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 open.nasa.gov. The new site complements nasa.gov/open – 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 open.nasa.gov. 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 open.nasa.gov 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.

Open government innovation from NASA fuels launch of OpenStack and Nebula

Earlier today, a new startup emerged from stealth at OSCON in Portland, Oregon. Nebula looks to democratize cloud computing with open source hardware.

Nebula appliance As Venturebeat reported, by combining OpenStack with Facebook’s OpenCompute project, Nebula could bring cloud computing to everyone with a cloud appliance.

It’s going to be a while before we’ll know if this bold vision comes to pass, but it’s important to be clear: this private sector innovation and startup is the outgrowth of one of NASA’s open government initiatives, where a technology developed by the government was released to the public to innovate upon.

That outcome can be at least partially attributed to Nebula CEO Chris Kemp, the former NASA CTO for IT, built a cloud “dream team” for Nebula’s launch from Kleiner Perkins’ basement. Nebula has the potential to bring cheaper private clouds to enterprises and small to medium-sized business to government, which could stand to leapfrog a generation of technology. (Putting a cloud behind an organization’s firewall could also address the security and compliance challenges that have hampered adoption of public cloud by enterprise and government users.) You can watch the announcement of Nebula at OSCON in the video below:

I talked with Kemp yesterday about OpenStack, his new startup, enterprise IT and innovation in government. “I am just unbelievably excited about all of the innovation that’s going to happen, he said. “When I left NASA, there was an open playing field. Citrix has bet their company on a tech that emerged out of NASA. Rackspace has incorporated it as well. Dell and HP are working with OpenStack too.”

Kemp, at least for now, doesn’t appear to be looking towards acquisition as his exit strategy. “We’re building a whole new company,” he said. “It’s not going to acquired by Dell or another large vendor. It’s too important to be lost in a big organization. The opportunity here is to build a lasting company that plays a key role in how computing unfolds.”

It’s the potential to change the world that seems to have brought a glint to Kemp’s eye. “This is why I left NASA,” he said. “I had this idea, this concept, I knew it had the potential to change the world, I knew it was time to build that. There are things you can only do inside of government, and there are things you can only do outside of government.”

In at least one sense, this outcome is about Gov 2.0 versus the beast of bureaucracy, once again. “The thing I learned at NASA is the biggest barrier to this stuff is the culture within the organization,” said Kemp. “It’s people. In a federal agency, people have been there forever and have spent tons of money on tools. What we’re doing with this appliance will disrupt a lot of that.”

Kemp also offered a suggestion to government agencies with innovators trying to make a difference. “The real shame is that you take the most risk-averse people in the world – government civil servants – and make them take the most dangerous leap, to end their careers, to be entrepreneurs. Imagine if government allowed people to take one year without pay, try to create something, and then return to public service.”

While that may be an unlikely dream, Kemp has left government himself, jumping to an endeavour that has the potential to disrupt the future of computing. “We want people to build on a platform that isn’t unnecessarily expensive or reliable,” he said. “We’re selling a little box that creates an infrastructure service and supporting it. You plug it in at the top of the rack where basically joins ‘the collective.’ It becomes part of a massive compute and storage cloud that’s compatible with Amazon and allows anyone to use a cloud that based on standards.
And they can do it with the cheapest hardware.”

Open source has been a key component of NASA’s open government work. Now one of its open source projects may become part of the work of many other people in industries unrelated to aerospace. With the launch of Nebula, an open government initiative looks set to create significant value — and jobs — in the private sector, along with driving open innovation in information technology.

OpenCongress 3.0 empowers citizens to contact their legislators

Over the past 48 hours, the volume of citizens trying to contact Congress regarding the debt ceiling and budget debate has overwhelmed Congressional websites and Capital Hill switchboards. Citizens that want to reach their member(s) of Congress now have a powerful upgrade to one of the best options online: an improved version of Open Congress.

The upgrade of OpenCongress follows the launch of OpenGovernment.org in January, which is a free, open source online portal designed to make open state government available to citizens.

