Mark Headd

Book: ‘How to Talk to Civic Hackers’

Civic hacker icon Mark Headd has written a book to help government officials best engage with community technologists.

The guide, How to Talk to Civic Hackers, “highlights strategies they can use to collaborate with people doing interesting and valuable work that can benefit or support the mission of government.”

The book is available at

Listen to the GovEx podcast interview with Mark discussing the book.

OpenFBO: re-imagining the next generation FedBizOpps


Say hello to OpenFBO.

Inspired by a recent General Services Administration request for information to create a “new and improved” FedBizOpps, OpenFBO is a community experiment to re-imagine the next generation FBO.

After reading GSA’s RFI, and working with NuCivic and CivicActions on their own submissions, I began thinking about what I would do if I was in charge of FedBizOpps, leaning on what’s been done with FBOpen, OpenRFPs and particularly former Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd’s leadership and experiments with GitHub-based procurement.

I started thinking, what if the RFI, request for proposal, the development of FedBizOpps and everything around it was more open and collaborative. What if all RFIs and RFPs were public repos where anyone could engage more in the procurement process? What are the other possibilities for making the process fair for small businesses? How can it be a more enjoyable experience for the federal workers who need to use it on a daily basis.

Inspired by Mark’s idea of GitHub-based procurement, I created a simple brand (“OpenFBO”) and website ( using GitHub pages, and am leveraging GitHub’s issues feature for idea submissions. There are currently two repos (one for the website and one for the first RFI).

As with any project like this, it’s also a way for me to learn more about the federal procurement process in the context of a community project. I have a lot to learn and hope OpenFBO is the mechanism for doing so. I imagine this will also open my eyes to community engagement via GitHub, which I’m really looking forward to.

To get involved with OpenFBO, connect on GitHub, Twitter, LinkedIn or subscribe to the newsletter.

So, to start things off, we’re issuing our first RFI:

How would you make FedBizOpps better?

GitHub and the C-suite social

GitHubIn the early days of Twitter, it was easy and common to dismiss the infant social network as a simplistic tool that served a whimsical and nerdy niche.

Today, Twitter has gone from the technorati tweeting hipster conference minutiae to a platform driving the new world digital order. This didn’t happen overnight. But, when the flock of civic technologists set flight, the social government migration happened quickly and collectively.

Much like we pooh-poohed Twitter in those early days, GitHub, in its early crawl, is today dismissed simply as a tool for the diehard developer. However, as with any tool with great potential, innovators find new ways to leverage emerging technology to communicate, and government chief information and technology officers can effectively do this with GitHub.

There’s the obvious use case, such as contributing code and commenting on projects, much like Veterans Affairs Chief Technology Officer Marina Martin does via her GitHub account. It’s probably asking a lot for the C-suite to dive deep into code on a daily basis, there are other, more conversational ways GitHub can be leveraged.

Case in point, a few weeks ago, Federal Communications Commission Chief Information Officer David Bray and I had a Twitter exchange about the utility of GitHub. Immediately, I created a repository (think “folder”) on my personal account, and set up a new “What questions do you have for FCC CIO David Bray?” issue (think “discussion”).

To Bray’s credit, and perhaps surprise of his public affairs office, he humored me by immediately joining GitHub, posting replies to a number of questions about FCC open data, open source, cloud hosting and web operations. Over the course of an hour, there was a genuine, real-time conversation between a federal CIO and the community at large.

Despite wide adoption of social tools by public sector innovators, most of the C-suite remains decidedly analog in terms of engagement and sharing of relevant information about the inner workings of our public sector institutions. A cursory survey of government chief information and technology officers shows they abstain altogether or, when they do, generally give random personal updates or staid posts with a heavily-sanitized public affairs filter.

The emergence of GitHub may change this for the government technologist, especially those willing to engage fellow coders and citizens on projects in an open, fluid environment.

Former Presidential Innovation Fellow and current GitHub government lead Ben Balter has since followed suit and created a government-focused “Ask Me (Almost) Anything” repo featuring Q&As with Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd and staff from the newly-minted 18F.

GitHub’s repo and issues features are natural communication tools for C-level technologists who fancy themselves innovators leveraging emerging tech in new, creative ways.

For the IT C-suite, the GitChat is the new Twitter Townhall, a way to instantly and directly connect with peers and the general public and be asked anything.

Well, almost anything.

America needs a .gov backup plan

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

The federal government is closed indefinitely as are many of its websites, including, a foundation of U.S. entrepreneurial innovation and public information.

From the memo released by the White House referencing .gov agency action:

If an agency’s website is shut down, users should be directed to a standard notice that the website is unavailable during the period of government shutdown. If any part of an agency’s website is available, agencies should include a standard notice on their landing pages that notifies the public of the following: (a) information on the website may not be up to date, (b) transactions submitted via the website might not be processed until appropriations are enacted, and (c) the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.

