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How and why Los Angeles deployed open source and agile

Last week at DrupalCon, representatives from the city of Los Angeles, CivicActions and Acquia shared their development and project management process to begin migrating and consolidating websites across 40 agencies to a single instance using Acquia Cloud Site Factory.

The teams shared how they moved to the open source content management system Drupal, created a responsive web design theme, developed key features and integrated other services such as video and data.

The first sites included in the consolidation plan are lacity.org and lacityview.org.

The presentation also includes a retrospective on goals achieved, areas of improvement and lessons learned. The city’s LA team adopted agile development practices and, based on the success of the project, has been asked to train other agencies.

Project management and development tools used include SMACSS, Slack, Basecamp, GitHub, Google Hangouts and Jira.

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Getting started with Agile government

Yesterday, I participated in an Agile Government Leadership panel discussion on “Agile Government 101.”

Fellow panelists included Laura Stanton (General Services Administration), Son Tran, Broadcasting Board of Governors, Elizabeth Raley (CivicActions), Chris Cairns and Robert L. Read (18F).

It was an excellent discussion that went a little beyond the basics, and there were a number of questions we didn’t get to, but overall it’s a helpful introduction that includes some great panelist anecdotes. If you missed the live discussion, you can watch the video and post follow-up questions to the AGL LinkedIn group.

For more on getting started with agile government, check out the Agile Government Handbook.

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Doubling down on government technology

Photo: Luke Fretwell

Photo: Luke Fretwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re locked down and locked in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s double down.

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

Hack like Ben Franklin

Code for America’s Catherine Bracy has a great TED Talk on civic hacking and one of America’s greatest civic hackers, Ben Franklin, inspired a brigade of do-good developers across the world.

Her Mexico City anecdote is an especially inspiring example of civic hacking at its best, as Bracy says, creating “a twenty-first century ecosystem of participation. They’re creating a whole new set of ways for citizens to get involved besides voting or signing a petition or protesting. They can actually build government.”

Baratunde on how to code back

Baratunde on CfA from Code for America on Vimeo.

Internet Renaissance man Baratunde Thurston is the latest tech celebrity to pitch the Code for America fellowship program targeted to developers, designers, researchers, data enthusiasts, urban planners and entrepreneurs who want to make a civic difference.

Baratunde is the founder and CEO of Cultivated Wit, author of “How To Be Black” and served as The Onion’s digital director for five years. According to his bio, he also “has more than 10 years experience in standup comedy, and more than 30 years experience being black.”

Deadline July 31: Apply to be a Code for America fellow here.

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.

Gaming the future of government

Connected Citizens

On January 22-23, the Institute for the Future will host Connected Citizens, a 24-hour collective forecasting game to “to rethink and reprogram government services for a complex and connected world.”

IFTF Research Director Jake Dunagan shares the vision behind it and how you can participate.

What’s the objective behind Connected Citizens?

The goal of Connected Citizens is to bring together people from around the world to rapidly generate as many forecasts, ideas and comments about civic technology and citizen engagement as possible in a 24-hour period.

How will it work?

Using our Foresight Engine, a platform we’ve developed to facilitate collective forecasting, players can come to www.connected-citizens.org at noon pacific time on January 22, watch a scenario video we created to spark conversation and begin playing forecasting cards. Cards are limited to 140 characters, but the conversations are threaded together, and can grow to dozens of cards. Game mechanisms allow players to accrue points based on number of responses and special awards given by our game guides.

What are its longer-term goals?

The long term goals of Connected Citizens are associated with ongoing initiative at IFTF called the Governance Futures Lab. The Lab will explore new governance structures and processes, and bring together a community of social inventors to tackle the biggest challenges of governance in the 21st century. Also, all the data from Connected Citizens will be available, and we encourage others to use, analyze, or visualize it as they see fit.

How can people connect with you to learn more?

People can visit www.connected-citizens.org and register now for the game, and follow our blog at www.blog.connected-citizens.org for more information and updates.