The new version of OpenCongress, which will launch this afternoon, puts new engagement features at the center of the site experience, writes in executive director David Moore via email. “It’s the culmination of more than six months of development, and the release is composed of two major new feature sets, Contact-Congress & MyOC Groups. One of the primary unique value propositions here is the ability to write all three of your members of the U.S. Congress at once, from one page, with our handy Message Builder, incorporating bill info & campaign contribution data and more, set it to public or private, and then send it *immediately* over email to official Congressional webforms. No other website offers this service in a web app that’s free, libre, open-source, and not-for-profit. As always, OCv3 is built by PPF with primary support from the Sunlight Foundation.”

Moore explained more:

“Clearly, with the debt ceiling debate and accompanying crashing and burning of Congressional communication channels, there’s a huge public demand for this service. OpenCongress is releasing it as a public service, free & open to everyone to be able to track & share their correspondence with federal legislators in a transparent public forum. MyOC Groups will complement Contact-Congress on OpenCongress by enabling greater self-organizing communities around bills and issues, as we’ve seen with unemployment extensions and other hot issues on our public comment forums and wiki.

We think it will be a popular new tool for government accountability, fighting systemic corruption, and facilitating a more deliberative democracy. And this is just the start, we hope, of a truly robust open API for constituent communication … but first, we need to give the public some user-friendly tools for sending compelling emails to their members of Congress, and then organizing their communities around them for greater effect.”

Moore told me that he expects the same features to be available on OpenGovernment.org as soon as the resources are available. Both OpenCongress and OpenGovernment are built using Ruby on Rails, so each will work well with the features. That message came with a hint: Moore is hoping today’s launch wil attract additional non-profit funding and support for more open-source development time to bring the OCv3 feature to OpenGovernment.

Moore also added that the Contact-Congress feature on OpenCongress is powered by open-
source software, the Formaggedon Rails plugin, which can be remixed &
applied to other websites & entities. More information on Formaggedon at the moment is available on today’s blog post on OpenCongress 3.0.

“Formaggedon will first be integrated with OpenGovernment,” writes Moore, which would make the site the only “free and open-source site that enables direct emailing of both your
state legislators, in upper & lower chambers. And subsequently we’ll bring over MyOG Groups.”

Britain seeks alpha

In the United States, government agencies like the FCC have launched open government websites in beta. In the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom is rolling back one more version and seeking alpha.

Alpha.gov 404 error page

Alpha.gov.uk is an experimental prototype of a new, single website for government in the United Kingdom that the Government Digital Service developed over the course of three months, working from the recommendations of Martha Lane-Fox’s Review. That service is located within the UK Cabinet Office. As its designers emphasize, “the site is a demonstration, and whilst it’s public it’s not permanent and is not replacing any other website.” (The hilarious 404 graphic above was designed by Matt Blease.)

There are some interesting semantics to consider here. In software development, “alpha” refers to the initial release in a software development cycle. In machine learning, alpha is “the degree to which a learning agent takes into account new information.”

In either sense, a government seeking alpha in rebooting its online presence is both taking risks and revisiting what government websites should do in the 21st century. The trial of Alpha.gov.uk offers a toolkit of simple, reusable functions that are oriented around the most common needs that citizens go online to address, like lost passports.

To date, the British plan to reinvent websites has received good press, including an excellent post what Alpha.gov gets right. One notable choice in age of austere budgets: going with an open source platform and using next generation web development tools and languages, including a mix of Ruby and Python. Says Wired UK:

This isn’t the first time that the government has experimented with creating a single site for all departments. From URL directories to public service hubs, sites like direct.gov.uk have often tried to shove the whole shebang into one, hulking site with varying degrees of success.

But Alpha.gov.uk’s daring design, 21st century architecture and expansive ambitions (the content can be easily syndicated to new internet platforms, like apps or IPTV),  could be the way forward.

The Alpha.gov team continues to share more about how Alpha.gov was developed at the project blog, encouraging citizens to play with the prototype and send feedback to Get Satisfaction or to @AlphaGov on Twitter or Facebook.

[Image Credit for Alpha.gov Error Page designed by Matt Blease: Ben Terrett]

WhiteHouse.gov puts data to use in its new federal property map.

As I reported at the O’Reilly Radar, The White House used interactive mapping and open data illustrate excess federal property around the United States. Check out the White House excess property map to see what that means in practice. I’ve embedded a similar map from MapBox below.

