‘Code for America’ Programmers to Work in City Governments

Four cities will each receive a team of five open source Web programmers for 11 months, as selected by Code for America, a new nonprofit that’s pairing Web geeks with city governments.

The selected cities were Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Each city paid $250,000 to participate, which included submitting applications and proposals for what they wanted from a team of fellows.

Code for America recently announced its 20 fellows for 2011, chosen from among 360 applicants. The fellows will work mostly from Code for America’s San Francisco headquarters; the programmers will spend February of next year at the actual local governments they’ll be serving.

Really cool stuff. Can’t wait to see what comes out of this in Seattle.

“Shiny app syndrome” and Gov 2.0 – O’Reilly Radar

This was sent to me by a coworker–the entire article is really great but the person interviewed in this video makes some excellent points about the dangers of requiring specific devices to access services. This is bad from the standpoint of freedom and technology in general, vendor lock-in, etc., but is absolutely horrible when it comes to government services.

Unless they’re developed by a third party completely independent of any particular government agency, citizens fund the development of the applications that make the promise of letting them interact more directly and more effectively with their government. By limiting access to a specific device, it’s like simultaneously spitting in the face of the citizens that fund the development and handling Apple a check.

With the decreasing cost and increasing availability of technology the digital divide was supposed to get smaller, not bigger, but by requiring citizens to buy one of the most expensive phones on the market and sign up for an expensive data plan through one specific wireless carrier, we’re making it far, far worse and the conspiracy theorist in me has to wonder if something nefarious is going on behind the scenes.

Thankfully there’s a simple solution to this problem. First, follow the “just give us the data” mantra of Gov2.0 advocates, and second, build apps with standards that don’t lock people into any one device. There is absolutely no reason any publicly developed application should only be available on one particular device, and if there aren’t any rules in government that mandate cross-device compatibility as a requirement, there should be.

D.C. Suspends Tests of Online Voting System | Slashdot

One of the articles mentioned that some browsers submitted blank forms because they don’t support inline PDF forms. Who, exactly, thought that using PDF was a good idea? The whole point of the web is that it provides layout standards. Why even bother using a web browser if you’re just going to try to hack around it by using a completely different content format, PDF, shoved in using browser plug-ins. It might has well have been Flash. Use the web or do not. There is no halfway.

My jaw hit the floor when I read this. I’m not sure how you can get so incredibly far afield with what should be a pretty simple system. The group developing the system DC was testing needs some serious help if they’re sticking PDFs in a browser and calling it online voting. So incredibly unnecessary I can’t even begin to fathom how they wound up with this as a solution.

FCC.gov Announces Open Source Redesign | The White House

At its core, the FCC’s new online platform will leverage the same open source technology powering WhiteHouse.gov, and they’re planning active engagement with the open source community. We’ve found open source technology to be a great way maximize the scalability and accessibility of WhiteHouse.gov, and we’ve even contributed some of the custom code we’ve written back to the public domain.

This is definitely a trend I’m loving to see happen in government. Even without an official mandate, open source will likely soon just be the way things are done with government technology projects.

City in a Box: Municipal Makeover Comes to Texas | The White House

Today I am in Manor, Texas (pop. 6,500), to celebrate the burgeoning open government movement underway in America’s towns and cities. Manor is embracing the Obama Administration’s vision of creating effective and efficient government that fosters transparency and innovation. By using new technology to enable open and collaborative ways of working, government—whether federal, state, or local—can deliver better citizen services with fewer resources.

Just goes to show all the things that can be done with technology TODAY, regardless of the size of your resources. Really exciting stuff, and the best part is that many of the initiatives around this mean that the code will be available for other municipalities to use.

It’s nice to see that we’re finally making some progress in using technology to have an actual impact on people’s lives. And if a town of 6500 can do it, there’s really no more excuses large cities can use for not moving in this direction.

Closing the Tech Gap | The White House

What if senior management in an Agency – or anyone in the public – could identify and monitor the performance of IT projects just as easily as they could monitor the stock market or baseball scores?  That’s what the IT dashboard does  — and it’s changing the way government does business.

