Anil Dash

Funding open government

The Knight Foundation recently announced it is launching a news challenge beginning February 12 that will allocate $5 million in funding to innovative open government projects.

As part of the campaign building up to the initiative, Anil Dash wrote a great post on “lessons from open government so far,” with great insight everyone in the community should read.

Inspired by his and Knight Foundation director John Bracken’s post announcing the challenge, here are my own thoughts related to funding open government through the lens of, as Anil says, “the normal growing pains of a passionate group of people who are still so often figuring out the basics of what works.”

Build for government, not developers

To Anil’s point, “maybe our biggest civic issues can’t be addressed by apps that only run on costly, cutting-edge smartphones.”

He’s absolutely right.

Bracken writes the objective is to fund projects “working to make it easier for citizens to engage with government,” but there needs to be a slight, but important, tweak.

The overwhelming funding focus has been on what developers can build for themselves or other citizens rather than what they can build for government. While it’s much more interesting to build beautiful apps, there are fundamental tools government needs that can be provided at much lower costs than the market offers, mainly because of lack of awareness and inability to get started.

From my experience in talking and working with government managers, the fundamental problem isn’t citizen engagement. They’re more than willing to engage (One of my favorite stories is explaining how SeeClickFix worked and one city manager excitedly said, “You mean, citizens will help us prioritize what they want us to do?”).

The challenge government, especially local government, has is access to resources and new technology that leapfrog their outdated systems and makes it easier for them to perform day-to-day operations.

For example, a project I’ve been working on for a while now is a WordPress theme for government. There’s nothing special about the theme. In fact, by request of the three local governments I’m working with, it’s become embarrassingly simple. In the coming weeks or months, I’ll open source this for other cities to leverage, but there is a huge digital divide in understanding how to execute on getting a basic website up and running without having to pay tens of thousands of dollars they don’t have. All three government have zero dollars budgeted for websites, but because WordPress is a free content management system and some civic nut wants to help them, they’re emailing me at night on the weekends with questions (and generally excited about what they’re learning).

What I’ve discovered from my own quiet “civic hacking” experience is that the website is the fundamental aspect to open government. The three cities I’m working with will soon launch open source, no-cost content management system with machine-readable, XML-based feeds that start to solve many of the fundamental issues around data and transparency.

The rub is that building websites for government is neat, but it isn’t sexy (it can actually be pretty tedious – more on that in another post). In the past, I’ve been challenged talking with open government funders about the importance of this. Honestly, I can’t tell if they don’t get the technology or are just infatuated with it from a theoretical perspective or there’s just an embedded fascination with apps.

Open government funding needs to solve the fundamental, day-to-day technology issues facing government, many of which are trivial to those reading this, but are essential in better enabling core aspects of the movement (see also CKAN).

Fund disruptive technologies that will help government do its job better and more efficient.

Specifically, help solve local government’s digital divide.

Nurture community

One of my open government heroes is CityCamp founder and now Code for America Brigade leader Kevin Curry who, for the past few years, has dedicated himself to bringing developers together locally to focus on civic-oriented work.

A few weeks ago, I sat in on an OpenOakland CfA Brigade gathering where 15 people in an Oakland City Hall meeting room quietly worked on projects, designing, writing and coding away. They do this WEEKLY and are slowly building out an ecosystem of products to better serve the city, and in some cases, inspiring the city to follow suit. A city representative attended the meeting, and does so regularly, gave updates and was familiar and genuinely engaged with the group.

The monthly food and beverage stipend given to OpenOakland is just one simple way to make it easier for others to commit to connecting (as does having access to space).

In October, I created CivicMeet and open sourced the concept to anyone who wants to start one where they live. The idea is to establish a regular meetup that connects government and private sector innovators in an informal setting. Since it launched, there have been CivicMeets in San Francisco, Sacramento, Vancouver, Palo Alto (others are coming). This quick and loose adoption to me indicates there’s a market need for community building.

Efforts like CityCamp, CfA Brigade and CivicMeet are essential and fundamental to maintaining an organic, sustainable open government ecosystem. Enable local organizers to bring people together to discuss and work on solving problems. It’s an opportunity for both citizens and government to collaborate in a non-threatening and productive environment.

Fund the community.

