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March 08 2013

GitHub gains new prominence as the use of open source within governments grows

github-social-codinggithub-social-codingWhen it comes to government IT in 2013, GitHub may have surpassed Twitter and Facebook as the most interesting social network. 

GitHub’s profile has been rising recently, from a Wired article about open source in government, to its high profile use by the White House and within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This March, after the first White House hackathon in February, the administration’s digital team posted its new API standards on GitHub. In addition to the U.S., code from the United Kingdom, Canada, Argentina and Finland is also on the platform.

“We’re reaching a tipping point where we’re seeing more collaboration not only within government agencies, but also between different agencies, and between the government and the public,” said GitHub head of communications Liz Clinkenbeard, when I asked her for comment.

Overall, 2012 was a breakout year for the use of GitHub by government, with more than 350 government code repositories by year’s end.

Total government GitHub repositoriesTotal government GitHub repositories

Total number of government repositories on GitHub.

In January 2012, the British government committed the code for GOV.UK to GitHub.

NASA, after its first commit, added 11 more code repositories over the course of the year.

In September, the new Open Gov Foundation published the code for the MADISON legislative platform. In December, the U.S. Code went on GitHub.

GitHub’s profile was raised further in Washington this week when Ben Balter was announced as the company’s federal liaison. Balter made some open source history last year, when he was part of the federal government’s first agency-to-agency pull request. He also was a big part of giving the White House some much-needed geek cred when he coded the administration’s digital government strategy in HTML5.

Balter will be GitHub’s first government-focused employee. He won’t, however, be saddled with an undecipherable title. In a sly dig at the slow-moving institutions of government, and in keeping with GitHub’s love for octocats, Balter will be the first “Government Bureaucat,” focused on “helping government to do all sorts of governmenty things, well, more awesomely,” wrote GitHub CIO Scott Chacon.

Part of Balter’s job will be to evangelize the use of GitHub’s platform as well as open source in government, in general. The latter will come naturally to him, given how he and the other Presidential Innovation Fellows approached their work.

“Virtually everything the Presidential Innovation Fellows touched was open sourced,” said Balter when I interviewed him earlier this week. “That’s everything from better IT procurement software to internal tools that we used to streamline paperwork. Even more important, much of that development (particularly RFPEZ) happened entirely in the open. We were taking the open source ethos and applying it to how government solutions were developed, regardless whether or not the code was eventually public. That’s a big shift.”

Balter is a proponent of social coding in the open as a means of providing some transparency to interested citizens. “You can go back and see why an agency made a certain decision, especially when tools like these are used to aid formal decision making,” he said. “That can have an empowering effect on the public.”

Forking code in city hall and beyond

There’s notable government activity beyond the Beltway as well.

The City of Chicago is now on GitHub, where chief data officer and city CIO Brett Goldstein is releasing open data as JSON files, along with open source code.

Both Goldstein and Philadelphia chief data officer Mark Headd are also laudably participating in conversations about code and data on Hacker News threads.

“Chicago has released over 400 datasets using our data portal, which is located at,” Headd wrote on HackerNews. While Goldstein says that the city’s portal will remain the primary way they release public sector data, publishing data on GitHub is an experiment that will be interesting to watch, in terms of whether it affects reuse.

“We hope [the datasets on GitHub] will be widely used by open source projects, businesses, or non-profits,” wrote Goldstein. “GitHub also allows an on-going collaboration with editing and improving data, unlike the typical portal technology. Because it’s an open source license, data can be hosted on other services, and we’d also like to see applications that could facilitate easier editing of geographic data by non-technical users.”

Headd is also on GitHub in a professional capacity, where he and his colleagues have been publishing code to a City of Philadelphia repository.

“We use [GitHub] to share some of our official city apps,” commented Headd on the same Hacker News thread. “These are usually simple web apps built with tools like Bootstrap and jQuery. We’ll be open sourcing more of these going forward. Not only are we interested in sharing the code for these apps, we’re actively encouraging people to fork, improve and send pull requests.”

While there’s still a long road ahead for widespread code sharing between the public and government, the economic circumstances of cities and agencies could create the conditions for more code sharing inside government. In a TED Talk last year, Clay Shirky suggested that adopting open source methods for collaboration could even transform government.

A more modest (although still audacious) goal would be to simply change how government IT is done.

“I’ve often said, the hardest part of being a software developer is training yourself to Google the problem first and see if someone else has already solved it,” said Balter during our interview. “I think we’re going to see government begin to learn that lesson, especially as budgets begin to tighten. It’s a relative ‘app store’ of technology solutions just waiting to be used or improved upon. That’s the first step: rather than going out to a contractor and reinventing the wheel each time, it’s training ourselves that we’re part of a larger ecosystem and to look for prior art. On the flip side, it’s about contributing back to that commons once the problem has been solved. It’s about realizing you’re part of a community. We’re quickly approaching a tipping point where it’s going to be easier for government to work together than alone. All this means that a taxpayer’s dollar can go further, do more with less, and ultimately deliver better citizen services.”

Some people may understandably bridle at including open source code and open data under the broader umbrella of “open government,” particularly if such efforts are not balanced by adherence to good government principles around transparency and accountability.

