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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Civic technology, government, New York, politics, presentations, reinventing government

Spring & Summer Speaking Schedule Re: Technology for Transparency in The New York State Senate

The New York State Senate gets a lot of bad press.  There is, however, a great deal of work going on behind the scenes to help make the Senate as an institution more transparent, efficient, and participatory for the long-haul.  This Spring, we’ll be telling that side of the #NYSenate story to audiences ranging from New York City high school students to Federal government executives.

March 4th: Presentation to Senator Liz Krueger‘s High School Civics Class at the Julia Richman Education Complex

March 10th: PACE University Political Science lecture

March 19th: Panelist for “Meaning of Open Government in the Digital Age” at the Open Government In the Digital Age Summit (organized by the New York State Office of the Chief Information Officer / Office For Technology)

March 24th: Presentation at Web 2.o For Government (organized by The New York Forum Emerging Technologies Working Group)

March 26th: Keynote Address at Open Gov West (organized by Knowledge As Power); archived video here

April 5th: Lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government

April 9th: Presentation at PSFK New York

April 21st: Keynote Panel at Drupalcon San Francisco

Aprul 22nd: Government CRM talk at Civicon

April 28th: Government Transparency talk in the Capitol to staff of the Armenian Legislature (US State Dept International Visitor Leadership Program and International Center of the Capital Region)

April 29th: “Open Government” Panel at the 2010 CIO Academy (Organizing and Moderating)

May 4th: NYS Forum Government Cloud Computing Presentation

May 25th: Presentation at Gov 2.0 Expo; preview video here

June 10th: Presentation of Open Legislation at the Personal Democracy Forum

July 23rd: Organizing “Getting to” panel at Netroots Nation

August 20th: Presentation at the second annual CapitolCamp in Albany

Civic technology

2010 Wish: A Non-Profit to Help Government Entities Share Code

We want to share

We write a lot of code in the New York State Senate Office of the CIO. It’s all released under dual BSD and GPLv3 open-source license, and we post most of it here on GitHub (and some on  We fervently hope that our peers in government– whether in other legislative bodies, at other levels of government (e.g.: city, county, federal), or other branches of government (e.g.: NY State Agencies in the Executive Branch)– will find and make use of this code.

For example, our website, into which 1000s of hours of developer work have been invested to customize the Drupal CMS platform for our legislative body, should ideally be able to meet the quite analogous website needs of the ~98 other State-level legislative bodies in the USA, not to mention the 1000s of City Councils in the USA.  I’d like it to be easy for an IT Director for any legislative body in the US to quickly and easily get capabilities analogous to without needing to reinvent our wheel.

But It’s Hard…

However, most of the time for most of our applications to date, the promise of delivering more utility more efficiently by sharing the costs of developing and maintaining application code between peer public sector entities– better leveraging investments of precious tax dollars in public sector IT– is merely a good idea.

We try to go the extra mile to document our code well, posting it on GitHub, making our peers aware of it through speaking engagements, participation in unconferences, and use of the social Internets, and by liberating the data at least through our extensive support for open data standards and APIs.  We field calls about approach and policy and precedent frequently from our peers.  However, there is no question that it remains a heavy lift for a peer institution to actually take our application code and efficiently drop it into their own use case, because our code is necessarily customized to our specific nuanced needs in the Senate.  Like most government entities these days, we’re understaffed relative to the workload we have.  We don’t have the resources to easily contribute the custom Drupal modules we’ve written to and commit to becoming the maintainers of these modules.  Nor do we have time to refactor our code into a more generic “Legislative CMS product” for our peers to more easily find and make use of.

Another example– this time one in which another government entity could help us here at the NY Senate: friends of mine at NASA recently built an online application (in their own free time) that leverages NASA’s publicly accessible LDAP server data (which is a subset of the internally accessible data from the same LDAP server), and then allow NASA employees to “claim” their profile on this public website, and add additional metadata like your Gravatar, your skills and interests, etc.  Here in the NY Senate we’ve been researching enterprise social networking & collaboration applications that could help our internal staff to discover and leverage specific interests and skills of their colleagues.   The application written for NASA, which is open-source and posted on GitHub, could help meet this need for us, but at the moment we’d have to rip out and replace code in order for us to be able to use it; it would take the NASA crew some significant additional work to refactor the code to turn it into more of a product in which we could merely edit a config file to deploy it for NY Senate…

In both our NY Senate example and the NASA example, if the refactoring work on code were done, and some level of ongoing maintenance and support of the code were available, more value would have been returned from tax dollars invested in our respective work, and we would also in turn be able to leverage off of the additional refinement of our code done by our peers in government to further benefit our institution.  In other words, we could share the workload of software development and maintenance with our peers in government.

