Civic technology, drupal

Building the Open Government Partnership website

Open Government Partnership

As the 2013 Open Government Partnership Summit convenes this week in London, the Nuams team is proud to have collaborated with OGP on the launch of its new website.

We’re honored and proud to work with OGP on building its online presence using open source technologies, staying true to the fundamental principles of open government.

Here’s a quick overview of new features.

Design and content management

We re-designed the site using a responsive web approach so that it would be accessible on any device. The user experience now focuses on a more simple and intuitive navigation, cleaner design that is easier for end users and participating countries while looking modern and beautiful.

The new site’s content management system was upgraded from Drupal 6 to Drupal 7 and the blog, originally on WordPress, was migrated to Drupal. Each member country now has administrative access to edit their country page, including cover banner photo and intro text, add new commitments to their action plans and submit blog posts for review.

Open Government Partnership

Interactive map

An interactive map makes it easy for site visitors to visualize member countries and select to view open government commitments and progress. The map was built using Drupal’s Leaflet module.

Open Government Partnership

Enhanced search

Enhanced search functionality allows for topical browsing and drill-down search results by categorization. The search is powered by Apache Solar and Drupal’s Facet API module.

Open Government Partnership

If you have questions about the technology or development process, feel free to contact us.

Check out the new!

Originally posted on NuCivic

Civic technology

Proprietary Software, Lions and Bears in the Civic Commons Marketplace

I was thrilled today to see Twitter all abuzz with complaints from Sunlight Labs about why the recently launched Civic Commons Marketplace would deign to list proprietary software applications that currently dominate their government IT niche, such as ArcGIS.  For those of you who don’t know the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) industry, the company behind ArcGIS, ESRI, had a de facto monopoly on Federal government contracts for GIS software for many years, but has recently begun to face new competition from open-source GIS platforms and organizations such as OpenGeo.   I can understand Sunlight Labs’ surprise– after all, Civic Commons has a clear mission to disrupt the status quo of the government IT marketplace, and a clear organizational bias towards open data, open standards, and open source platforms / software as the tools of choice to that end.

I was thrilled because I believe the Civic Commons Marketplace will ultimately save US taxpayers billions of dollars in government IT spending, while accelerating the propagation of technology-driven civic innovation in the bargain.  I’ve believed this for a while.   Thus, it’s a debate worth having; the Marketplace deserves attention, and critique.

In order to realize its potential, from my perspective as a recovering government CIO, I believe that the Civic Commons Marketplace must give equal billing to all software used in government, regardless of the software license associated with it; here’s why:

  1. As a government IT buyer, I want to know what software my peers are using, and how it’s going.  Before the Civic Commons Marketplace came along, if I was to be an “innovative” CIO pushing the envelope, I would to go to conferences, trade shows, magazines, and myriad blogs and vendor marketing websites, and ping my socioprofessional network of people-smarter-than-I-am for information on who was using what software, who was developing what apps, and how it was going.  Then, I would narrow in on a few candidate software solutions and would call references provided to me by the vendors in question; if I remained dissatisfied with the options available to me externally, and had available skills and bandwidth amongst my staff (the exception rather than the rule) I might initiate my own new internal development project to build my own solution.  This evaluation process required a massive investment of time, felt haphazard, and didn’t net out any knowledge that would make this same process easier for my peers when they encountered the same software need in the future.  And I was an “innovative” CIO…  Most government tech buyers simply either purchase products off of government purchasing schedules, which are inherently biased against new and open-source solutions because of the cost and complexity of getting your software or services listed on them, or take what vendors with the largest marketing (and lobbying) budgets are pitching them.  They do so because it’s easier, and it’s lower risk.  “No one gets fired for buying IBM,” is an old enterprise IT adage, and in government today that applies to Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, Accenture, and <insert defense contractor of choice> et al. as well.  All this may sound like ammunition for the argument that Civic Commons needs to shine a light on GeoServer and omit all reference to arcGIS in order to level the playing field, but that misses the point.  Rather, as a government IT buyer, especially if I’m not a C-level appointee with a mandate for change, if I am to seriously consider a newer or more open software solution on the merits, I need a credible not-owned-by-a-vendor-or-industry-trade-association one-stop shop to find out what is being used where by my peers, and how it’s going– a place where I can make apples to apples comparisons of proprietary and open solutions.  That would help level the playing field for open-source software procurement in government.  The Civic Commons Marketplace, while still in beta, is well on its way to becoming that one-stop-shop.  When it gets there, it can save us billions.  If, on the other hand, the Civic Commons Marketplace became a segregated open-source-solutions-only knowledgebase, it would lose credibility with government IT buyers such as myself in my past life, and, I believe, less open-source software would be adopted in government.
  2. As my friend Chief Innovation Officer of the State of Maryland Bryan Sivak is fond of saying amongst the Civic Commons digerati, sometimes proprietary solutions are the right solution for government; open-source is not a panacea in and of itself, though I firmly believe that it has structural advantages that will typically outcompete its proprietary alternatives over time, most of the time.  In the case of some software verticals, open-source solutions are not mature enough or well-enough supported to be the right choice for some government buyers. that’s ok.  I want those government buyers in that circumstance to make the right choice for their specific circumstance. This is further complicated by the advent of cloud-hosted solutions, in which the efficiency of purchasing a turnkey hosted service, coupled with corollary issues of portability of data between software applications, can often render the software license question moot, or at least less decisive.  The Civic Commons Marketplace can and should help  that government buyer to select proprietary software in that circumstance.  The problem comes in– and this happens all too often– when a government buyer has insufficient incentive to take appropriate risks, and when there is a lack of parity in terms of the data available to evaluate the relative risks and benefits of a proprietary software solution versus an open-source alternative.   In that circumstance, which was quite ubiquitous prior to the launch of the Civic Commons Marketplace, proprietary solutions will win and be selected most of the time. The advent of a neutral information commons, with information about proprietary and open-source solutions that enabled apples-to-apples comparisons, changes that dynamic.  It will, I believe, will result in open solutions being selected (and developed) far more often in government.

