: technology stagnation trumps innovation. Without open systems or modularity, government is safely locked in.

We frequently hear the vending machine analogy applied to government. Today, the vending machine is the proprietary vendor machine, and government is the one doing the shaking.

If we’re going to double down and truly build a civic operating system anyone can plug into, and be proud of, we must invest in a strategy that sustains beyond one software solution.

We need to double down on a philosophical approach to government technology.

There’s not an overnight solution and the problem won’t be solved tomorrow, but if you’re really in this business to transform government, whether you’re an entrepreneur or investor, it’s time to double down on open.

Government can, literally, no longer afford to operate business as usual when it comes to technology. If ‘Vendor 2.0’ is simply a new class of fresh faces operating no differently than its predecessor, let’s prepare our kids for disappointment.

You’re either investing in or building tomorrow’s problem today, or you’re co-creating the future of government.

The latter might be a longer, lonelier road, but we have to stick with it because, as Bouganim says, it’s only going to get better.

Let’s double down.

Watch the full video of Becker and Bouganim’s discussion:

Got natural disasters? There’s an open source emergency preparedness toolkit for that

City72

Source: toolkit.sf72.org

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and woke up at to a 6.1 earthquake at 3:30 a.m. this morning, now would be a good time for citizens and local governments everywhere to take a look at City72 Toolkit.

The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management recently partnered with design firm IDEO to create the City72 Toolkit, an open source “emergency preparedness platform that promotes community resilience and connection.”

The toolkit is now freely-available to cities everywhere to re-purpose and customize to provide information to their own residents.

SFDEM’s Kristin Hogan Schildwachter shares the inspiration for City72 and how other cities can easily create their own.

What is City72 Toolkit?

City72 is an open source emergency preparedness platform that promotes community resilience and connection. This toolkit is designed specifically for emergency preparedness organizations and provides the information and resources to create a customized City72 site for any city or region.

It includes:

  • how to create localized content;
  • access to the code to build and install your City72 website; and
  • tips for how to manage and promote your site

How did it come about?

Until 2009, in San Francisco we were following the prescriptive “Make a Plan. Get a Kit. Be Informed.” emergency preparedness messages, which we modeled after FEMA’s national preparedness campaign “Ready.” And what we found was that we were only reaching a small percentage of the general public: the already prepared.

So, in 2008 our deputy director of emergency services, Rob Dudgeon, kicked off an initiative to redefine how we messaged and packaged emergency preparedness with the mantra “If we keep promoting emergency preparedness this way, we’re only going to get who we’ve already gotten prepared.”

We leveraged a lot of research based on social science data and also the findings from a major project assessing state of Bay Area Preparedness (the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative) Community Preparedness Project) to develop a communications strategy to redefine how we messaged emergency preparedness.

This strategy, the DEM Preparedness Movement Communications Strategy, became the basis upon which we communicated about emergency preparedness and informed our in-person and social media communications, but it was not reflected in our emergency preparedness website (at the time): www.72hours.org. We knew we needed to rebrand this website to align with our communications strategy, so we secured some grant funding and issued a request for proposal to redesign www.72hours.org.

IDEO bid on the RFP, and through a competitive process they were the selected vendor. From there, IDEO and its human-centered design approach helped us to manifest our vision resulting in www.sf72.org.

Meanwhile, we wanted to share our findings, experience and redefinition of preparedness messaging within the emergency management community at large. So, we wrote within the terms our final deliverable that it the web site be open source, so any other city could have access to SF72.org’s design and content.

To make this a more tangible possibility, we worked with IDEO to create the City72 toolkit.

How can others use it?

The City72 Toolkit provides cities ready to create their own version of City72.org step by step instructions for how to set up their site. It’s recommended to have some technical support from a web developer (or an internal city resource or contractor).

Who’s using it and how?

Right now, Johnson County, Kansas is in the process of creating its own version of City72 (to be called JoCo72.org). We have had conversations with other city offices of emergency management about City72, and we are hoping they may be the next generation of City72 sites.

