NASA launches new open government site with open source tools

In one of the first posts on NASA’s newly relaunched open government blog, open government analyst Ali Llewellyn writes more about why adopting open government is important now, with a nod to Tim O’Reilly’s essay on “government as a platform.”

…OpenGov is not just data transparency or technology use. “Open government is an innovative strategy for changing how government works,” Beth Noveck, the original director of the White House Open Government Initiative, explains. “By using network technology to connect the public to government and to one another informed by open data, an open government asks for help with solving problems. The end result is more effective institutions and more robust democracy.”

From the beginning, democracy was supposed to be participatory. Thomas Jefferson noted in a letter how he envisioned a government where “every man…feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.”

In the service of that vision, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration continues to extend its journey into the open government stratosphere with the launch of a redesigned The new site complements – but doesn’t replace it. (The /open sites that exist on federal .gov websites are a direct result of the Open Goverment Directive issued by the White House Office of Management and Budget in 2009.)

The new NASA open government is a beautiful departure from standard NASA websites. In fact, it’s a lovely move away from the Web design citizens encounter at most of the thousands of federal .gov sites. In part, that’s because the new NASA open government site is built upon General Service Agency-approved technologies and the same open source platforms ( like WordPress) that you’ll find at top-notch blogs like BoingBoing. (Or Govfresh). All due credit to Nick Skytland, Chris Gerty and Sean Herron for their hard work coding and designing the site as well. Skytland, who now heads up open government at NASA, wrote in to share his vision for the site and make a request:

After months of development and many discussions, we are very excited to announce the official public launch of The site is a collaborative platform for the open government community at NASA to share success stories and projects related OpenGov from around the agency. The content on this site is written by NASA employees and contractors (just the core OpenGov team right now). We will be highlighting the ways that transparency, participation, and collaboration are being embraced by NASA policy, technology, and culture, and the future that becomes possible because of that commitment. We would love your feedback on the site. Please let us know if you have any issues with the site so we can fix them. The site works on most browsers, but we are still working out issues with Internet Explorer.”

Aside from WordPress, the technology behind includes:
Techs used:

  • A WordPress theme by Landau Reece called Protean 1.0
  • MySQL
  • Apache
  • The Disqus commenting system
  • The UserVoice feedback collection tool

As I reported yesterday, NASA’s open government story now includes supplying the innovation behind OpenStack and Nebula. That said, while the technology behind the new NASA open government site and other initiatives is important to recognize, it has to be valued in terms of its ability to both host conversations and feature the people behind it. As NASA’s open government story evolves, cultural changes will be important to track, along with any technical milestones driven by open source or efficiencies driven by tightening budgets.

A note on FOIA

One of the interesting decisions that British Columbia’s government made in its adoption of open government was its decision to separate good government data, associated with transparency and accountability, from open government data, associated with innovation and co-creation.

NASA’s open government site makes no such distinction, with the link to Freedom of Information Act requests buried down at the bottom of the open data page. NASA’s open government plan includes aspirational goals of further reducing its FOIA backlog and creating a “single, Web-based system for handling all FOIA requests across the 13 NASA locations.” If the agency can do as well with that system as it has with the design, communication and coding embodied this new site, its open government team will be able to celebrate more good government achievement alongside its explorations into citizen science, random hacks of kindness, education and open data.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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