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June 02 2011

Civic Commons taps tech to make government work better and cost less

Civic CommonsLast September, an ambitious code-sharing initiative named Civic Commons was launched at the Gov 2.0 Summit in a bid to help city governments use information technology better. This week, Civic Commons took a big step forward with a new management team in place and $250,000 of funding from Omidyar Network.

Former White House deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin will be the first executive director and Nick Grossman, former director of Civic Works at nonprofit Open Plans, will be its first managing director. Grossman was one of the lead architects of Civic Commons from its inception.

The benefits of adopting a Gov 2.0 approach in cities include improved e-services to the public, resident participation in government, and collaboration between agencies. That snapshot of Gov 2.0 evolution offers ample perspective on the challenges for Gov 2.0 at the federal level.

Cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Ore. and the District of Columbia, have all been hailed in the media for innovative uses of open data, new urban mechanics, adoption of Open311, and improved e-services. Chicago's new chief technology officer, John Tolva, recently shared a vision of a digital second city that would embrace open data and innovation. "Forget thinking about computers or even websites. We want to think of the city itself as a platform for interaction — as a computing platform," Tolva told the Chicago Sun-Times. "There are makers, builders and developers who see the city as a new domain, as a new problem set," he said. "How might we become as digitally literate a place as we are architecturally literate?"

Not all city governments are as forward thinking or visionary in their approach. Most have significant cost constraints or well earned cynicism about the utility of bloated IT projects. While promoting government transparency through technology is a leading topic of interest for local government officials, implementation still lags that interest in many counties.

The architects of Civic Commons are well aware of this context. In the video below, McLaughlin delivers a lightning talk at the 2011 Transparency Camp in Washington, D.C., where he talks about Civic Commons, Code for America, and the challenges that face cities around the world.

In his first post at the Civic Commons blog, McLaughlin reflected further upon the core principles that the nonprofit is built upon:

In sum, Civic Commons is built around two central convictions: first, that wave after wave of innovation is delivering amazing new capabilities to the people and organizations that can take advantage of them, and second, that, with a little help, governments can absolutely understand and seize the opportunities created by the rapid evolution of information technology.

So how are we going to do it? Civic Commons will operate as a neutral and expert non-profit that (a) helps cities and other governments understand the possibilities and pitfalls around shared technologies, (b) provides technical assistance, (c) facilitates the creation and management of collaborative technology projects, (d) connects interested cities with peers, collaborators, experts, vendors, and other supporters, and (e) creates high-quality information — such as guides, checklists, how-to's, and a comprehensive catalog of civic technology — that is as comprehensible and useful to mayors, city managers, and citizens as it is to software engineers.

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McLaughlin also wrote in to Radar in response to questions about his plans for Civic Commons and what civic codesharing could mean for cities. His email interview follows.

What attracted to you to working for Civic Commons after your experiences in law, at ICANN, Google and the White House?

Andrew McLaughlinAndrew McLaughlin: The thread that runs through my grown-up work life, starting when I was a junior lawyer on the legal team that challenged the insidious Communications Decency Act in 1996, is that I get highly motivated — irrationally exuberant, according to my wife — as I marvel at the ability of the Internet to shift power into the hands of individuals. As computers keep getting cheaper and more beefy, and connectivity gets more and more ubiquitous, the Internet enables individuals to publish and communicate and create and analyze information on a global scale. As we've seen on a spectacular scale in North Africa this year, information is power; and so the Internet's potential to deliver meaningful, practical, useful empowerment to individuals around the world is incredible to me. The Internet can make things work better and cheaper, but it can also change the balance of power between active individuals and remote, unresponsive institutions.

So then at ICANN what motivated me was the objective of keeping the Internet's distributed, decentralized infrastructure out of the hands of potentially restrictive governments. At Google I was motivated to protect freedom of expression from governmental censorship. And at the White House, I was motivated by the potential to transform government agencies from the inside through the embrace of open data, Silicon Valley-style technology platforms, and more nimble organizational management techniques. My White House experience was fantastic, but sobering: federal agencies, for a host of reasons, are very difficult organizations to change.

