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Open Senate Overview

A lot of people are asking us these days for a comprehensive stem-to-stern overview of how we accomplished our open government work in the New York State Senate, which made me realize that we’ve never published the entire story in one place So, in hopes that it is useful to our peers inside and outside of government, here goes:

New York State Senate “Open Senate” Initiative

Open Senate is an online “Gov 2.0″ program intended to make the Senate one of the most transparent, efficient, and participatory legislative bodies in the nation. Open Senate is comprised of multiple sub-projects led by the Office of the Chief Information Officer in the New York State Senate, ranging from migrating to cost effective, open-source software solutions, to developing and sharing original web services providing access to government transparency data, to promoting the use of social networks and online citizen engagement. Participatory websites were developed for all 62 Senators and more than 40 Senate Committees, and integrated with social networking tools; data portals for publishing and receiving public comment on all administrative and legislative data were deployed; use of open-source software, open data standards, and cloud-based-hosting services minimized the cost of these innovations. Open Senate won Best of New York “Visionary” and “Project Excellence” awards in 2010 from the Center for Technology in Government.  Key elements of Open Senate include:

NYSenate.gov – NYSenate.gov serves both as an accessible repository of all legislative and institutional administrative data, and well as a leading “Gov 2.0″ portal comprised of websites for all 62 Senators and more than 40 Senate Committees that support citizens in interacting directly with their elected officials and the legislative process.

Open Administrative Data – Prior to 2009, most legislative and administrative data either needed to be FOIL’d or had not been available at all. Examples include live and archived video of committee meetings and public hearings, payroll and expenditure reports in spreadsheet format, committee votes, and floor votes.

Open Legislation – “OpenLeg” is a website and an Application Programming Interface (API) that makes legislative data available to the public in a way that it can easily be searched, commented upon, and shared socially with others. Some of this legislative information, such as Committee Votes, was not available anywhere online (not even on the Assembly website or in the paid version of the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission’s Legislative Research Service) until its publication on the Open Leg website, pursuant to new Senate Rules passed in July of 2009. All data is available in industry standard open formats as “feeds,” and the publicly accessible API allows the data to be integrated directly into web applications by third-parties. The data that is available on the OpenLegislation website is also leveraged for internal software applications. CIO-STS is currently working to leverage that information in internal legislative applications to help both central staff and member offices.

Mobile — NYSenate Mobile, comprised of custom applications developed specifically for iPhones, iPads, and Android phones, as well as a full Senate website optimized for any mobile web browser, is the first mobile application in the nation developed by a legislative body. These apps pull together information from across the Senate – all 62 Senator offices, all 32 Legislative Committees allowing citizens, staff, and journalists to search for bill information, contact Senators, review event calendars, read Senator’s blogs, watch archived video of Senate Session, Committee Meetings and Public Hearings, and even submit Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Those with devices that have built in GPS can even use the application to identify the Senator that represents the region that the user is currently in while running the look up.

Open Source — NYSenate.gov and Open Legislation exclusively use open-source software, so the Senate does not owe any license fees for their maintenance; furthermore, all software code for the projects is published online and freely available under open-source BSD and GPLv3 licenses for re-use by peers in government and any other third-party, thus increasing the anticipated ROI of our investment in these projects.

Open Standards & APIs — All data and other content used in NYSenate.gov and Open Legislation is also published as data feeds in open standards formats such as XML, CSV, and JSON, and there is also a freely available Application Programming Interface (API). This empowers third-parties to do much of our work for us, developing applications that provide access to Senate data in a variety of value-added forms such as interactive voice response (IVR) telephony, at no additional cost to the taxpayer, thus again increasing the anticipated ROI of our investment in these projects.

Open Content — NYSenate.gov has also garnered national attention for its progressive content licensing policies, as the first State website that has copyrighted its content under a “Creative Commons” license, which affirms the public right to freely reuse content under the stipulation that it not be used for political fundraising purposes.

Background

In May 2009, the Office of the CIO of the New York State Senate (created for the first time in February 2009), unveiled “Open Senate”: an online “Gov 2.0″ program intended to make the Senate one of the most transparent, efficient, and participatory legislative bodies in the nation. Participatory websites were developed for all 62 Senators and more than 40 Senate Committees, and integrated with social networking tools; data portals for publishing and receiving public comment on all administrative and legislative data were deployed; use of open- source software, open data standards, and cloud-based-hosting services minimized the cost of these innovations.

At http://www.nysenate.gov/open, the Senate now provides the public with easy to use search interfaces to find out information on nearly all activities and reports of the Senate. This includes legislation, calendars, committee agendas, voting records, and even payroll and expenditure reports.

Our “Open Legislation” web interface makes simple intuitive keyword searching of legislative information available to the public, and solicits public comment on all bills. In addition to the web interface, all data is available in industry standard open formats as “feeds,” complete with a publicly accessible Application Programming Interface (API) that allows the data to be integrated directly into web applications by third-parties.

The Senate has also committed to making digital video of Senate legislative events available to the public. Live and archived video of legislative proceedings including legislative session, committee meetings, and public hearings are all made available on NYSenate.gov. Archived video is also available directly from 3rd party sites such as the official NYSenate YouTube channel, and on Blip.tv.

In addition to making video and data available, the Senate has also gone to great lengths to ensure that the information is easily shared with others. Examples of approaches that facilitate sharing and reuse include “permalink” URL’s for bills, embeddable videos, and the integration of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking platforms into NYSenate.gov. A majority of NYS Senators now actively use these social networking platforms in conjunction with NYSenate.gov, at no marginal cost to the Senate, to interact with their constituents.

In order to maximize public benefit and reuse, the content on NYSenate.gov is licensed under a Creative Commons copyright – the first legislative body in the United States to do so. The Senate also adopted a dual FreeBSD and GPLv3 open-source software license for all programming code written by the Senate, implemented public source code repository on GitHub, and published an API (Application Programming Interface) through which third-party programmers, including other government entities, can leverage Senate data for their own unique online applications, thus maximizing the return on the investment of effort and tax dollars that has been made.

Significance

“Open Senate” is without precedent among State Legislatures, but has been developed in concert with Open Government mandates issued by the White House beginning in January 2009 with a memo regarding the Freedom of Information Act, and continuing with the issuance of the Open Government Directive in December 2009. Open Senate was also developed in response to a unique status quo in New York State:

The New York State Senate, under one-Party rule for 44 years until 2009, was long regarded as one of the most opaque, dysfunctional and even corrupt legislative bodies in the country. Prior to the launch of NYSenate.gov in May 2009, the Senate website, at http://senate.state.ny.us, was a proprietary system that did not adopt modern web standards, technologies, or licenses.

It presented a fractured experience, as the home page was on a different platform than Senator websites, and offered little in the way of web 2.0 interactive functionality.  Additionally, members of the Senate Majority were provided with more functionality than Minority members. Finally, it contained no information about when and where public events were to be held, let alone transcripts of proceedings, or administrative data about Senate spending. Concerned constituents had to purchase a $2500 data subscription annually to see how their legislators had voted on bills.

Today, barely 18 months after a change in Senate leadership, the creation of the Office of the CIO, and the launch of the Open Senate Initiative, New Yorkers with a computer or mobile phone arguably have more comprehensive access to legislative, administrative, and official legislative event information, and have more ways to communicate interactively with their elected legislators, than constituents in any other State.

O’Reilly Media’s new book, “Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice,” features Open Senate, and describes this stark contrast as follows:

“With the 2008 election of a new Democratic majority, the New York Democratic Senators made a commitment to transparency and modernization… The Senate’s quick shift toward transparency, information modernization, and open information policies have radically improved the information publication within the state, catapulting them from a 1970s framework to a full-fledged modern legislative body… The New York State Senate, in less than a year, with legislative leadership and a fresh technology team, overcame what I would call the most complicated, tension-filled, overly politicized legislative environment and anachronistic technology I’ve ever seen. They are quickly progressing toward more transparency, access, and modernization. Now, the New York State Assembly—and other legislatures—have an example to follow.”

Public Benefit

Citizens have responded to the Senate’s efforts; more than 1.6 million unique visitors have used NYSenate.gov since its launch in May of 2009. More than 220,000 people have watched live streaming video on NYSenate.gov, and over 600,000 have viewed archived Senate videos on YouTube. More than 10,000 Senate archived videos have been shared, rated, or commented on. “Crowdsourcing” initiatives on NYSenate.gov have elicited nearly 7,000 “votes” on legislative ideas, and more than 1,000 comments on specific pieces of legislation. We continue to update constituent engagement statistics weekly on the online NYSenate Open Data portal.

Local media and non-profit interest groups have benefitted as well; a recent collaboration between NYPIRG and the Albany Times-Union newspaper leveraged the programmatic accessibility of data through Open Legislation to analyze Senate Session transcripts, yielding a brand new data set, which the Times-Union then published, ranking Senators by the number of words that they have spoken in debate on the Senate Floor. This sort of analysis is facilitated by the open, standards-compliant manner in which Open Legislation is designed and its data presented.

One of the Senate’s most notable online events occurred when a Marriage Equality bill came to the floor in December 2009. As many as 15,000 concurrent viewers watched the proceedings live online from around the world and discussed the floor debate virtually in an online chat as the debate unfolded. Video uploaded to YouTube was disseminated far and wide, further amplifying the debate, and yielding a massive spike in online visibility of some Senators. For example, one Senator’s five minute speech during the debate was viewed more than 300,000 times on YouTube in the two weeks following the debate.

Our Open Senate program has been nationally recognized by peers inside and outside of government:

“The Open Legislation site changes the relationship citizens have with their government and demonstrates the New York State Senate’s commitment to a transparent and accessible government,” said Dave McClure, the U.S. General Services Administration’s Associate Administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Communications. “Now, more than ever before, state and local governments, the federal government, and other nations can use this innovative technology to reach out and engage more citizens in the legislative process.”