Selling excess federal property will be challenging. In contrast, open source mapping tools are making storytelling with data easier – and cheaper.

Tools for the Citizen Scientist: measuring NASA’s open government progress [INFOGRAPHiC]

http://www.nasa.gov/open/infographic.html

NASA‘s celebration of the one year anniversary of its implementation of the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive included a beautiful new infographic, above.

To zoom in, you can download and explore a hi-resolution image of the infographic.

The sweeping, visually accessible representation of the galaxy of open government activity at NASA shows the progress that the air and space agency has taken to towards accomplishing the more than 150 milestones it committed to reaching in the NASA open government plan.

Overall, this infographic estimated the progress of NASA towards completing all of elements at 64%. The most recent step, NASA’s Open Source Summit, highlighted the progress, potential and problems with open source a NASA.

Overall, NASA currently rates the completion of the open source component of its open government plan at only 20%: there’s a long journey ahead in that area, as in others. Writes NASA: “We have made great progress in some areas; others have taken longer than we anticipated and extra time is required to fully realize the goals.”

Some missions will, by nature, take longer than others.

Week in Review: Top Gov 2.0 and Open Government Stories

US Capitol Blooms

Open government made an appearance in popular culture, albeit not in an admiring sense. At the start of the week, Jon Stewart and the Daily Show mocked the Obama administration and the president for a perceived lack of transparency.

Stewart and many other commentators have understandably wondered why the president’s meeting with open government advocates to receive a transparency award wasn’t on the official schedule or covered by the media. A first hand account of the meeting from open government advocate Danielle Brian offered useful perspective on the issues that arose that go beyond a soundbite or one liner:

Gary, OMB Watch’s executive director, focused on the places where we have seen real change, including the Open Government Directive, the Executive Orders on Classified National Security and Controlled Unclassified Information, emphasis on affirmative disclosures of government information; and the President’s support of reporters’ privilege and shield law, as well as whistleblower protections.

Lucy, executive director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, pointed out that this was the first president in her 30 years of working in this field who had invited open government advocates into the Oval Office. She specifically thanked him for his strong support of a reporters’ shield law, which he affirmed he continues to support. Tom, executive director for the National Security Archive, emphasized that when it comes to FOIA reform and implementation we know it isn’t just a ship of state, but an entire flotilla including rowboats. And that while there has been notable improvement according to the National Security Archive’s survey of agencies, there continues to need be a need for leadership from the top to change cultures across the vast swath of government agencies. He also noted that we all believe the information we want to see is not simply that which is useful for consumers, but also that which holds the government accountable.

I knew my topic was likely to be sensitive. I began by thanking the President for his strong support of whistleblower protections, and noted that it was not for lack of effort on the part of the White House that the legislation didn’t pass at the end of the last Congress.

I noted, however, that the current aggressive prosecution of national security whistleblowers is undermining this legacy. That we need to create safe channels for disclosure of wrongdoing in national security agencies. That we need to work harder to shrink the amount of over-classified materials that unnecessarily prompt leak prosecutions.

The President shifted in his seat and leaned forward. He said he wanted to engage on this topic because this may be where we have some differences. He said he doesn’t want to protect the people who leak to the media war plans that could impact the troops. He differentiated these leaks from those whistleblowers exposing a contractor getting paid for work they are not performing. I was careful not to interrupt the President, but waited until he was done. I pointed out that few, if any, in our community would disagree with his distinction—but that in reality the current prosecutions are not of those high-level officials who regularly leak to the press to advance their policy agendas. Instead, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is prosecuting exactly the kind of whistleblower he described, for example one from the National Security Agency.

The President then did something that I think was remarkable. He said this is an incredibly difficult area and he wants to work through how to do a better job in handling it. He also agreed that too much information is classified, and asked us to work with his office on this. He wasn’t defensive nor was he dismissive. It was perhaps the dream moment for an advocate—hearing the most senior policymaker agree with you and offer to work together to tackle the problem.

Brian’s account is the most comprehensive account of the meeting on open government online. The irony that it was not recorded and released to the American people is, however, inescapable. For anyone tracking the progress of the Open Government Directive, the last six months have been an up and down experience. It was clear back in September that in the United States, open government remains in beta.