How can others connect with you to learn more?

We would be thrilled to talk with anyone interested in City72.org. We can be reached via email at sf72@sfgov.org and/or Twitter at @sf72org.

Video

City72 Tour from SFDeptEmrgcyMgmt on Vimeo.

GitHub and the C-suite social

GitHubIn the early days of Twitter, it was easy and common to dismiss the infant social network as a simplistic tool that served a whimsical and nerdy niche.

Today, Twitter has gone from the technorati tweeting hipster conference minutiae to a platform driving the new world digital order. This didn’t happen overnight. But, when the flock of civic technologists set flight, the social government migration happened quickly and collectively.

Much like we pooh-poohed Twitter in those early days, GitHub, in its early crawl, is today dismissed simply as a tool for the diehard developer. However, as with any tool with great potential, innovators find new ways to leverage emerging technology to communicate, and government chief information and technology officers can effectively do this with GitHub.

There’s the obvious use case, such as contributing code and commenting on projects, much like Veterans Affairs Chief Technology Officer Marina Martin does via her GitHub account. It’s probably asking a lot for the C-suite to dive deep into code on a daily basis, there are other, more conversational ways GitHub can be leveraged.

Case in point, a few weeks ago, Federal Communications Commission Chief Information Officer David Bray and I had a Twitter exchange about the utility of GitHub. Immediately, I created a repository (think “folder”) on my personal account, and set up a new “What questions do you have for FCC CIO David Bray?” issue (think “discussion”).

To Bray’s credit, and perhaps surprise of his public affairs office, he humored me by immediately joining GitHub, posting replies to a number of questions about FCC open data, open source, cloud hosting and web operations. Over the course of an hour, there was a genuine, real-time conversation between a federal CIO and the community at large.

Despite wide adoption of social tools by public sector innovators, most of the C-suite remains decidedly analog in terms of engagement and sharing of relevant information about the inner workings of our public sector institutions. A cursory survey of government chief information and technology officers shows they abstain altogether or, when they do, generally give random personal updates or staid posts with a heavily-sanitized public affairs filter.

The emergence of GitHub may change this for the government technologist, especially those willing to engage fellow coders and citizens on projects in an open, fluid environment.

Former Presidential Innovation Fellow and current GitHub government lead Ben Balter has since followed suit and created a government-focused “Ask Me (Almost) Anything” repo featuring Q&As with Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd and staff from the newly-minted 18F.

GitHub’s repo and issues features are natural communication tools for C-level technologists who fancy themselves innovators leveraging emerging tech in new, creative ways.

For the IT C-suite, the GitChat is the new Twitter Townhall, a way to instantly and directly connect with peers and the general public and be asked anything.

Well, almost anything.

New Zealand forks the United Kingdom

beta.govt.nz

beta.govt.nz

Perhaps the biggest civic open source story of 2013 was the government of New Zealand’s copying of the United Kingdom’s gov.uk code to begin building a new version of its own website, now located at beta.govt.nz.

Continue reading

White House opens huge opportunity for designers, developers to increase We the People engagement

Photo: Pete Souza/White House

Photo: Pete Souza/White House

The White House will soon open a limited beta test to developers on a new We the People Write API that allows third-party applications to submit information to official petitions.

“One of the things we’ve heard from the beginning is a strong desire from our users to be able to submit signatures and petitions from other sites — and still receive an official response. Up to this point, we haven’t had a way to accept signatures submitted from other sites, but that is about to change,” writes White House Associate Director of Online Engagement for the Office of Digital Strategy Ezra Mechaber.

According to the White House, more than 10 million users have signed nearly 300,000 petitions.

We the People was built in Drupal and the source code is available on GitHub.

The Read API was opened earlier this year (sample projects here).

While We the People is fairly intuitive and easy to use, there’s huge potential for great designers and developers to essentially build a truly innovative and engaging platform.

Apply to the We the People Write API Beta.