Microsoft

Voter ID and Civic Innovation

Since 2008, there has been a wave of voting law changes that impose barriers to the ballot box. Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of “Bloody Sunday,” called the new laws “the most concerted effort to restrict the right to vote since before the Voting Rights Act.”

The right to vote is being chiseled away by voter ID laws that require voters to show government-issued photo ID in order to vote.

Cost of Freedom Project Logo

In December, the Department of Justice blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law on the grounds it would make it harder for minorities to vote in violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Mississippi and Texas voting ID laws also must be pre-cleared but Texas is not waiting. The Lone Star State filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to speed up a decision.

Strict photo ID requirements will be in place in at least five states – Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin — In November. With Election Day less than nine months away, voters without an official photo ID cannot wait for the challenges to play out at the Justice Department and in the courts.

In Wisconsin, for instance, voters must navigate “The 4 Proofs.”

I am a founding member of the Election Protection Coalition. Still, looking at the infographic makes my head hurt. More worrisome, it discourages voters from completing the application process. So I presented the problem of TMI (read: disenfranchisement by design) at Random Hacks of Kindness and the Hackathon for Social Good. Citizen programmers developed solutions to quickly provide voters with information on how to get a voter ID.

During Social Week Washington, DC, I gave a demo of the Cost of Freedom web-based app developed by Kin Lane, API Evangelist for CityGrid.

Users in Wisconsin can forget about “The 4 Proofs.” Instead, in four clicks or less, they will be able to access information about the state’s voter ID requirements, how to obtain a certified copy of their birth certificate (the document that’s typically produced to establish one’s identity), and the location, hours and directions to the Office of Vital Records using public transit.

I also gave a live demo of the Cost of Freedom text-based app developed by Jack Aboutboul, Twilio’s API Evangelist. Twilio is making an in-contribution of text message services to promote voter education.

To commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we plan to launch the Cost of Freedom App on April 4, 2012.

I will post regular updates about the Cost of Freedom Project and other initiatives that are using civic innovation to protect the right to vote. The conversation about voter ID also gives us an opportunity to raise awareness about disruptive technologies in the public sector beyond election administration.

For more information, please visit us at Facebook.com/CostofFreedom. You can sign up to receive notice when the Cost of Freedom App is launched. Continue reading

SF government chooses Microsoft’s cloud for email

Updated to include contract details and comment from SF Department of Technology representative.

The City and County of San Francisco announced it has selected Microsoft Exchange Online to host its 23,000 employee email system. Migration has already begun and will continue over the next 12 months, according to a Microsoft press release.

According to the contract, total payment over a 3-year term is $4,424,913.42.

An SF Department of Technology representative followed up via email with me with the following comment on the bid process:

Solutions from Microsoft, Google, and Lotus Notes were all considered as part of a long internal process that included input from CIO’s from various City departments, with final policy and project approval from the Committee on Information Technology (COIT). At the end, a Microsoft-based solution was agreed upon, and the City solicited and received multiple bids through a competitive process the City has in place for IT procurement.

SF Chief Information Officer Jon Walton:

“By moving to the Microsoft platform, we not only get immediate improvements to our system, but we gain a disaster-resilient system that provides the most modern information tools, with solid support provisions that can scale with the needs of our constituents.”.

SF Mayor Edwin M. Lee:

“A key part of serving a community as diverse and vibrant as ours starts with making the right investments in information technology. It is our responsibility to make decisions that are fiscally responsible, forward-looking, and improve the services that city and county employees provide to our constituents.”

City and County of San Francisco Microsoft Exchange Online Contract(function() { var scribd = document.createElement(“script”); scribd.type = “text/javascript”; scribd.async = true; scribd.src = “http://www.scribd.com/javascripts/embed_code/inject.js”; var s = document.getElementsByTagName(“script”)[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(scribd, s); })();

Thumbnail image via kevindooley.

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.

Microsoft gets cheeky

Gov 2.0 bon vivant Mark Drapeau (@cheeky_geeky) announced he will join Microsoft as Director of Innovative Social Engagement for its U.S. Public Sector division. Drapeau also serves as co-chair of Gov 2.0 Expo.

From Drapeau:

“More specifically, I’ll be doing at least seven things immediately: (1) Interacting with and socially empowering the other members of the seven-person Applied Innovations Team; (2) Discussing my opinions about science and technology in the public sector and continuing to be a thought leader there; (3) Experimenting with new pre-sale information and social technology, often beta or free products that potentially have a public sector role; (4) Showing the human side of MSPS and engaging audiences through multimedia channel content production and other online activities; (5) Participating actively in the public sector communities of government, education, and healthcare; (6) Measuring and understanding public sentiment about MSPS using innovative techniques; (7) Acting as a competent resource for senior Microsoft decision makers, corporate partners, and customers, and public sector decision makers.”

Full post from Drapeau here.

We’re hoping he opens up May’s Gov 2.0 Expo in the spirit of his new boss: