Washington, DC

The changing relationship between tech and government

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/teammuriel/19565355230/">DC Mayor's Office</a>)

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (Photo: DC Mayor’s Office)

Silicon Valley venture capital firm a16z hosts an excellent discussion with current Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and former mayor Adrian Fenty on its a16z Podcast series.

The episode, “The Changing Relationship Between Tech and Government,” touches on how the sharing economy has pushed government to let go of top-down innovation and find ways to collaborate with these new ventures, as well as get proactive in cultivating an environment that supports local startup ecosystems.

Bowser shares her thoughts on how mayors can work with these new firms to better gauge the pulse of the residents and advises tech entrepreneurs to focus on the largely untapped market market of human services, such as affordable housing, health and wellbeing and homelessness.

The discussion also underscores the importance tech firms must give to the third of Steve Case’s “3 P’s“: policy.


Visualize this: 32,000 DC Bikeshare Trips (VIDEO)

The Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C. has been on my dataviz short list since I first took a crack at Boston’s Hubway data last fall. At the urging of a fellow Urban Planning student and bona fide NYC bike nut, I set out to bring the D.C. system’s open data to life. (The Capital Bikeshare is run by Alta, who will also be implementing Citibike in NYC this year)

In the 32,000 trips included in the 5-day sample, rush hour surges, pulses of local traffic, cross-river commutes, and 3 a.m. Sunday morning “Rides of Shame” can be seen throughout the city.  Trip starts are represented by Blue dots, which quickly fade away.  If the trip ended at a different bikeshare station (as most do), a moving yellow dot appears, covering a straight-line path between the start and end station.  Weekday peaks occur at 9 am and 6 pm, and system appears to be well-used all day long on the weekends.

Capital Bikeshare opened their data in early 2012 and has been useful for visualizers and transit developers alike.

OpenGovDC, ‘open source tools for open government’ and Q&A with Phase2 CEO Jeff Walpole


Federal government open source and open government practitioners will convene for a one-day conference, OpenGovDC, June 14 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. Produced by Development Seed and Phase2 Technology, tickets are now on sale for $45.

Federal Communications Commission Managing Director Steven VanRoekel will keynote. Panelists include WordPress/Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg, as well as representatives from the White House, DOE, State, GSA, NASA, FCC and Sunlight Labs. Topics range from open source Web platforms, open data, security and geospatial visualization, among others.

Jeff WalpoleWe asked Phase2 CEO Jeff Walpole to share his thoughts on organizing the event, and why he believes open source is important to facilitating open government.

What is OpenGovDC, who should attend and what will be the takeaway?

OpenGovDC is a one day conference to give government technologists an action plan for implementing open source web applications. With the growth in interest and adoption of open source by federal agencies, we wanted to create a forum where the first wave of adopters could share their experience and offer best practices to government technologists exploring the capabilities of open source tools.

OpenGovDC is for:

  • Open Government stakeholders who wants to better understand—or build—technical platforms that support agency-level needs.
  • People curious about open source tools, like Drupal, Node.js, and WordPress, in the realm of government applications.
  • Developers who want to learn about the unique challenges faced by government web practitioners.

What’s your take on the state of open government? What aspects are thriving or need more focus?

I have participated in numerous events this past year that have done an excellent job of setting the stage for the open government movement and open source adoption. In March I was at the NASA Open Source Summit at the Ames Research Center. NASA is releasing recommendations based on input from the Summit this coming week, and we’re excited to have Nick Skytland with the Open Government Initiative at NASA participating in OpenGovDC to discuss these recommendations and how they shape cross agency collaboration for open source technology.

Examples such as this demonstrate that we are leaving the exploration phase and moving very much in the action stage of open government. Many of the obstacles have been identified, so the next year will be about creating solutions to share and leverage resources across agencies. This is a huge opportunity for focus.

What are your long-term goals for OpenGovDC and how will it cultivate a sustainable open government movement?

