Google

Google is feeling lucky about civic technology

Sidewalk Labs

Google has launched Sidewalk Labs, an “urban innovation company devoted to improving city life for residents, businesses and city governments, in particular by developing and incubating civic technologies.”

Former Bloomberg LP CEO and New York City Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff will lead the new venture, which will be based in NYC.

“By improving urban technology, it’s possible to significantly improve the lives of billions of people around the world,” Google CEO Larry Page said in a prepared statement. “With Sidewalk, we want to supercharge existing efforts in areas such as housing, energy, transportation and government to solve real problems that city-dwellers face every day.”

Read Page’s Google+ post announcing Sidewalk Labs.

Is Piwik government’s ‘open’ alternative to Google Analytics?

Piwik

I was recently tipped off to the open source web analytics software Piwik and wondered how viable an option it is for government as an alternative to Google Analytics.

Piwik has an impressive list of features and has been downloaded more than one million times. While it doesn’t appear to be heavily-adopted by the public sector within the United States, there are a number of international governments using the software.

Curious to learn more, I asked one of its creators, Matthieu Aubry, to address some of the security, privacy and scalability issues that might be of concern to those in the public sector interested in using it.

Why would government consider an open source analytics software like Piwik when Google Analytics (and others like it) are already free?

One of the principle advantages of Piwik is that you are in control. Unlike remote-hosted services (such as Google Analytics), you host Piwik on your own server and the data is tracked inside your MySQL database. Because Piwik is installed on your server, you enjoy full control over your data.

For many governement agencies (outside the United States), respecting the privacy of their citizens is a critical aspect, and it would be complicated to send their visitors data to Google for various reasons. When using Google Analytics, all traffic patterns are sent to Google, which can figure out a lot about these individuals from data mining across all websites in the world using Google Analytics (more than 60% of all websites). Laws like the Patriot Act in the United States makes it theoretically possible for the U.S. governement to get access to this valuable data without due process.

Piwik is a great alternative for governement to take back control of their data, respect their visitors’ privacy and keep costs manageable. If you are using Google Analytics and starting to use Piwik, you can import your Google Analytics data history into Piwik.

Is there commercial support available?

We provide Piwik premium support as well as consultancy services for Piwik setup, special configuration, management of your Piwik and implementation of custom features (part of our roadmap or not, included in core or custom plugins).

In 2012 we have seen an impressive increase in popularity about Piwik, and we have been lucky to work with many customers (startups, big enterprise, web agencies, advertising networks) to implement and tune Piwik for their needs.

Also, the community offers free support in our active Forums.

The product tracks visits, so can I set it up to comply with the government privacy rules?

Piwik is the leading web analytics software when it comes to respecting user privacy.

Privacy is “built-in” Piwik, with four main features that enable advanced privacy policies:

Step 1) Automatically Anonymize Visitor IPs
Step 2) Delete Old Visitors Logs
Step 3) Include a Web Analytics Opt-Out Feature on Your Site (Using an iFrame)
Step 4) Respect DoNotTrack preference

Can it scale to handle the kind of traffic a government agency would get?

If you have a few hundreds visits/page views per day, Piwik should work fine “out of the box.”

In the last year we have made major performance improvements. Piwik can now scale to millions of page views per month and/or to thousands of registered websites. At least two users even broke the one billion page view counter in Piwik.

Contact us for professional support and guidance about managing a high-traffic Piwik server.

Demo video

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)

The state of U.S. state government finances in four simple charts

Four charts from Google Public Data Explorer summarize how U.S. state governments are trending with respect to finances. Despite all odds, however, liquor stores continue to hold their own when it comes to generating revenue.

Revenue

All amounts of money received by a government from external sources–net of refunds and other correcting transactions–other than from issuance of debt, liquidation of investments, and as agency and private trust transactions. Note that revenue excludes noncash transactions such as receipt of services, commodities, or other “receipts in kind.”

