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.

SF names Joy Bonaguro as city’s first chief data officer

In a Twitter exchange between San Francisco Chief Information Officer Marc Touitou and myself, Touitou confirmed that the city has appointed Joy Bonaguro as its first chief data officer.

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New FCC CIO launches blog, joins Twitter

Federal Communications Commission Chief Information Officer David Bray announced Tuesday a new blog, Twitter handle and hashtag in an effort to open up communications on the agency’s technology strategy and operations.

You can follow Bray’s blog, “FCC CIO’s Connection Blog,” or on Twitter at @fcc_cio and the hashtag #FCCcio.

From the announcement:

As I begin my journey as CIO, I also am open to the different views and perspectives of the FCC Bureaus and Offices who each have critical missions and IT needs that we will support to the best of our abilities. Also, and most importantly since we live in rapidly changing times both in terms of the pace of technology advances and the tightening of budgets in government, communication across both the public and private sector is crucial to the success of the FCC’s IT endeavors. Through the power of communication and IT, we can transform what we can do together.

Bray was appointed FCC CIO in July.

Don’t disrupt government. Revolutionize it.

I’ve always been cool to the term “disruption,” especially how it has recently been used to address changing the way government works.

“Disruption” has a ring that’s unappreciative and dismissive of hard-working public servants. It paints a picture of bureaucrats unwilling to think different. Its hint of arrogance that “we know better and will do it with or without you” has always bothered me.

Fortunately, we now have a more productive, collaborative alternative.

During his TechCrunch Disrupt keynote, Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey called for an alternative, settling instead for “revolution.”

Below is an excerpt of what best summarizes why the latter is more appropriate with respect to civics, and how those leading the “government disruption” charge should re-evaluate the semantics behind it.


“Disruption is like an earthquake. Disruption has no purpose. It has no values. It has no organizing principle. It has no direction, and it has no leadership … This is not what we want to bring into the world.

“What we want to bring into this world is revolution. Revolution has values. Revolution has purpose. Revolution has direction. Revolution has leaders.

“Revolution looks at the intersection ahead and pushes people to do the right thing, and it doesn’t always have to be loud. It doesn’t always have to be violent. It’s just as powerful in its stillness.

“We don’t want disruption where we just move things around from point A to point B. We want a direction. We want a purpose, and we want to combine forces and we want to cooperate to get there.

“What I challenge you do to today is pick a movement. Pick a revolution and join it … Pick something that you believe in. Pick something you want to make an impact in and then question everything and be a founder and be an entrepreneur inside those organizations and inside that movement.”


Why the next SF mayor needs to understand open government

San Francisco mayoral candidates at SFOpen 2011, June 16. (photo by GovFresh)

San Francisco mayoral candidates at SFOpen 2011, June 16. (photo by GovFresh)

In August of 1993, San Francisco officially adopted the Sunshine Ordinance, a law that allowed any citizen to request city documents, records, filings or correspondence, attend meetings of any group that meets with the Mayor or city department heads and make any meeting of the governing bodies of certain local, state, regional and federal agencies attended by City representatives public.

We were pioneers in transparency and one of the first cities in the entire country to give our citizens this type of access to our government.

At the time, it was a revolutionary ordinance that would change the way San Franciscans engage with their representatives and inspire similar laws throughout the country.

Fast forward to 2011 where the internet has changed everything about the way we interact with our government and lead our lives.

The brick wall that used to stand between decision makers and the people they serve is eroding and there is an unprecedented level of access to our lawmakers, power brokers and elected officials.

If my parents wanted to hear from their congresswoman or supervisor when they were my age, they would have to write a letter and might wait weeks or even months for a response. In today’s world, we can post a question to an elected official on their Facebook page and hear back the same day. But in the age of Wikileaks, social media, blogging and hackathons, has our local government really caught up?

During my time as an intern in the New Media Office at the Obama White House, I oversaw weekly Facebook live chats between Senior Administration officials and the White House’s over 100,000 Facebook fans. My job was to read the questions coming in through the Facebook feed and send them on to the moderator. There was nothing more thrilling than seeing someone from their home in Ohio or Montana or California ask Ben Rhodes to explain his national security policy in Washington DC and get an answer in real time. That’s open government.

Yet despite the fact that we live in a city that is home to Twitter, Yelp, Zynga and many other leading tech companies our local government hasn’t quite caught up with the private sector we serve. Especially when it comes to using the technology available to us to keep our citizens aware and engaged and allowing them access to the inner workings of our city. That is essential if we want them to feel that they have a stake in the type of government we hope to create.

When President Obama first came into office in 2009, his administration made a commitment to transparency, participation and collaboration with with a pledge to strengthen an open government

Inspired by this effort, Luke Fretwell and Brian Purchia at GovFresh drafted a similar pledge that has already been signed by eight mayoral candidates: Joanna Rees, Phil Ting, Dennis Herrera, Leland Yee, David Chiu, Bevan Dufty, Michela Alioto-Pier, and John Avalos. Though spearheaded by a Gov 2.0 effort, the pledge recognizes that open government isn’t just about technology, as written:

“Open government is the movement to improve government by making government more transparent, participatory, collaborative, accountable, efficient, and effective. Open government will help build the public’s trust and satisfaction in government, will improve government’s delivery of services, and will create new opportunities for innovation.”

The reality is that one of the best possible ways to make government more collaborative, effective, and efficient, is to use the internet and the technologies available to our great city to create the opportunities for innovation that the pledge alludes to.

We’ve fallen behind on this effort and if we want San Francisco to be a leader in technology, it’s about time that we speed back up. The next Mayor of San Francisco will be responsible for making this a reality, so they better understand what open government means and have a plan for how we can enact it.

Best in SF government social media

The City of San Francisco over the last two years has aggressively embraced social media for marketing of government programs and initiatives, citizen engagement, and two-way communications. An important task for the next mayor is not only to preserve the vibrant ecosystem left by one of the U.S.’s most tech-savvy mayors, but to continue to advance government innovation in one of the world’s most tech-savvy cities.

Let’s take a quick look at some of San Francisco’s crowning social media achievements, with an eye for growth:


More than 50 SF agencies and officials use Twitter for citizen engagement and government marketing, not including political accounts. While none approaches the 1.3 million followers of the former mayor, several of the accounts – including those of citywide officeholders and popular city museums – have several thousand followers each. The robust official Twitter activity makes San Francisco one of the top municipalities in the world for microblogging – it even takes service requests by tweet. The City could take its Twitter use to the next level through improved integration with official City websites and listening campaigns aimed at identifying and responding to public concerns.

Contests and Video

SF’s Public Utilities Commission created a positive stir around its goals of getting more residents to drink tap water and use reusable bottles with its “I Love SF Water” YouTube campaign. Here’s the winning entry:

SF agencies have slowly embraced social media-fueled contests to generate interest in their missions, and can take it up a notch through use of location-based apps and creation of a universal template and aggregation site for official contests, similar to the U.S. GSA’s

The former mayor was known for marathon YouTube videos, and one mayoral candidate has proposed YouTube for submitting official public comments. Including on-the-record video and text commenting is status quo technology for the City’s current public meeting webstreaming – it just takes a leader willing to turn it on.

Facebook and 311

311 FacebookThe City’s Facebook page is a monster with more than a quarter millions fans and heavy interaction from fans of our beautiful metropolis. In a recent addition, it includes on-site integration with SF 311, the City’s central agency responsible for taking and processing non-emergency service requests. Creating a citywide social media best-practices sharing forum and neighborhood-oriented trainings on multi-media access to City services would leverage this Facebook clout to enhance other social media efforts. The City might also consider allowing direct access to expert staff through Facebook, similar to the efforts of the U.S. Geographical Survey.

Are the reasons for using Twitter different across party lines?

TwitterThis post is meant to summarize a recent and well-publicized study of ours for those in the Gov 2.0 community who are interested in the key results, but do not have the time to read the paper.

It has been well documented that Republicans have a greater affinity to Twitter; despite the leading Twitter user being President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Our study asks: are the reasons for using Twitter different across party lines?