Build measurables beyond the hype

There’s a hype-cycle mentality about open government initiatives, whether it’s focused on a new innovation office, a new C-level role, data platform or application or if Mashable or TechCrunch were there to write about it.

I’m not sure if it’s the need to meet press clipping numbers and maintain visibility or there’s just a lack of understanding in developing a longer-term institutional strategy of culture and technology change within government.

Some of this is, of course, is to be expected. There’s a political and public relations aspect to much of open government that feeds into the politician’s need to show progress, or the appearance of, on this front. My fear is that this is the primary driver in many cases. If so, we must accept that, but it also must come with deliverables and measured outcomes.

Open government is a marathon, not a sprint. Move the measurables beyond the hype.

Fund proactively

Disrupt your funding model.

There’s a passive, “come to us” mentality around foundation giving that resembles the funding approach of venture capitalists. My personal experience in the long past discussing ideas with some have been that they know little about the people and work being done beyond the tiny bubble of top-tier open government leaders and even less so about fundamental technologies, beyond an open data or crowdsourcing application, that drive government.

My open government challenge to Knight is to survey the community for unrealized opportunities and invest in them proactively. While I love the idea of crowdsourced discussions and submissions, it’s a passive approach to accelerating efforts that are evolving organically. If you sense opportunity or momentum, reach out and explore funding possibilities.

Fund proactively.

As Knight and other foundations, and even investors, begin funding open government initiatives, especially as the movement is gaining momentum, my hope is that it does so with the above in mind.

Five millions dollars can go a long way.

I commend Knight and others for funding this type of work. There are many passionate people ready to do great work for a great cause and it wouldn’t be possible without key financial contributions to a nascent movement powered by tons of idealism.

I’ll echo Anil’s sentiments: “I don’t mean to sound cynical or jaded; Indeed, I’m more excited about the potential of civic technology and open government than I’ve ever been.”

Accountability, better services and economic opportunity

The promise of government accountability, better government services, and new economic opportunity is why we do what we do.

At the Sunlight Foundation, we spend each day striving to make government more open and transparent by ensuring government data is easily accessible to the public online and in real-time. Around the country there are countless others trying to do the same.

Between the nonprofit and advocacy community working on this issue, the consultancies and companies, and the government itself, there is a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources being devoted to our cause. In the midst of our diligence, though, the community of open government advocates rarely stops to communicate exactly why we do what we do to the public – and why it’s so critical that we succeed in our mission.

OpenGovies need to remember to continuously break things down for those outside our echo chamber. When doing so, it’s useful to have a benchmark, and the one I use is, “Would what I’m saying or writing make my family in Middle Tennessee care enough to act?”

After a lot of trial and error, in big and small towns across the country, I think we can boil down the need for our work this way…

An open government built on open data is worth fighting for because, through it, we will achieve three exceptionally valuable results for society: Accountability, Better Services and Economic Opportunity.

Here’s what we mean.

1) Transparency and Accountability

Online, real-time data makes it possible for any citizen to understand what’s (actually) going on with government at any time from anywhere. And when they know, citizens can act.

Applications which make it easy to see how tax dollars are spent, how our elected officials are being influenced, or how legislation that citizens can weigh in on are moving through Congress, can all be built on open government data. This transparency and public engagement made possible through open government data is a game changer for the media and for citizens’ ability to hold our government accountable at every level. Imagine an electorate being able to make informed decisions based on data rather than punditry and political spin…

In short, open, transparent, and accountable is the way participatory democracy was always supposed to be. And for perhaps the first time ever, we have affordable, ubiquitous technology today which can make it truly possible within a generation. Let’s create something that would make our Founding Fathers drool.

2) Better Government Service

Love them, hate them or indifferent, the services that government provide touch every citizen’s life every day. From schools to roads to health clinics to electricity grids to defense, we as citizens have invested in (and trusted) government with a very large portion of our livelihoods.

Open government data will allow for citizens and government alike to more easily see what’s working and what’s not by the numbers. Through open government, and the applications it allows for, we’ll ensure that tax dollars are more wisely spent and services more effectively and efficiently provided.

Need an example? Take a moment on SeeClickFix and report that pesky pothole or downed road sign in your neighborhood.

