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 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.

A Conversation About Social Media, Open Government and eDemocracy [VIDEO]

If the town square now includes public discourse online, democratic governments in the 21st century are finding that part of civic life now includes listening there. Given what we’ve seen in this young century, how governments deal with social media is now part of how they deal with civil liberties, press freedom, privacy and freedom of expression in general.

At the end of Social Media Week 2012, I moderated a discussion with Matt Lira, Lorelei Kelly our Clay Johnson at the U.S. National Archives. This conversation explored more than how social media is changing politics in Washington: we looked at its potential to can help elected officials and other public servants make better policy decisions in the 21st century.

I hope you find it of interest; all three of the panelists gave thoughtful answers to the questions that I and the audience posed.

On the ambiguity of open government and open data

A new paper on “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’” by Princeton scholars David Robinson and Harlan Yu is essential reading on the state of open government and open data in 2012. As the Cato Institute’s Jim Harper noted in a post about the new paper and open government data this morning, “paying close attention to language can reveal what’s going on in the world around you.”

From the abstract:

“Open technologies involve sharing data over the Internet, and all kinds of governments can use them, for all kinds of reasons. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more transparent), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability. Today a regime can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of web site—even if it does not become more accountable or transparent. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands.

This essay proposes a more useful way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: We separate the politics of open government from the technologies of open data. Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.”

Yu succinctly explained his thinking in two more tweets:

While it remains to be seen whether the Open Knowledge Foundation will be “open” to changing the “Open Data Handbook” to the “Adaptable Data Handbook,” Yu and Robinson are after something important here.

There’s good reason to be careful about celebrating the progress in cities, states and counties are making in standing up open government data platforms. Here’s an excerpt from a post on open government data on Radar last year:

Open government analysts like Nathaniel Heller have raised concerns about the role of open data in the Open Government Partnership, specifically that:

“… open data provides an easy way out for some governments to avoid the much harder, and likely more transformative, open government reforms that should probably be higher up on their lists. Instead of fetishizing open data portals for the sake of having open data portals, I’d rather see governments incorporating open data as a way to address more fundamental structural challenges around extractives (through maps and budget data), the political process (through real-time disclosure of campaign contributions), or budget priorities (through online publication of budget line-items).”

Similarly, Greg Michener has made a case for getting the legal and regulatory “plumbing” for open government right in Brazil, not “boutique Gov 2.0” projects that graft technology onto flawed governance systems. Michener warned that emulating the government 2.0 initiatives of advanced countries, including open data initiatives:

“… may be a premature strategy for emerging democracies. While advanced democracies are mostly tweaking and improving upon value-systems and infrastructure already in place, most countries within the OGP have only begun the adoption process.”

Michener and Heller both raise bedrock issues for open government in Brazil and beyond that no technology solution in of itself will address. They’re both right: Simply opening up data is not a replacement for a Constitution that enforces a rule of law, free and fair elections, an effective judiciary, decent schools, basic regulatory bodies or civil society, particularly if the data does not relate to meaningful aspects of society.

Heller and Michener speak for an important part of the open government community and surely articulate concerns that exist for many people, particularly for a “good government” constituency whose long term, quiet work on government transparency and accountability may not be receiving the same attention as shinier technology initiatives.

Harper teased out something important on that count: “There’s nothing wrong with open government data, but the heart of the government transparency effort is getting information about the functioning of government. I think in terms of a subject-matter trio—deliberations, management, and results—data about which makes for a more open, more transparent government. Everything else, while entirely welcome, is just open government data.”

This new paper will go a long way to clarifying and teasing out those issues.

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.

White House releases Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights

After years of wrangling about online privacy in Washington, the White House has unveiled a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. A coalition of Internet giants, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL, have committed to adopt “Do Not Track technology” in most Web browsers by the end of 2012.

These companies, which deliver almost 90 percent of online behavioral advertisements, have agreed not to track consumers if these choose to opt out of online tracking using the Do Not Track mechanism, which will likely manifest as a button or browser plug-in. All companies that have made this commitment will be subject to FTC enforcement.

“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” said President Obama in a prepared statement. “As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy. That’s why an online privacy Bill of Rights is so important. For businesses to succeed online, consumers must feel secure. By following this blueprint, companies, consumer advocates and policymakers can help protect consumers and ensure the Internet remains a platform for innovation and economic growth.”

The announcement coincided with the release of a long awaited white paper: Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy. (Embedded below.)

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) welcomed the Administration’s unveiling of this “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” calling the industry announcement by industry to respect “Do Not Track” settings in Web browsers is “a positive step for consumer privacy.”

“The Administration’s call for a comprehensive privacy bill of rights comes at a pivotal time when there is a tremendous concern among consumers about their personal information,” said CDT President Leslie Harris in a prepared statement. “While we believe legislation will likely be necessary to achieve these protections, we support the White Paper’s call for the development of consensus rules on emerging privacy issues to be worked out by industry, civil society, and regulators.”

“For five years CDT has pushed for the development of a reliable ‘Do Not Track’ mechanism; today’s Digital Advertising Alliance announcement is an important step toward making ‘Do Not Track’ a reality for consumers,” said CDT’s Director of Consumer Privacy Justin Brookman in a prepared statement. “The industry deserves credit for this commitment, though the details of exactly what ‘Do Not Track’ means still need to be worked out,” Brookman said. “CDT will continue to work through the W3C standards setting process to develop strong and workable ‘Do Not Track’ guidelines.”

As Edward Wyatt reported at the New York Times, however, implementation of these online privacy guidelines won’t be just a matter of adding some lines of code:

Much remains to be done before consumers can click on a button in their Web browser to set their privacy standards. Congress will probably have to write legislation governing the collection and use of personal data, officials said, something that is unlikely to occur this year. And the companies that make browsers — Google, Microsoft, Apple and others — will have to agree to the new standards.

There will be a press conference tomorrow, streamed live from the White House. (Much more to come on this story tomorrow, though given that I’ll be traveling, you’ll be reading it elsewhere.)

A Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights

· Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it.

· Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable information about privacy and security practices.

· Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that organizations will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

· Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

· Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data are inaccurate.

· Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

· Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

White House Privacy White Paper

This story has been updated as more statements and news stories came online.

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.