Data from the Twitter adoption decisions of the 111th House of Representatives suggests “yes.” Based on an empirical method that is used to back out latent preferences associated with adopting Twitter, the analysis yields the following:

1. Republicans who have sponsored a large number of bills are the most likely to adopt Twitter, while Democrats who have the strongest electoral support (from 2008’s election) are the most likely. But so what?

2. Well, the number of bills and the 2008 electoral support proxy for the perceived benefits associated with outreach and transparency, respectively.

a. Outreach operates as a means to diffuse information that works to a politician’s advantage, with the ultimate goal of (perhaps) getting bills passed. This advantage is especially useful if by using Twitter, a politician can generate public support for contentious policies, which in turn, yields support from ideological rivals they interact with – who also use Twitter. Our data seems to support this story, as Republicans who have sponsored a large number of bills and belong to committees with a lot of fellow Democrat Twitter adopters are the most likely to adopt.

b. Transparency is the conscience act of “being honest.” Politicians who have strong constituent support would conceivably have the most to lose by failing to maintain the public’s trust. However, politicians who have been in office for a number of years have most likely developed some level of trust, and are therefore less inclined to make conscience displays of transparency, like adopting Twitter. Our data seems to support this story, as Democrats who have the strongest electoral support and the least number of years in office are the most likely to adopt Twitter.

Outreach and transparency are both valuable to a healthy democracy, and to some extent, it is re-assuring that Twitter use is motivated by both reasons. An interesting counter-factual situation would be if the Republicans were the majority party. We may therefore ask in that situation: Is the desire to reach out to (opposing) voters strongest for “losing” parties? Our study certainly hints that Republicans are not only motivated to use Twitter as a means to reach out to their own followers, but also to Democrats, as they are more likely to use Twitter in cases where their district was overwhelmingly in favor President Barack Obama.

All-in-all, it would seem like Twitter is good for the whole Gov 2.0 idea. If Republicans are using Twitter as a means for outreach, then more bills may be passed (note: this has yet to be tested empirically, and still remains an open question for researchers). If Democrats are using Twitter as a means for transparency, then the public benefits from the stronger sense of accountability. Sounds like a more productive government to us.

An open source union movement

Earlier this year, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ignited an open source movement in government when the city approved the nation’s first open source software policy. Now, another movement — labor may be getting behind this effort. I have been asked to speak with Local 21 of Professional & Technical Engineers (IFPTE/AFL-CIO) today about Gov 2.0 initiatives I helped lead for Newsom and why unions should embrace open source technology.

Open source saves union jobs

San Francisco’s legislation came about from a combination of factors, but the primary one was the City wanted to save money without laying off employees. Reducing the millions of dollars that were being spent on software licensing fees and other proprietary software was a no brainer for city leaders facing a half a billion-dollar budget deficit.

The first-of-its-kind policy requires that open source be considered equally to commercial products when buying new software. Instead of paying software-licensing fees year after year, under the direction of the City’s CIO, Chris Vein, and the Department of Technology the City opted to train employees with new skills.

San Francisco decided to invest in people and a new open source government.

It all started with a tweet

Last week, former Local 21 President Richard Isen (an app developer for the City of San Francisco) and I were talking about what I should talk about later today. He reminded me how the open source movement in San Francisco government started with a tweet.

Eighteen months ago, Mayor Newsom was at Twitter headquarters for a conversation about technology in government. During the town hall Newsom received a tweet about a pothole. He turned to Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams and said let’s find a way for people to tweet their service requests directly to San Francisco’s 311 customer service center.

Three months later, San Francisco launched the first Twitter 311 service, @SF311 allowing residents to tweet, text, and send photos of potholes and other requests directly to the City. As it turns out, Isen was the app developer on the project.

Working with Twitter and using the open source platform, CoTweet Isen turned @SF311 into reality. Normally, the software procurement process for something like this would have taken months. Instead from idea to implementation it took less than three months. Oh and the latest reports show @SF311 is saving the city money in call center costs.

Security in open source

Craig of Craigslist always reminds me when talking about open source to highlight the added security and stability of open source over proprietary software. I won’t get into it here but I recommend reading Sun Microsystems President & COO Bill Vass’ blog about the topic, “The No. 1 Reason to Move to Open Source is to IMPROVE Security.”