We’re coordinating OpenGovDC in partnership with Development Seed and right now the priority is to look at how open source tools can be used to advance open government by focusing on how to best share technology across agencies and giving people real life examples of each topic in government.

By combining each session with a technical workshop, participants can walk away with better understanding of how open source has been used successfully so far and develop an action plan for their agency. The more successful implementations there are in the open government movement, the more we can all learn from each other and improve the movement as a whole.

Learn more at www.OpenGovDC.com or register here.

Former DC CTO Sivak discusses tenure, changing the culture of government

Bryan Sivak

Personal Democracy Forum’s TechPresident recently held an excellent PdF Network call with former Washington, DC, Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak titled Digital DC- How to Create a New Culture of Digital Government. Sivak discusses his time in office, ideas and challenges around changing the culture of government, and the politics of transition.


“My view of the job was to point the ship in a very specific direction and make course corrections along the way as things came up. The folks that are pulling the oars, the ones that are out there doing the work, are the ones I think have the best ideas about ways to make various processes and products more efficient and better. A big part of my job was to provide air cover if the ideas didn’t work out or needed to be tweaked if something went wrong. I really had to make it not only OK to fail but to celebrate rapid and cheap failure as successes as opposed to losses.”

With regards to his next career move, Sivak is currently reviewing options:

“My heart is probably on the entrepreneur side … because I love building things from scratch, creating new and interesting things out of whole cloth, but at the same time, there’s so much opportunity to do good in the public sector and bring some of these interesting ideas to the table. If you do find the right elected official work for, the world is your oyster. You can make a huge amount of difference in a short period of time.”

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TrackDC opens up DC government operations to the public

TrackDC is an open government effort by the District of Columbia to make budget, data, contact and other government information accessible to citizens and the media.

The site offers:

A. Agency description, supervisor info.
B. Agency contact information, including social media accounts.
C. Performance plans and reports.
D. Budget & Operational Information
E. Customer Service (includes Agency Responsiveness Quality Assurance Results & Website traffic)
F. Performance indicators.
G. Data sets available in XML, CSV, KML and other formats.

Full image

GovFresh Q&A with DC CTO Brian Sivak:

Why was TrackDC important for DC to create?

In 2007, Mayor Fenty made a promise to the residents of the District of Columbia that the “District Government must become accountable to the people of our city…”

TrackDC is part of the follow through on this promise and a great testament to the mayor’s ongoing effort to make the District a leader in government transparency. It is the world’s first real-time dashboard for Government operations.

How was it developed? How long did it take to implement?

The public version of TrackDC only took two months to develop as we re-used components from a similar application that is used internally to track agencies and their progress towards their goals.

Track DC is an ASP.NET web-application that interacts with the back-end tier retrieving and transferring data to the client through AJAX calls. The Report/Data Engine Service is a schedule based service that extracts information from various data sources (Oracle, QuickBase, Google Analytics, Google Data Feeds, etc.).

How can media or the average citizen use it?

Track DC is the one central location where all agency accountability information is presented. It’s easier for the media or the average citizen to visit one location rather than search the agency site, the CapStat site, the Data Catalog, and other sites just to find the same information. Additionally, Track DC provides a set of visualizations which presents agency operational information in a straightforward manner that anyone can use for analysis and oversight.

Both the media and residents can use Track DC to track the performance of specific DC government agencies, learn more about agencies ‘ Key Performance Indicators, budget, spending, agency news, access agency Data, and connect to the agency.

The media may be interested in a quick view of the agency’s budget, in downloading data specific to that agency, how that agency has performed in past years or is tracking in the current year with respect to its Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), or any other operational measure.

A resident may be more interested in a service or an issue and therefore may be seeking a way to connect with the agency or to validate how their dollars are being budgeted and spent. Or, a person may think, “wow, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has over 4,000 employees; why isn’t there a copy on my corner at all times?” TrackDC will however illustrate specifically how the personnel is allocated, which will give users a clearer picture of how their tax dollars are being used.

What feedback have you received? What features will be available in the future?

