Open government means calling all hands on deck, not just civic developers

“I think that government is always going to need help, and that’s part of the message that we’re trying to spread… government not only will need help but will become an institution that lets people help, that encourages people to help out, and has a strong connection to the citizens its supposed to serve.”-Jennifer Pahlka, talking in a new interview with CNN on geeks helping open government.

Earlier this winter, Pahlka (aka @pahlkadot) delivered a TED Talk, “Coding a Better Government,” that now has over 300,000 views at TED.com and another 40,000+ at YouTube:

That talk and her SXSWi keynote — which was nearly three times as long and perhaps that much better — aren’t just about Code for America or civic coding or the impact of the Internet on society. It was about how we think about government and citizenship in the 21st century.

Jen’s voice is bringing the idea of civic coding as another kind of public service to an entire nation now. If America’s developer community really wakes up to help, city and state government IT could get better, quickly, as a network effect catalyze by the “Code for America effect takes off.

As Paul M. Davis wrote at Shareable Magazine, however, if the open government and open data movement is to help cities and citizens, it will need more than just “civic hackers.”

“To build resilient, peer-to-peer cities these precarious economic times demand, these conversations and collaborations need to be facilitated top-down, ground-up, and between every other decentralized community node that can contribute to weaving a diverse tapestry of a city’s political, cultural, historical, and socioeconomic data. …

To those of us who don’t think of ourselves as hackers but find ourselves applying that ethos to other trades—journalists, community organizers, field researchers, social justice activists, lawyers and policy wonks, and many more groups—let’s join the conversation, contribute our skills to the civic hacker community, and see what we can build together for our cities.”

If millions of non-coders collaborate with the geeks amongst us, learning from one another in the process, it could transform “hacking as a civic duty” from a geeky pursuit into something more existential and powerful:

21st century citizenship in which an ongoing digital relationship with government, services, smarter cities and fellow citizens is improved, negotiated and delivered through mobile devices, social media and open data.

We live in interesting times.

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.

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.

A definition for civic innovation

Out in California, Tina Lee asked about the best definition for civic innovation. As someone who has served as a fellow in the City of San Francisco’s Department of Technology Services, Lee has some personal context and interest.

According her tweets, she wants to distill the various definitions available online down to one working definition for educational purposes that would enable her to tease out the skills that are needed for 21st century civic engagement.

As it happens, I wrote definitions for years at WhatIs.com. This is an assignment that interests me. First, break down civic innovation into its components.

Webster defines “civic” as “or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs.” Examples: “civic duty” or “civic pride.”

Webster defines for “innovation” as either “the introduction of something new” or “a new idea, method, or device.” Example: GPS navigation systems.

So, how could one define “civic engagement?” Concisely, with examples:

In this context, then, we might broadly define civic innovation as” new idea or method that improves the lives of citizens, the functions of cities, the practice of citizenship, or the state of community affairs.”

Maryland chief innovation officer Bryan Sivak, however, that “innovation challenges existing processes and systems, resulting in the injection, rapid execution and validation of new ideas into the ecosystem. In short, innovation asks “why?” a lot.”

San Francisco chief innovation officer Jay Nath told me via email this year that civic innovation “can be as simple as finding new ways to solve old problems. The real challenge is how to scale across a large organization and through time.”

Nath says that civic innovation is driven by resource constraints. “I recognize the value of applying lean methodology to public sector,” wrote Nath. “For the past few years, I’ve been operating without any budget and often without any direct staff. The way to innovate with these constraints is through partnerships, open innovation, and applying lean principles.”

Given that, a better definition for civic innovation might be a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, thereby improving the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.

Like the definition? Dislike it? Have ideas to improve it? Let us know in the comments — or share your version on Twitter using the #civicinnovation hashtag.

A future of cities fueled by citizens, open data and collaborative consumption

The future of cities was a hot topic this year at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, with two different panels devoted to thinking about what’s next. I moderated one of them, on “shaping cities with mobile data.” Megan Schumann, a consultant at Deloitte, was present at both sessions and storified them. Her curatorial should gives you a sense of the zeitgeist of ideas shared.

The expanding world of open data journalism

From healthcare to finance to emergency response, data holds immense potential to help citizens and government. Putting data to work for the public good, however, will require data journalists to apply the powerful emerging tools in the newsroom stack to the explosion of information from government, business and their fellow citizens. The promise of data journalism has been a strong theme throughout the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting’s (NICAR) 2012 conference.

It was in that context that I presented upon “Open Data Journalism” this morning, which, to paraphrase Jonathan Stray, I’d define as obtaining, reporting upon, curating and publishing open data in the public interest. My slides, which broadly describe what I’m seeing in the world of open government today, are embedded below.

San Francisco pitches lean government as a platform for innovation [PRESENTATION]

Over at TechCrunch, Eric @Eldon reports that “San Francisco Launches The 2012 Innovation Portfolio, From Open Taxi Data To Beta Tests In City Hall,” sourcing the post on a presentation from the city’s innovation staff, which I’ve embedded below. Eldon posts a summary over in his post but here’s the gist of it:

Mayor Ed Lee, who came to power last year with heavy support from the local tech scene, is announcing a new initiative today at the TechFellows awards ceremony, that has some intriguing ideas for making the city itself more relevant to the booming industry within it.