Unions for open source

Since the launch of @SF311, San Francisco has continued to utilize open source software to expand city services while reducing costs and implementation times from to the first national API for government. Meanwhile, open source legislation has spread from California to Vermont.

Unions should join the Gov 2.0 effort and make the open source movement their own. Demanding that more local governments pass open source legislation will save taxpayers money and protect union jobs.

Zuck, Biz, Caterina pitch Code for America Fellows program to developers

In a new public service announcement from Code for America, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Biz Stone and Flickr/Hunch founder Caterina Fake pitch Code for America’s Fellows program, which aims to recruit developers and designers for public service-oriented development projects. The spot also features CfA Executive Director Jen Pahlka, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and CfA Board member Tim O’Reilly.

From CfA on the Fellows Program (application here):

If you’re a developer, designer, or product manager with a desire for public service, this is your opportunity to build the next generation of Gov 2.0 apps for city governments. By leveraging your unique skill set, you will bring improved access to information and government accountability to the local level, and you will change the way citizens and cities work together.

CfA ‘What if …?” PSA:

Tim O’Reilly interviews Jen Pahlka:

Why Twitter’s government outreach is a big win for the Gov 2.0 movement

TwitterFor at least that past two years, a tiny yet fast-growing group of folks who call themselves “Gov 2.0 advocates” has worked tirelessly to spread a message that emerging technologies, low-cost communications and digital culture can reshape government to be more collaborative, transparent, efficient and connected to its citizens.

We have advocated for humanizing government, and for using new tools to bring more citizens into the deliberative process and to help shape the future of both our democracy and the bureaucracy. One of the main tools for the Gov 2.0 movement has been social media, as activists and line workers join technologists and political reformers in calling for more open communication between officials and agencies and the public they represent and serve.

Last week, Government 2.0 – a term first used by Bill Eggers in his 2005 e-gov-focused book of the same name, and that has become almost synonymous with Web 2.0 as developers have turned on to the promise of government-brokered data troves and universal open standards – won a significant victory. Twitter, the popular social media messaging service that has serves as a platform for thousands of startups using its architecture and user base, announced that it is hiring for its first field office, focused on the government sector.

Twitter goes to DC

Twitter’s job posting and further remarks by corporate spokesman Sean Garrett explain the DC-based position as the first step towards a public affairs unit, with support for innovative and engaging uses of Twitter in politics and policymaking. A new blog by Garrett and his team has since March been highlighting interesting government uses of the platform, from San Francisco’s integration of Twitter and 311 non-emergency service requests, to construction updates and border crossing wait times by tweet, to the British Prime Minister’s communications usage.

Twitter, thanks to millions of active and aggressive content-sharers and innovators around the world, has transformative powers. Conan O’Brien took to the service to recreate himself after losing his show, creating numerous accounts, rallying his fan base and using the free and frenetic publicity it to launch a comedy tour. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert, after panning Twitter as trite, has become one of its staunchest advocates, using it to deliver and amplify commentary on everything from film to politics to sport and humanism. Newark Mayor Corey Booker has used it to spread a hands-on philosophy of hope far beyond his New Jersey township.

Twitter grows due to user innovations

Twitter’s growth and popular features have often evolved from the minds and whims of its user base, from the intensely popular “retweet” convention for repeating and affirming others’ messages, to the hashtag form of semantic tagging in its short messages, to Follow Friday, the day that tweeps around the world recognize friends and favorites.

Government 2.0 – which first hit Twitter’s mainstream of “trending topics” during a March 16, 2009, pilot broadcast of the Gov 2.0 Radio podcast including govies, contractors and consultants calling in from South by Southwest and their DC-area homes – is now set to join the legacy of user-driven Twitter conventions. The first Twitter office outside of San Francisco will help connect politicians with their constituents and agencies with the public. It will help serve an engaged and innovative Government 2.0 movement, while that movement continues to shape and grow Twitter’s utility.

Government 2.0 and the use of social media for politics and public service are still in their infancy, but it’s safe to say that Twitter’s new focus on this arena is a milestone of which we can be proud.