In the initial feedback users requested better help files that will explain what is shown. The financial section include some terms that are understood by some but not all so the District needs to add to this feature of the site. In addition, more customer service data has been requested. We are still gathering feedback and new features and launch dates have not yet been determined.

Gov 2.0 Hero: Mike Rupert

Mike Rupert, Communications Manager for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) in Washington, DC. Mike also recently started localgovchat.com and Twitter chat #localgovchat to unite local government communications professionals to share ideas.

What was your path to Gov 2.0?

We started in 2008 with a small campaign aimed at encouraging students at any of the dozen or so universities in the District of Columbia to make sure their off-campus housing was safe. We wanted them to look up their landlord to see if they were licensed and request a housing safety inspection if they thought their housing had safety issues. While the effort was nearly four years old, one of the biggest past challenges was breaking down the age-old student vs. government barrier. Before, when inspectors went door-to-door to off-campus apartments, they were turned away from students more than 90 percent of the time.

We started the District’s first Twitter account @dcra and the blog thisshouldbeillegal.com. In 18 months, we’ve seen inspection requests in college neighborhoods jump 300 percent and we’ve seen spillover into other neighborhoods. The site itself has received more than 40,000 hits – not bad considering we’re targeting about 10,000 students.

One of the great things about social media is that a true conversation can happen on many levels. There is the semi-formal government customer service conversation, the less formal public conversation, and in my mind the most important “background” or “off the record” conversation. This allows you to become “friends” with government, ask blunt questions and get real answers. There is an intimacy that will never exist in an informational brochure, at an information booth, a poster or a typical telephone “hotline.”

Being able to respond directly with my name and my voice and provide the reassurance a customer service representative never could. Just like your friends, some things you want out on their Facebook wall or Twitter-feed; others are private. I don’t see a difference here as we are asking them about personal issues and we should treat it as such and with same care as you would a friend in trouble.

Since then we’ve expanded – at least the Twitter account – to other service areas and we’ve tweeted wait times in our service centers, held live chats with our Director, created easily accessible Google Maps for inspections and licensed businesses, Facebook page, YouTube videos highlighting success stories, and much more.

What area of government offers the biggest opportunity for improvement via Web 2.0 tools?

Customer Service. Customer Service. Customer Service. People want their answers. They want them online and they want them now. They also want to follow up with questions and not have to wait 24-48 hours or a week to get a response.

Local governments are responsible for the most direct services to residents on a day-to-day basis. And while it’s important that we be transparent, it’s just as, if not more, important to provide answers to questions and provide as many services online as possible. People are busy and government has the capability to be ready to respond at anytime the resident is available, not just during regular business hours.

How is the work you’re doing changing the way DC operates?

My favorite post about our efforts so far was titled “DCRA is my Homeboy.” By being responsive and providing our customers – DC residents – with an immediate outlet to get an immediate response we have really changed our image. Personifying the agency through social media – and using a little personality when appropriate – has chipped away at that big, flashing “Bureaucracy” sign that looms over almost all government agencies. I actually have a photo my staff and I have posted on our walls to remind them of what perception we’re battling against everyday.

We respond to pretty much anyone and everyone who mentions us – whether it’s through Twitter, blogs or listservs, regardless of the number of followers or page rank. We use social media to correct false information, provide stats or a link, or simply nudge an employee who let a deadline slip. While it creates some anxiety to legitimize or highlight the negative, we think it’s important everyone feels they are getting VIP service.

The greatest success from our Twitter community is that our customers are helping each other – sometimes before we can even respond. We’ve started to make a series of YouTube videos with customers explaining the process for other customers. We’re kicking ourselves out of the process – should be exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge to executing open gov/Gov 2.0 initiatives?

I think resources are the biggest challenge facing local governments. It would be great to have coders and designers to create beautiful Web pages, applications and aggregators similar to what customers are familiar with from the private industry. But that’s not the reality and in the end it’s probably not that important.