Government IT projects all too often cost millions of dollars more than they should, take years longer than necessary to deploy, and deliver technologies that are obsolete by the time they are completed. Colossal failures have contributed to a significant technology gap between the public and private sector which results in dollars wasted and a government that is less responsive to the American people.  To close the technology gap, cut waste, and modernize government, the Obama Administration is taking concrete steps to deliver better results for the American people.

I am continually floored by the efforts of the US CIO to get the bloat eliminated from government IT projects. Extremely encouraging stuff.

Cutting Waste by Reforming IT | The White House

While a productivity boom has transformed private sector performance over the past two decades, the federal government has almost entirely missed this transformation and now lags far behind on efficiency and service quality.  We are wasting billions of dollars a year, and more importantly are missing out on the huge productively improvements other sectors have benefited from.

Quite simply, we can’t significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government without fixing IT.

Some rather astounding (albeit not surprising) numbers on some of the horrendously wasteful projects in government IT. I hope this starts a similar movement in the other branches of government, because all told this would make a massive difference in government spending, and that’s rather critical right now.

Using free and open source software for all projects where it’s feasible would certainly help as well.

Open Source Bridge – Transparent, Collaborative, Participatory – Grass Roots Implementation of the Open Government Directive

Mark Frischmuth – founder of Democracy Labs

  • current system yielding polarizing candidates that yell at each other
  • idea was we shouldbe able to use technology to inform citizens to enable better decisions
  • Obama signed open govt directive first day in office
  • data.gov
    • 270,000 data sets online
    • hundreds of applications built on top of this data
    • movement towards democratization of data
  • still not as successful in facilitating collaboration

Jim ???

  • 3dna
  • idea: if internet can bring democracy to music, etc. should be able to bring democracy to democracy
  • whitehouse2 — how would whitehouse be run if it was truly democratic

Travis ???

  • phd in CS at UW
  • computer-human interaction
  • interested in design of platforms for facilitating public communication
  • working with city of seattle
  • cto of flashvolunteer — neighborhood-centric volunteerism
  • works on opensim platform

??? – Democracy Lab

  • interested in having conversations that are more structure
  • open democracy can dwindle into flame wars pretty quickly
  • values-based conversation mechanism helps keep the conversation structured

Three elements of open govt directive

  • transparency, collaboration, participation


  • data.gov–lots of info out there, but no real increase in public trust–why not?
  • not really transparency
    • lot of datapoints
    • to get true transparency you need to get beyond the data points to the root causes
      • e.g. poverty in one area vs. another — how was data produced?
  • collaboration and participation are missing
    • if you're not being heard as citizens, you won't trust what's going on
    • without transparency, collaboration, and participation (all three) it doesn't mean much
  • long term project–can't expect open govt initiative itself would have some tangible impact in overall trust
    • 5-10-15 year project
  • how does data that's available get brought up in public discourse?
    • can have a robust dataset with a few errors, and the errors become the story in the media
  • grassroots solutions trying to solve problems govt doesn't
    • do the grassroots efforts have their own agenda?
    • goal is to improve the discourse gradually–trying to make it better in a little way
    • have to convince people the data you're getting from grassroots organizations is a little better than you'd get elsewhere
    • site like whitehouse2 doesn't even work unless it's totally transparent and people can interact freely with the data
      • have to publish everything that everyone on the site does
      • have to help people formulate opinions for and against each topic — all on a wiki
        • anyone can edit, but it's also tracked so the changes are transparent, so easy to see who isn't participating legitimately
    • relate open govt work with open source software
      • if open source projects aren't fully open, they don't work, e.g. android — what's the agenda? is it REALLY open?
      • contrast with apache projects–can see the mailing lists and see why decisions were made


  • in order for this to work at all we need engaged citizens
    • expressing points of view, learning, engaging, etc.
  • what tools help this?
  • this is the core issue–lots of efforts targeting getting citizens engaged
    • hard part is getting people to care
    • important to give people a voice and allow them to share this with their friends
    • in some ways if one person says what someone is saying in a "better" way, this will get shared and spread around
      • efforts can get bogged down over "what's the best way to express this"
      • open systems allow the best message rise to the top
    • single biggest way to get people involved is to have meaningful results
      • people need to see how their efforts are impacting the political process
  • current way for people to participate is to vote, and they don't
    • people don't feel their voice is being heard
    • key to systems around open govt is to make people's voices heard
    • all kind of pointless if people aren't listening though
  • have to show impact
    • very easy to think your vote doesn't count
  • work at national scale?
    • go local where outcomes are more tangible–projects that get voted on you can see the results of this in your everyday life
  • what kinds of tools will best facilitate getting the citizens' information to decision makers?
    • get decision makers to sign up and interacting
      • important to show this happening
      • e.g. peer2patent–crowdsourcing to help USPTO see prior art
        • home page shows which people submitted specific prior art associated with specific patents
    • frustrating thing about "open for questions" that obama did a few months ago
      • marijuana question showed up multiple times — couldn't figure out how to handle this so they haven't had one since
      • why not use FAQ type format?


  • political issues are adversarial by nature–how best to facilitate collaboration between adversarial parties?
  • point is to enable rational discussions
    • have to operate under the assumption that people want to have a rational discussion
  • need to improve online comment boards
    • introduction of second column into online discussion that would show summary bullet points
    • introduction of neutrality into comments which are typically very subjective
    • current comment board implementations drive away people who might otherwise participate, but overly prescriptive comment systems do the same thing
  • split the issue in two
    • how do you deal with jerks/trolls?
      • set up rules–e.g. no personal attacks
      • differentiate between attacks on ideas and attacks on people
        • this didn't really work
      • created public 4-step process to eliminate trolls/jerks
        • allow others to flag people/comments
        • escalating system of warning, losing karma, up to being expelled
      • interesting thing was nobody every got a second warning — people played along or they left of their own accord
    • how do you deal with partisanship?
      • big problem is that people couldn't agree on what the goal was so there was no common ground to be found
  • through the application of better processes we can get more people involved without worrying about solving every problem involved


  • Portland working on releasing their data, currently have about 110 datasets. Most jurisdictions are willing to participate, but there's a lot of datasets that haven't been released. Need to prove to the govt organizations that releasing the data is worth their time. What's the major catalyst to prove to politicians to release more data?
    • again, have to make clear to people that they're having an impact
      • e.g. iPhone app that lets people submit where potholes are on bike trails
    • easy to solve the "read" side of the problem, harder to solve the "write" side
    • do developer contests to get people to show what can be done with the data
    • try to do something useful with what's out there
      • target datasets with a concrete application in mind–easier to work with people in government at that point
  • If an open source project starts out closed, then goes open, it tends never to get the full benefit of being truly open. Is government ever going to be open enough?
    • tends to be generational–if developers don't start with openness in mind, it doesn't ever get there
    • with turnover, change easier to happen
    • govt isn't going to be completely transparent and open until we put people in govt who got there via the open systems

Oil reaches Louisiana shores – The Big Picture


All of the images of the aftermath of the STILL ongoing oil spill from boston.com are amazing, but this one really hit me. If we don’t learn big time from this one and make serious changes in what we’re doing, we deserve nothing less than what we get.

It’s too bad we humans have the astoundingly bad combination of tremendous power and even more tremendous stupidity, because it’s the animals and the environment that take the hit.

Moving to the Cloud | The White House

Recovery.gov is the first government-wide system to move to the cloud. The move is part of the Administration’s overall efforts to cut waste and fix or end government programs that don’t work. By migrating to the public cloud, the Recovery Board is in position to leverage many advantages including the ability keep the site up as millions of Americans help report potential fraud, waste, and abuse. The Board expects savings of about $750,000 during its current budget cycle and significantly more savings in the long-term.

I continue to be pleasantly shocked when I see how progressive the current administration is with information technology. Very cool stuff.