Regardless of what’s happening between the opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, why is America in this situation, and what can we do to ensure it never happens again?

In the case of, Sunlight Foundation makes a great case that government APIs aren’t a backup plan and offers its own suggestions:

  • Publish downloadable bulk data before or concurrently with building an API.
  • Explicitly encourage reuse and republishing of their data. (Considering public reuse of data a risk to the public is not recommended.)
  • Document what data will remain during a shutdown, and keep this up all the time. Don’t wait until the day before (or of) a shutdown.
  • Link to alternative sources for their data. Keep these links up during a shutdown.

Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd answers part of the issue in a recent post, where he advocates a community-based approach to hosting public data:

The City of Philadelphia has designated the community-built Open Data Philly website as it’s official data directory for open data – we’re the only big city in the country (maybe the only city period) that does not unilaterally control the data portal where city departments publish their data.

We see informal, reactive examples of Philadelphia’s strategy happening via organizations like Code for America, who has mirrored Census Bureau TIGER shapefile data.

These suggestions and options are a great first step, but what about the entire .gov ecosystem?

There is an enormous amount of information Americans can’t access that isn’t structured data, most noticeably in the form of, the website that hosts information about our country’s space operations.

When a hurricane is making its way to destruction, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issues a warning to potentially impacted areas to take appropriate safety measures. Areas seriously hit receive immediate federal funding to ensure the affected communities are stabilized in a timely manner.

What federal agency is responsible for preserving our data economy and ensuring public information is accessible during a national emergency, in this case a government shutdown?

What contingency plan is in place to ensure our .gov ecosystem is available when a political storm hits?

Here’s my 2-point .gov backup plan:

  • Develop all web operations in non-licensed, open source software. This enables others to re-purpose this technology in an efficient manner free from financial and legal restrictions.
  • In the event of a potential shutdown, release all code and content to the public through platforms such as GitHub (this should be done regularly anyways).

This simple plans ensures entrepreneurial ventures and civic communities can rally to stand up these operations in the event of an emergency.

The Federal Chief Information Officers Council is tasked with maintaining the integrity of America’s IT infrastructure. They’ve done a great job of facilitating plans for mobility, security and even a more digitally-attuned government, but it’s time to set in place a national .gov backup plan.

Whether it’s the CIO Council, FEMA, General Services Administration, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy or all of the above, when our government is open for business again, let’s get the appropriate leadership together and move forward on a stronger contingency plan that can weather the next political hurricane.

Motivating developers to attend and make meaningful contributions at civic hackathons

Open government hackathons matter

Mark Headd has some interesting thoughts on encouraging better participation at civic hackathons, suggesting perhaps a registration fee would drive more reliable participation. For those who will be at SXSW this year, he’s also giving a talk on lessons learned in organizing events such as these.

While you can typically expect up to a fifty percent drop-off rate for any free event that doesn’t require specific attendee contributions, Mark may be onto something.

However, there’s something more happening here, and it’s related to motivation.

It doesn’t matter whether you have 1,000 or 10 people at an event. What matters is having the right people for the right task with a sustainable deliverable that also fosters volunteerism and sense of community. The hackathon itself shouldn’t be where all the work, from scratch to finish, is done. It should be the foundation for bringing what’s happening online, building community through code and celebrating the final product(s).

Areas hackathon organizers must address when considering attendance and meaningful outcomes:

  • Don’t mistake quantity for quality. I’ll take five solid designers/developers/writers to build a website or application over 100 with little focus and not taking their civic duty serious.
  • Plan ahead, outline objectives, have focus, give ownership, achieve a goal. The hackathon shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all for what happens. If someone has a specific task and sense that their work is going to have sustainable value to the community, they’re more likely to show up.
  • Get government involved. Hackathon organizers need to work with government (and vice versa) to understand its needs and how they can support it. Fundamentally, civic activists want to see some sort of appreciation or sense their voice (in this case, their code) is being heard. Government involvement is critical.

If you accomplish the above, you’ll get serious developers taking a brief step away from their startup venture or overwhelming demand for paid work, where they know they can be creative building work that’s meaningful and lasts beyond the lifespan of the weekend. Otherwise, you’re going to get light attendance with outcomes that produce vanity projects with little value celebrated by a core few.

For those interested motivating and incentivizing people beyond manual, rote tasks, Dan Pink’s RSAnimate talk and 2009 TED talk are a must watch, because they applies to civic hackathons, contests and challenges.

Pink’s RSA talk:

Pink’s 2009 TED Talk:

Gov 2.0 Radio: Engaging app developers with government data


Engaging app developers with government data: A discussion with Mark Headd, an app developer and former govie, about civic apps. Headd explains Open311 and accessing government services and lowering costs using Twitter, and gives ideas on how to engage developers around government civic apps contests.