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July 31 2011

App outreach and sustainability: lessons learned by Portland, Oregon

Having decided to hang around Portland for a couple days after the Open Source convention, I attended a hackathon sponsored by the City of Portland and a number of local high tech companies, and talked to Rick Nixon (program manager for technology initiatives in the Portland city government) about the two big problems faced by contests and challenges in government apps: encouraging developers to turn their cool apps into sustainable products, and getting the public to use them.

It's now widely recognized that most of the apps produced by government challenges are quickly abandoned. None of the apps that won awards at the original government challenge--Vivek Kundra's celebrated Apps for Democracy contest in Washington, DC--still exist.

Correction: Alex Howard tells me one of the Apps for Democracy
winners is still in use, and points out that other cities have found
strategies for sustainability.

And how could one expect a developer to put in the time to maintain an app, much less turn it into a robust, broadly useful tool for the general public? Productizing software requires a major investment. User interface design is a skill all its own, databases have to be maintained, APIs require documentation that nobody enjoys writing, and so forth. (Customer service is yet another burden--one that Nixon finds himself taking on for apps developed by private individuals for the city of Portland.) Developers quit their day jobs when they decide to pursue interesting products. The payoff for something in the public sphere just isn't there.

If a government's goal is just to let the commercial world know that a data set is available, a challenge may be just the thing to do, even if no direct long-term applications emerge. But as Nixon pointed out, award ceremonies create a very short blip in the public attention. Governments and private foundations may soon decide that the money sunk into challenges and awards is money wasted--especially as the number of challenges proliferate, as I've seen them do in the field of health.

Because traditional incentives can never bulk up enough muscle to make it worthwhile for a developer to productize a government app, the governments can try taking the exact opposite approach and require any winning app to be open source. That's what Portland's CivicApps does. Nixon says they also require a winning developer to offer the app online for at least a year after the contest. This gives the app time to gain some traction.

Because nearly any app that's useful to one government is useful to many, open source should make support a trivial problem. For instance, take Portland's city council agenda API, which lets programmers issue queries like "show me the votes on item 506" or "what was the disposition of item 95?" On the front end, a city developer named Oscar Godson created a nice wizard, with features such as prepopulated fields and picklists, that lets staff quickly create agendas. The data format for storing agendas is JSON and the API is so simple that I started retrieving fields in 5 minutes of Ruby coding. And at the session introducing the API, several people suggested enhancements. (I suggested a diff facility and a search facility, and someone else suggested that session times be coded in standard formats so that people could plan when to arrive.) Why couldn't hundreds of governments chip in to support such a project?

Code for America, a public service organization for programmers supported by O'Reilly and many other institutions, combines a variety of strategies. All projects are open source, but developers are hooked up with projects for a long enough period to achieve real development milestones. But there may still be a role for the macho theatrics of a one-day hackathon or short-term challenge.

Enhancing the platform available to developers can also stimulate more apps. Nixon pointed out that, when Portland first released geographic data in the form of Shapefiles, a local developer created a site to serve them up more easily via an API, mobilizing others to create more apps. He is now part of the Code For America effort doing exactly the same thing--serving up geographic data--for other large municipalities.

Public acceptance is the other big problem. A few apps hit the big time, notably the Portland PDX bus app that tells you how soon a bus is coming so you can minimize the time you wait out in the rain. But most remain unknown and unappreciated. Nixon and I saw no way forward here, except perhaps that one must lead the way with increasing public involvement in government, and that this involvement will result in an increased use of software that facilitates it.

The wealth of simple APIs made a lot of people productive today. The applications presented at the end of the Portland hackathon were:

  • A mapping program that shows how much one's friends know each other, clustering people together who know each other well

  • An information retrieval program that organizes movies to help you find one to watch

  • A natural language processing application that finds and displays activities related to a particular location

  • An event planner that lets you combine the users of many different social networks, as well as email and text messaging users (grand prize winner)

  • A JSON parser written in Lua communicating with a GTK user interface written in Scheme (just for the exercise)

  • A popularity sorter for the city council agenda, basing popularity on the number of comments posted

  • A JavaScript implementation of LinkedIn Circles

  • A geographic display of local institutions matching a search string, using the Twilio API

  • A visualization of votes among city council members

  • An aggregator for likes and comments on Facebook and (eventually) other sites

  • A resume generator using LinkedIn data

  • A tool for generating consistent location names for different parts of the world that call things by different terms

Approximately 130 man-and-woman hours went into today's achievements. A project like Code for America multiplies that by hundreds.