Another big challenge is not all customers use social media so we need to continue to do more traditional campaigns to reach the most vulnerable residents. DC is doing a great job trying to bridge the digital divide, but we can’t solely focus on those with Twitter accounts or Facebook pages.

What do you recommend to other cities trying to execute open gov/Gov2 .0 initiatives?

The first thing every government agency should do is listen. Google yourself, search blogs, search through listservs, and search your acronym on search.twitter.com. Find out what people are saying about you before you just jump into social media. Do this with your boss in the room and their perception of social media will definitely change.

As most social media leaders say, ‘Social media is not a strategy, it’s a tool.’ Decide what tools work best you, if you need anything at all.

People are going to talk about you – good or bad – whether you like it or not. Why not join the conversation? Or at least have the ability to listen.

Connect with DCRA

  • http://twitter.com/dcra
  • http://thisshouldbeillegal.com
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/dcra/
  • http://dcra.dc.gov/moving

Gov 2.0 Hero: John Lisle

John Lisle, Public Information Officer for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) in Washington, DC, shares his thoughts on leveraging social media and the value of using a little personality to connect with constituents.

What was your path to Gov 2.0?

My first government job was with the Arlington County Police Department, and that’s where I had my first foray into social media. We were the first local law enforcement agency to post surveillance videos on YouTube. We also created a MySpace page and encouraged teens to “friend” the department, as a warning to child predators. Both efforts generated a lot of positive media coverage including stories in the Washington Post and on CNN.

At DDOT, we have a Facebook page which has freed us from the constraints of our outdated website (we are launching a new one soon) because it is so easy to post photos, videos, links and other items.

Our biggest success, however, has been our Twitter account. We launched it last year in conjunction with “Potholepalooza,” a campaign to quickly address pothole complaints, and pitched it as another way for people to report problems. It really took off in December during the first blizzard and we got great use out of it during the twin blizzards last week. We pushed out important information, but we also solicited reports and photos of unplowed streets from residents. Before the December storm we had a respectable following of about 740 followers and that has grown rapidly to about 2500.

What area of government offers the biggest opportunity for improvement via Web 2.0 tools?

Communications/public affairs for sure, but also customer service. For instanced, some great apps have already been created for the public to submit service requests. The challenge is effectively integrating and utilizing them. We’re still working on that in the District.

How is the work you’re doing changing the way DC operates?

I think all of us who are using these tools are helping to change the public perception of the District Government. It is easy to get frustrated when dealing with a big bureaucracy, but Web 2.0 tools can poke holes in the wall and really improve communications and the experience for the consumer. For example, by responding promptly to questions, complaints, suggestions, etc., on Twitter, it can leave people with a much better impression of our agency, even if they don’t hear what they want to hear, or things don’t get done as fast as they would like. Michael Rupert at DCRA has really used Twitter effectively in this way to assist people who are caught up in red tape. When they voice their frustration on Twitter, he reaches out to them and tries to assist.

What’s the biggest challenge to executing open gov/Gov 2.0 initiatives?

Getting buy-in from upper management might be the biggest challenge. It’s not an issue at my agency – quite the opposite – but I’ve heard from peers who have had a hard time getting their bosses to understand the benefits. Many agencies have also created elaborate rules and policies governing the use of social media, or they only use it to repost their press releases or for other formal announcements. I think that misses the point and wastes an opportunity to give your agency a little personality.

What do you recommend to other cities trying to execute open gov/Gov2 .0 initiatives?

If you’re going to get in the water, don’t dip a tentative toe in, dive in! Use these tools to their full potential. However, you should know the risks, too. You have to understand your audience on each platform and communicate with them accordingly; if you botch it you could set yourself up for ridicule. For example, regularly tweeting messages that are too long and as a result get cut off – it’s been done; and don’t do a lackluster job of it. For instance, I think Twitter is only truly effective if you monitor the incoming messages as much as you do what you are sending out. If your followers get the feeling you’re not listening then you could do more harm than good.

Connect with DDOT