A recent report by the Federal Trade Commission making recommendations regarding the publishing of government data online in order to support a reinvention of the Journalism industry, cites Open Senate as a model of fiscal responsibility: “…once a government entity has created an appropriate web platform and relevant information is in an appropriate digital format, government-related content can be posted on official web pages for a relatively low cost. The New York State Senate provides one relevant example.”

Our staff have been invited to keynote conferences alongside the directors of WhiteHouse.gov (which adopted the same open-source “Drupal” software that NYSenate.gov uses several months after the launch of NYSenate.gov), and have delivered seminars to Federal web managers about how to implement new Open Government policies online. We frequently field inquiries from our peers in other States about the policies and software that enabled us to accomplish this work in such a short timeframe at such low cost.

Execution of this “worst-to-first” project, leveraging Government 2.0 tools and techniques to open up a legislature, did not break the bank. Use of open-source software as well as free or low-cost web-based services for streaming video (e.g.: YouTube and Livestream) and for website hosting (on Amazon’s “EC2″ cloud computing service) minimized the costs of its development and maintenance. In its first year, NYSenate.gov and Open Legislation cost $122,000 in initial 3rd party software consulting costs (for customization of open-source Drupal software), and $25,000 in hosting, domain registration, analytics, and video streaming costs. As the software is open-source and now fully maintained by in-house staff, the Senate anticipates little if any outside development costs in the coming years. There has been one full time web developer, one part time developer, and one product manager that devoted to maintenance of the site.

We have used our Open Government project mandate as a forcing factor for internal enterprise IT modernization (e.g.: using the open-source platform Drupal as well as leveraging Cloud- computing for software development and hosting instead of an expensive Mainframe). In fact, corollary IT modernization executed by the same team in the Senate enabled a *reduction* of nearly $1 million in the total IT budget of the Senate for 2009, including salaries and direct costs, relative to 2008, and a reduction of more than $500,000 relative to the average annual Senate IT budget for the ten years prior to 2009.

By developing Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and adhering to open standards for our software and data publishing, we have empowered third-parties to do much of our work for us, developing applications that provide access to Senate data in a variety of value-added forms such as interactive voice response (IVR) telephony, at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

Notable Quotes About Open Senate

“The New York Senate is taking a critically important step to help restore trust in government. By enabling citizens to see and understand the process better, the senate enables democracy to function better. At a time when confidence in government in general has hit bottom, this is an extraordinarily valuable step forward,” said Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law School and founder of Change-Congress.org

“The NY State Senate’s significant expansion of the Open Legislation Web site to include attendance, transcripts and votes is path breaking. They are clearly setting the place that all other legislative bodies will have to follow. The U.S. Congress ought to be taking some clue from them,” said Ellen Miller, co-founder and Executive Director, The Sunlight Foundation.

“The NY Senate is making enormous strides in improving government transparency through their Open Legislation Website. The immediate benefits of these are increased government accountability and accessibility, and it’s heartening to see the senate team has been asked to offer guidance to the federal government at the Federal USA.gov Web Manager University seminar. The senate team remains leaders in the open-government movement including President Obama’s recent directive,” said Dawn Barber, co-founder, NY Tech Meetup.

“Governments are using Internet technology to show the public how law is made and how legislatures really work,” added Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org and The Craigslist Foundation. “With this new system, New York State takes a leadership role in accountability and transparency.”

“I look forward to being able to engage with a government as opaque as the NY State Legislature with a tool as promisingly transparent as Open Legislation,” said Douglas Rushkoff, professor of Media Studies at the New School in Manhattan. “It’s not that the data wasn’t available before – it just wasn’t accessible. This site may just help us see what’s going on in a way that allows us to do something about it.”

“NY’s Open Legislation doesn’t just put legislative information out into the public, but makes it a part of the living Web — easy to find, reuse, and talk about,” said David Weinberger, Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “Best of all, it feels like the Web!”

“This open legislation site changes the relationship citizens have with their government and demonstrates the New York State Senate’s commitment to a transparent and accessible government,” said Dave McClure, the U.S. General Services Administration’s Associate Administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Communications. “Now, more than ever before, state and local governments, the federal government, and other nations can use this innovative technology to reach out and engage more citizens in the legislative process.”

“Citizens Union applauds the expansion of the State Senate’s ‘Open Legislation’ web tool to contain committee votes, transcripts, agendas and other important materials that will give the public greater insight into the legislative process,” Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union, said. “We support the fulfillment of the Senate rules promise for greater transparency through the Senate website, and believe it is an invaluable tool for the public in holding our elected officials accountable.”

“The League of Women Voters applauds Senator Valesky and the State Senate for its efforts to further open the legislative process. For those not-for-profits who cannot afford the expense of LRS, this is a huge benefit enabling them to impact state government in a timely manner. Importantly, it will also better allow the average citizen the ability to keep their legislators accountable,” said Barbara Bartoletti, Legislative Director for the League of Women Voters.

“NYPIRG commends the senate for its continuing efforts to use technology to bring government closer to the people,” said Blair Horner, NYPIRG Legislative Director.

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4 thoughts on “Open Senate Overview

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