USPTO preps for new website launch

Source: http://beta.uspto.gov/

Source: http://beta.uspto.gov/

The U.S. Patent and Trade Office plans to move its beta website, located at beta.uspto.gov, to the official agency domain, USPTO.gov, on February 5.

The site, developed in Drupal, is an improvement over the current one, but still has a way to go before it is optimal for users. There are large blocks and long pages of text and, coupled with a thin font for the main body text, this makes it difficult to read and skim. The patents and trademark search functionality is not mobile-friendly which, in this day and age, especially with something as fundamental to its mission as this, seems like a pretty big oversight. There are also redundant or unnecessary pages such as the Search Trademark Database that doesn’t actually have search functionality a link to one.

According to the agency, future enhancements will focus on making it easier to do business through USPTO, including patent fee payment and trademark registration filing.

USPTO is asking for public feedback before the new site launches.

Watch the video preview:

AchieveCity to offer municipalities free, open source government platforms


Firmstep has launched a new service called AchieveCity, a Web-based government platform powered by the Drupal distribution OpenPublic (developed by Phase2 Technology) and hosted in the Amazon EC2 environment.

Firmstep says five municipalities will go live in August, and those signing up now will launch beginning in September. Founder and CEO Brett Husbands talks with GovFresh about the new service.

What’s the technology driving AchieveCity and why is this important?

For the customer we try to keep the technology understanding to a minimum. We are working to get AchieveCity to be easier to try than setting up a wordpress site. Reducing set-up overhead by hosting as SaaS allows people to focus on CMS functionality rather than thinking about technology and makes it easy to try, it also means we can keep improving it more easily than with installed software.

The technology used is the OpenPublic distribution of Drupal 7 built by Phase2. This distribution is government focused and well proven by Phase2 who worked on www.whitehouse.gov and www.house.gov and that heritage is baked in. For any government organisation proven security and scalability are a pre-requisite. We have extended it, and we are making those contributions back to OpenPublic. The “Apps” model makes sense, and any developer can make an app and contribute it.

Drupal in Government has a really strong case and lots of good examples. Picking the most widely used CMS technology, estimated at 1.4% of all web use, is a good choice. With so many big organisations with complex needs using it, there are great reference sites and we are able to focus on what it does without getting bogged down in technical considerations, that have already been solved.

What features will municipalities have access to?

A great city website that looks nice, and is easy to manage. There is a lot out of the box with Drupal7, and then OpenPublic adds much more too. A great thing about the technology we are using is that it is easy to add more. A non-exhaustive list of AchieveCity.com features includes: Scalability, Robust WYSIWYG Editor, News Room, Breaking News, Page Preview, Search Site, Page Versioning, Blog, Website Statistics, Media Gallery, Content Organization, Taxonomy, Accessibility, RSS Feeds, Breadcrumbs, Intranet, Public Contact Form, Styles, Automated Logout, Publishing controls, Site Map, Calendar, Registrations for events, Maps, FAQs, Document Handling, Notifications.

We expect with each new customer more features will be added and best practices identified – and that will give a multiplier or network effect as each customer making an improvement makes that improvement available to everybody.

How are you going to sustain AchieveCity if it’s free?

The technology is free, and will always be free – the software and data are portable to other providers or can be taken in-house.

Obviously there are operating costs that we experience including hosting, bandwidth, and maintenance that we have to meet – and reaching the scale of use that those costs become an issue will be a nice problem to have that will be easily solved without disrupting service to customers. For the coming period we see this as an investment in a platform for government that we can easily afford to make. Inevitably there will be a need for services around the site and also for charged-for extra modules – we see that future revenue as being sufficient to continue to run the CMS service for free.

What type of government is a good fit?

In the pre-launch phase we have been working with several cities, a state, and a state agency, and departments within a large city. So we haven’t found an “ideal size” yet. The key feature is that they want to improve their website and be decisive.

See a sample site or learn more.

Drupal.gov: A conversation with Drupal founder Dries Buytaert

 Dries Buytaert

Dries Buytaert

Drupal.gov: Drupal and Acquia CTO and Co-founder Dries Buytaert and Acquia Vice President, WW Business Development Tim Bertrand join Gov 2.0 Radio to discuss Drupal and open source in government.



(photo by Joi)

Using Drupal as a prototyping tool

I was really happy to have Patrick Lajeunesse present about Agriculture Canada’s experience using Drupal as a prototyping tool. As you can see from his presentation, with a small team of communications staff they were able to set up both a Drupal and WordPress prototype to explore their needed functionality.

I wanted to focus a bit more on why this makes so much sense for so many organizations, but especially government agencies. The implementation of web tools has improved significantly over the last decade and it is no longer something that needs to be left to IT to model.

Defining the requirements is hard

Most folks who need a website haven’t had recent experience building them. It’s relatively easy to visualize what you want, but it’s quite different to be able to define it in a generic way that allows a developer to understand the technical functionality that is required. Often the usability/design requirements are barely defined in the initial proposal.