So, I believe that the Civic Commons Marketplace in its current form, open to listings of all software regardless of license, is highly necessary and valuable.   That said, there are at least three more nuanced concerns that I believe are valid, and that should in fact be on the roadmap for the Marketplace to address in the months ahead:

  1.  Regarding the concern that a listing in the Marketplace is a tacit endorsement by the Civic Commons organization, I do believe that explicit clarification to the contrary on the website is warranted.  The Marketplace doesn’t play favorites any more than Crunchbase or Yelp.  It’s a wiki, folks.  This is critical because Civic Commons has limited staff and budget, and because their staff, while highly knowledgable about public sector open solutions, would never be able to author nor exert authoritative editorial control over all civic software function verticals.   Still, early revs of the Marketplace included a nuanced ratings functionality.   It may help to add that back in.
  2. Regarding Gunnar Hellekson‘s perspective that a comprehensive catalog of all government IT deployments may not be as useful as a more focused catalog of solutions, I believe that such a focused catalog will be most valuable if it is culled from and built upon a foundation of a more comprehensive knowledgebase.  For example, a catalog of open-source Open311 compliant solutions would be valuable to me as a government buyer, but not as valuable as if that catalog were built from a knowledgebase that also allowed me to contrast these open solutions with New York City’s SiebelCRM-based 311 solution, Citivox‘s proprietary but open-standards-compliant SaaS solution, etc.   In other words, the Marketplace 1.0 is intended to be a platform– a mashable knowledgebase upon which a variety of derivative products, such as this notional “focused solutions catalog of open-source government customer service solutions” can readily be built, either as a future rev of the Marketplace itself, or as a separate offering built using its young but increasingly robust API.
  3. Gunnar also pointed out to me that ‘entries free of context, like cost and use-case, serve only to promote a product, and don’t help in decision-making.’  I agree with this critique as well, but again, believe that the Marketplace 1.0 is a necessary foundation upon which this metadata can readily be layered over time.  If the Marketplace 1.0 had instead focused on a narrower catalog with more comprehensive metadata and user stories, its impact might be greater in the immediate-term, but I believe would ultimately be more limited.  What if wikipedia had been written as an encyclopedia of only those subject areas where its founders found traditional encyclopedias lacking?  Again, let’s add these important new requirements as feature requests for Marketplace 2.0– the project ticket tracker is public and open to all.

Full disclosure: I’m on the Board of the parent organization of OpenGeo, have great friends who work at ESRI, and my company helped to build the initial beta version of the Civic Commons Marketplace.

Civic technology, drupal, Gov20, government, New York, open data, open-source, reinventing government

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: – 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 — 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 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 — 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.

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