January 14 2011

4 civic innovation organizations to watch in 2011

What lies ahead for Gov 2.0 in 2011 is worth watching, whether it's international, federal or in states. Given the growth of citizen engagement platforms in 2010, expect more of the same in 2011. One of the most fascinating areas to track will be in the evolution of smarter cities. The technology landscape looks like a hybrid future, with the adoption of new cloud computing platforms from corporate giants like IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, Siemens and Google alongside the efforts of civic developers using open source components and smaller, scrappy startups.

Picture taken and posted to by Abhi Nemani, Code for America's director of strategy and communications.

Philip Ashlock, open government program manager at OpenPlans in New York, concisely pointed out four key civic innovation organizations to watch in 2011 in a single tweet recently. 2011 trends have been on the docket this month, so his pointer fit right in. If there's a civic surplus to be applied to smarter government, look for players from these organizations to apply it. Anyone interested in open government, open source software and civic entrepreneurship should keep an eye on the work of the following initiatives in 2011.

Code for America

In his inaugural address in January of 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged his fellow Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." In 2010, the question has been updated: ask not what your country can code for you - ask what you can code for your country. Toward that end, Jennifer Pahlka has empowered developers to become civic coders through Code for America. The nonprofit allows some of the brightest technical minds of this generation to create applications that will help government deliver better services to citizens. It offers its fellows a new kind of public service.

Code For America has begun its work to create better government through code. Its first slate of projects were introduced late last year in a webinar, embedded below. Last week, Code for America kicked off, with great coverage in Fast Company and others. For some insight into what's happening, read Pahlka's report from Day One or Dan Melton on following the data, iterating and the $1,200 problem. [Disclosure: Tim O'Reilly is on Code for America's board.]

Civic Commons

The Civic Commons code-sharing initiative is an effort to reduce government IT costs. Around the United States, city governments have created a multitude of software. Unfortunately, most of the time the code from those projects has not been shared between municipalities, which results in duplication of effort, and redundant or static software.

Civic Commons, launched at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington last year, is aimed squarely at helping city governments share the software they've developed. Like many civic innovation projects, the idea is relatively simple in conception but tricky in practice: track, archive, improve and re-share code developed by cities for use in other municipalities.

At launch, CivicCommons catalogued existing projects like the District of Columbia's App Store and the Federal IT Dashboard. The long-term goal of the project, according to its founders, is "to develop the app catalog into an open 'Civic Stack' -- a streamlined collection of software that cities can use to run core services."

As 2011 begins, CivicCommons had some news: the city of San Francisco open sourced its enterprise addressing system. As Karl Fogel explained at

EAS is a web-based system for managing the city's master database of physical addresses, tied to assessor's parcels and the City's street centerline network. We posted a short screencast of EAS in action a couple of months ago, and since then there's been a lot of interest in it from other jurisdictions.

Keep an eye on the evolution of CivicCommons as more technologists come on board and cities become aware of the resource. is a new public resource in the Gov 2.0 world that's set to launch later this month. The free, open source web application is based on, the nonprofit-backed website for tracking the United States Congress. will serve a similar function for state and local governments.

OpenGovernment is a joint project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. The beta version of will launch with information for five state legislatures: California, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, and Wisconsin. The nonprofit is actively seeking funding to expand to all 50 U.S. states and major cities.

OpenGovernment is also looking for a "few good civic coders." (See a theme here? To quote Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, "developers, developers, developers.") Here's their pitch to the open government community:

We're open-source to the core, evangelists for open standards, and activists for liberation of public data. We're building the site in Ruby on Rails and we'd love your help -- our code is available now on GitHub, and please join our brand-new Google Group to stay in touch. Our limiting factor isn't ideas, or a lack of valuable government info to make accessible, but rather web development time -- we have a huge wish list of data & features for this open-source community site, so let us know your skills & interests. We hang out in #opengovernment on

Read more about our projects, we're easy to reach and eager to talk -- don't forget to sign up for our low-volume email list above. We hope you'll help us grow and bring user-friendly transparency to every level of government, including your local community.

Urban Scale

Urban Scale brings another important focus to the virtual table: design for networked cities and citizens. Smarter use of technology is important, but good design is crucial for citizens to be able to navigate urban labyrinths, untangle regulations or understand critical instructions in crises. Designing for how people live and work is a crucial lesson from Web 2.0 for Gov 2.0, and it's one that Adam Greenfield, the founder of Urban Scale, has clearly internalized. Greenfield, previously head of design direction for service and user interface design at Nokia and lead information architect at Razorfish Tokyo, founded Urban Scale to "bring a user-centered approach to the design of urban architectures." You can read "Urban Computing and its Discontents," written with Mark Shephard, as a PDF.