Cash Security Holdings

Cash and deposits and governmental and private securities (bonds, notes, mortgages, corporate stocks, etc., including loans and other credit paper held by state loan and investment funds) except holdings of agency and private trust funds. Includes fund investments in securities issued by government concerned but does not include interfund loans, receivables, and the value of real property and other fixed assets.

Expenditure

All amounts of money paid out by a government–net of recoveries and other correcting transactions–other than for retirement of debt, investment in securities, extension of credit, or as agency transactions. Note that expenditure includes only external transactions of a government and excludes non-cash transactions such as the provision of perquisites or other payments in kind.

Debt at end of fiscal year

All long-term credit obligations of the government and its agencies whether backed by the governments’ full faith and credit or nonguaranteed, and all interest-bearing short-term credit obligations. Includes judgments, mortgages, and revenue bonds, as well as general obligations bonds, notes, and interest-bearing warrants.

Big Code for America announcements and how you can get involved

Code for America made a number of announcements Wednesday that will have a big impact on the organization’s work in 2012 and potentially the future of government technology.

Google grant

CfA will receive a $1.5 million grant from Google to expand its fellowship program and develop two new programs, the CfA Brigade and Civic Startup Seed Accelerator.

CfA Brigade

CfA will launch the CfA Brigade, an “online platform to connect civic hackers and others with each other locally, and to reuse and remix civic apps in their cities.” Sign up for announcements.

Civic Startup Seed Accelerator

CfA will launch a Civic Startup Seed Accelerator to “foster sustainable businesses that can become the next generation of government vendors.” Sign up for announcements.

“Disruptive technology in the hands of entrepreneurs can change the world. It’s time it changed government,” writes CfA Founder and Executive Director Jen Pahlka.

2011 Annual Report

To see what CfA accomplished this year, read the newly-published 2011 CfA Annual Report.

More signs of trend in changing dynamics of public access TV? Google launches YouTube for Government

Google announced the launch of YouTube for Government with a simple landing page and playlist of examples of how elected officials and government is using its video platform.

As social media savvy politicians and municipalities begin to creatively adopt free Web-based tools, public access television may find itself lose relevance sooner that we think.

Google is obviously paying attention:

With more than 200 million Americans online, political information is now regularly distributed outside of traditional media outlets. Government officials can use YouTube to engage Americans of all ages and demographics.

Most recent example from St. Charles, Missouri:

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.

Open Source for America launches new video campaign

Open Source for America launched a new video campaign to promote the benefits of government using open source technology. The video includes business leaders from Red Hat, Sun Microsystems and Google.

OSFA’s mission:

“To educate decision makers in the U.S. Federal government about the advantages of using free and open source software; to encourage the Federal agencies to give equal priority to procuring free and open source software in all of their procurement decisions; and generally provide an effective voice to the U.S. Federal government on behalf of the open source software community, private industry, academia, and other non-profits.”

Army launches My.Army.Mil

The U.S. Army is set to launch My.Army.Mil. The site is Army’s “official user-customized homepage featuring Army news, information and media from around the globe.”

Video overview of features:

From the press release:

After visitors sign-in and authenticate with Google Friend Connect (AIM, Google, Yahoo and OpenID) or AKO (Army Knowledge Online), they will be prompted to add and arrange a series of widgets to suit their specific information needs. Powering these widgets are open source technologies such as JQuery, PHP, MySQL and API integration.

Featured widgets include:

  • An All Services widget with feeds from the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy
  • Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube widgets that sync with many Army organizations
  • My Army News widget with customized feeds from Commands, Corps, Divisions, Installations, and traditional news sections
  • A Features widget highlighting stories of Valor, Army events, history and heritage
  • AKO (Army Knowledge Online) widget to log-in to AKO
  • Video widget with official Army videos, newscasts and raw footage
  • RSS widget that can pull multiple feeds from external sites

Great American Hackathon set for Dec. 12-13

Great American Hackathon

Sunlight Labs has joined with Mozilla, Google, Redhat, Fedora, Open Source for America and Code for America to promote the Great American Hackathon. The two-day event, December 12-13, aims to “to solve as many open government problems as we can with as many hackathons across the country as possible.”