Broadly, the so-called 2012 Innovation Portfolio is trying to do everything from helping founders making it easier to complete the paperwork for creating a company, to giving developers new access to city data, to introducing new ways for citizens to share their opinions with the city, to actually testing out tech products at City Hall itself.

As Sara Lai Stirland reported last month, however, while San Francisco’s plans for open government, open data, open doors to new business and better services is focused on worthy goals, achieving them won’t be a walk in Golden Gate Park. Then again, it’s rare that anything worth doing is easy.

Honestly, in reading this over, I’m not sure about how much of this innovation initiative is truly new, although there is one news nugget “As part of this effort, the City is moving to a cloud-based data sharing service for launch in March.”

While that appears to have perplexed Eldon, many Govfresh readers will be able decipher it: San Francisco looks likely to be adopting Socrata next month. If so, that means that, in theory, civic developers will have more (better?) APIs for SF open data soon.

I have a feature in the works on what San Francisco is up to in open government and will report back when I have more to share.

Update: Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell noticed that San Francisco’s new innovation site is running on WordPress. In doing so, the city government would be adopting two of the planks from Luke’s manifesto to reboot government innovation in San Francisco. It’s a promising start.

Regulations.gov relaunches with APIs, integrates social media, hopes for public participation

President Barack Obama signs H.R. 2751, the “FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,” in the Oval Office, Jan. 4, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Jan. 4, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

On January 18, 2011, President Obama issued an executive order directing that regulations shall be adopted through a process that involves participation. 13 months later, the nation’s primary online regulatory website received an overdue redesign and, significantly, a commitment from the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to make regulatory data available to the public.

Today, the White House announced the relaunch of Regulations.gov in a post on remaking public participation by Cass Sunstein, the administrator of the OIRA:

…the President issues Executive Order 13563, in which he directed regulatory agencies to base regulations on an “open exchange of information and perspectives” and to promote public participation in Federal rulemaking.  The President identified Regulations.gov as the centralized portal for timely public access to regulatory content online.

In response to the President’s direction, Regulations.gov has launched a major redesign, including innovative new search tools, social media connections, and better access to regulatory data.  The result is a significantly improved website that will help members of the public to engage with agencies and ultimately to improve the content of rules.

The redesign of Regulations.gov also fulfills the President’s commitment in The Open Government Partnership National Action Plan to “improve public services,” including to “expand public participation in the development of regulations.” This step is just one of many, consistent with the National Action Plan, designed to make our Federal Government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.

I’ve embedded the video that Regulations.gov released about the launch below:

The relaunch includes the following changes:

  • New Regulations.gov and Web design.
  • A new “Browse” tab that groups regulations into 10 categories, sorted by industry
  • A new “Learn” tab that describes the regulatory process
  • Improved search
  • Integrated social media tools (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Regulations.gov Exchange)
  • New Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and standard, Federal Register-specific URLs.

That last detail will be of particular interest to the open government and open data community. Sunstein explained the thinking behind the role of APIs at the WhiteHouse.gov blog:

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are technical interfaces/tools that allow people to pull regulatory content from Regulations.gov. For most of us, the addition of “APIs” on Regulations.gov doesn’t mean much, but for web managers and experts in the applications community, providing APIs will fundamentally change the way people will be able to interact with public federal regulatory data and content.

The initial APIs will enable developers to pull data out of Regulations.gov, and in future releases, the site will include APIs for receiving comment submissions from other sites. With the addition of APIs, other web sites – ranging from other Government sites to industry associations to public interest groups – will now be able to repurpose publicly-available regulatory information on Regulations.gov, and format this information in unique ways such as mobile apps, analytical tools, “widgets” and “mashups.” We don’t know exactly where this will lead us – technological advances are full of surprises – but we are likely to see major improvements in public understanding and participation in rulemaking.

While the APIs will need to be explored and the data behind them assessed for quality, releasing regulatory data through APIs could in theory underpin a wide variety of new consumer-facing services. If you’re interested in the APIs, click on “Developers – Beta” at Regulations.gov to download a PDF with that contains API directions, URLs and information about an API Key.

A time for e-rulemaking

This move comes as part of a larger effort towards e-rulemaking by this White House that will almost certainly be carried over into future administrations, regardless of the political persuasion of the incumbent of the Oval Office. In the 21st century, the country desperately needs a smarter approach to regulations.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, the ongoing regulatory review by OIRA is a nod to serious, long-standing concerns in the business community about excessive regulation hampering investment and job creation as citizens struggle to recover from the effects of the Great Recession.

As the cover story of this month’s issue of The Economist highlights, concerns about an over-regulated America are cresting in this election year, with headlines from that same magazine decrying “excessive environmental regulation” and calling for more accurate measurement of the cost of regulations. Deleting regulations is far from easy to do but there does appear to be a political tailwind behind doing so.

We’ll see if an upgraded online portal that is being touted as a means to include the public in participating in rulemaking makes any difference in regulatory outcomes. Rulemaking and regulatory review are, virtually by their nature, wonky and involve esoteric processes that rely upon knowledge of existing laws and regulations.

While the Internet could involve many more people in the process, improved outcomes will depend upon an digitally literate populace that’s willing to spend some of its civic surplus on public participation.

To put it another way, getting to “Regulations 2.0” will require “Citizen 2.0” — and we’ll need the combined efforts of all our schools, universities, libraries, non-profits and open government advocates to have a hope of successfully making that upgrade.