The @urbnscl Twitter account is proving to be a skillful curation of ideas and news related to urban design, with links to traffic indicators, DeConcrete ("everyday urbanisms without architects' architectures"), a "parker app" from StreetLine Networks, and turning a city into an equation. With a core focus on the design of bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, data visualization for that class of services they call "citizen intelligence engines" and data collection from sensors deployed in public space," UrbanScale and — similar urban design shops — are worth watching.

More to come

There are no shortage of other civic innovation organizations to watch, in addition to those listed above.

OpenPublic is a distribution of the open source Drupal content management system specifically tailored to the needs of government. OpenPublic comes from the Phase2 Consulting Group. There's going to be a lot of focus on Drupal in government in 2011 (read up on moving to Drupal here at Radar) and this community and distribution will be one to watch.

Open Source Cities, slated to launch in the first quarter of 2011, will focus on "citizen urbanism," ecological design, urban planning, open data and collaboration. Follow @Open_Cities on Twitter for updates.

GovHub is a new nonprofit out of Portland, Ore., that's focused on "providing government agencies, non-profits and developers a place to collaborate on open source software." Yes, that sounds a lot like what Civic Commons does or what Github provides right now, on some levels. And yes, the proposals for a "" could results in the creation a government open source repository. It's worth keeping an eye on GovHub because of its location within Portland's dynamic open source community.


May 11 2010

Better government through code

Code for AmericaIn his inaugural address in January of 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged his fellow Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." In 2010, the question has been updated: ask not what your country can code for you - ask what you can code for your country.

Toward that end, Jennifer Pahlka has extended the innovative volunteerism of Teach for America toward software developers with the new organization, Code for America. The non-profit allows the brightest technical minds of this generation to create applications that let government deliver better services to citizens. As Jolie Odell reported at Mashable, five American cities have been selected to receive help building web and/or mobile applications through Code for America's fellows program. Boston, Boulder, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Seattle will soon have civic coders looking for ways to make government work better.

What follows is an edited and condensed interview with Pahlka conducted shortly before the selected cities were announced. (Note: included emphasis was added by the editor.)

What has bootstrapping Code for America been like?

It's definitely been "a dive right" in experience. And I think the good news is it's happening. When ideas hit reality, sometimes there's sort of a combustion moment. We certainly have had bumps. But it seems as this comes out into the world and gets tested, especially with city staff, that there is a real need and there is an interest in making this happen. There is enough belief in the potential to really drive it forward. We've taken it basically from a concept to having "real clients."

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010I finished up work on Web 2.0 in the beginning of December and aggressively launched our first call for applications from cities in the middle of January, which is a really short turnaround. I was happily surprised that we got 11 cities to apply on such short notice, given that we had of educate them about what it was. For some cities, it's not a long education process. Some of them get it very quickly.

It's not just selling them on Code for America. It's selling them on the idea that there's something to Web 2.0 in terms of driving transparency, efficiency and participation for cities. That this isn't just an extra program. It's really a way to transform government. I think we've done really well on that front. Out of those 11, we've got five cities that we'll be working with. They've got good projects and we're happy that cities take a long time to do things, in the sense that our schedule is built such that we're not going to start building these projects until January. It's going to take that long to really understand what the opportunity there is.

This needs to originate inside the cities because they're the ones that know what will actually save money and make them more efficient and transparent. What we want to do then is take those ideas and bring in experts from the web industry.

How will Code for America and the selected cities collaborate?

To clarify, this isn't being freely offered. We ask the cities to pay for the costs of their Code for America fellows. They each have to cover about $225,000. We don't pay our fellows much, but we do have to pay them something so that they can survive. That's been one of the obstacles. We had about 30 more cities that said that they would love to participate but couldn't come up with the funds. I think that's not surprising. In each of the five cities, there was someone who really believed that that $225,000 would save them an enormous amount of money in the long run, and they really wanted to do it.

This project was really birthed last July, when Andrew Greenhill, the Chief of Staff for the Mayor of Tucson, Arizona, was asking me for help bringing in a Web 2.0 team to build a web application that would save the city money. At the time, he was talking about what a dire circumstance Tucson was in and how cities around the country are really struggling. You get these enormous cuts in revenue and it's not like a business; you don't have the same flexibility that businesses have. So cities cut services. You can do that only so many times until you're not providing the services that a city needs to provide.

As budgets are getting settled in cities across the U.S. right now, you're actually starting to see the crap hit the fan, so to speak. There are two paths they can take: They can continue to try to shave here and there. Or they can say, "We have to take a fundamentally new approach" and adopt government as a platform. That includes the principles and values of the web, and outsourcing some functions to cities or using collective intelligence.

These are very new approaches. They're very difficult for cities to get their heads around. I think the cities that applied reflect the ones that get that you can't just keep shaving here and there; you're going to have to take a new approach, even if it's going to hurt and even if it's going to cost a little bit. In the long run, it's the only way they're going to survive."

