San Francisco experiments with citizensourcing better ideas

As significant as the revisions to San Francisco’s open data policy may prove to be, city officials and civic startups alike emphasize that it’s people are fundamental to sustained improvements in governance and city life.

“Open data would not exist without our community,” said Jay Nath, the city’s first chief innovation officer, this Monday at the Hatchery.

San Francisco’s approach to open innovation in the public sector — what businesses might describe as crowdsourcing, you might think of as citizensourcing for cities — involves a digital mix of hackathons, public engagement and a renewed focus on the city’s dynamic tech community, including the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, or SF.citi.

Cities have been asking their residents how government could work better for some time, of course — and residents have been telling city governments how they could work better for much longer than that. New technologies, however, have created new horizons for participatory platforms to engage citizens, including mobile apps and social media.

Open data and civic coders also represent a “new class of civic engagement focused on solving issues, not just sharing problems,” argues Nath. “We have dozens and dozens of apps in San Francisco. I think it’s such a rich community. We haven’t awarded prizes. It’s really about sustainability and creating community. We’ve six or seven events and more than 10,000 hours of civic engagement.”

San Francisco’s dedicated citizensourcing platform is called “ImproveSF.” The initiative had its genesis as an internal effort to allow employees to make government better, said Walton. The ideas that come out of both, he said, are typically about budget savings.

The explosion of social media in the past few years has created new challenges for San Francisco to take public comments digitally on Facebook or Twitter that officials haven’t fully surmounted yet.

“We don’t try to answer and have end-to-end dialog,” said Jon Walton, San Francisco’s CIO, in an interview earlier this year. Part of that choice is driven by the city’s staffing constraints.

“What’s important is that we store, archive and make comments available to policy makers so that they can see what the public input is,” he said.

Many priorities are generated by citizen ideas submitted digitally, emphasized Walton, which then can be put on a ballot that residents then vote on and become policy by public mandate.

“How do you get a more robust conversation going on with the public?” asked Walton. “In local government, what we’re trying to do is form better decisions on where we spend time and money. That means learning about other ideas and facilitating conversations.”

He pointed to the deployment of free public Wi-Fi this year as an example of how online public comments can help shape city decisions. “We had limited funds for the project,” he said. “Just $80,000. What can you do with that?”

Walton said that one of the first things they thought about doing was putting up a website to ask the public to suggest where the hotspots should be.

The city is taking that feedback into account as it plans future wifi deployments:


View Larger Map

green dot Completed sites

blue dot Sites in progress

Walton said they’re working with the mayor’s office to make the next generation of ImproveSF more public-facing.

“How do we take the same idea and expose it to the public?” he asked. “Any new ‘town hall’ should really involve the public in asking what the business of government should be? Where should sacrifices and investments be made? There’s so much energy around the annual ballot process. People haven’t really talked about expanding that. The thing that we’re focusing on is to make decision-making more interactive.”

At least some of San Francisco’s focus has gone into mobile development.

“If you look at the new social media app, we’re answering the question of ‘how do we make public meetings available to people on handhelds and tablets’?” said Walton.

“The next generation will focus on how do they not just watch a meeting but see it live, text in questions and have a dialog with policy makers about priorities, live, instead of coming in in person.”

POPVOX shares its Top 50 bills for the 112th Congress (#SOPA is #1)

Last week, the Library of Congress launched Congress.gov in beta, its vision of the next generation of THOMAS, the online repository of the nation’s legislative data. The site features a “most viewed bills” list that lets visitors to the site see at a glance what laws or proposals are gathering interest the site.

The most viewed bills there, however, may not match up to the most popular bills elsewhere online. POPVOX**, a civic startup that is trying to bring the voice of the People into Congress, has posted the top 50 bills on its site for the 112th Congress, in terms of activity.

That the top bill is the Stop Online Piracy Act — and that the PROTECT IP Act is also in the top 5 — is unlikely to be a surprise to observers. The other bills at the top of the list — HR3035 Mobile Informational Call Act, HR2306 Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act and  S3240 Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act – may be more unfamiliar to many people. The complete list is in the infographic below, including whether POPVOX’s userbase supported or opposed them.

popvox infographic

Marci Harris, the co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, wrote in via email to note that, as the 112th Congress comes to a close, the sequestration issue is starting to pop.

**DISCLAIMER: Tim O’Reilly, my publisher, provided angel funding for POPVOX last year. He calls it “a kind of Google Analytics service for politics, bringing visibility and actionable insight to both Congressional staffers and advocacy organizations.”

 

Can government innovation rise above partisan politics?

Earlier today, the White House announced the first class of Presidential Innovation Fellows. Following is the story you might have missed on the Twitter backchannel, followed by a NodeX graph of the tweets around #InnovateGov.

In the network graph below, you’ll see there are 3 discreet groups around the White House, Tim O’Reilly and me, and Michelle Malkin. The lines between the nodes show replies.

Are “Commons 2.0” and participatory urbanism hype or hope?

“…armed with low-cost phones and an Internet connection, people are using civic-minded apps like ForageCity to tackle everything from public safety to potholes. The question is whether the technology will have the long-term effect that some foresee, or whether the “commons 2.0” and “participatory urbanism” will become empty marketing slogans.”

-Angela Woodall, writing in the Oakland Tribune about a new mobile application from Oakland’s Youth Radio that is designed to help people redistribute extra fruit and vegetables to people in need.

Forage City app
[Image Credit: Susan Mernit]

Woodal asks good questions and, as it happens, posed them to me last week in a phone interview. (I’m quoted in the article.)

Here’s a couple of thoughts that didn’t make it in. Mobile applications that civic developers are creating around the world — like ForageCity — are making it increasingly possible for more people to interact more easily and for less cost where ever and whenever they wish. That does lead to giving more power to more people to connect to one another and solve problems, or at least discuss them.

The potential for such apps to connect and, crucially, scale is particularly significant when there is a shared standard for the open government data that fuels, as with the standard for transit data (GTFS) that now exists in 450 different cities. Around the U.S., cities are slowly working with one another to define more such standards — but it’s a complicated process that doesn’t happen overnight, or even years.

The question is whether the technology will have the long-term effect that Code for America founder Jen Pahlka described to Woodall. On that count, I tend to give Pahlka — and my publisher, Tim O’Reilly — the benefit of the doubt.

As I said to the reporter, the potential for civic apps is enormous — but these the tools are only as good as the people who use them and adapt them. The tools can be quite good on their own — full stop — but many network effects will only take place with broad, mainstream adoption.

Smartphones can now be used for finding shelter, improving medical care and documenting riots — but the same devices are also used for gaming, pornography, celebrity gossip and shopping. While the apps used to find city services are generally not the ones used to surveil citizens, in practice the mobile device itself may be an agent of both actions.

Working out how to both protect the rights of citizens and empower citizens using mobile devices will be a difficult and crucial need in the years ahead.

It’s not immediately clear, at least to this observer, that state governments, Congress, regulators and law enforcement are up to the challenge, but it’s hard not to hope that they rise to the challenge.

Jay Nath on how San Franscisco is working to get its Gov 2.0 groove back

Back in January, Govfresh founder wrote about how San Francisco can “get its Gov 2.0 groove back,” offering six recommendations to the city government to use technology better.

[Image Credit: Fog City Journal]

When asked for comment, San Francisco chief innovation officer Jay Nath (@Jay_Nath) responded to Fretwell’s suggestions via email. While I’ll be sharing more from Nath and SF CIO Jon Walton over at the O’Reilly Radar civic innovation channel, in the meantime I’m publishing his specific responses to those recommendations below.

Build the best mayoral website in the world

Nath: We can always improve how we communicate with our constituents. If we were to undertake an effort to redesign the Mayor’s site, we should take a holistic approach and not just focus on the Mayor’s site. The approach NYC took to invite their design community is one that I think is very smart and something that SF should consider.

Use “Built in SF” technology

Nath: We agree and launched our City Hall iZone concept where we pilot great local technologies and services. We frequently meet with great companies like Square, Twitter, Uber, Yammer and invite each of them to work with the City. Specifically, we’re actively exploring Yammer, Zendesk, Get Satisfaction, Cozybit and 802.11s mesh, Google+ hangouts, and others. Additionally, we’re already using local tech like WordPress (which powers our innovation site), Twitter via Open311API, and Instagram.

Go back to the (data) fundamentals

Nath: We have an open data roadmap to strengthen our leadership in this area. It’s in our 2012 innovation portfolio as well. Our goal is to structurally change how we share data so that our default position is one of sharing. One idea is to require that all software purchased that stores structured data to have a public API. As we secure staffing for this effort, we will invite the community to help us shape the final form and execute.

Leverage the civic surplus

Nath: I would argue that we’ve done a great job in this area. Last summer, we partnered with Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) to produce the “Summer of Smart.” This series of hackathons produced over 20 prototypes, 500 participants and 10,000 hours of civic engagement. We’ve continued our efforts this year with the City’s first unhackathon around taxi dispatch and real-time mass communication. Our Mayor and transit director both attended the event and thanked our community for their efforts to make SF a better city.

Additionally, we launched our citizen engagement platform, ImproveSF, in a very big way in April.

