ProudCity

Making open election data more accessible to voters

Photo: White House

Photo: White House

Having access to timely and comprehensive election data is fundamental to democracy. Knowing when and where to vote, as well as what your ballot options are is critical to being fully informed.

Google’s Civic Information API, in partnership with the Voter Information Project and The Pew Charitable Trusts, makes this data easy for third parties to access and build applications on.

At ProudCity, we’re now leveraging this data for a new app, ProudCity Vote. ProudCity Vote makes it easy for anyone to quickly add comprehensive, timely voting and elections information to any website. Adding ProudCity Vote is free and easy as copying and pasting embed code onto any website page.

For example, see how San Rafael, Calif., is using ProudCity Vote.

As many in the open data movement have noted, open data for the sake of open data is less useful than providing it in context of the user experience. We’re excited to take this data and bring it directly to the residents of every city in America.

Learn more about ProudCity Vote.

Hack civic hacking

(Note: These views represent mine and not Spike’s. Big thanks to him for providing initial feedback on this. He doesn’t agree with everything and says we can still continue meeting for drinks.)

I’m fortunate to live close enough to legendary civic hacker and Open Oakland founder Steve Spiker and can easily send or receive a last-minute text to meetup for drinks, which usually happens Friday night after we’ve put our kids to bed.

We met this past Friday and started with the personal — family, work, music — but it always turns to a long discussion about civic technology — the people, the pulse, the future.

Spike gave me an Open Oakland update and the latest on the Code for America Brigade, which I coincidentally read about Saturday morning on Government Technology.

Hearing from Spike, reading the article and seeing some of the recent posts leads me to believe there’s a lot of energy being expended on figuring out how to make civic hacking, specifically Brigade, sustainable and perhaps there doesn’t need to be.

I know I’m simplifying this, but it’s not clear to me why civic hacking needs a substantive financial model. In many ways, it appears to be an impediment to grassroots growth.

What’s happening with the Brigades is important context for civic hacking as a grassroots movement, because the movement itself should retrospect and re-consider its role in the civic technology ecosystem.

By re-thinking its purpose in the context of a structured organization and defining success metrics, Brigade and those who identify as civic hackers may change their expectations on whether heavy funding in the traditional sense at this phase of the civic innovation pipeline is necessary.

To date, civic hacking has loosely defined outcomes, if any. This is fine if you’re tinkering, but if you’re looking for financial support, you need to prove you’re solving real problems. In order to do that, you must have success metrics.

If structured civic hacking organizations want to show a model for sustainability, here are a few questions to ask:

  • Can what we’re working on be easily deployed and scale across all governments?
  • Is there a business opportunity to productize and offer as an enterprise government solution?
  • Can this be turned into an issue specific non-profit focused on solving civic or government problems?

Here are a few metrics to consider:

  • How many new, disruptive startups have come out of our work?
  • How many governments have adopted this project or product?
  • How many new issue-based organizations have emerged?

It’s important to recognize that civic hacking is an incubator for your “exit strategy” — building the next great government technology business, landing a gig inside government or simply meeting awesome people. Civic hacking is how I met Code for America Brigade founder Kevin Curry before it was even an idea. Civic hacking is how I landed my current venture that hopes to revolutionize city government digital services.

The Brigades are a critical component of the civic technology ecosystem, but at the grassroots level, passion and self motivation should be the source of funding. For those that don’t “exit” and prefer to tinker, there can still exist a semi-formal, global network. It just doesn’t have to be heavily-dependent on financials.

I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent civic hacking for free, but I can tell you that return on investment has paid huge personal dividends, both in the people I’ve met, the experience I’ve gained, but also in the simple satisfaction that I’ve helped people and cities.

Years ago, I had the idea for a city government WordPress theme and started hacking away at one. I shopped the idea around to a number of the organizations that, at the time, were giving money for civic hacking projects, and no one was sold. So, I teamed up with a world-class developer, Devin Price, and together, a brigade of two funded by no one, we did it ourselves.

Today, GovPress now has 4,000 active installs and by any measure is one of the most successful, least celebrated civic hacking projects on the planet.

My point with GovPress is that I didn’t wait for an organizational structure or funding to live out my civic hacking passion. Sustainability didn’t drive me or slow me down. I accepted this was a short-term project that would either die on the GitHub repo vine or be wildly successful.

For me, GovPress turned into my personal inspiration for ProudCity, which I co-founded in January with three others that had been, in their own way, civic hacking the same problem I was trying to solve. We’re launching small cities on the platform and getting ready to announce a well-known, mid-sized Northern California city. Government Technology named us one of five companies to watch in 2016.

