Integrated, Open, Inspiring – Let’s Do It SF!

Let's Do It SF!

The San Francisco’s City Attorney’s Office (where I work) has launched an anti-blight initiative that wraps consumer tech, city services and a local-global approach to volunteerism in a multi-channel social media package. The “Let’s Do It SF” campaign aims to provide people who live and work in San Francisco with City Attorney-sponsored hands-on training in using the free SeeClickFix mobile app to report graffiti vandalism and illegal dumping, while highlighting core city services and volunteer opportunities.

“What we are doing in San Francisco with the Let’s Do It SF! initiative, along with the use of smart phone technology, will enhance neighborhood beautification and show the power of collective civic action,” said City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

San Francisco is one of three cities – with DC and Boston – to fully embrace Open311, a standardized application programing interface (API) developed in cooperation with the NY non-profit OpenPlans. SeeClickFix has also been a core participant in the standardization effort (see the development wiki). Open311 allows consumer-focused apps like SeeClickFix to interface directly with the City’s issue ticketing system, creating both efficiencies and new resources from the developer community. The City’s 311 department highlights several apps developed using Open311, and the Let’s Do It SF site features an interactive citywide map of blight issues reported to the non-emergency call center.

Let’s Do It SF also uses SeeClickFix’s “watch area” feature to highlight individual supervisor districts in synch with Department of Public Works-sponsored Clean Team volunteer events in those districts. SCF customized their map widgets for the initiative to highlight issue reporting categories that map to Open311.

“The civic tech initiatives in SF are starting to get some real use through apps connecting with 311,” said SeeClickFix CEO Ben Berkowitz. “We’re excited about Let’s Do It SF! because it enables citizens to fix some of the concerns they are voicing through these apps on their own. It’s time for citizens to use online tools to improve communities offline … we’re sure your Farmville crops will still be there when you return.”

The anti-waste campaign “Let’s Do It” began in 2008 when a small group of Estonians organized volunteers to geo-map all of the illegal dumping in their country – and, in one amazing day of action with 50,000 participants, cleaned it all. The San Francisco Let’s Do It initiative urges local volunteers to also sign up for the North American portion of World Cleanup 2012, in which the original Estonian organizers aim to clean up 100 countries with similar massive mapping campaign and single-day actions.

The City Attorney’s Office teamed up with 311, DPW and SF Environment to bring together a host of City and partner services and public awareness resources in Let’s Do It SF. These include:

311 services on the Web, Facebook and a range of mobile apps;

DPW’s “Don’t Leave It On the Sidewalk” campaign;

SF Environment’s EcoFinder and SFRecycles;

Recology’s RecycleMyJunk; and

DPW’s Clean Team volunteer program.

“Public Works encourages the public to learn more about free and low cost resources for the collection of unwanted items and to also get involved through our community service volunteer programs,” said DPW Director Ed Reiskin.

Let’s Do It SF emphasizes true Gov 2.0 spirit in its development and collaborative multi-agency approach to taking on issues of blight in San Francisco neighborhoods. It includes a robust social media element, including:

Let’s Do It SF on Facebook;

Streaming tweets from Let’s Do It SF and from DPW Deputy Director Mohammed “Mr. Clean SF” Nuru;

Open-source Web development and Creative Commons licensing; and

Flickr photos from the Let’s Do It World pool.

Code for America ‘Labs Day’ Fridays tackle small government tech projects to help make a big difference

Code for America Just received the latest Code for America newsletter and wanted to share info about its ‘Lab Day’ program that happens every Friday in its San Francisco offices.

Here’s the gist:

We open the doors, and work on projects that you and our fellows care about. We’re focused on cool, light-weight gov-related projects, things that could make a difference from just a few hours of work. Coders, designers, and researchers — from inside government and out — are welcome.


In the future, CfA fellows will host labs days in their respective project cities. Contact for more information or to set up one in your area.

Politicians are more powerful when they control public data

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, has a fantastic article in Wired about 311 in New York City (What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal About New York). Jason Kottke references the post and shares a point his friend makes that I’ve never really thought about:

Not discussed in the article is an assertion by my pal David that exclusive access to 311 data gives incumbent politicians — like, say, Michael Bloomberg — a distinct advantage when it comes to getting reelected. For instance, when campaigning on a neighborhood level, the incumbent can look at the 311 data for each neighborhood and tailor their message appropriately, e.g. promising to help combat noise in a neighborhood with lots of noise complaints or fix the streets in a neighborhood with lots of calls about potholes.

Whether it’s getting elected or discovering new businesses opportunities, open data levels the playing field.

When data is closed to only those who have access to it, incumbents have a leg up on their competition. They can cater to constituents who complain the most and disregard areas that aren’t familiar with the service or less likely to air their grievances (and most likely not vote).

Even worse, these politicians have insider information on business opportunities that can be realized with this type of data. That’s a pretty good perk for campaign contributors, right?

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to open government data. Thoughts on other insider opportunities when it comes to closed data?

Fresh wrap: sf.govfresh

San Francisco CIO Chris Vein speaks at sf.govfresh, Sept. 1, 2010

Public servants, developers and entrepreneurs gathered together to discuss and learn about the civic value of open data and how the City of San Francisco and private citizens are leveraging this opportunity at sf.govfresh, Sept. 1, at Adobe Systems’ San Francisco offices. Speakers included San Francisco Chief Information Officer Chris Vein, Mom Maps Founder & CEO Jill Seman, San Francisco Department of Technology Director of Innovation Jay Nath, Stamen Partner Michal Migurski, Routesy Founder Steven Peterson and SF Environment Internet Communications Coordinator Lawrence Grodeska.

Watch the entire playback here. Presentation videos are also posted below.

Be sure to read Adriel Hampton’s review at OpenSF or see the #sfgf hashtag for the Twitter discussion around the event.

Special thanks to Adobe for hosting and sponsoring the event. This was GovFresh’s first event, and we couldn’t have asked for a better partner and supporter. I firmly believe fostering true community through events such as sf.govfresh is where industry needs to invest more of its outreach budget.

Video presentations

Chris Vein, CIO, San Francisco (Part 1):

Chris Vein, CIO, San Francisco (Part 2):

Jay Nath, Director of Innovation, San Francisco:

Steven Peterson, Routesy:

Lawrence Grodeska, SF Environment:

Michal Migurski, Stamen Design + Crimespotting:

Jill Seman, Mom Maps (Part 1):

Jill Seman, Mom Maps (Part 2):

Open Q&A with Chris Vein, CIO, San Francisco:


Here’s a few of the presentations slides.

Open311 API‘ (Jay Nath, Director of Innovation, San Francisco):

EcoFinder Open Data, Open Source, Open Collaboration (Lawrence Grodeska, SF Environment):

SF government innovators, entrepreneurs to showcase civic value of open data, open government at sf.govfresh

sf.govfreshI’m very excited about GovFresh’s first event next week, sf.govfresh, September 1, 2010, 6:00-9:00 p.m. Admission is free and will held in a beautiful space at Adobe‘s San Francisco offices (special thanks to Adobe for hosting and sponsoring this event).

The goal of sf.govfresh is to bring together public servants, citizens, civic developers and social entrepreneurs to network and learn more about San Francisco’s innovation, technology and open government initiatives. Together we can learn how government is changing the way it works and how we as citizens can change the way we work with government.

Presenters include:

Learn more:

Hope to see you there!

Gov 2.0 Hero: Bryan Sivak

Bryan SivakBryan Sivak (Twitter) is Chief Technology Officer for the District of Columbia, promoting open data and open government initiatives, from projects like TrackDC to the city’s adoption of Open311 as a citizen service platform.

How did you get to Gov 2.0?

A very broad question indeed. I guess the real answer is that I’ve been about Gov 2.0 since before the term (which I’m not a *huge* fan of) was coined and long before I entered the public sector. As long as I can remember I’ve been involved with technology, and many of the ideas I’ve had and some that I’ve messed around with have involved leveraging technology to make the world a better place. The greatest thing about this job is that it gives me the opportunity to actually effect change on a broad yet tangible scale, both with respect to internal process innovation and external service delivery. And I get to ride around on firetrucks!

What are the challenges of your role as DC CTO and how do you deal with them?

I’ve only been in the role for a little more than six months so I’m sure I haven’t come across the full set of challenges, but I can give you a couple of tidbits. I think the biggest challenge with any large, well-established organization is the cultural resistance to change. If an organization has grown up for many years with a certain mindset, it’s going to take a long time for that mindset to shift and the larger the organization, the harder that is to accomplish. This is probably true for pretty much any Government around the world but one thing that’s fantastic about the Fenty administration (albeit based on my limited experience) is the willingness and freedom to try new things and take some chances. I’ve had some radical ideas (for Government) since I’ve been here and I actually have the opportunity to put them in motion to see if I can help build a better mousetrap.

Having said that, ask me the question in another six months and I might have a totally different answer for you.

What’s most interesting to you about the open government movement?

Let’s start with what’s least interesting to me: smartphone applications that leverage data to help someone do something. Second least interesting (and probably most blasphemous): transparency and accountability. Before everyone at Sunlight declares an intifada on me, however, let me explain what I mean by that. Transparency and accountability are the watchwords of the open government movement. It’s a given that as the movement increases and picks up steam, with every new data set that is released and every federal agency and state and local jurisdiction that adopts an open government policy, these things will continue. And they are important. But they are not the motivating cry that is going to kick government employees into action. Culture change has to come first.

And that brings me to the point I find most interesting: that there’s a huge community of non-government workers out there who are all motivated to take time out of their busy schedules to leverage their skills for the greater good. Leveraging this community to build iPhone apps is dramatically underutilizing this resource. I’m interested in seeing the big brains turn to solving the internal problems of government which will have a very wide reaching effect. Stay tuned for some intriguing developments on this…

What resources, books, blogs, apps or Websites do you recommend to others?

This is neither new nor interesting but I have to admit that I’m getting a huge amount of value out of Twitter (and our internal Yammer implementation) lately. I don’t follow too many people but the ones I have decided to follow all act as a phenomenal filter for interesting news and new developments, and some really interesting thoughts have been sparked for me from a random tweet (and “yam”) here or there. For the first time in my life, I don’t have time to read the news or blogs, and lately my book consumption has been declining rapidly, so Twitter has been keeping me up-to-date when I have a moment to check the feed.

In terms of blogs, I’ll just give you one — I actually really like Andrea DeMaio’s writing. I respect the contrarian opinion, even if I don’t always agree. Okay, two — I’m a closet (okay, not so closeted) gadget geek so I do admit to sneaking a peek at Engadget and it’s cousins from time to time.

Just because I’ve recently read it, I highly recommend Dan Pink’s book Drive to everyone. It’s a tough concept for many people to swallow but I’m completely bought in. For something which is on the surface completely unrelated to open government, everyone on the planet should read Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories. His works are applicable in some way to nearly everything in life (yes, including open government), and are completely mind blowing.

What’s your 3-word open government motto?

How about a range of mottos, of different lengths:

Two words: Question everything!
Three words: Take some chances!
Four words: Start small, fail cheap.
Five words: Don’t be motivated by fear.

I feel like I should make that into a Haiku of some sort.

Gov 2.0 Radio: Engaging app developers with government data


Engaging app developers with government data: A discussion with Mark Headd, an app developer and former govie, about civic apps. Headd explains Open311 and accessing government services and lowering costs using Twitter, and gives ideas on how to engage developers around government civic apps contests.



A ‘glass half full’ view of government app contests

An increasing number of people are starting to suggest that the concept of the “app contest” (where governments challenge developers to build civic applications) is getting a bit long in the tooth.

There have been lots of musings lately about the payoff for governments that hold such contests and the long term viability of individual entries developed for these contests. Even Washington DC – the birthplace of the current government app contest craze – seems the be moving beyond the framework it has employed not once, but twice to engage local developers:

“I don’t think we’re going to be running any more Apps for Democracy competitions quite in that way,” says Bryan Sivak, who became the district’s chief technology officer in 2009. Sivak calls Apps for Democracy a “great idea” for getting citizen software developers involved with government, but he also hints that the applications spun up by these contests tend to be more “cool” than useful to the average city resident.

App contests abound

This view is starting to crystallize against the backdrop of an ever greater number of app contests being held. At the recent Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington DC, Peter Corbett of iStrategy Labs (who helped launch the first government app contest in DC) gave a presentation that listed several dozen governments around the globe that had recently completed an app contest or were scheduled to soon start one.

And the biggest app contest to date – being sponsored by the State of California – is slated to begin soon. (Two fringe technology companies that you’ve probably never heard of – Google and Microsoft – are set to partner with the Golden State for this 800 pound gorilla of government app contests.)

So if app contests are being used in more and more places, and the size and scope of these contests keeps growing, what’s with all the hand wringing of late?

Lessons learned from app contests

My take on app contests is not an unbiased one. I’ve been a competitor in three different app contests (the original Apps for Democracy, the original Apps for America, and the NYC Big Apps competition) and was recognized for my work in them. Outside of contests, I’ve build applications using open government data and APIs for the cities of Toronto and San Francisco, and for the New York State Senate.

Clearly I am a supporter of the concept of the government app contest.

Having said that, though, I do think that those taking a more skeptical view of app contests are asking some important questions. The government app contest has come a long way since Vivek Kundra was in the driver’s seat in the DC technology office. It’s time to start asking how app contests can be improved.

But before we move on to that discussion, it is worth noting the lessons that have been learned over the last two years or so from government app contests.

First, governments and citizens benefit when high value, high quality data sets are released by governments that are in machine readable formats, easily consumed by third party applications. Believe it or not, there is still debate in many places on this point. App contests prove the theory that publishing open government data provides tangible benefits.

Second, app contests prove that it is possible to engage and excite both developers and high level elected officials about open government data. The cause of open government can’t be anything but well served when these two groups are excited about it, and appealing to both successfully in equal measure is usually very challenging.

Third, and maybe most importantly, government app contests provide sort of a “petri dish” for government officials to see how government data might be used. They let governments solicit ideas from the private sector about the different ways that open data can be used in a manner that is low risk and low cost. Some of the proposed uses of government data that emerge from these contests – whether its tweeting a recorded message to your Congressman, or using an IM client to browse campaign finance data – might never be considered by governments but for them running an app contest.

These lessons aside, there are those who contend that the existence of app contest entries that have languished (or even been abandoned altogether) after a contest is over suggests that an app contest didn’t work well (or as well as it should have). I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

Look at it this way; once a government has decided to publish open data sets and enable the development of one single app by an outside developer, the marginal cost of the next app (from the perspective of government) is essentially zero.

Once a data set has been put into a machine readable format and staged for download so that it can be used by a developer or third party, what is the cost of the next download? Or the next 50, or 100? Essentially nothing.

The road to tech startup profitability and success is a long and hard one, and it’s littered with the hollowed out husks of ideas (some very bad, some very good) that for one reason or another just don’t make it.

Should we be overly concerned that the dynamic of government app contest entries is essentially the same as it is for any other sort of technology startup project? Personally, I don’t think so.

Making app contests better

I do however, think there are some things that government app contests organizers can do a better job on.

Most notably, government engagement with app developers over the long-term has proved to be somewhat challenging. Gunnar Hellekson of Red Hat has observed the same phenomenon:

“..I would think that one of the desired outcomes [of an app contest] was an ongoing community of developers that are producing and maintaining applications like this — whether it’s for love, money, or fame. It would be a shame to see hard work like this die on the vine because we’ve lost the carrot of a cash prize.”

I don’t think this is an issue with developers necessarily – I know there is still lots of excitement around the data sets that have served as the foundation for app contents that are now over. I think the issue is that governments do not always have a plan for post-contest developer engagement.

Once the prizes are given out, and the award ceremony is over, there are no plans or strategies in place to keep developers engaged over the long haul. I do not believe this is an issue of money – not every developer is looking for a cash prize, and there are some good examples of government agencies (MassDOT and BART among them) who do a pretty good job of keeping developers engaged without contests.

I also think that a greater emphasis could be placed in app contests on developing reusable components (as opposed to user-facing solutions) that can be released as open source software and used by anyone to consume data or interact with a government API. I’m talking specifically about things like open source libraries for interacting with the Open311 API – tools and libraries specifically designed to make it easier to use open government data.

The easier it is to use government data and APIs the more people will do it, and the more development of reusable components as a by product of app contest, the less angst there will be about projects that don’t remain viable long-term. If one of the requirements of entry is the use (or reuse) of common components, even contest entries that fizzle out down the road will have made a tangible contribution to the open data effort.

I think with a few simple changes, app contests can continue to be used as an effective tool by governments to encourage the development of cutting edge applications powered by “democratized” government data.

Building an Open311 application

TweetMy311Earlier this year, I had an idea to build a Twitter application that would allow a citizen to start a 311 service request with their city.

At the time, there was no way to build such an application as no municipality had yet adopted a 311 API that would support it (although the District of Columbia did have a 311 API in place, it did not – at the time – support the type of application I envisioned).

That changed recently, when San Francisco announced the deployment of their Open311 API. I quickly requested an API key and began trying to turn my idea into reality.

My idea resulted in an application that I soft launched last week. TweetMy311 is now live and can be used in the City/County of San Francisco to report 311 service requests. The project website has a detailed description of how it works, but its very close to my original idea.

More good news on the Open311 front came recently when it was announced that San Francisco and the District of Columbia had come to agreement on a shared Open311 standard. This means that apps built to work with the San Francisco 311 API will also work with the 311 API in Washington DC. I’m working on enabling TweetMy311 for Washington DC now, and hope to have this service live there in a few weeks.

Ultimately, I hope people use my application, that they like it, and that it makes it easier to report an issue to their municipality. I did, however, have some other motives in developing this application that I think are equally important.

Are you experienced?

Since 311 APIs are rare, and (right now) applications that use 311 APIs are also rare, I think there is value in being able to capture the experience of developing an Open311 application from scratch. This information can provide tremendous value to the governments that deploy 311 APIs (what works, what doesn’t, what can be improved, etc.), and for developers thinking about building an Open311 application.

