Coding for community: the story of an ideahack in Chicago

If you’re following the intersection of citizens, technology and cities in the United States in 2012, the story of Chicago is already on your radar, as are the efforts of Code for America. This month, Code for America rolled out its brigades to start coding across America, including the Windy City.

These “brigades” are an effort to empower civic hackers to make apps and services that help their own communities. In Chicago, they’re calling themselves “IdeaHack.”

Below, I’ve embedded a story of their second meeting.

Apps for Energy looks to jumpstart open innovation around the Green Button

Data standards are the railway gauges of the 21st century. With more adoption of the ‘Green Button,’ are we about to see an explosion of innovation around energy data?

Today, the Obama Administration announced that nine major utilities and electricity suppliers have committed to using and extending the Green Button to enable some 15 million additional households to access data about their energy usage, creating a potential market of 27 million households for energy apps.

As with the Blue Button for healthcare data, the White House asserts that providing energy consumers with secure access to information about energy usage will increase innovation in the sector and empower citizens with more information.

“This is the kind of innovation that gets me excited,” wrote venture capitalist Fred Wilson earlier this year. “The Green Button is like OAuth for energy data. It is a simple standard that the utilities can implement on one side and web/mobile developers can implement on the other side. And the result is a ton of information sharing about energy consumption and in all likelihood energy savings that result from more informed consumers.”

The thinking here, as with Blue Button, which enables veterans (and soon all federal workers) to download their personal health data, is that broad adoption by utilities and engagement with industry will lead to new opportunities for software developers and civic entrepreneurs to serve a new market of millions of consumers who want better tools to analyze and manage their energy data.

To stimulate app creation, the U.S Department of Energy announced an Apps for Energy challenge today. This effort is meant to “change the way you think about your utility bill data,” wrote data integration specialist Matthew Loveless at the DoE blog:

With the Energy Department’s new Apps for Energy competition, we’re challenging developers to use the Green Button data access program to bring residential and commercial utility data to life.

The Energy Department – in partnership with Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Itron, and Gridwise Alliance – is offering $100,000 in cash prizes to the software developers and designers that submit the best apps, as judged by a prestigious panel of judges selected from government, the energy industry, and the tech community.

Apps for ENERGY leverages Green Button, an initiative that gives access to energy usage data in a streamlined and easy-to-understand format (learn more about the Green Button open standard here). In addition to leveraging Green Button, app developers are encouraged to combine data from a variety of sources to present a complete picture of the customer’s energy usage.

The competition is all about creating tools and products that help consumers get the most out of their Green Button data – from apps that track personal energy savings goals to software that helps businesses optimize building energy usage. In addition, the 27 million households that will have access to Green Button data by the end of the year represent an untapped market that can serve as a catalyst for an active, energy focused developer community.

Apps for Energy will join over one hundred other challenges on Challenge.gov next month.

Is the Facebook “citizen cosponsor” app open government 2.0 or clever e-partisanship?

Yesterday, the Office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI) launched a new Facebook application, “Citizen Co-sponsor.” Rep. Cantor introduces it in the video below:

Since its introduction, I’ve been mulling over what to write about the new app. Here’s what I’ve read to date:

First, excellent reporting from TechPresident, where Sara Lai Stirland writes that the new Facebook open graph app makes lawmaking social:

The app enables people to use Facebook to track the progress of House legislation as it makes its way through the chamber, but also provides the majority leader’s office with an interesting new grassroots marketing tool for the Republican party’s ideas.

The new app makes use of Facebook’s Open Graph protocol, which means that once installed, updates to legislation that a user has expressed support for can be automatically posted to their Facebook profiles. It also means that these updates show up in users’ timelines, newsfeeds and tickers, giving the legislation more exposure to users’ networks of friends.

For now, the list of legislation that citizens can choose to support is controlled, of course, by Cantor’s office and is listed on a section of his web site. Citizens can click to “co-sponsor” legislation that they support, and see all the other citizen co-sponsors who’ve expressed their support. Each widget for each piece of legislation also shows a visual storyline of that legislation’s progress through the House.

Second, a post by Alex Fitzpatrick at Mashable on the Facebook citizen cosponsor app , in which he interviewed Matt Lira, the director of digital for the House Majority Leader.

“We have a startup mentality to it,” says Lira. “When Twitter first started, it was just going to be for cell phones, now it is what it is today. It’s evolutionary, so you want to see how users use it and if the engagement justifies it, we’ll expand it out.”

The new media team at Cantor’s office is drawing inspiration from both sides of the aisle. Lira says he’s a fan of Rep. Issa’s (R-Calif.) Madison Project as well as the White House’s “We the People” online petitions. He talked about online bill markups, hearings and expert roundtables as possibilites for ways to expand the Citizen Cosponsor in the future.

“We want the program to give more to users than is asks of them,” says Lira. “The only way this stuff works is if you have a tolerance for experimentation and a certain level of patience. I’ve been impressed with We the People and that’s very experimental — it’s in the spirit of ‘let’s throw something out there and see if it works.’ Otherwise, there’s the alternative: a conference room of ideas that never happen.”

Over at the Huffington Post, POPVOX founder Marci Harris published a long post with substantive concerns about the citizens cosponsors app. (Disclosure: Tim O’Reilly was an early angel investor in POPVOX.) Harris wanted to know more about who the sponsors of the app are (it’s funded by the Office of the Majority Leader), whether feedback will go to a citizen’s Member of Congress, whether “updates” will be neutral or partisan, who will have access to the list of constituents that is generated by the app, the capability to only express support for a bill, versus opposition, and the privacy policy.

In late 2007 when I, as a staffer, shopped an idea around within Congress to create a public platform for constituent engagement, I discovered that it was nearly impossible to build something like that within the institution of Congress outside of the partisan caucus system. You could either build a Democratic-sponsored tool or a Republican-sponsored tool, but there was no structure for building a nonpartisan CONGRESSIONAL tool (and don’t even get me started on how impossible integration between House and Senate was/is.)* My experience does not mean that nonpartisan strides are impossible — just challenging, and that any effort should be viewed with a critical eye.

Dave Copeland published a more critical take on the enterprise this afternoon at ReadWriteWeb, writing that the House Majority leader missed the mark with the Facebook app, asking a key question:

…why not use the publicly available data on all pending legislation and allow citizens to “co-sponsor” any bill currently being weighed by the legislature?

No matter how we feel about Facebook’s privacy provisions, we’ll be the first to admit that it is the default way to connect with people these ways. We’re not poo-poohing any initiative that harnesses social media that makes it easier for people to get involved in the political process, and we’re not bashing this from a partisan point of view. We’re bashing it from a point of view that cares about transparency.

Cantor’s ploy reeks of partisanship disguised as bipartisanship (nowhere on the main page of the site are the words “Democrat” or “Republican” used). And while the Cosponsor Project may be more participatory, it’s certainly not the “open, visible” platform he promises in his introduction.

That all adds up to a strong critique. As the app stands, however, it’s an important first step into the water for integration of Facebook’s social graph into legislation.

That said, there are some flaws, from an unclear Terms of Service to permissive data usage to a quite limited selection of bills that citizens can follow or support.

In addition, as a commenter on Mashable notes, “Unless there’s a way to show how many people are *against* proposed bills, this will not provide a clear picture as to the support they actually have. You might have a significant number of citizen cosponsors (say 25k), but that number loses its significance if the number of people against is, say 125k. You need both measures in order to get an idea as to whether or not a proposed bill is truly supported.”

I’ve asked Lira a number of followup questions and will file something for Radar if he responds. In the meantime, what do you think of the app and the initiative? Please let us know in the comments, keeping the following perspective  from Harris in mind:

As with any startup, the first iteration is never perfect. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously said, “if you are not embarrassed by your first release, you’ve launched too late.” In that sense, maybe the Majority Leader is learning from the startup world. In an email response to my questions, Matt Lira, Director of New Media for Majority Leader Cantor, seemed to indicate that there were iterations to come: “As was the case when I publicly defended We the People, this is an evolutionary step – there will be continual progress, as with all these things, towards the desired end of a modernized Congress.”

Update: “We’ve always characterized both MADISON and Citizen CoSponsors as digital experiments that we are both admittedly excited about and that I personally believe have great potential to grow,” responded Matt Lira, director of digital for the House Majority Leader’s office, via email.

“These are the type of projects that will modernize our country’s legislative institutions for the social media age,” he wrote. “We are trying really new things like MADISON and Citizens. We are successfully driving institutional reforms on a structural basis. We are the same people who created docs.House.gov, require a public posting period for legislation, and established a machine-readable document standard. In short, people who have done more to open the House of Representatives than anyone in history.”

With respect to “e-partisanship,” Lira noted that “from the moment it launched, the app included a bill sponsored by a Democratic Representative. Some of the other bills – like the JOBS Act – have widespread support on both sides. I launched with six bills, because I wanted to see how the app works in the field, before making any choices about its wider deployment, should that even be justified.”

This post has updated to include a disclosure about Tim O’Reilly’s early investment in POPVOX.

HUD, Veterans Affairs and Jon Bon Jovi’s foundation launch app challenge for homeless veterans

To paraphrase President Kennedy: Ask not what your country can code for you — ask what you can code to help your country. If you’re a developer, consider empowering your fellow citizens help the homeless veterans in your community. The Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation have collaborated to back a new challenge to developers to create a better way to help the homeless veterans using the Internet and mobile devices.

“Last year’s 12 percent drop in Veterans homelessness shows the results of President Obama’s and the whole administration’s commitment to ending Veterans homelessness,” said Secretary of House and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, in a prepared statement. “I want to thank Jon Bon Jovi for being a part of that effort and for using competition and innovation to advance the cause of ending homelessness.”

The idea here is relatively straightforward: use the open innovation approach that the White House has successfully applied elsewhere federal government to tap into the distributed creativity of the technology community all over the country.

“This contest taps the talent and deep compassion of the Nation’s developer community,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, in a prepared statement. “We are asking them to make a free, easy-to-use Web and smartphone app that provides current information about housing, health clinics and food banks.”

While “Project REACH” stands for “Real-time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless (REACH),” it actually aspires to do something more meaningful: give mobile citizens and caregivers the information they need to help a homeless veteran where and when it’s needed.

This app “will better connect our nation’s homeless to resources that are already available to them in a manner that reaches them where they are,” said Aneesh Chopra, the first US CTO, in a conference call today with reporters. Chopra, who left the administration earlier this year, later clarified that he was serving as a volunteer and judge for the challenge.

To say that improving the current state of affairs with homeless veterans is needed would be a gross understatement. “Homelessness for anyone is a national tragedy,” said Sean Donovan, secretary of HUD, in today’s call. “It’s never worse than for our nation’s veterans.”

The “Obama administation believes that no one who has fought for our country should ever be invisible to the American people,” said Donovan, who noted that while HUD has housed 28,000 veterans and has gotten nearly “nearly 1 in 5 homeless veterans off our nation’s streets,” more effort is needed.

He’s right. Here’s your jarring statistic of the day: One out of every six men and women in the United States’ homeless shelters are veterans. Veterans are 50 percent, according to the VA, are more likely to fall into homelessness compared to other Americans

The Project REACH challenge asks developers to create a mobile or Web application that will connect service providers to real-time information about resources for the homeless and others in need. “What if we had the ability, in real-time, drawing on local data, to help the homeless vet?” asked Donovan today. He wants to see information that can help them find a place to sleep, find services or work put in the palms of the hands of anyone, giving ordinary citizens the ability to help homeless veterans.

Instead of offering spare change, in other words, a citizen could try to help connect a homeless veteran with services and providers.

The first five entries to meet the requirements will receive a $10,000 cash prize and the opportunity to test their app at the JBJ Soul Kitchen. The winner will receive a $25,000 prize.

“At the Soul Kitchen we’ve seen the need for a simple, user-friendly, comprehensive application that connects those in need to resources in their community,” said Jon Bon Jovi, legendary rock musician, chairman of the JBJ Soul Foundation and White House Council Member, in a prepared statement. “As we sought out a solution to resolve the disconnect, we found the VA, HUD and HHS to be of like mind. Together we can provide the information about existing services – now we need the bright minds in the developer community to create a platform to tie it all together.”

Empowering people to help one another through mobile technology when they want to do so is more about the right-time Web than real-time. And yes, that should sound familiar.

Community groups and service providers sometime lack the right tools, too, explained W. Scott Gould, deputy secretary of veterans affairs, on the call today. The contest launched today will use Internet and smartphones to help them. The app should use tech to show which community provider has a bed or find an employer with openings, he said.

“It’s a high tech, high compassion, low cost solution,” said Gould, that “puts the power in the hands of anyone” to use data to help veterans get the help that they need. He wrote more about using technology to help homeless veterans at the White House blog:

Project REACH (Real-Time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless) challenges applicants to make a free, easy-to-use, and broadly accessible web- and Smartphone app to provide current and up-to-date information about housing and shelter, health clinics, food banks, and other services available to the homeless. It is designed to tap the enormous talent and deep compassion of the nation’s developer community to help us deliver vital information to the people who care for the homeless.

People caring for homeless veterans will be able to use this app to look up the location and availability of shelters, free clinics, and other social services – and instantaneously be able to share this critical information with those in need.

Bon Jovi, when asked about whether homeless veterans have smartphones on today’s call, told a story about a man at the Soul Kitchen who stayed late into the evening. The staff realized that he didn’t have a place to go and turned to the Internet to try to find a place for him. Although they found that it was easy to find local shelters, said Bon Joivthe websites didn’t inform them of hours and bed availability.

“People like me, who want to help, sometimes just don’t know, real-time, if there are beds available,” he said. “Think about the guys like me that have a computer, in the Soul Kitchen, that want to help.”

As healthcare blogger Brian Ahier noted this afternoon in sharing his post on Project REACH, this is the sort of opportunity that developers who want to make a major contribution to their communities can be proud to work upon.

Improving the ability of citizens to help homeless veterans is a canonical example of working on stuff that matters.

“We will, through our broad and deep network at HUD, make sure that whoever wins this competition, will make sure that app and tech is available to more than 8,000 providers,” said Donovan.

If that network Bon Jovi’s star power can help draw more attention to the challenge and any eventual services, more of the nation’s civic surplus just might get tapped, as more coders find that’s there’s a new form of public service available to them in the 21st century.

Going mobile and social at the USDA DigitalGov Open House

Last week, the General Service Agency’s Center for Excellence in Digital Government, the USDA and the Federal Web Managers Social Media Sub-Committee hosted a social media open house at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Here’s what I learned, as told using social media — in this case, an iPhone, Twitter and Instagram.

Highlights:

  • The USDA has a location-aware mobile app for farmers markets
  • The GAO is going to officially launch an iPhone app soon
  • The U.S. Department of Education is tweeting at @FAFSA, chronicling Twitter chats with Storify and collaborating internally with Yammer, a microblogging application
  • The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has an iOS app that lets citizens explore wildlife refuges.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

U.S. Government Accountability Office

U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Will ESRI allow public GIS data to be fully open government data?

As has been true for years, there’s a robust debate in municipal information technology world around the use of proprietary software or open source. An important element of that conversation centers on open data, specifically whether the formats used by companies are interoperable and “open,” in the sense of being usable by more than one kind of software. When the license required to use a given software application is expensive, that requirement can put budget-strapped cities and towns in a difficult position. Last week, former New York State Senate CIO Andrew Hoppin weighed in on the debate, writing about proprietary software lions and bears in the Civic Commons marketplace, a new online directory of civic software.

 I believe the Civic Commons Marketplace will ultimately save US taxpayers billions of dollars in government IT spending, while accelerating the propagation of technology-driven civic innovation in the bargain.  I’ve believed this for a while.   Thus, it’s a debate worth having; the Marketplace deserves attention, and critique.

In order to realize its potential, from my perspective as a recovering government CIO, I believe that the Civic Commons Marketplace must give equal billing to all software used in government, regardless of the software license associated with it.

Nick Grossman, the executive director of Civic Commons, chronicled the debate that Hoppin described in a Storify:

I talked with ESRI founder Jack Dangermond in September 2010 about how he was opening up ESRI and the role he saw for mapping in open government. My sense then, as now, is that this is an issue that’s deeply important to him.

There are clearly strong feelings in the civic development community about the company’s willingness to open up its data, along with what that means for how public data is coded and released. If you’re a GIS developer and have an opinion on this issue, please let us know in the comments.

Expert Labs data: How does the @WhiteHouse drive engagement on Twitter? [INFOGRAPHIC]

Over at ExpertLabs, Andy Baio created a snazzy infographic of engagement around the White House’s Twitter account using data collected through the ThinkUp App.

There are lots of views into engagement on Twitter, but we have the data to give a unique view into what it looks like from the @whitehouse perspective.

We’ve tracked their activity for the last couple years using ThinkUp to analyze and publicly release large datasets. We decided it might be nice show how the White House engaged their audience last year — without resorting to cheap gimmicks like linkbait infographics.

As Baio points out, if you want to work some mojo on this data set, you can download the .CSV file and have some fun. Kudos to the Expert Labs team for making both the open data and visualization available to all.