My non-funded, unsustainable civic hacking project turned into my American dream. ProudCity was my exit.

This sounds very Silicon Valley, but it applies to any organization looking for funding, whether you’re a startup or nonprofit. In the technology ecosystem, there are opportunities to pitch your idea to gain interest for an idea or product. The idea that solves a problem (or has the potential to) gets funded. In the case of the civic hacking community, it attracts more civic hackers (or co-founders). As the product grows in viability, it will exit to a fundable venture, whether it’s the startup or nonprofit solving a real problem.

As was the case with the early environmental movement, there were sustainability hackers advocating for an entirely different approach to managing the planet. At some point, those early leaders went on to start businesses or join governmental or issue-based organizations that have changed our world in scalable, impactful ways.

At first they were tinkering, but then they evolved into the bigger change we needed.

If it’s community you’re looking for, you don’t need funding. If you’re serious about executing but don’t want to make it a lifetime commitment, build your own GovPress then move to your next great thing. Don’t let funding or a sustainability model slow you down.

For its part, Code for America has done a huge service building Brigade, and the idea that local community developers can hack their cities and positively impact and inspire government from the outside. By enabling the foundational infrastructure, it has created an incredible service for those who aspire to impact civics in a big way. Other than a very limited staff role commitment on Code for America’s part, I’m not sure there’s a need for much more or that we should even should expect it.

By defining success metrics and accepting that civic hacking is simply the beginning of the civic innovation pipeline, those in the Brigade ecosystem may find that all its fundamental operating structure needs are:

  • a centralized GitHub organization for effectively collaborating on projects
  • a Slack instance for community
  • a guiding set of principles and general operating guidelines
  • a recurring “demo day” to bring visibility and move projects through the innovation pipeline

All of this most likely already exists within Brigade.

The Brigade structure is a tremendous opportunity to be the platform for the civic innovation pipeline. If it was re-imagined as an incubator or innovation lab that fed the civic technology pipeline, its value add could be better tracked and funded.

The original objectives around civic hacking — opening data, increasing public sector use of open source and showing government how it can leverage both to expedite technology innovation — have all been adopted to varying degrees. This doesn’t mean there is no longer a need for civic hacking. It just means that those who closely identify as such need to re-imagine, find new relevance and recognize scalable impact and more exits are a role it can help foster.

There’s no question civic hacking is a critical component to the civic technology innovation ecosystem, but altruism, passion and self-motivation are requisites for entry, and you shouldn’t need funding for that.

The world is becoming more decentralized, open and instant, and traditional organizational structures are becoming less and less applicable, especially for technology activists.

For those of you who identify as civic hackers and are unaffiliated with political, governmental or corporate constraints, you have the good fortune of not needing to adhere to bureaucratic, organizational rules that stunt open, immediate impact and innovation.

You have the good fortune of bringing the much-needed positive angst sorely missing from the civic technology movement. Embrace that having an entree to bigger opportunities is priceless.

Use all this to your advantage, hack civic hacking and open up more exits for the civic change we need.

Defining civic tech

Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about Omidyar Network’s recent report, “Engines of Change,” and the need to better label and define the movement happening around civics and government with respect to technology.

We’ve seen terms like e-gov, Gov 2.0, open government, govtech, open data and other iterations and variations over the last few years, and there always seems to be confusion over what to call the work civic hackers, public sector technologists and civic-focused entrepreneurs collectively do.

The report has been helpful (to me) in providing larger context as to why “civic tech” is appropriate to coalesce around and has convinced me to adopt it within the work I do, both here at GovFresh, but also ProudCity.

There have been numerous attempts to define this, but Omidyar’s is concise yet comprehensive:

any technology that is used to empower citizens or help make government more accessible, efficient, and effective

But more than the simple definition, this chart of the subset — “Citizen to Citizen,” “Citizen to Government,” “Government Technology” — is what provided clarity for me:

civictech

Source: Omidyar Network

I do think, however, much like we’ve seen with “green” terminology inside the environmental movement, we need to better define principles around what differentiates the genetically modified versus natural versus organic civic technology.

The next step for the civic tech movement is to better frame what’s expected of the core technologies that drive it, specifically open source and open data. While there are many companies operating under the civic tech umbrella, we’re still a far cry away from most operating under sustainable civic principles.

How many civic tech companies can say they operate with a true open ethos? Unfortunately, not that many.

Today, much of what we have is genetically modified civic technology.

After thinking more on Omidyar’s report, I’m putting the civic tech sticker on my computer (who has one?) and look forward to continuing to encourage and champion those under its umbrella to actively adopt a more sustainable approach to its growth.

Only then will the definition of civic tech have true meaning.

Government vendor as an ‘open organization’

Earlier, I wrote about the book “Open Organization” and, via a post originally published on ProudCity, wanted to share my extended thoughts on how this applies to government vendors in the context of the work I’m doing there.

Open is at the core of ProudCity.

As government service providers, it is our duty to ensure cities get the most sustainable, flexible technology available, so that they can best serve their residents, businesses and visitors.

We will do this by following the ethos of what Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst calls the “open organization.”

In his book, “The Open Organization,” Whitehurst outlines a framework for the open organization, one that applies to both government and companies, likeProudCity, that solely serve the public sector:

An “open organization” — which I define as an organization that engages participative communities both inside and out — responds to opportunities more quickly, has access to resources and talent outside the organization, and inspires, motivates, and empowers people at all levels to act with accountability. The beauty of an open organization is that it’s not about pedaling harder, but about tapping into new sources of power both inside and outside to keep pace with all the fast-moving changes in your environment.

As an open organization with a strong purpose and sense of openness (through collaboration, open source and open data), ProudCity is able to give cities ultimate freedom when it comes to digital services.

By doing this, we’re able to move beyond the traditional — often unpleasant — relationship between government and the private sector and truly empower public sector leaders to respond proactively and keep pace with the fast-moving world of technology.

Purpose

The only way the cities we serve will be different tomorrow is if our purpose is open.

Whitehurst emphasizes the importance of purpose and passion in an open organization, citing “Conscious Capitalism” by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and Babson College professor Raj Sisodia:

Business has a much broader positive impact on the world when it is based on a higher purpose that goes beyond only generating profits and creating shareholder value. Purpose is the reason a company exists. A compelling sense of higher purpose creates an extraordinary degree of engagement among all stakeholders and catalyzes creativity, innovation, and organization commitment … Higher purpose and shared core values unify the enterprise and elevate it to higher degrees of motivation, performance, and ethical commitment at the same time.

And from “Collective Genius”:

Purpose is often misunderstood. It’s not what a group does, but why it does what it does. It’s not a goal but a reason — the reason it exists, the need it fulfills, and the assistance it bestows. It is the answer to the question every group should ask itself: if we disappeared today, how would the world be different tomorrow?

At ProudCity, our purpose is to enable cities to stand up and scale digital services quickly and cost-effectively. We never want to see a city locked into a proprietary or monolithic platform that quickly becomes stagnant or that they’re stuck with for years because there’s no easy way out.

Collaboration

Collaboration is fundamental to our technology and how we operate internally and externally.

At our GitHub organization, all of our repositories are public and freely available for download and re-use. Anyone who would like to collaborate with us, whether you’re a developer contributing code or a customer with a feature idea or bug to report, can do so via the respective repo issues feature.

Soon, we will make our product roadmap public, where others will have full visibility into upcoming features and can give feedback to help us better prioritize.

We will also do this for the resources we provide, allowing others to contribute and collaborate, helping us build on these and make them better for everyone.

Open source

The ProudCity platform is based on open source technologies, from WordPress andCalypso for the platform and content management systems, to Bootstrap, Node.jsand Font Awesome for the front-end design.

We fully support Automattic’s philosophy as outlined in its Bill of Rights:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
  • The freedom to redistribute.
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.

Leveraging a fully open source stack allows us to scale our development and build features faster and more frequently (we release new updates every two weeks) and make them immediately available to every city on the ProudCity platform.

It also gives every city we work with ultimate freedom to contribute code and, if they are not satisfied with our service (which is a strong motivation for us to provide excellent customer service/experience), they can easily migrate to another host and service provider. Because these frameworks are supported by thousands of developers around the world, there is a strong support community for all aspects of our platform.

Open data

A critical component of government’s long-term success is leveraging the power of open data and application programming interfaces that pull from internal platforms as well as third-party service providers.

By leveraging the power of open data technology built into the ProudCity platform, cites have ultimate flexibility to easily integrate any service provider (with a well-built API) and exponentially increase their effectiveness. Because the ProudCity platform is based on a REST API, cities are data-driven out the gate.

Open cities

ProudCity and the cities we serve will succeed by living up to open principles like those espoused by Red Hat in “The Open Organization”:

  • People join us because they want to.
  • Contribution is critical, but it’s not a quid pro quo.
  • The best ideas win regardless of who they come from.
  • We encourage and expect open, frank, and passionate debate.
  • We welcome feedback and make changes in the spirit of “release early — release often.”

The only way ProudCity will scale digital innovation for cities around the world is to hold true to principles centered on purpose and openness.

We’re proud to be an open organization.