With Civic Commons, I'm motivated by the observation that cities are noticeably eager to put technology to work to improve public services, transparency, accountability, public participation, and organizational effectiveness. They also want to spend much less money on technology. And it's possible. The same dynamics that have driven amazing, free or low-cost products and services (Facebook, iPads, webmail, Skype, online docs, smart phones, etc.) can be applied to drive transformative changes and improvements in the ways cities, towns, counties, and state agencies do their work. That's my ambition for Civic Commons, and for myself.

Why do you think Civic Commons could make a difference? What problems is it trying to solve?

Andrew McLaughlin: If we do our job right, Civic Commons will help cities (and towns and counties and state agencies — I'm just going to say "cities", though) collaborate with each other to build and use technologies that improve their services at lower cost. Currently, when it comes to technology, cities function in isolation, reinventing (or re-procuring) the wheel with every costly, customized technology purchase they make. But cities all basically face the same problems, their citizens have the same needs, and they're trying to provide the same types of services. So it would be smart for them, in some areas, to pool their resources (talents and budgets) to build technologies in common, which can then be shared and reused globally. The beauty of this approach is that it works — we know it works, because it works in other areas. Just take a look at the various open source communities, especially Kuali, which is a consortium of higher-education institutions that work together to build shared technology systems (e.g., finance, HR, curriculum management) for universities and colleges.

How does open source relate to the issues that cities face in 2011? What are the biggest barriers to adoption or implementation?

Andrew McLaughlin: Open source isn't the answer to every city tech need. But in some key areas of widely shared demand, open source development can provide the best path to new, low-cost, high-reliability, high-security options for cities. For example, if dozens of cities work together to build, tune, and polish a comprehensive, secure, and Open 311 system for citizen interactions (which is exactly what the Open311 community is doing), they will get a vastly better system for vastly less money than if each city did its own procurement in isolation. The biggest barriers to adoption and implementation are pretty predictable: cities don't have experience in working together on tech projects; they often lack in-house technical expertise; and they many not even know that open source options and projects exist.

There have been other attempts to create code repositories. What's wrong with using GitHub or SourceForge? Why does there need to be a nonprofit?

Andrew McLaughlin: We don't feel a driving need to create a new code repository. GitHub and SourceForge are both terrific. We're going to keep talking with city CIOs and technologists to see whether their projects have peculiar needs that counsel in favor of a civic tech repository. We've heard mixed input on that so far.

One thing we are going to build is a comprehensive catalog/index/guide to all the civic technologies in use or under construction — all the technology options for management, operations/finance, citizen engagement, open data and analytics, resource planning, etc. We want to aim a living database that enables non-technical mayors, city managers, citizen activists, to see what's out there, what's being built, how to use it, where to go for support or advice or implementation, and so on. That doesn't seem to exist anywhere right now, and we think there's a huge need (and potential demand) for it.

What are the biggest challenges ahead for Civic Commons?

One big challenge is to keep our open source code projects vibrant, with active ownership and online participation by a real community. Another is to persuade political and civil service leadership that our pitch is realistic, and that supporting their technologists to work on collaborative or shared technology projects is in their self interest.

How can the Gov 2.0 and open source community help?

There are many ways to help: contributing to specific projects like Open311; helping us scope out and foster new projects; contributing to our wiki and catalog (when it's up); joining our mailing list; introducing us to civic leaders who might be interested in building or using shared technologies.


December 24 2010

Citizen engagement platforms grow in 2010

During the 2008 election, then Senator Barack Obama said that "the challenges we face today -- from saving our planet to ending poverty -- are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck." As President, finding solutions to grand challenges means that Obama is looking again to the technology community for answers. Whether he finds them will be a defining element in judging whether a young Senator from Illinois that leveraged Web 2.0 to become President can tap into that collective intelligence to govern in the Oval Office.

Will citizens collaborate with officials, workers and one another to apply a civic surplus to open government? 2011 might be a make or break year for White House efforts to create platforms for citizen engagement. There were two notable news stories on that front this month. First, the passage of the COMPETES Act in Congress means that every federal agency can create prizes and competitions. Look for more to come on

Second, the White House has made a new, ambitious request for the American people: help design digital democracy with ideas for creating a platform for citizen consultation. For now, the project is called "ExpertNet" and is being hosted on a wiki.

Both underpin significant parts of White House deputy CTO Beth Noveck's vision for open government, where stakeholders collaborate in "wiki government." In that context, making community health data as useful as weather data has potential, where companies and citizens engage with data in ways that help them make better decisions. Open source may improve healthcare through NHIN Direct, now the Direct Project.

The growth of citizen engagement platforms, however, extends far beyond Washington. Civic developers are helping government by standardizing application programming interfaces and empowering others by coding the middleware for open government. Working with developers can be a crucial complement to publishing open data online. Those citizens matter a lot there, but only if engaged.

There's a growth in "do it ourselves (DIO) government," or as the folks at techPresident like to say, "We government." That's likely to be important in the context of crises in state budgets. It was an important enough topic that I was happy to accept Adriel Hampton's invitation to join him on Gov 2.0 Radio to talk about the growth in citizen engagement in 2010. Our conversation is available in the following audio clip:

You can break down what's happening into categories:

  • Platforms
  • Data-driven decisions
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Helping one another with the digital divide and information literacy
  • Guerrilla design efforts to make better cities
  • Sharing information with one another with respect to how to do things

Social media is a big part of that, but far from the only one. The "army of techies" taking on City Hall are using apps like SeeClickFix and Citysourced to report issues and track their resolution.

The growth of CityCamp is fascinating to watch, in that context. 2010 was the year when many of these camps did something more than talk and share information, though those activities have value. While the federal government, particularly the Coast Guard and EPA, used social media to get information out and set up, citizens used platforms like Ushahidi at the Lousiana Bucket Brigade, or tried grassroots mapping. Citizens can do a lot on their own. Look at what people did with the CrisisCamp Haiti work, particularly Open Street Map.

That's important, but when you look at what happened with CrisisCommons, you can see the germ of something bigger in the Oil Reporter app. That's one reason why the Sloan Foundation gave them a grant. CrisisCommons uses the Internet to act as a platform for people to help one another. As Andy Carvin from NPR has pointed out, now citizens can do more than donate blood or money. They can share information and donate their skills and time.

2010 was also notable for the growth of civic hackathons, like the International open data hackathon, the Times Open Hack Day, and Random Hacks of kindness.

As the new year beckons, there are more ways for the citizens of the United States to provide feedback to their federal government than perhaps there ever have been in its history. In 2011, the open question is whether "We the people" will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better. The evolution of these kinds of platforms aren't U.S.-centric, either. Ushahidi, for example, started in Africa and has been deployed worldwide. The crowd matters more now in every sense: crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, crowdmapping, collective intelligence, group translation, and human sensor networks.

I'll close with a prediction for 2011: Watch for important innovation to come out of India in the mobile space, as open government for transparency moves ahead.

September 08 2010

Civic Commons code-sharing initiative bids to reduce government IT costs

Civic CommonsAround the United States, city governments have created a multitude of software. Unfortunately, most of the time the code from those projects is not shared between municipalities, which results in duplication of effort and redundant, static software.

Civic Commons, launched today at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, is aimed squarely at helping city governments share the software they've developed. Civic Commons is the product of the District of Columbia's Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), Code for America and OpenPlans.

"In the District of Columbia alone, we have a large set of applications that other governments may find very useful," said District CTO Bryan Sivak. The OCTO will be adding multiple applications into the "commons," including a data warehouse application, a new agency performance management application, TrackDC, and numerous GIS applications. "Not only will other jurisdictions benefit from the public release of these applications, we will benefit from external individuals and organizations contributing to the code base and sharing exciting and innovative applications they have created," Sivak said.

At launch, CivicCommons will catalogue existing projects like the DC App Store and the Federal IT Dashboard. As the blog post introducing Civic Commons explains:

The long-term goal is to develop the app catalog into an open 'Civic Stack' -- a streamlined collection of software that cities can use to run core services. The stack will have open data and APIs like Open311 to encourage development and innovation, and so allow any developer to create a solution that'll make life better for citizens anywhere.

You can read more about Civic Commons at And, if you happen to be online around 1:50 PM EST, you can tune in to the livestream for Gov 2.0 Summit to watch the launch announcement. For more perspective on open source and open government, you can also watch the video of DC CTO Bryan Sivak from the 2010 OSCON Conference below:


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