Open source the infrastructure

Nath: While we can do more to increase open source software adoption, I want to
recognize our efforts to date:

  • open source policy
  • SFPark Android/iPhone app
  • Enterprise Addressing System
  • SmartPDF
  • LAMP as an option for internal customers
  • Pligg (DataSF)
  • Several Drupal applications

Additionally, the idea of moving our City from the existing CMS (Vision) to WordPress is not just about open source technology. We, as a City, made the decision to utilize Vision CMS a couple of years ago and the switching costs to migrate to WordPress currently outweigh the benefits. I will encourage the City to strongly consider WordPress, Drupal, etc for consideration when Vision no longer meets our needs.

Give citizens a dashboard

Nath: This is more than just adopting the IT Dashboard. We have to implement the governance and project management model to ensure that the data is accurate. This is something we need to do but requires time and culture change. I agree that we need to increase access to high value datasets like expenditures. This is part of our open data roadmap and will receive renewed focus in 2012.

U.S. cities form working group to share predictive data analytics skills

Yesterday, I published an interview with Michael Flowers, New York City’s director of analytics for the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning in Mayor Bloomberg’s office. In the interview, “Predictive data analytics is saving lives and taxpayer dollars in New York City,” Flowers talks about how his team of 5 is applying data analysis on the behalf of citizens to improve the efficiency of processes and more effectively detection of crimes, from financial fraud to cigarette bootlegging.

After our interview, Flowers followed up over email to tell me about a new working group on data analytics between New York City, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. The working group, which recently launched a website at www.g-analytics.org, is sharing methodologies, ideas and strategies,

“Ultimately we want the group to grow and support as many cities interested in pursuing this approach as possible,” wrote Flowers. “It can get pretty lonely when you pursue something asymmetrical or untraditional in the government space, so we felt it was important to make it as simple as possible for like-minded cities to get started. There’s a great guy I work closely with out in Chicago on this effort – [Chicago chief data officer] Brett Goldstein; we talk at least twice a week.”

The City of Quebec launched an open data site

Up in the currently not-so-frozen north, the City of Quebec has stood up an open data directory online. There are currently 26 datasets listed, spanning a variety of data formats, from .CSV to .XML to .XLS to to .KML to .SHP. (The latter two are GIS files, of interest to folks who like to make maps.)

The city published the video embedded below last night, in addition to a “demarche” (or statement) on the open data website about the project.

ExpoTI-GVQ – Projets étudiants, CÉGEP Limoilou from E-Gouv Québec on Vimeo.

Hat tip @Data_BC

UPDATE: As Richard Ackerman pointed out on Twitter, this open data site went live in February. While the video is new, the site is not.

Open City launches new civic app to map crime in Chicago

Last year, Chicago-based open data wranglers Open City set a high bar for open government data visualizations and transparency websites. Today, Open City launched a new civic Web app at CrimeInChicago.org, adding to their growing portfolio of projects.

Crime in Chicago Poster

Derek Eder, one of the co-founders of Open City, emailed in this morning to share news of Crime in Chicago. “The website offers an interactive data visualization of the 4.8 million crimes reported in Chicago over the last decade,” he wrote. “It lets citizens see crime trends around them, compare crime levels over the years and across city wards, and explore each ward’s homicides, robberies, assaults and dozens of other crimes.”

The site also includes an interesting wrinkle on creating value from open data: selling high quality print posters ranking the incidence of crime in Chicago’s 50 wards.

As Eder pointed out, CrimeInChicago.com is possible because the Emanuel administration and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) are now publishing a open data online that includes local crime trends. In 2012, working to open government in Chicago means developers collaborating with the city to give citizens more understanding of their city.

This post has been updated to reflect an error in the Web address given for the project, if not the link underneath it. As Open City co-founder Juan-Pablo Velez pointed out via email, chicagocrime.org is “Adrian’s Holovaty’s old project, the one that gave birth to Everyblock. You could maybe see this project as the spiritual successor of chicagocrime.org, one that focuses on crime trends instead of crime incidents, but we don’t own that domain.”

MIT Civic Media conference examines the success and failures of open government in the U.S.

The 2012 Civic Media Conference featured two full days of conversations about (what else?) the future of civic media and democracy. One conversation is particularly worth calling out and sharing with the Govfresh audience: a panel assessing what’s gone wrong and what’s gone right with open government in the United States over the past three years. The discussion was moderated by Susan Crawford, currently of the Harvard Law School and Kennedy School (and formerly a special advisor at the White House) and featured Mike Norman of Wefunder.com, Mark Headd of Code for America and Chris Vein, Deputy United States Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. I’ve embedded the video below:

Watch live streaming video from knightfoundation at livestream.com

You can read an excellent, comprehensive liveblog of the open gov panel at the Civic Media blog.