New digital city pilot program

ProudCity Pilot Program

Lately, I’ve focused much of my time on ProudCity and haven’t had the time to write much here, but I wanted to share a great opportunity for cities looking for a digital upgrade.

We’ve launched our ProudCity Pilot Program that gives cities a chance to collaborate closely with ProudCity and test and give feedback on new product developments.

Cities receive one year of free ProudCity services, and we work directly with them to assess their current digital systems, how they can be optimized, and then help them quickly onboard to the platform.

It’s an excellent opportunity for cities to reboot their digital service offering and for ProudCity to learn firsthand the needs of municipal governments and help them modernize their online offerings.

A great example of this is our first pilot city, West Carrollton, Ohio, and how they moved a seven year-old website to ProudCity in 60 days. Read about West Carrollton’s pilot experience in Government Technology.

To qualify for the program, cities must launch:

  • A public city BETA (test) website within 30 days
  • An official LIVE city website within 60 days

Application deadline is Wednesday, March 30, 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and our next pilot city will be announced Friday, April 1.

Learn more ProudCity Pilot Program.

Email me at luke@proudcity.com if you have any questions.

Beta government

West Carrollton BETA

West Carrollton BETA

For those unfamiliar with the concept of beta, it’s a term used in software development to push a public prototype to get design and functionality feedback, as well as test and report technical bugs before launching the project as an official service.

Standard operating procedure for government digital services is to create an extensive specifications document and develop a waterfall project management strategy for executing. Once the project is finalized internally, it’s released to the public as-is without any intention of collaboration or feedback from those who will actually use the service.

Beta has eliminated the fear associated with a big launch. Knowing that beta is the beginning of a collaborative process eases that fear and creates a feedback culture that is much-needed in digital government innovation.

More and more, particularly at the federal level, such as Vets.gov, government is releasing web-based projects this way, even openly and proactively discussing the beta as part of an on-going, iterative process. Locally, larger cities such as Boston are also going beta.

Beta as described in 18F’s “Project Stage Definitions“:

Stage and test working software on the public web for use by a subset of the target audience. Implement changes based on user behavior and feedback. Resolve policy compliance or technical integration issues. Define and then validate statistically significant metrics for improvement.

GOV.UK:

The objective of this phase is to build a fully working prototype which you test with users. You’ll continuously improve on the prototype until it’s ready to go live, replacing or integrating with any existing services.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

This beta release of Vets.gov is just a beginning. We’ve launched it with deep content in the two benefit categories you’ve told us mean the most to you: disability and education. There are many more to come. We’ll be adding new information and tools ongoing. But we wanted to get vets.gov in front of you now, as we build it, so you can tell us what’s working for you and what isn’t.

At ProudCity, we’ve launched our first city beta and, as a government service provider, we’ve learned a great deal about traditional blockers to innovation, and how we can help overcome them. It’s exciting to work with governments who embrace the beta mindset, especially knowing the end product, particularly for true software-as-a-service offerings, will only get better over time.

If you work inside government, demand beta from your digital services providers and bake it into your acquisition process. If you have the luxury of an internal development team, begin building the culture and communications strategy for deploying this.

There are internal, cultural, procurement and process issues governments must address, but ultimately it’s worth redefining the way services are delivered, and these obstacles are easier to overcome than you might imagine, and will be as more governments adopt the concept of beta.

Beta government is the new standard.

Say hello to ProudCity

ProudCity

Today, I’m excited to announce a new civic startup, ProudCity, founded by me and three others, committed to making it easier for cities to stand up and manage government digital services.

Increasingly, as more and more of us access government via the web, our perceptions and expectations will be determined by the digital government experience. In fact, a 2015 Accenture report found that 86% of respondents “want to maintain or increase their digital interaction with government.”

According to the report, when citizens were asked “Which of the following would change positively if government improved digital services?,” they responded:

  • “My belief that government is forward looking” (73%)
  • “My overall satisfaction with government” (72%)
  • “My willingness to engage with government” (72%)
  • “My belief that government is efficient and effective” (70%)
  • “My confidence and trust in government” (62%)

Accenture’s findings also emphasized the importance of the “basic” website:

“Citizens place the highest priority on ‘the basics’ of a quality digital experience: definitive answers to questions, assurance of privacy and security, and functionality typical of commercial websites”

The city website is more than just a digital interface. It’s the public face of increasing confidence, trust and satisfaction in government, and we look forward to playing a key role in helping with this and scaling municipal innovation, one city at a time.

Read our launch blog post on why we started ProudCity, our principles and find your city demo to learn how you can launch your free beta test site. If you have questions, or want to discuss how ProudCity can help your city, please feel free to email me at luke@proudcity.com.

Say hello to ProudCity.