According to doctoral research by University of Texas academic, there are 358 open government projects in federal government. Former White House deputy chief technology officer Beth Noveck wrote about the semantics and the meaning of good government and open government mean in this context. One takeaway: don’t mistake open innovation policies for transparency guarantees.

The current White House deputy CTO for innovation, Chris Vein, wrote on the White House blog this week that the one year anniversary of open government plans were “a testament to hard work” at the agencies. As Vein acknowledged, “while there is always more to be done, we are proud of the important work that agencies have done and are doing to change the culture of government to one that encourages transparency and facilitates innovation.  We are committed to maintaining and building upon this momentum to make our Nation stronger and to make the lives of Americans better.”

Naturally, some projects are always going to be judged more as more or less effective in delivering on the mission of government than others. An open government approach to creating a Health Internet may be the most disruptive of them. For those that expected to see rapid, dynamic changes in Washington fueled by technology, however, the bloom has long since come off of the proverbial rose. Open government is looking a lot more like an ultramarathon than a 400 yard dash accomplished over a few years.

That said, something different is going on during what Micah Sifry has aptly called the age of transparency. We’re in new territory here, with respect to the disruption that new connection technologies represent to citizens, society and government. It’s worth taking stock of what’s happened recently. It’s been a while since I first posted a Gov 2.0 Week in Review at Radar, and three months since the 2010 Gov 2.0 year in review.

There’s a lot happening in this space. Following is a quick digest that might provide some perspective to those who might think that open government is a better punchline than policy.

1. The government stayed open. The budget crisis on Capitol Hill overshadowed every other issue this past week. It’s harder for a government to be open if it’s closed. The secrecy of the shutdown negotiations left folks over at the Sunlight Foundation wondering about how open government principles matched up to reality.

2. Proposed deep cuts to funding for open government data platforms like Data.gov or the IT Dashboard appear to be least partially restored in the new budget. That will likely salve (some of) the concerns of advocates like Harlan Yu, who wrote about what we would lose if we lost Data.gov. John Wonderlich’s questions on the budget deal, however, include one on exactly how much funding was restored.

3. FCC.gov relaunched as an open government platform. In any other week, this story would have led the list open government news. Having sat out the Aughts, FCC.gov stepped into the modern age FCC managing director Steve Van Roekel and his team worked hard to bring Web 2.0 principles into the FCC’s online operations. Those principles include elements of open data, platform thinking, collective intelligence, and lightweight social software. What remains to be seen in the years ahead is how much incorporating Web 2.0 into operations will change how the FCC operates as a regulator. The redesign was driven through an open government process that solicited broad comment from the various constituencies that visit FCC.gov. The beta.FCC.gov isn’t just a site anymore, however: it’s a Web service that taps into open source, the cloud, and collective intelligence. In the world of Gov 2.0, that’s a substantial reframing of what government can do online.

4. What happens to e-government in a shutdown? This near miss forced hundreds of thousands of people to consider how to make wired government go dark. That discussion should not end with this latest resolution.

5. The first NASA Open Source Summit explored why open source is a valuable tool for the space agency. Open source is a pillar of NASA’s open government plan.

6. The Russian blogosphere came under attack, quashing an online parliament initiative. Needless to say, it will be interesting to see if a Russian Gov 2.0 conference next week addresses the issue of press freedoms or open government transparency.

7. Simpl launched as platform to bridge the connection between social innovators and government.

8. National Builder launched as a new online activism platform.

9. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) reintroduced the Public Online Information Act. With this transparency bill, the federal government would acknowledge the Internet, opined Mother Jones.

10. SeeClickFix launches its Facebook app.. “It looks like the entire SeeClickFix experience has been ported over to the Facebook environment,” writes Dan Kennedy. “Users can report problems and pinpoint them on a Google map, thus alerting government officials and the news media. I am far from being the world’s biggest Facebook fan, but it’s a smart move, given how much time people spend there.”

Editor’s Note This is by no means a definitive, comprehensive list. For instance, there’s plenty of open government news happening in countries around the world, from corruption mashups in India to the transparency challenges in various states. For a daily dose of transparency, make sure to read the Sunlight Foundation’s blog IBM’s Business of Government blog has also posted a weekly round up. If you have more stories that came across your desktop, inbox or television this week, please share them in the comments.

Simpl tries to make connecting innovation to local government easier

There’s a new platform to bridge the connection between social innovators and government. Simpl, a joint project between FutureGov and Rock Creek Strategic Marketing, is short for “Social Innovation Marketplace.” As of last Friday, are Simpl is open for ideas in both the United Kingdom and United States.

For now, this open government startup is bootstrapping and focused on local government. “We’ll be exploring a bunch of avenues over the coming months, but for certain we see cities as important and the local as being the right level for being able to support this kind of action,” said co-founder Dominic Campbell. “That’s why we’re launching it with Code for America.” Craiglist founder Craig Newmark described the “social innovation speed dating” that’s set to take place in San Francisco tonight in more detail, for those interested in learning more or attending.

“We are committed to helping government embrace social innovation, handing over power to citizens,” said Campbell. “We see Simpl as a key tool to support the work we do with city governments to open up, connect and innovate.” His presentation from last year’s Open Cities Conference in the UK, embedded below, offers some more insight on that vision.

Campbell offered more insight into what Simpl is all about in a brief interview.

What is Simpl all about?

DC: It’s not about competition, it’s not (really) about money. It’s about peer to peer support and collaboration putting social innovator in touch with government. Not top down, not predetermined parameters by government – but instead gives people the opportunity to say, “Hey, this is a great idea I’m working on to fix a problem that you probably didn’t even know existed. How about you help me make it happen?” It’s mostly aimed at government but much wider. It’s more about meeting a social need as defined by the people who have that need and know what they need to make it happen. That’s often access to people in power more than money, or some borrowed skills, etc. It builds on the challenge model and says, “Hey, perhaps government doesn’t know the problems, so how can it set challenges to meet them? Who better than to define the problem/challenge/wish the person on the receiving end?”

What makes Simpl different from other platforms?

The competitive differentiator is that it is entirely agnostic. It’s about bringing people together, whoever they are, whether in government or out of government, to identify and solve challenges, meeting their own goals with or without the help of government. Frankly, Scott, me, Carrie, and most people we know have more ideas than time to make them happen so this is a vehicle to made that happen.

Why does Simpl matter to citizens?

The key is that this is all about the average citizen. They are the captive audience. They are the people on the site shaping the site from the start. Government is a key partner. That’s something we’ll be working very hard to do to connect our good government (and more than government) network into the ideas to help elevate them and help them meet their goals.

What’s else is ahead?

There’s tech development, in response to a number of requests we’ve already had for people wanting to use our matching software. We’re considering the possibility of adding some paid-for features over time. But all the functionality you see today will remain free.

Open government in beta: FCC.gov 2.0 is live

The beta version of the beautifully redesigned FCC.gov is now online at beta.FCC.gov. (Yes, it’s a United States federal government website in beta. This is 2011, after all.)

FCC-gov-20-home

The rebooted FCC.gov integrates core principles of Web 2.0 into its design and function, serving as one of the most important examples of government as a platform to date. My full, in-depth review at the new FCC.gov is Gov 2.0 channel of the O’Reilly Radar:

FCC.gov reboots as an open government platform. The new FCC.gov isn’t just a site any more: it’s a Web service that taps into open source, the cloud, and collective intelligence. In the world of Gov 2.0, that’s a substantial reframing of what government can do online.

2011 NASA Open Source Summit convenes innovators and technologists

Today in California, NASA is hosting its first Open Source Summit. You can watch the open source livestream here. The first Open Source Summit is at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Engineers and policy makers across NASA are meeting with members of the open source community to discuss the challenges with open source policy. Here’s the agenda. The liveblog is below.

Virtual attendees connected on morning phone conversations on Maestro Conference and collaboratively took notes online at the Ideation Forum.

In the afternoon, the NASA Open Source Summit turned to breakout groups with discussions driven by the online conversation. Photo by NASA’s Chris @Gerty:

Presentations are also going up over at Slideshare. Here are great examples: