OpenGov expands to open source, open data



Earlier this year, OpenGov acquired the open data company Ontodia, enabling the government technology company to expand its smart government platform to include an open source open data platform.

Open Gov’s CEO Zac Bookman shares how OpenGov the company’s new open data solution will impact public administration – including how governments engage with citizens such as civic developers.

Give us the OpenGov elevator pitch.

OpenGov is the world’s first complete, integrated cloud solution for public sector budgeting, reporting and open data.

What problem(s) does OpenGov solve for government or residents/citizens?

At OpenGov, we help agencies, cities and counties build more efficient and transparent government by transforming three key areas:

Effective planning

Budgeting and strategic planning require coordination, data and buy-in. OpenGov helps agencies understand trends with multi-year insights into expenses and revenues, build budgets in a smart and streamlined manner using a single platform, and explain the budget’s goals and tradeoffs to stakeholders in real-time.

Operational excellence

To operate effectively, governments must adhere to strict budget constraints. OpenGov helps them do so by comparing expenditures and revenues by department and across funds, so governments can make data-driven adjustments to the budget as necessary. We also provide the tools to explore and analyze nonfinancial performance metrics such as 311 calls and police response times.

Informed elected officials and citizens

OpenGov builds trust between governments and citizens and lets elected officials monitor agencies’ performance. We do this by providing residents with quick answers to their questions, empowering journalists with instant access to the data they need to tell accurate stories, and eliminating ambiguity around things like wages and funding by providing accurate financial information.

What’s the story behind OpenGov’s new open data solution?

Earlier this year, we acquired Ontodia, the leading provider of open data. Ontodia runs on the popular open source open data tool, CKAN. Thanks to this acquisition, we have been able to develop a first-of-its-kind tool called OpenGov Open Data, which integrates with the rest of our smart government platform. The tool is designed to work for governments of all sizes.

Open Data lets governments connect budget and performance data with census data, FBI crime data and financial data from over 3,000 counties and 36,000 cities. It simplifies the ability to collaborate with other governments and agencies and allows elected officials to access performance in real-time.

It is also designed to helps residents, businesses and journalists easily access information they need, increasing public trust and facilitating civic action.

Is OpenGov Open Data up and running?

Yes. At the 2016 Code for America Summit, we announced Denton, Texas, as the first city in the country to fully implement the OpenGov Open Data solution since the acquisition and that Maricopa County, Arizona, will be launching the OpenGov Open Data platform for its more than four million residents early next year.  

The Dallas-Fort Worth suburb, Denton with a population just over 100,000 – had previously released its data in PDFs and other formats that were hard to read and repurpose. As a result, the city’s tech community could not build applications; residents could not easily access a central location to search for data; and potential businesses could not quickly assess Denton’s economic condition.

Our open data experts have worked closely with Denton city officials to upload numerous datasets that span a wide array of metrics to its data portal. Today, the city empowers residents and businesses with 71 machine-readable datasets that range from the city’s demographic indicators to its upcoming building projects.

Denton is leading the way in embracing the power of technology to improve our cities, and we look forward to working with more cities across the country to make governments more transparent, accessible and efficient.

Why is open source important for open data portals?

Open Data at its core is meant to be open. It is the public’s data.

If you use a proprietary platform you are locked into certain APIs. This limits the ability for the data to work with outside apps, websites and other systems and, therefore, limits the ecosystem that can use this data for a myriad of purposes

What makes OpenGov different than other companies?

We have designed our tools to work for governments of all sizes, from small towns to major metropolises. While other tech companies have chosen to focus exclusively on  large-scale projects, OpenGov recognises that all governments – both big and small – can benefit from greater collaboration, transparency, and innovation.  

How can those interested connect with you?

You can learn more about OpenGov at or on Facebook or Twitter.

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:

Breaking the wall in Chicago

Photo: Josh*m

Photo: Josh*m

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the wall.

Over the past few years, the civic innovation movement has grown tremendously. It’s exploded really. Ten years ago, who would have imagined that Chicago would be a national leader in open government data? Five years ago, who would have thought that the idea of citizens using open source software to help solve civic problems would catch fire on a global scale? Two years ago, could we really have guessed that not only would we be hacking at open government data on a weekly basis – but those meetings would be national model?

There has been a lot of work done these past few years. However, we’ve now hit the wall.

What’s the wall? The wall is the set of challenges that prevent the civic technology movement from progressing further. These challenges include: expanding the community, civic and digital literacy, procurement reform, and creating startup opportunities through civic app development (sustainability).

cruising the sea wall

Chicago Sea Wall, by Jesus Arellanes

Challenge One: Expanding the community

Civic hacking has moved beyond a niche thing and has hit the mainstream. When the White House starts hosting civic hackathons, that’s a sure sign that we’ve hit the big time. However, even with civic hacking’s new found popularity (national holiday included) we still are missing people at the table. Our tent, while open to all, has not reached the size and diversity that it necessary to move forward. With events like Girls Do Hack and Englewood Codes, Chicago is taking the right steps, but we’re not there yet.

Civic innovation at its best occurs when technologists collaborate with front line problem solvers at government agencies, non-profit organizations, or volunteer activists. While Chicago’s community has made great strides in this area – I don’t believe this particular point has hit the mainstream. We’re still in the ‘Look! Wizardry!” stage – which brings us to challenge two.

Challenge Two: mixing digital and civic literacy

It was recently asked of the Chicago tech community, “Why can’t we make an app that can reduce violent crime?” Of all the issues that affect our city, violent crime that robs the city of its youth is certainly one of the more important topics that we can be working on.

However, technology in-it-of-itself isn’t a panacea. No computer program, no matter how sophisticated, can replace the expertise of somebody who has been working in the trenches for years wrestling with our most thorny civic issues. No app will ever replace the volunteer at a women’s shelter or the patience of a neighborhood school teacher. There is a subject matter expertise in civic organizations that can’t be picked up overnight any more than somebody can learn to code in a few weeks.

While we talk a lot about digital literacy,  we have to acknowledge that there’s a civic literacy side to civic innovation, too. The best civic apps are built because the developers acknowledge this and build the app around the needs and challenges of the front line activists. The more this movement does to engage and co-opt front line leaders from civic organizations, the more impact our projects will have.

On the flip side, there appears to be a lack of digital literacy on the side of some policy makers. The continued use of PDF files as ‘open data’, the misunderstandings of how the internet works, and the debate about the Stop Online Piracy Act show that at times the people responsible for technology policy are not necessarily technology experts. Contrast this with the City of Chicago’s technology plan which was written by a team that had a deep understanding of both technology and civic issues. Whenever possible, the movement has to ensure that both digital and civic literacy issues are addressed.

Challenge Three: Procurement

We’ve become very adept at hosting hackathons and building civic apps. (And there’s still  useful – particularly in newer communities) However, hackathons – no matter how great the ideas that are borne out of these events – will not push us forward if our governments are unable to actually purchase and use them.

There is a huge gap between technology in the private and public sectors. The recent botched rollout of demonstrates just what bad procurement policy gets us. A procurement policy designed to ensure the government does not get sued or robbed instead of purchasing the best software possible has done exactly what it was designed to do: Make it difficult to sue the government.

This is not to imply that the entire procurement process should go out the window. People have gone to jail for stealing and cheating the city. It will be immensely challenging to balance the need to protect the interests of the city and be good stewards of taxpayer money while getting the best software that serves the needs of residents.

The biggest advantage of tackling procurement will be that it will open door to making civic innovation truly sustainable.

Challenge Four: Spurring (and growing) civic startups

Chicago has the data, the talent, and the infrastructure to be at the center of the civic technology market. However, as of now there are only a handful of companies active in this space.

For the civic innovation movement to be sustainable, people have to be able to work full-time and earn a living creating civic apps. The only way this will be through spurring and growing civic technology companies. Civic startups, like those in Code for America’s accelerator program, are starting to grow and find customers around the country. With as much talent and data that exists in the city, there is an enormous opportunity for Chicago civic startups.

The other challenge that comes with creating a civic startup is building products that are designed well, function easily, robust, and meet the needs of customers. That requires more than simply forking an existing open source project, but rather a full-time campaign to work through those issues. It’s hard work that will require the full support of the entrepreneurial community.

While Chicago enjoys a great civic innovation ecosystem, it will take leadership from the entrepreneurship community, the civic hacking community as well as the City of Chicago to create an ecosystem that spurs civic startups. (In addition to real procurement reform at the federal, state and local levels.)

Breaking the wall

The good news is that we have the momentum and none of the challenges presented here are insurmountable. The civic innovation movement is on track to reshape the relationship between government and is citizens. However, we can’t rest on our laurels. It’s time to roll up our sleeves are start breaking the wall.