I hope to use TweetMy311 to provide feedback to governments that deploy 311 APIs (and to those thinking about deploying one) so that they can get a sense of how the experience works from a developer that has used one. At the end of the day the ease of use of an API, the quality of documentation, the ability to test applications in a meaningful way and a number of other factors will determine how many developers decide to take the step and become a “civic coder” by building an Open311 application.

Getting to Open

For me, the use of open source technologies in TweetMy311 was important. This project provided a great opportunities to learn more about a technology that I have become fascinated with of late – CouchDB. TweetMy311 is a NoSQL application that uses CouchDB at its core. It runs on Ubuntu Linux with Apache and was built with the PHP scripting language (I guess that makes it the CLAP stack – CouchDB, Linux, Apache, PHP)

Building with open source technologies was important because I hope to be able to share the code I have developed with interested governments that want to learn how an Open311 application is put together. I also believe it’s important because I think the Open311 initiative can be a great mechanism for encouraging the use of open source technologies.

Leading up to this project, I developed a small PHP library for interacting with the San Francisco Open311 API. I make use of this library in TweetMy311 and any other developer that wants to use it in their project is free to do so. I plan on branching this library soon so that it can work with the new version of the Open311 standard.

Give it a twhirl

So if you live in San Francisco and you want to give TweetMy311 a twhirl, check out the description on the project website. I’d appreciate any feedback – positive or negative – because ultimately I think it will make the project better.

I had a great experience developing TweetMy311, and I learned a lot. I’m looking forward to sharing my experience with interested governments and other developers.

Gov 2.0 guide to 311 and Open311

311 History and Purpose

311 is an abbreviated dialing designation set up for use by municipal governments in both the U.S. and Canada. Dialing 311 in communities where it is implemented will typically direct a caller to a call center where an operator will provide information in response to a question, or open a service ticket in response to report of an issue. The difference between 311 and other abbreviated dialing designations (like 911) can be summed up by a promotional slogan for the service used in the City of Los Angeles:

“Burning building? Call 911. Burning question? Call 311.”

311 is operated in most large cities in the U.S. and several smaller jurisdictions as well. 311 is also a designated dialing code in Canada, and has been implemented in a number of cities in that country as well. A primary justification for 311 operations it to reduce the volume of non-emergency calls to 911, helping ensure that 911 operators are not burdened with calls that are not of an emergency nature. The first municipality to implement 311 was the City of Baltimore, Maryland (October, 1996). The largest 311 operation is that of New York City, which handles an average of 43,000 calls per day, and provides translation services in 170 different languages. On June 20, 2007, the NYC 311 service received its 50 millionth call.

311 on the Web

A key function of 311 services is to provide easy access to general information from municipal government. A March 2010 report on the City of Philadelphia’s 311 operation by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative found that the overwhelming majority of callers to the service were looking for basic information:

“On average in 2009, seven in ten callers to Phillly311 were looking for basic or general information. On average, 19 percent needed to be transferred to another department or line, a rate that Philly311 likes to keep low. Another 9 percent were asking for a service, requiring an agent to submit a formal request to another city department.”

Because the web is an ideal medium for providing standard information in response to general information requests, most 311 operations include a web component with lists of frequently asked questions and information frequently requested by callers. This web presence for 311 helps offload callers from call center operators and provide options for more web savvy and connected citizens. Several 311 operations (including NYC and San Francisco) have worked to incorporate Twitter and other social media tools into their services.

The Rise of the 311 API

The first 311 API was deployed by the District of Columbia, which deployed the first version of its API in May of 2009 to coincide with its “Apps for Democracy: Community Edition” development contest to encourage the development of applications that use the API. The winner of the Apps for Democracy contest was a combination iPhone / Facebook application called SocialDC. DC is currently working with leaders of the Open311 initiative and officials in other cities like San Francisco to standardize the next version of its 311 API on the Open311 specification. In early 2010, the City/County of San Francisco became the second city to deploy a public API for interacting with its 311 system.

The Open311 Initiative

The Open311 initiative is an effort to create a uniform specification for 311 APIs. The goal is create a standard specification for a 311 API that would be deployed in multiple cities, allowing application developers to build applications that would work with any municipal API that conforms to the standard. The API deployed by San Francisco conforms to the Open311 standard, although the standard itself is likely to change as more municipalities and developers become involved in the Open311 initiative. The District of Columbia is working with the Open311 initiative and others to standardize its existing API to the Open311 specification. Other cities like Edmonton and Boston are set to deploy Open311 APIs in the near future.

311 and Open311 Video

More 311 and Open311 links