That said, there’s reason to hail collaboration around software and data as bonafide examples of 21st century civic participation, where better platforms for social coding enable improved outcomes. The commits and pulls of staff and residents on GitHub may feel like small steps, but they represent measurable progress toward more government not just of the people, but with the people.

“Open source in government is nothing new,” said Balter. “What’s new is that we’re finally approaching a tipping point at which, for federal employees, it’s going to be easier to work together, than work apart. Whereas before, ‘open source’ often meant compiling, zipping, and uploading, when you fuse the internal development tools with the external publishing tools, and you make those tools incredibly easy to use, participating in the open source community becomes trivial. Often, it can be more painful for an agency to avoid it completely. I think we’re about to see a big uptick in the amount of open source participation, and not just in the traditional sense. Open source can be between business units within an agency. Often the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing between agencies. The problems agencies face are not unique. Often the taxpayer is paying to solve the same problem multiple times. Ultimately, in a collaborative commons with the public, we’re working together to make our government better.”

December 22 2012

14 big trends to watch in 2013

2012 was a remarkable year for technology, government and society. In our 2012 year in review, we looked back at 10 trends that mattered. Below, we look ahead to the big ideas and technologies that will change the world, again.

Liquid data

In 2012, people still kept publishing data in PDFs or trapping it in paper. In 2013, as entrepreneurs and venture capitalists look to use government data as a platform, civic startups that digitize documents will help make data not just open but liquid, flowing across sectors previously stuck in silos.

Networked accountability

In 2012, mobile technology, social media and the Internet have given first responders and government officials new ways to improve situational awareness during natural disasters, like Hurricane Sandy. A growing number of free or low-cost online tools empowers people to do more than just donate money or blood: now, they can donate, time, expertise or, increasingly, act as sensors. In 2013, expect mobile sensors, “sensor journalism” and efforts like Safecast to add to that skein of networked accountability.

Data as infrastructure

When natural disasters loomed in 2012, public open government data feeds became critical infrastructure. In 2013, more of the public sector will see open data as a strategic national resource that merits stewardship and investment.

Social coding

The same peer networks that helped build the Internet are forming around building digital civic infrastructure, from collaboration between newsrooms to open government hackers working together around the country. 2012 was a breakout year for GitHub’s use in government and media. 2013 will be even bigger.

Data commons

Next year, more people will take a risk to tap into the rewards of a health data commons. Open science will be part of the reward equation. (Don’t expect revolutionary change here, just evolutionary change.)

Lean government

The idea of “lean government” gained some traction in 2012, as cities and agencies experimented with applying the lean startup approach to the public sector. With GOV.UK, the British government both redefined the online government platform and showed how citizen-centric design can be done right. In 2013, the worth of a lean government approach will be put to the test when the work of the White House Innovation Fellows is released.

Smart government

Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio is now looking at the intersection of government and technology through the lens of “smart government.” In 2013, I expect to hear much more about that, from smartphones to smarter cities to smart disclosure.

Sharing economy

Whether it’s co-working, bike sharing, exchanging books and videos, or cohabiting hackerspaces and community garden spaces, there are green shoots throughout the economy that suggest the way we work, play and learn is changing due to the impact of connection technologies and the Great Recession. One of the most dynamic sectors of the sharing economy is the trend toward more collaborative consumption — and the entrepreneurs have followed, from Airbnb to Getable to Freecycle. The private sector and public sector are saving real money through collaborative consumption. Given support from across the ideological spectrum, expect more adoption in 2013.

Preemptive health care

Data science and new health IT offer an extraordinary opportunity to revolutionize health care, a combination that gave Dr. Atul Gawande hope for health care when we spoke in 2012. In 2013, watch for a shift toward “preemptive health care,” as behavioral science becomes part of how affordable care organizations try to keep patients healthy.

Predictive data analytics

Just as doctors hope to detect disease earlier, professionals across industry and the public sector will look to make sense of the data deluge using new tools next year. Predictive data analytics saved lives and taxpayer dollars in New York City in 2012. U.S. cities have now formed a working group to share predictive data analytics skills. Look for data science to be applied to regulatory data more in 2013.

Algorithmic censorship and algorithmic transparency

Expect speech online to continue be a flashpoint next year. As algorithmic censorship becomes a common approach to moderation on social networks and predictive analytics are applied in law enforcement, media, commerce and regulation, there will be even more interest in understanding bias in these systems and the civil rights implications of big data.

Personal data ownership

Should the Freedom of Information Act apply to private companies? In 2012, a report from the World Economic Forum and McKinsey Consulting described personal data as a new asset class. Much of the time, however, people are separated from their personal data. In 2013, expect to see more data disclosed to consumers and citizens and applied in new choice engines.

Open journalism

In 2012, Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger shared 10 principles for open journalism. While the process of gathering and sharing news in a hyper-networked environment will only grow more messy as more people gain access to tools to publish around the world, this trend isn’t going backward. Despite the trend toward the “broadcast-ification of social media,” there are many more of us listening and sharing now than ever before. Expect journalism to be a more participatory experience in 2013.

Automation, artificial intelligence and employment

The combination of big data, automation and artificial intelligence looked like something new in 2012, from self-driving cars to e-discovery software to “robojournalism” to financial advisers to medical diagnostics. Wherever it’s possible, “software is eating the world.” In 2013, the federal government will need an innovation agenda to win the race against the machines.

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