Websites can be very complicated. If you were defining the requirements for a car would you want to have paid for most of it’s creation before you could sit behind the wheel and see how it felt to drive around the lot?

Wish lists vs requirements

Without having an experienced project manager who has successfully lead a team through developing for the web, you’re likely to end up with a requirements document that largely contains people’s wish lists. It’s really great to have a list of potentials, but having a list of neat things that people find on other sites isn’t going to get your organization what they need.

It’s always easier for folks to focus on the glossy design elements that they’ve seen in other sites. I’ve seen way too many RFP‘s where people have talked generally about wanting many of the features that popular sites like Facebook and YouTube have without understanding the costs and complexity of successfully implementing it.

Taking a long time to define the requirements first is problematic

I think that When Failure Is Intolerable is right on when describing a very frustrating form of failure to be “when someone spent a lot of time and money researching something that could only be learned experientially.”

Many web projects fit this mould. Successful websites are always ones which are experimental and are reacting to the needs of its users after carefully watching their behaviour. Strangely, most web projects do not allow space for experimentation & adaptation.

Needs change faster than requirements

A good requirements document does take some time to establish, particularly if it is being developed by a team. Even if there are other models to work from, it can take quite a while in any government department to settle on the final requirements. After that it needs to be sent off to procurement officers to manage the contracting before any real work begins on the site.

The Internet is constantly changing. Most people’s expectations don’t change quite so quickly, but you don’t want to be launching a website a website which already looks and feels dated. Accommodating social media sites like Twitter and Facebook is the latest trend, but these sites are changing too.

Prototypes are better than wireframes

Having a rough stage where workflow is defined and broad paths are sketched out is very important for any large project, however there is nothing that can replace a quick, functional prototype for users to determine how they want it to work.

Given the flexibility of Drupal and the range of modules and themes that are already out there for this free software platform, most of a site’s functionality can be roughed out quickly to enable people the ability to get some understanding of how the site will work.

Most people need to be able to get a feel for what they are going to build before they commit to do it. In an age where non-architects can download a tool like Google’s SketchUp and create a 3D model of their cottage before building it, we can see the value of visualizing a plan.

Creating content is hard!

This won’t come as a surprise to communications folks, but producing content is difficult. Understanding how your content will fit within the structure of your site is important. No amount of time whiteboarding your site, developing requirements documents or wireframing your site will help prepare the content.

However, building a solid prototype will allow you to write up, critique and visualize how you want your visitors to actually use your site. You can experiment placement and organization of real content that you will be able to use to help your site go live as quickly as possible. We do know that some people still use Word documents to generate the content of their websites before it’s launched, but that’s really a waste of everyone’s time.

Patrick describes how his team in Agriculture Canada used this approach:

“One of the benefits to prototyping in Drupal for us was that we can put real content in and see how it flows from page to page. It also allowed us to use the prototype to do usability testing on that content. For example, you can have a test subject try to find a piece of information. This tests the whole site – the navigation and IA, link and button labels, and the actual content in the pages as well. That would be very difficult to do without a real representation of what the finished site would be, and while you could do that with static HTML or a dedicated prototyping tool, it’s just easier with a CMS like Drupal.”

To try to pull in another metaphor, it’s real estate agents generally will want to show a house that has furniture in it and art on the walls rather than one that’s completely empty. They do this because it’s much easier for everyone to understand how a house will function if you don’t have to imagine everything. The same idea applies to websites, most people need to see where the content fits & flows when they are navigating a site.

Prototyping doesn’t require IT support

Organizations may find that their communications teams have the skills required to set up Drupal or WordPress site to build a prototype before they take it to IT or send it out as an RFP.

Prototypes can be easy to set up. Using tools like Drupal, you can experiment with what you would like and work with your team to define what else you need. Open source tools like Drupal can empower communications teams to define and experiment with technology which is available to them (it can be set up on any desktop and doesn’t require special hardware or expensive software to run).

At the end of the prototyping phase a working example can be either handed over to IT to review before it goes live or used as a benchmark for them to develop in whatever technology they prefer. The communications team would also be left with a development environment which allows them to test out future phases or ideas for the site.

This approach would no doubt increase the effectiveness of any large web development projects.

A new model for public sector open source adoption using Drupal

The debate over whether (OSS) is good for government is over. A close look will reveal the discussion has moved on to one of two things: 1) the necessary, but subsequent implementation questions to be sorted out – security, regulation, procurement, etc. or 2) organizational confusion about how to take the first step. In either case, the precedent of value has been established both within government and elsewhere to allow us to now move on to the natural next set of issues.

Open source software is here to stay

So the discussion must turn from ‘whether to use’ open source to ‘how to make it work’ for government. These discussions should be especially welcome in the government IT environment – long dominated by IT projects that take too long, cost too much, and never seem to hit the mark by the time they are deployed. Corporate and non-profit organizations of all sizes have been able to demonstrate significant financial, operational and strategic value using open source. Also, we have the precedent and models set by the server stack – Linux has become the dominant operating system and Apache, the webserver for the majority of the world’s most important web servers.

The problem is that taking advantage of the open source opportunity at the application level creates paradoxes for government IT. Our system doesn’t know how to take advantage of free and open software at the application level – government is used to building everything custom or customizing products that already cost a ton to license – ‘there is a catch here somewhere for us’ goes the thinking about OSS.

Rather than move quickly to take advantage of affordable and innovative open solutions, government loses momentum and gets bogged down by concerns over whether it is practical or even ethical to use contributed code: Can we use something that is free? How can we procure it then? Can we use code contributions from the outside world? Will it be secure? Can we contribute our own code to the rest of the world?

Drupal works for open government needs

As if the argument to adopt open source needed more kindling, enter the administration’s unrelenting push for Open Government – with a huge online focus and component. Now we are seeking *new* ways to quickly establish mechanisms to promote transparency, participation, and collaboration in online dealings between the government and its citizens. Yet successful user collaboration solutions are already implemented on all kinds of sites.

The case for free, collaborative software which is developed, tested and vetted in the open by an efficient base of innovative developers has been clearly made when you consider the the open government mandate. These are use-cases made for a platform like Drupal – the ability for a user to respond to content and policy online through commenting, rating, sharing, voting, and an endless array of other social media integration is perfect.

As I have said in prior posts on this site “Drupal is up to this challenge”. This is what we use it for and where it performs best. At this week’s Gov2.0 Expo, a group of my colleagues will try to convince you of this point in a session entitled Drupal and Social Publishing Strategies for Meeting the Open Government Directive.

I realize that is going to take some time for government CIOs and web managers to be fully convinced – as it did with publishers, non-profit execs, education administrators and decision makers in dozens of other industries. For sure, the commercial vendors and embedded custom implementers have other ideas about how to construct the next wave of gov2.0 – and they likely have some good solutions to promote too. But open source Drupal is my choice for this particular set of tasks and here is what I think we can do to help prove that.

We need a government community open source CMS option

In late 2008, my company, Phase2 Technology initiated an effort to put together and then release an open source packaged version of Drupal that would help online publishers of news, magazines, and other publications get started with Drupal right away. We called it OpenPublish, it was a big success, and it is going stronger than ever now. From that project, we learned that Drupal can be made significantly more useful, less intimidating and more powerful through a distribution targeted at a specific set of industry challenges.

So after wrestling with putting government sites on Drupal over the last two years, we have decided to launch a similar project we think will help government and Drupal find each other faster – in the same sort of way as OpenPublish was able to married up publishers looking for the advantages of open source with Drupal. We are calling this project OpenPublic because of the similarities and because we see it as the public sector equivalent of the same experiment.

We believe the project can be successful and provide substantial value to government sites if we can achieve these 7 tenets that are lacking in current CMS options for government:

1. Low barriers to entry.

Someone from, or on behalf of, the government should have the immediate ability to start or prototype a project without an RFP, procurement cycle, Statement of Work or contract vehicle. Download, test, try out and play with it for free. Today. No strings attached.

2. Demonstrable return on investment.

It should be easy to prove that that the tax payer is getting high value for services, without wasteful scenarios in which the government is putting large investments directly into reinventing functionality that exists elsewhere or overpaying for commercial licenses to use relatively generic functionality (e.g. core CMS publishing).

3. No proprietary technology or vendor lock-in.

The solution can’t trap the federal government into a proprietary technology or forced monopoly experience that either requires repeated contractual awards, recurring fees or licensing costs to a single company that is the sole provider of technology expertise.

4. Low total cost of ownership.

It should be easy to prove if agencies are paying a premium over the course of ownership via post-purchase fees that do not involve the delivery of additional value. The government cannot grant annuities to vendors that continue to add cost based upon the justifications that were created because proprietary technology was used.

5. True technical flexibility.

The government must be able to modify the solution to meet continually evolving needs and be able to improve, modify, maintain and grow the solution over time.

6. Community innovation & contribution.

The government should benefit from the continued contributions of the open source technical community at large as it relates to inheriting solutions to similar problems and . It should gain from the innovations of this larger pool of talent.

7. Minimal barriers to extend.

The government should have the ability to get free and open access to knowledge, code, training and best practices on the platform – to the extent that others are willing to share – but not required to withhold.

OpenPublic: A community solution

OpenPublic is being developed as a community effort with Phase2 taking what we have learned from building Drupal distributions to lead the efforts, but we – by no means – want to go at this alone. In fact, we believe the quality of the solution and the value it can provide are both infinitely improved by community participation.

So we are looking for both people with technical experience in open source (Drupal preferably) and the business of government itself.

We are also actively looking for feedback and help from the opengov community that haunts events like the Open Government Workshops, the Gov2.0 Summit and Expo, the Open Government & Innovations conference and Transparency Camp. We are looking for the people that hang out and read GovFresh, GovLoop and the Sunlight Labs blog. We want the inputs of people on the Gov2.0 Heroes List and on Twitter lists like this, this and this.

If you believe in the same things and want to help, then please email us (openpublic at phase2technology.com) to let us know of your interests and share your ideas.

USAspending.gov 2.0 gets its money’s worth

Version 2.0 of USAspending.gov launched this week and includes a cleaner, more elegant user interface and search filtering on all federal government spending. The new site was developed in Drupal and is partially hosted on NASA’s Nebula cloud service.

Users can search anything from bombs to toilet paper and filter government spending by location, timeline, agency, extent competed, recipient, product/service code, NAICS and fiscal year.

USAspending.gov first launched December 2007 as part of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) of 2006 that required the Office of Management and Budget to ‘establish a single searchable website, accessible to the public at no cost’ on all federal government spending.

From USAspending.gov What’s New in 2.0?:

  1. Compare spending across agencies – understand types of agency spending understand types of agency spending
  2. View agency spending dashboards – see how and where agencies are spending money and who the recipients are
  3. Explore spending trends with interactive charts – use interactive motion charts to see how spending trends have changed from year to year
  4. See spending where you live – use interactive maps to see dollars being spent in your state
  5. Quickly find what you are looking for – use interactive search features to customize your search across multiple dimensions
  6. Filter, analyze and share – share your feeds, exports and results with friends via social book-marking and RSS feeds
  7. Analyze contract and award transactions – review all transactions for a single contract or award in one simple list
  8. Download bulk data – download all spending data for offline analysis
  9. Get spending updates every day – access new spending data on a daily basis
  10. Expect more transparency – look for more spending data in the future as 2.0 is engineered to support full FFATA compliance


    Gov 2.0 guide to Drupal


    Drupal is an open source platform and content management system (CMS) for building dynamic web sites. Supported by a vibrant developer community, Drupal is establishing itself as a leader among social software solutions. Having already gained a small but significant share of the domestic and worldwide public sector CMS market, the solution appears on-track for continued growth. The expanding list of high-profile government organizations adopting the solution, along with its recent recognition by industry analyst Gartner as a visionary product in the marketplace, will only accelerate its growth.


    One of the most important “features” of Drupal is the breadth and depth of its community. This was made evident recently when DrupalCon 2010 San Francisco attracted over 3,000 attendees. Within this community, there is widespread support for leveraging Drupal to innovate new public sector solutions. In fact, one of the keynotes of this year’s three DrupalCon keynotes (and the only sector-specific one) was entitled “Open Source in Government,” which featured representatives from the White House and New York Senate. The overwhelming sentiment shared by these officials and others is that the strength of the Drupal Community is a key reason why the public sector is embracing the solution. In conjunction with the emergence of Drupal enterprise service providers, the growing Drupal Community extols confidence in the platform and its long-term innovativeness, security, and supportability. (Disclaimer: Michael Walsh served on the DrupalCon keynote panel as the moderator.)

    Gov 2.0 Radio interview with Andrew Hoppin (New York Senate) and Michael Walsh (Forum One Communications):


    DrupalCon Keynote Discussion with Dave Cole – White House, Andrew Hoppin – New York Senate, and Michael Walsh – Forum One Communications


    As an open source solution, Drupal’s success is tied to the Drupal Community’s ability to innovate new modules (plug-ins for Drupal that extend, build, or enhance Drupal core functionality) to address marketplace needs. The modules can take two forms: contributed modules (shared under the same GNU Public License as Drupal) and custom modules. While the public sector benefits from many of the same contributed modules that are in use by other sectors, a number of public sector modules have been created by government for government, and subsequently contributed back to the Drupal Community, as outlined below. These modules now form a growing code base – specific to Drupal – which public sector organizations can quickly leverage for their own requirements. By reducing development costs and improving the efficiency of government web site design and development, modules like these are helping to justify the business case for Drupal for an ever-expanding list of organizations.


    Senior members of the Drupal Community have been championing the value of distributions for some time. These “ready to use” solutions offer developers pre-configured Drupal installations, usually including a selection of modules and themes coupled with Drupal core. The value of distributions is that they provide the developer community with extensible solutions that can be rapidly implemented to meet the functional and technical needs of a specific sector/vertical. This supports economies of scale in open source development by eliminating the need for each independent developer or development shop to develop their own baseline solution for the common set of requirements for a given sector/vertical. This allows developers to focus more on derivative innovation and reduces the total cost of feature development and software defect fixes. For these reasons, distributions are a critical component to the growth of Drupal’s adoption, especially in the public sector. As Dries Buytaert says: “Without Drupal distributions, (the Drupal Community) won’t be able to successfully compete with commercial vendors.”

    Acquia Drupal

    Downloaded over 125,000 times, Acquia Drupal is a social publishing platform developed by Acquia to simplify the development of interactive, community-based publishing web sites that feature both editorial and user-generated content. By selecting only the most important modules for online communities (e.g., blogs, articles, forums, mashups, and web content), Acquia Drupal enables developers to quickly stand-up high-quality web sites that can be easily customized to meet the specific needs of their users. This GPL licensed distribution is available for free download and organizations can turn to Acquia for 24/7 private paid support. (Disclaimer: Forum One Communications has implemented web sites for clients on Acquia Drupal.)