3) (Tremendous) Economic Opportunity

Perhaps the greatest by-product of creating a more transparent, accountable government through freely available open government data, is that in so doing, we will simultaneously create one of the most vast opportunities for new enterprise in recent history.

The Weather Channel is a $3.5 billion company built on data freely available from the NOAA. Companies like Garmin, or companies that produce smart phones, running watches or any of a hundred other devices that have geo-locational ability are similarly all profiting tremendously from the open government data in the Global Positioning System (GPS). In fact, one could argue (as Gov 2.0 evangelist Tim O’Reilly has done) that Ronald Reagan is the father of social network phenom FourSquare by making GPS data available to the public over twenty-five years ago.

What government data set will create the next new highly valuable and profitable business? Anil Dash, the founder and executive director of the new Expert Labs, says the trove of new health data recently released by the Department of Health and Human Services. I would agree.

When it comes to the opportunity with open government data, the sky is the limit. Were I a gambling man, I’d put money down that government would produce more jobs in the next 10 years by opening it’s data (an iniatiative that is ultimately a cost-saver), than through the $787 bn stimulus package it passed last year.

The only tricky part is that government doesn’t inherently want to get to where we need them to go. Government won’t become more transparent and accountable by opening its data on its own – and nor will it provide better services or create the kind of opportunity that the OpenGov community can already envision.

We’re going to have to demand it of them. And that’s what we’re doing through the Public=Online Campaign this year. We hope you’ll join us.

Gov 2.0 Hero: Anil Dash

Anil Dash

Anil Dash, tech entrepreneur and former Vice President and Chief Evangelist at Six Apart (makers of TypePad and Movable Type), recently opened Expert Labs, a “new independent initiative to help policy makers in our government take advantage of the expertise of their fellow citizens.” (See Entrepreneur, blogger Anil Dash announces venture to connect tech, government experts)

Dash shares thoughts on his new role and civic venture.

Why leave the comfort and excitement of a successful start-up? Why now?

Well, I think Six Apart in particular is in great shape, and thriving, and with the people there meaning so much to me, I *couldn’t* go unless I knew things were in solid shape. And I was never looking for something else to do, I just had this opportunity that was important enough and ambitious enough that I had to give it a shot.

What type of projects will Expert Labs focus on?

We’re going to focus on helping with policy questions that can best be answered by having a large pool of contributors from the public offer their expertise. I think we’ll probably tilt a little bit towards technology and science-related questions, since that’s part of our strengths, but we’re really open as far as areas of exploration.

What do you want to accomplish in your first 100 days?

I think the highest priority is to determine what questions we want to help answer. Right behind that, we want to start forming the community who will collaborate on creating the technologies that we’re shepherding, and ideally I’d like to begin the process of providing grants to support the effort, either by naming a fellow or having a grant challenge contest.

What challenges do you forsee and how do you plan to overcome them?

I think our biggest challenge is the cultural gulf between the policy world and the technology world. They speak different languages, even when articulating the same goals or ideas, and that’s something we’ll need to overcome by simply encouraging dialogue and helping to translate. We also may face simple unfamiliarity, where people who have never heard of a model like ours will ask how we’ll be proceeding.

What tools do you plan on leveraging to connect ‘the experts?’

We’re going to use every tool that you have seen adopted by leading-edge companies, or that is put into use during political campaigns – social web technologies, in-person meetups, the energy of lots of regular folks who want to help but don’t necessarily know how to yet.

What does success look like?

When our policy makers can use the web to listen to our voices just as easily as they can talk to us, we’ll have succeeded.

Entrepreneur, blogger Anil Dash announces venture to connect tech, government experts

Tech entrepreneur and blogger Anil Dash announced the launch of Expert Labs at Web 2.0 Expo NY 09.

Expert Labs will work with policy makers, technologists, scientists, researchers and academics to leverage crowdsourcing as a way to “help government listen” and create better policy.

“Dot gov is the new dot com,” said Dash, who was Vice President and Chief Evangelist at Six Apart, makers TypePad and Movable Type and will serve as Director of Expert Labs.

Expert Labs will run as part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science with a $500,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Dash told attendees, “I hope you pay attention to the idea that Web 2.0 can serve the greater good than some of the trivial things we’ve done. We can actually help make our country better.”