What practical improvements will you bring to municipal government?

What we're trying to do is show that you can save in other departments. One example that I like to use is that if you have a service request to your city, most of the time, you have to call it in. And most of the time, you have to figure out who to call. That's a burden on citizens. You're also often contacting a call center that has a pretty primitive way of tracking what you're calling in on. There's a bunch of money and time that can be saved in terms of those call centers. What you may not realize is that in most cities, after the call they will then generate a request to send an inspector out to verify whatever it is that's broken. An inspector will actually have to go visit that pothole, take notes on it, take a picture of it and then put it in the queue. There's a lot of money spent within cities from stuff like that. That is the perfect kind of thing that you could outsource to citizens. SeeClickFix provides a nice model for that. So does CitySourced.

Another example is emergency services. What costs a city the most money? Emergency response. It's incredibly expensive. If you think of neighborhoods as patients, then you would want to do the same thing the health care industry is trying to do: keep your patient out of the emergency room. The way to do that is to give them education and preventative care.

One project that we're interested in building is a neighborhood organizing platform that would replace the email lists that many people are on. In many cities, often within the radius of a couple of blocks in a neighborhood, there's an email list of residents. What gets talked about are subjects like someone's car was broken into. Trash pickup didn't happen this week. Library hours are being cut back And those conversations right now are completely citizen-to-citizen. Some person might find a piece of information that may be relevant and share it. That's very useful.

We envision a platform whereby the conversation continues to be citizen-to-citizen but the relevant data for a neighborhood is being provided to the citizens by the city. So you'd know the crime stats for exactly those blocks you live on, for instance, instead of guessing that there had been a crime spike in your neighborhood. There would be a trigger set up that if crime jumps by X percent, X neighborhood group gets a message that says, "This is what's happening in your neighborhood according to our statistics. Would you like the police department to come do a neighborhood watch training? If so, click here to schedule." That's not only more efficient, it probably wouldn't happen otherwise.

Or consider if there's a development that's been proposed for your neighborhood. How will you get information on it? How you will you respond to the city, in terms of your opinion on the project? In Oakland, where I live, they send out an enormous amount of mail for every development. You get actual physical mail sent to you if there's a proposed development project in your neighborhood, which cannot be cheap. We're starting to understand the value of urban data now but we really need to show how it can work. Just publishing municipal data is one thing that happened in apps contests like Apps For America, and it's been hugely valuable. We'd like to get that data in the hands of citizens where they can use it to take control of the direction of their neighborhoods and reduce the number of complaints, reduce the number of emergency calls and save the city money in the long run.

Beyond reducing costs and automating some transactions, what other areas could Code for America fellows help cities with?

I think if you take any city that is using a 311 application, you're looking at huge savings. That's not available to a lot of cities right now; the costs are too high. So one area we want to do a lot of work is in 311. We're looking at building some open source solutions there so that we can cobble together an overall solution that connects with the Open 311 initiatives that San Francisco and D.C. have been driving.

[Editor's note: San Francisco and Washington, D.C. have announced the joint adoption of the Open 311 platform.]

We need to start to solve a marketing problem for cities. Think about it. Let's say you build an iPhone app or an Android app that lets you take a picture of a broken streetlight and upload it to your city's DPW. That's great. Now you have to get it in the hands of citizens. If every single city is trying to promote their own application, you've got huge marketing challenges, especially in metropolitan areas. I live in Oakland, but I'm also frequently in Berkeley and San Francisco. I'm not going to download three different applications for three different cities. I need just one. If it just so happens that when I go to New York, it works there too, all the better. You really have to consider economies of scale and to tie the efforts together. To the extent that we, by tying cities together around common goals, can help that happen, I think we'll solve another major problem.

How many people are on the Code for America staff? How many fellows do you have in the pipeline?

We haven't really promoted the fellows program. That's due to start in June and be active over the summer, culminating in the fall. We're looking for partners right now and working with some great companies that are offering to help get the word out. We haven't started a major push yet. My hope is that we get hundreds of applications. It's a tough sell.

We're promoting the idea of public service, but it does mean that you're giving up a year of your life. We're going to be empowering people who could have made a lot more money. Our value proposition is that the connections they'll make and the impact they can have will move them forward, along with the feeling of doing good for the world.

We do need more staff in order to pull that off. I've got a lot of great volunteers, including ex-colleagues and city people who have wanted to help make this happen. Right now, it's me and one other person. I've got some of my founding CTO's time, but I'm looking to hire a full-time CTO and a city manager. It's a matter of the funding coming together -- which is in the works -- combined with a very positive outlook.


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