    Pressflow is a specialized distribution of Drupal developed by Four Kitchens which features extensive performance, scalability, availability, and testing enhancements required to support high traffic sites. One of the key features of Pressflow is that it supports multi-tier proxy layers. Since no version of Drupal can properly handle this architecture, this is a key benefit of the distribution. To date, Pressflow has been implemented by a number of governments and multilateral organizations, including the United Kingdom and World Bank.

    Open Atrium

    Downloaded over 90,000 times, Open Atrium is a collaboration platform distribution developed by Development Seed to meet the knowledge management needs of large and mid-sized government organizations. The platform provides “out-of-the-box” team collaboration functionality, including blogs, wikis, microblogs, and content dashboards, that enables web developers to rapidly deploy highly customizable social intranets and extranets. This free and open source solution therefore allows a growing number of organizations to substitute proprietary social business software solutions (such as Salesforce and Jive) with Drupal. Within the U.S. federal government, the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Veterans Affairs have already adopted the platform. Looking ahead, one of the platform’s key strengths is its supportability, as demonstrated by the growing ecosystem of open source development shops implementing the solution and the recent announcement that the platform will soon feature private paid support. (Disclaimer: Forum One Communications has implemented web sites for clients on Open Atrium.)

    Introducing Open Atrium from Development Seed on Vimeo.

    Drupal Commons

    Currently under development by Acquia and its partners, Drupal Commons will be a free, open source distribution designed to make the process of building intranet and extranet community sites easier and less costly than commercial social software applications. Slated for official launch this summer, Acquia expects that Drupal Commons will enable the Drupal Community to more easily develop web sites and web applications that require basic social collaboration functionality, including blogs, status updates, and social networking, coupled with seamless document sharing through customized wikis, group discussions, task reminders, and activity streams. Like Acquia Drupal, Drupal Commons will be commercially supported by Acquia.

    Real-World Implementations

    As the age-old adage goes, “the proof is in the pudding.” Perhaps no better driver exists for the adoption of an emerging software solution than real-world examples of successful implementations for comparable requirements. In the last few years, the list of successful adoptions of Drupal by domestic and worldwide public sector organizations has exploded. This is especially true of federal, state, and local governments in North America and Europe, particularly in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. To illustrate this point, the showcase below features some of the most important examples of government and multilateral organization web sites and web applications currently powered by Drupal.

    White House

    In 2009, the White House decided to re-launch WhiteHouse.Gov on Drupal. The decision to power one of the most targeted web sites in the world with an open source content management system garnered significant interest from both media and industry. The White House’s decision and associated media coverage helped validate Drupal as a mainstream CMS solution for all-levels of government.

    White House

    New York Senate

    The implementation of Drupal by the New York Senate demonstrates the potential for Drupal at the state level. Experimenting with the platform, the organization was able to extend the existing platform through new innovations specific to their organizational needs, including OpenLegislation and Whitelist.

    New York Senate

    United States Army

    The U.S. Army‘s Black History Month web site, ForLoveofLiberty.Net, features powerful, audience-centric design (including interactive Flash-based elements) and deep integration with social media sites (including YouTube, Flickr, and Issuu). Designed primarily for students, educators, and veterans, the site serves as a great example of how government organizations can use social publishing to bring history to life and enable public discourse on important topics. (Disclaimer: Forum One Communications developed ForLoveofLiberty.Net for the US Army.)

    United States Army

    U.S. Department of Education

    Drupal is the foundation behind the Department of Education’s main organizational web site. The site demonstrates how a federal department or agency can leverage Drupal to help make information, resources, tools, and funding opportunities more transparent and accessible to citizens.

    U.S. Department of Education

    French Government

    The “Portail du Gouvernement” serves as the official French government portal. Like the White House, it serves as an important example of a trustworthy Drupal implementation by a high-profile government organization. It also demonstrates the ability for Drupal to easily support localized content requirements and customizable design.

    French Government

    City of London

    The Greater London Authority’s web site demonstrates a successful implementation of Drupal at the local-level. This informative web site makes excellent use of the content management features of Drupal but also leverages social features to encourage public participation with their government and community.

    City of London

    U.S. Department of Commerce

    The Department of Commerce chose Drupal to power its Open.commerce.gov site, which was launched in response to the Open Government Directive. The site provides a great example of how government organizations can achieve a simple, yet effective, implementation on Drupal that fosters transparency, accountability, and collaboration.

    U.S. Department of Commerce

    New Zealand ‘s Ministry for the Environment

    NewZealand’s Ministry for the Environment chose Drupal to power its sustainability web site. The features of the site enable users to participate in polls, establish conservation and sustainability goals, discuss topics related to the environment, share ideas, and rate and comment on content. This site is a compelling example of how Drupal can be used by government agencies to shape behavior, change perceptions, and build momentum around important public policy and social issues.

    New  Zealand 's Ministry for the Environment

    World Bank

    Earlier this month, the World Bank launched Data.WorldBank.org, an open data initiative aimed at making the 2,000+ World Bank data indicators more transparent and accessible to the public. Using MapBox, OpenLayers and Flot, the World Bank was able to create a powerful data analysis and visualization web application supported by an intuitive user interface. This visually appealing site not only demonstrates the potential of off-the-shelf Drupal modules like Features, Context, and Views 3, but also points to the inherent extensibility of Drupal when properly coupled with other open source solutions. (Disclaimer: Forum One Communications was a subcontractor to the vendor who designed and developed this web site.)

    World Bank

    United Kingdom Datastore

    Whereas many other government sites utilize Drupal’s social and interactive features and emphasize citizen participation, the UK’s Data.gov.uk site builds on Drupal’s other skill set: content management. The UK leveraged Drupal’s content and database management capabilities to build a publicly accessible data store.

    United Kingdom  Datastore

    Young Professionals in Foreign Policy

    While not specific to the public sector, Young Professional’s in Foreign Policy’s organizational web site is a wonderful example of a Drupal implementation to support large, globally distributed user communities seeking to collaborate on foreign policy issues. The organization’s simple design reflects the tradeoffs international governmental and multilateral organizations can make to enable cost-effective social functionality with Drupal. (Disclaimer: Michael Walsh is the Chair of the Public Diplomacy and Cultural Relations Discussion Group at YPFP.)

    Young Professionals in Foreign Policy

    Open source headlines from the Open Government plans

    The Obama Administration’s Open Government Directive ordered Federal agencies to produce open government plans by April 7th, and while some advocates are disappointed, we have before us a bewildering number of initiatives to improve transparency, collaboration, and participation across the Government. It will not surprise you to learn that I spent some time looking for places where open source is being used in these plans.

    I’m not sure I can recommend reading all of the plans cover to cover, but if you’re an advocate or have a vested interest in the future of a Federal agency, these plans are fascinating peek into each agency’s interior life. It’s not just the content of the plans, which run from exciting to comical to mundane. You can also learn a great deal about how agencies view themselves from the way these plans are presented and marketed. It will come as no surprise that the Department of Justice’s rather unlovely document spends a lot of time thinking about reducing its FOIA backlog. The Department of Energy clearly understands itself to be a first a research organization, based on its flagship data sets. The Department of Defense plan is crisp, to the point, and focuses on getting the behemoth to better collaborate and interact with other agencies, rather than the public.

    The organizational psychology betrayed by these plans is for another post. My interest is in where agencies found open source. I’ve long advocated for open source as a concrete, tangible way to encourage collaboration between agencies and between the government and its citizens. I was pleasantly surprised, frankly, to see how many agencies agree. Here’s what I found, in no particular order.

    US Agency for International Development

    The USAID plan was a total surprise. I had no idea how many open source initiatives were being conducted by USAID. Page 30 contains this gem on their Global Development Commons work:

    With over four billion subscribers in the world, the mobile phone is often the key to connecting and exchanging information with people in developing countries. The 2008 USAID Development 2.0 Challenge, implemented by the Global Development Commons, invited innovators and entrepreneurs from around the world to participate in a global competition to seek access to information and build new connections to the global community. Crowdsourcing and Open Innovation have become increasingly important engines of innovation globally, leveraged by the commercial, non-profit, academic and government sectors to identify opportunities and solve problems. USAID’s Development 2.0 Challenge yielded 115 submissions using high impact, low-cost, open source solutions.

    The winner among the 115 submissions was the RapidSMS Child Malnutrition Surveillance system, which “enables health practitioners to share and track children’s nutritional information with the touch of a cell phone.”

    The agency also operates the Intra-Health OPEN Initiative, which is “a suite of free open source solutions to supply health sector leaders and managers with a collection of new tools.”

    Social Security Administration

    The Social Security Administration is another open source underdog. Imagine all the pent-up innovation they can unlock once this project is underway:

    We are in the process of creating internal capacity to host websites and applications based on open-source software solutions and we look forward to a lively exchange of ideas and program code within the growing Federal open–source software development community;

    As part of SSA’s fifth goal, “making government more sustainable”, they see open source software as an essential tool:

    We are a Federal leader in the use of Health Information Technology. Our work with the private sector may yield transferable ideas and tools. We will share our results and products as appropriate. For example:

    • We look forward to sharing the products of our open–source platform efforts across the growing Federal open–source development community, as well as partnering with other agencies in future endeavors; and
    • We are in the process of designing and developing an Electronic Technology Repository for communities of innovation. We expect this repository to employ open–source social networking and other tools to permit users to better manage agency knowledge, avoid unproductive duplication of effort, and share experiences. The repository will support the storage of shared materials and project artifacts, discussion boards, wikis, blogs, subscription feeds, and other pertinent information. We envision sharing these resources with other Federal organizations as well.

    Others have criticized open source as being irrelevant to the open government movement, but I think interagency collaboration doesn’t happen anywhere near as often as it should, it can be made easier with open source, and it’s outstanding that the SSA seems to agree.

    Department of Defense

    The DOD has been using open source software for years. Though I was a bit surprised that it wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the DOD’s open government plan, and even more surprised that the much-hyped forge.mil project isn’t referenced at all, the plan includes a number of initiatives that happen to take advantage of open source tools:

    The Wikified Army Field Guide, based on Mediawiki, will allow warfighters to collaboratively edit the Army’s field manuals, allowing the documents to be more accurate and responsive:

    …as the battlefield changes rapidly, field manuals must keep pace.  Under the traditional process – in which a select few were charged with drafting and updating field manuals –manuals often failed to reflect the latest knowledge of Soldiers on the ground.

    Using the same free software behind Wikipedia, the Army’s “wikified” field manuals invite military personnel – from private to general – to collaboratively update the Army Tactics, Techniques and Procedures Manuals in real time.  In so doing, the Army provides a secure means for battle-tested Soldiers to share their experience and advice from the field.  Wikified Army Field Manuals ensure the men and women who serve our Nation have access to the best possible information when they need it.

    This is a very exciting opportunity to capture all the innovation happening “at the edge” and quickly incorporate it into useful, official documentation. It makes so much sense, I’m surprised it hasn’t already been done.

    The plan also highlights XMPP, which is a tremendously popular instant-messaging protocol that runs, among others, Google Talk. It may surprise you to learn just how much XMPP’s most popular implementation, Jabber, is already being used inside the DOD. The Defense Connect Online program uses Jabber to provide secure IMs inside the DOD, and they announced in November that this would be opened up to the outside world. Because they standardized on an open standard with robust open source implementations, literally dozens of different chat clients are now available to these non-DOD DCO users.

    It’s interesting how both Jabber and the Wiki Field Manual projects aim to improve collaboration, and do so on highly collaborative open source platforms. I don’t think that’s an accident.

    Department of Homeland Security

    VirtualUSA is DHS’ flagship initiative, which couldn’t be more appropriate. From page 23 of the DHS Open Government plan:

    On December 8, 2009, Secretary Janet Napolitano publicly launched Virtual USA (vUSA), an innovative information-sharing initiative that draws on practitioner input to help Federal, State, local and Tribal first responders collaborate to make fast, well-informed decisions. vUSA integrates existing frameworks and investments to provide real-time access to operational information—such as weather conditions; traffic; the location and operational status of critical infrastructure; fuel supplies; availability of emergency shelters and medical facilities; and other critical information—that allows users to improve situational awareness and to respond quickly in emergencies.

    vUSA currently operates as two pilots – one in eight southeastern states: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Tennessee; and the other in five states in the northwest: Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. In Virginia alone, vUSA reduced response times to incidents involving hazardous materials by 70 percent.

    VirtualUSA is much more revolutionary than this lets on. It’s a very disruptive piece of software in its space. FCW has a succinct overview of the project’s history and what it means for first responders. DHS is funding this project, based on open source and open standards, in part because it wants to encourage collaborative toolbuilding and cooperation among the states, and also because this capability is too important to be in the hands of a single GIS provider, like Google or ESRI. Because it is an open source project, and uses open standards, VirtualUSA ensures that critical assets are not locked into a single vendor, and simultaneously lower the barrier to entry for new GIS vendors.

    Department of Commerce

    On page 18 of the Department of Commerce plan, under “Open Source Information Technology”, we find some familiar prose:

    Also emerging from Commerce’s Open Government Ideascale community was a suggestion to “become more open through the increased use of open source software.” The Department has already begun using the open source tool, Drupal, for a number of its new websites and plans to increase this use in the future. Using open source technology will allow Commerce to develop new technologies and collaborate more readily with the public and other government agencies, and within the Department itself.

    To make this happen, the Office of the Chief Information Officer and the Office of Acquisition Management will be consulted to ensure that open source offerings are fully considered during procurement processes. That consideration will include the value that the Department can receive through increased collaboration with the public and as a contributor to open source communities.

    Nothing short of victory at Commerce for Open Source of America, whose suggestion this was. Congratulations!

    Department of Labor

    You’ll find open source in the strangest places. Until I read Labor’s plan, I didn’t appreciate how much data the Department of Labor is responsible for analyzing and disseminating. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to find this initiative on page 29:

    Create a “Developer’s Corner”

    We plan to establish a “Developer Corner” on www.dol.gov/open that specifically targets and engages developers. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for developers to re-purpose our data, provide feedback, get technical help, bring developers with similar interests together and, ultimately inspire the best possible uses of our data for the benefit of the public. Ideas under consideration include a bug tracking system, RSS feeds for dataset changes, dataset versioning, public code competitions, data authentication, and an ideation platform to prioritize developer needs.

    I think every department and agency that distributes data to the public (which is to say, all of them) should follow Labor’s lead and establish their own Developer sites. There’s no better way to stay engaged with this very powerful community.

    Health and Human Services

    The outstanding NHIN CONNECT project, which has a thriving open source community, got a mention on page 56 of HHS’s plan:

    Nationwide Health Information Network – Direct

    A key component of the Nation’s emerging health information technology infrastructure is the Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN) – a set of standards, policies, and services that enable the secure exchange of health information over the Internet. “NHIN Direct” is the latest development in the evolution of the NHIN. It’s an important effort to develop a “lightweight on-ramp” to the NHIN that will enable simple, direct exchanges of information between providers, labs, pharmacies, and consumers — and which will be easy to adopt and implement. In a process that launched on March 1, NHIN Direct is being designed in close collaboration with the community of potential users, with the entire process taking place in the open, in public, on a NHIN Direct wikispace. NHIN Direct will then be implemented in real-world tests and deployments by members of the community – with HHS’s Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) playing a coordinating and convening role. The gist of the NHIN Direct strategy is to utilize a community-driven approach to ramp up and power NHIN Direct-powered health information exchange.

    I should mention that my employer, Red Hat, is involved in this project.

    National Science Foundation

    There was nothing explicitly about open source in the NSF’s open government plan, but their plan is worth mentioning anyway, as the NSF already does a tremendous amount of work in the open source community. Here’s a search for “open source” on their web site, which yielded over 5,000 hits when I last tried it:


    NSF regularly awards grants under the condition that software developed under those grants is given an open source license. Some very progressive thinking, and shrewd IP stewardship from the NSF folks, so we’ll forgive them for not mentioning open source directly in their plan.

    Department of the Treasury

    Yet another revelation. Treasury plans to cultivate open source projects to facilitate collaboration between agencies and between Treasury and the public. I’ve written about exactly this kind of collaboration before, back in December, so I’m enormously pleased to see that Treasury agrees. I’ve emphasized my favorite passages here:

    In the areas of transparency, participation, collaboration, and flagship initiative, Treasury strives to share its efforts across Government to avoid duplication across agencies and to improve value/outcome of efforts. Treasury seeks to manifest cross-agency transferability in at least two of the following ways:

    • Make training available to other agencies by opening up classes/webcasts to other agencies; providing slides, video and/or audio after the training; and posting on an e-learning platform.
    • Name an advocate who gets the word out about what the agency has to share and invites other agencies to contact that person to learn from him or her.
    • Design procurements for enterprise (where government is the enterprise) or in such a way that what is created can be shared across government at no cost.
    • Develop and post code so it can be shared with other agencies (open source or the contract written such that the government owns the code.)
    • Share platforms utilized by the agency with other agencies at no cost.
    • Create participatory events across agencies with related missions.
    • Collaborate on projects and challenges with the public and with the private sector in partnership with other federal agencies that have similar missions.
    • Share all materials, results, tools, and training that could be transferable to other agencies with the Interagency Working Group as an efficient central dissemination mechanism.

    Veteran’s Administration

    The VA is an enormous consumer of information technology, and gained early recognition from the open source community for its public domain VISTA electronic health record platform. On page 22 of the VA plan, it becomes clear that the VA is expanding its use of open source to lower the barrier to entry for developers who want to help the agency:


    A Virtual Installation of VistA Architecture (AViVA) is a recent innovation that we are using to support collaboration. AViVA creates a universal user interface for the electronic health record and includes prototyping of data connectors in order to securely link the AViVA platform to patient data from any source. The AViVA project incorporates HealtheVet as an update of the VistA legacy database system.

    VA’s current electronic hospital management system uses a graphical user interface known as the Clinical Patient Record System (CPRS). CPRS data is stored in the legacy data system known as VistA. CPRS requires installation on each machine that operates the program rendering the program difficult to scale and expensive to maintain and update. AViVA’s implementation improves this model in two ways. First, AViVA creates a modular, web-enabled electronic health record system that can be easily and remotely maintained. Second, Medical Data Web Services (MDWS), which can be accessed by the Department of Defense, will allow the creation of applications for any data source to be plugged into the system.

    AViVA is a very exciting program for the collaboration portion of our Open Government Plan and because we are committed to creating systems that allow health care providers to collaborate to provide the best care for Veterans. AViVA’s web based presentation layer will allow our doctors and nurses around the country to search patient records as simply and succinctly as you can search for pizza on Google Maps and as securely as the best retail financial service businesses. Additionally, AViVA creates collaboration between VA and DoD, our partner in caring for our nation’s heroes. Finally AViVA creates an open source platform that allows software to be shared with entities outside of VA, creating opportunities for further innovation and development beyond the agency.

    National Aeronautic and Space Administration

    “NASA is working to make open source software development more collaborative at NASA to benefit both the Agency and the public,” it says right on the first page of the NASA open government plan. Here’s an agency which has always relied on a vibrant research community, software developers, and a culture of innovation. I’m not surprised by their focus on open source, but I am delighted. Among other things, NASA will be sponsoring an open source code competition, has an entire section of their plan devoted to open source development, and will be developing their Nebula cloud computing system on open source software.

    It’s fair to say that NASA’s plan is the strongest I’ve seen for the open source community.

    Your Turn

    Who did I miss? What other opportunities for open source have you found in the open government plans? Leave a comment and let us all know!