Philadelphia launches alpha city website


Philadelphia has launched an alpha version of a new

The new site, located at, 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 It completely abandons outdated web features, such as the homepage carousel, gratuitous mayoral photo or city skyline, heavy graphics and department-centered focus on information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.

Taking the innovation office government-wide

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

There’s a great Code for America Summit talk from Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski on what they’re doing to build a city-wide culture of innovation, including a physical open space office where anyone can work, a $100,000 internal innovation fund and tapping into external talent.

What I like about the office space idea is that it begins to create the sense of fluidity and mobility that’s important in serendipitous encounters that help generate new ideas and extend community beyond just one particular office. Physical space is an important aspect of innovation (as is attire) and, hopefully, these types of “labs” inspire a trend towards open office design within government.

There’s a significant amount of focus from the innovation crowd on attracting outside talent, but it’s important to keep in mind that there are extremely bright and gregarious people working on the inside that aren’t acknowledged as such or being given the freedom to innovate. Given that they are more attuned and accustomed to the inner workings of government, and less likely to become easily disenchanted, they are a much better resource to tap into. Often we hear that if you really want to change government, you need to work in it. While I disagree with that sentiment, I think it’s extremely important to maintain an internal culture of innovation, and we’re still seeing a low retention rate of fellows, tapped externally, deciding to work for government.

The other aspect of government innovation initiatives concerns the process of communicating their value. The biggest value and best way to communicate the importance of an innovation initiative is through the process. Government innovation efforts continue to fail on the open knowledge front and often rely on a push approach that entails the press office, press releases and final product launch-type blog posts. Government leaders should really get into the practice of publicly chronicling what they’re doing, what they’ve done, and what they learned that will help them do better.

Much of the sharing on these efforts is around code dumped into a repo, but open knowledge and insight into process is the best visibility into public innovation that citizens could ask for.

As Tim says in response to an audience member’s question on the subject:

“Most importantly, we could do some really great things here, but if we don’t get the word out about it enough, people are just going to remember the money we spent.”

More of my thoughts on government innovation here, but I really enjoyed Tim’s presentation and the follow-up Q&A and wanted to share.

Watch Tim’s talk:

These 7 local governments will Code for America in 2015

Code for America today announced the next class of municipalities for its 2015 Fellowship Program that partners civic technologists with local governments for one year to “explore answers to local challenges by engaging with the community, building applications, and testing the results.”

Participating governments include Albuquerque, New Mexico; Indianapolis, Indiana; Miami-Dade County, Florida; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Somerville, Massachusetts; Vallejo, California; and West Sacramento, California.

Official quotes from leaders of the respective cities:

Mayor Richard J. Berry, Albuquerque, New Mexico:

“We are delighted to welcome the 2015 Code for America fellows to Albuquerque. We look forward to collaborating with the fellows to identify ways in which we can match citizens in need with critical information and services. This exciting collaboration between the City of Albuquerque, the fellows, and our community will build digital capabilities in the city and continue to strengthen Albuquerque’s position as an innovative place to live, thrive, and do business.”

Mayor Greg Ballard, Indianapolis, Indiana:

“Indy’s selection for the next Code for America program provides an excellent opportunity to bring forward-thinking solutions to city government. Indy is using data in innovative ways to enhance public safety. Our team looks forward to working with the Code for America fellows to better integrate data in our daily efforts to make Indy an even better place live and work.”

Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, Miami-Dade County:

“It is a privilege for Miami-Dade County to be Code for America’s first government partner in Florida. This collaboration will drive a more open government, stimulate economic development and improve the delivery of regulatory services to our community. Code for America is an organization that has successfully advanced these capabilities through technology and innovation and the organization will be an important partner in our ongoing work to make Miami-Dade County more open, transparent and efficient.”

Mayor William Peduto, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania:

“I am honored and excited that Pittsburgh is joining with Code for America to build the city’s reputation for innovation and transparency. We look forward to working in particular on new approaches to procurement that drive increased community participation, and in so doing, build the digital capabilities of our great city. I know the Fellows can learn from us — and us from them — as we work together to make government better for city residents.”

Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, Somerville, Massachusetts:

“In a time of national gridlock where municipalities increasingly need to be the driving force for creative problem-solving and innovation, it’s critical to have a nimble organization like Code for America working directly with cities to develop new solutions and accelerate our progress. Our Fellows will be helping to expand data-based decision-making in our schools to improve outcomes for our students, and we are honored that we were selected to host them.”

Mayor Osby Davis, Vallejo, California:

“The Code for America fellowship is an opportunity for us to enhance communication and increase engagement, and to maximize public involvement and collaboration. The City Council and I are thrilled to have been selected after having made the application to Code for America a top priority this year. We look forward to the many possibilities that will surely come from this fantastic partnership.”

Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, City of West Sacramento:

“Code for America is rapidly transforming America by catalyzing civic innovation in America’s cities to strengthen democracy and reimagine how we create value and services. West Sacramento is excited to lead the nation in partnership with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments as a Code for America city working not only to spur civic innovation in our own town, but to design that innovation for widespread adoption region wide…spreading Code for America’s transformative impact to small cities and rural towns.”

Code for America has partnered 103 fellows with 30 local governments over the past four years. Learn more about the fellowship program here.

America’s coolest mayor

This is the first time I’ve heard of Harvard-educated, professional wrestler look-alike and Braddock, Pennsylvania, mayor John Fetterman, featured in this episode of Hulu’s “A Day In The Life” series. The Guardian has called him “America’s coolest mayor.”

An incredible story about someone who probably could’ve done anything he wanted with his life, but instead decided to help rebuild a fading community.

(HT Dustin Haisler)

Pittsburgh makes successful migration from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced the city has successfully transitioned its email service from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps for Government. According to the announcement, the city will save an estimated 25 percent in email support costs.

“Adopting Google Apps aligns with our goals to utilize the best, most innovative technology in order to modernize our government, cut costs and improve operational efficiencies,” Ravenstahl said. “We’re very excited about this new service and I’m very proud of all of our employees for adopting it so swiftly.”

(HT Sid Burgess)

Philadelphia Open Government 2011 Year in Review


Photo by vic15

The time of year-end reviews and top 10 lists is now upon us, so I’m compiling the details of a watershed year for open data and civic hacking in two cities where I’ve seen huge leaps made in 2011 – Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In this first installment, I’ll focus on the “City of Brotherly Love” and highlight some of the events and developments of the past year that made it such a special one for the open government movement there.  In the next installment, I’ll do the same for “Charm City.”

Code for America Launches in Philadelphia

2011 began with enormous potential for the growth of the open government footprint in Philadelphia because of a group of coders and designers that came to town as part of Code for America (CfA).  Philadelphia was one of the CfA partner cities for 2011, and the group of fellows that came to town in the early part of the year wasted no time in making their presence felt.

The group tore into it’s work, and kicked of a series of informal hackathons that primed the pump for much of the civic hacking that was to come later in the year.  To my knowledge, these events were the very first of what could be called “civic hacking” events to take place in Philadelphia, and I thought their impact was hugely important:

“What I was most impressed with was the ability of this event to highlight to those that were there what is truly possible when government data is open to and usable by developers. It provided an object lesson for all those there on the true potential of civic hacking…

“Having the Code for America fellows in Philadelphia, and having them essentially kick start civic coding using city data, has accelerated the awareness of what is possible. I think people would have achieved the awareness that was realized yesterday eventually, but the CfA fellows got people there sooner.

Throughout the year, in addition to its primary mission in Philadelphia, CfA and the fellows that were a part of it were involved in a number of different aspects of the open government evolution taking place in that city.  Whether as speakers, supporters or participants in other civic events, the “CfA effect’ was an important component of what happened in Philadelphia this past year on the open government front.

OpenDataPhilly and Philly Tech Week

In late April, Philadelphia made big waves in the open data world by launching its own unique open data repository.

Announced at the kick off event for the very first “Philly Tech Week,” the website and data repository was unveiled with great fanfare.  The unique approach taken by Philadelphia has turned out to be a key to it’s success:

“The city actively partnered with outside parties, private firms, not-for-profits and universities to help set the direction of the city’s open data efforts. The OpenDataPhilly website itself, although it’s brimming with data collected and maintained by the city, was developed by the geospatial and civic application firm Azavea, and is not hosted or operated by the city.  The website, and the larger open data effort in Philadelphia, operates under the stewardship of a group made up of both public sector and private sector partners.”

The follow up to the launch of the OpenDataPhilly site was quick, and turned out to have some lasting impact in the Philly open government movement.

At the end of Philly Tech Week, Technically Philly convened a hackathon that took place in conjunction with BarCamp News Innovation at Temple University.  The hackers at this event focused their attention on property data within the City of Philadelphia, and developed a web app built from “liberated” Office of Property Assessment data that made the data more easily searchable.

This theme of searchable property records has continued to resonate in the open data and journalism communities, and the app originally built at that initial post-OpenDataPhilly event continues to be actively developed and used.

Hackathons and more Hackathons

Following Philly Tech Week, several other fruitful hacking events were organized in Philadelphia that have helped develop more open data and APIs in Philly, and more useful civic applications.

In June and December, Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) events were held at Drexel University, organized by Drexel PhD candidate Mike Brennan.  Both events have produced nationally recognized civic applications.

The June RHoK event produced PhillySNAP – a text messaging application that helps people locate SNAP vendors that sell fresh produce in their neighborhoods.  This application received an honorable mention in the FCC’s Apps for Communities contest.

The December RHoK event produced Sheltr – a mobile web application that provides food and shelter information for those seeking to assist the homeless.  This application was named “Best Social Service Application” in the recently completed GovFresh Awards contest.

In October, a group of hackers convened on the Devnuts co-working space in Northern Liberties to build applications using SEPTA data and APIs.  This event produced a number of useful applications, and also had the full cooperation and support of SEPTA staff.  In addition, several weeks after the event, Mike Zaleski – Director Emerging and Specialty Technology at SEPTA – organized a unique event to bring the civic hackers into SEPTA for a behind the scenes tour and a showcase for SEPTA employees.

OpenData Race and the Road Ahead in 2012

The road ahead into 2012 for open government and open data in Philly was set with the launch of the OpenData Race in August.

The OpenData Race was a competition open to not-for-profits that want to obtain data from the City of Philadelphia to further their missions and to better serve their constituencies.  It called on not-for-profits to nominate data that is not currently available through the OpenDataPhilly site or through other sources to be released by the city in an open format.  The top nominations received cash prizes, and the OpenDataPhilly team is now working with the City of Philadelphia to facilitate the release of the winning data sets.

The winning data sets – announced at the Crowdsourcing at the Intersection forum in October – will fuel a new series of civic hacking events in 2012 and continue the virtuous cycle that was begun this year with newly open data leading to greater civic participation and the development of useful civic applications.

Code for America will be back to Philly next year, and 2012 is shaping up to be another productive one for the open data movement n Philadelphia.

Open Gov Champions for 2011

Now that 2011 is almost complete, I think its fitting to single out several people who have helped shape the landscape of the open gov movement in Philadelphia.  These are by no means the only individuals who helped push things forward this year – the movement, by definition, is open and encompasses lots of people from a wide array of backgrounds and skill sets.  That, in my mind, is what makes it so potent.

However, when I think about the open government movement in Philadelphia it is hard to imagine how it would work without these people.

Robert Cheetham – President and CEO of Azavea.  Robert was one of the driving forces behind OpenDataPhilly and the OpenData Race.  His firm built the platform that runs, and he has helped launch it as an open data platform in other cities. His knowledge of technology and Philadelphia government ,and his passion for civic improvement make him the “Godfather” of open data in Philly.

Christopher Wink – Co-founder of publishing strategy firm Technically Media and its technology news site Technically Philly. Chris believes in open government and open data down to his bones, and it shows in his tireless coverage and support for open government events. Technically Philly sponsored pretty much every single civic hacking event in Philly in 2011, and was another driving force behind OpenDataPhilly and the OpenData Race.  Chris is one of the most progressive thinkers on open data that I know, and I think his vision will help chart the path that we travel down for years to come.

Jeff Friedman – Manager of Civic Innovation & Participation in the Office of Mayor Michael A. Nutter.  The “inside man” for open data in Philly, Jeff is a tireless advocate for Code for America, civic participation and changing the way government engages citizens.  Jeff has helped bring together smart passionate people in Philly over the past year to help move the open government effort forward.

OpenDataRace Begins in Philadelphia

OpenData Race

Several months ago, with the unveiling of the OpenDataPhilly website, the City of Philadelphia joined the growing fraternity of cities across the country and around the world to release municipal data sets in open, developer friendly formats. But the City of Brotherly Love did things a bit differently than most of it’s contemporaries.

The city actively partnered with outside parties, private firms, not-for-profits and universities to help set the direction of the city’s open data efforts. The OpenDataPhilly website itself, although it’s brimming with data collected and maintained by the city, was developed by the geospatial and civic application firm Azavea, and is not hosted or operated by the city.  The website, and the larger open data effort in Philadelphia, operates under the stewardship of a group made up of both public sector and private sector partners.

This unique partnership has raised innovative opportunities for collaboration.  This is clearly evident in the latest efforts by the OpenDataPhilly team to solicit ideas from those in and around Philadelphia about the specific data sets that should be opened up by the city, formatted for developers and researchers and released through the OpenDataPhilly site.

Last week, the OpenDataPhilly team, in partnership with Azavea, NPower Pennsylvania, Technically Philly and the William Penn Foundation launched the OpenData Race.

The OpenData Race is a competition open to not-for-profits that want to obtain data from the City of Philadelphia to further their missions and to better serve their constituencies.  It calls on not-for-profits to nominate data that is not currently available through the OpenDataPhilly site or through other sources to be released by the city in an open format.  The top nominations will receive cash prizes, and the OpenDataPhilly team will work with the City of Philadelphia to facilitate the release of the winning data sets.

This competition is a departure from the traditional kinds of contests that derive from municipal open data efforts, which typically take the form of hackathons or application building contests.  It builds on the idea behind the latest “Big Apps” competition in New York City – which asked competitors to name the kinds of open data apps they would like to see developed – by asking consumers of municipal data which data sets they would like to see opened up and released to the public.

Any not-for-profit can nominate a data set by registering with the OpenDataPhilly site and submitting a nomination before the deadline on September 29th.  The OpenDataPhilly team will also be working with the winners of the OpenData Race to facilitate events aimed at building civic applications that use the new data in early 2012.

The partnership in Philadelphia between city officials, not-for profits, private firms and universities has produced a unique atmosphere for the development of an open data movement.  With the launch of the OpenData Race in Philadelphia, the city and those that live and work there will now start to reap the benefits of this innovative partnership.

For more information on the OpenData Race, and to signup to nominate data, go to the OpenDataPhilly website.