In the case of some business applications, vendors do offer productized SaaS solutions that meet the needs of a customer vertical like “legislative body.”  But these solutions are rarely open-source, and are often either prohibitively expensive, or are not really built to suit the nuanced needs of a niche customer group, because such a niche may not be a large enough potential business market to warrant development of a highly nuanced product.  Therefore, I think that the public sector needs to innovate in terms of self-support of technical collaboration.

I can envision a thematically-focused technically competent organization like the Sunlight Foundation doing the heavy lifting on a specific application that might be of specific interest to them, like our Open Legislation application.   Others of our peers, like the NYS Department of Labor, have taken explicit steps to increase technical collaboration with other Labor organizations in the public sector by creating online hubs like sets a strong precedent at the Federal level, and I’ve heard rumors of a to be launched in the future.

Open standards help.  Unconferences and virtual peer communities of practice help.  Open APIs help.  Open software licenses help.  Code repositories help.  Cloud computing infrastructure in which a machine image can be cloned with a few clicks helps.  Developing applications within a service-oriented architecture (SOA) helps. The promise of online government app stores and feature servers help.

However, all of these approaches today are being implemented piecemeal if at all, and, when they are, often within a narrow niche where a motivated group of peers seeks help in solving a single problem they’re focused on at a single time.

A Solution?…

I believe that citizens and governments alike would be well-served by an international non-profit entity (or perhaps a consortium of non-profit and for-profit entities committed to open-source?) charged with putting all these techniques together in a way that any public sector institution can easily contribute to and extract value from software development by their peers.  Unlike some existing efforts, this organization would NOT be limited to moving the ball forward in a single thematic arena like “transparency” (e.g.: Sunlight Foundation) nor to a single geographic purview (e.g.: US Federal Government or New York State Government), nor be focused within a specific government service sector (e.g.: Labor, Motor Vehicles, Tax), nor that is focused on a particular technology stack (e.g.: Drupal for Government).  Rather, such a non-profit technology organization or consortium would:

  1. Map the the virtual space of government IT applications (ranging from procurement and contract management, to payroll and other business applications, to citizen identity management, to CMS to CRM to more niche applications like news clippings services and legislative research tools);
  2. Find open-source licensed code that is being developed within the public sector to address these application needs and that could deliver value for a wide range of public sector entities;
  3. Do the hands-on work to generalize the code so that it is broadly useful and productized as much as practical;
  4. Publicize the availability of the new open-source products within the government (as customer) and public sector IT consulting services communities;
  5. Provide support and maintenance of the code for its public sector consumers and contributors;
  6. Maintain roadmaps for, and convene multi-institution developer communities around, specific major areas of opportunity for ongoing collaborative software innovation.
  7. Play a role in the planning and build-out of government clouds, app stores, and feature servers.

Such an entity, once fully realized and effective over a period of years, I believe could yield hundreds of millions of dollars of tax dollar savings worldwide on public sector software development and licensing annually.  It could also significantly expand the size of the public sector market addressable by small and medium-sized IT consulting firms by moving dollars spent from software licensing to customization and support, and by allowing small engineering teams from separate companies and institutions to more easily collaborate to achieve large scale engineering capacity when required.

In other words, such an effort might well  reduce government IT costs, increase the capacity for government entities to collaborate with one another through technology, increase competition in the private sector for government IT contracts, and increase the likelihood that smaller businesses can provide services higher in the food chain of government IT contracts.

Organizations that I hope will look at taking on part or all of this opportunity include Code for America, the Open Planning Project, the World Bank, ExpertLabs, and perhaps the Ford Foundation’s Effective Government Program.