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.

Civic technology

An Obama Series, and go to Ohio

‘Tis the season, as happens every four years, that I start receiving emailed narratives every day, passed through friends, family and neighbors virtual and literal, that tell the story of a Presidential election and the choice before us, the American people. Some are better than others, and some of the best I’ve ever received I’m receiving this time around. I’m deeply disturbed that this election, at the moment, appears to be to close, because the choice for me has never been more clear. That clarity, and my commitment to work to ensure that Barack Obama is elected President, gets reinforced every time I read one of these good narratives about the election. So, in hopes that it will be of service in motivating others as well, I’m planning on posting the best I receive here. If there is an author, I’ll ask their permission before posting. If there is none, I’ll post it as anonymous. To kick it off, here is my response (slightly edited) to a friend of mine who wrote me from Australia– wrote to all of her American friends in fact– with a subject line of “your politicians are scaring me.”


Dear Mei,

Yes it’s pretty scary to me that McCain-Palin can be polling equal to or ahead of Obama. Obama isn’t doing a perfect job on the campaign trail, but I say “so what”…. This election is NOT about Obama. He has some of the smartest most principled Americans I’ve ever met surrounding him, and I believe he’d be an outstanding President. So would Biden.

But the bigger issue, to me, is how horrendous the alternative would be.

McCain is even older than Ronald Reagan was in his 2nd term as President, and we now know as a historical fact that Reagan was senile by the time he left office. Members of my family the same age as McCain cite this fact as one of their primary reasons for being so worried about the prospect of electing him.  McCain admits that he knows little about economic policy, at a time of severe economic pain here in the US. And McCain is in many ways to the RIGHT of George Bush on foreign policy. He was bound and determined to go into Iraq three days after 9/11, the facts about who attacked us be damned. Iran is next, if he becomes President.

And I find the prospect of Palin as President, should anything happen to McCain, absolutely terrifying– someone who had never had a passport or traveled outside of North America in her life until last year, leading the world’s most powerful nation for the next four years? She would not only be ignorant about the rest of the world, but apparently also about the rest of the USA– she and her husband supported a political party that advocated secession for Alaska from the USA! And on domestic policy, she lies unapologetically about her public service record (regarding seeking “earmark” money from the Federal government from Alaska), and she would like to make it illegal for a raped woman have an abortion, even if her life is in danger.

If they’re elected, I think the US will continue to be perceived as belligerent around the world, will continue to spend far more than we can afford further destabilizing the world’s largest economy, will have the most conservative Supreme Court in modern history for the next 30 years, and will take no serious action on climate change. The choice couldn’t be more clear.

I think it’s likely to come down to Ohio in the election once again, and the best way I know to impact that State’s election is through my friend Billy Wimsatt’s “get out the vote” initiative: . Send your American friends there and they’ll make a difference in this election– and/or get them to support it financially at

Thanks for your concern and your support!


Civic technology

Barack Obama Aerospace Community Meeting at ISDC

Please join us at an organizing meeting for supporters of Barack Obama in the aerospace community on Saturday May 31st during the International Space Development Conference. Event details:

Organizing meeting for Barack Obama supporters attending the International Space Development Conference in Washington, DC, building on the earlier meeting on Thursday, with input from some new people who can’t make the Thursday meeting.

We’ll make plans both for conducting outreach to the aerospace community on behalf of Barack Obama this summer around events such as the Netroots Nation convention in Austin in July.

We’ll also discuss Obama’s space policy platform and how we can best contribute our perspectives to it.

Time: Saturday, May 31 at 6:00 PM
Duration: 2 hours
Host: Andrew Hoppin
Location: Lobby of the Capitol Hilton Hotel (Washington, DC)
1001 16th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036

Civic technology

Human Barometers, NASA, and Memes That Boomerang

In response to my Twit about human barometers and NASA I was asked on Facebook what a human barometer is by a buddy of mine in the broader space community.  Good question.  Answer:

Picture a typical butt-in-seat space conference without a lot of interaction or excitement.  then get everyone  out of their seats, ask them a provocative question, and get them to line up where they fall along a line from agree to disagree with the question…  then have people in each part of the line say why they chose to stand there –> human barometer on whatever question you asked.   Serves to gather interesting opinion data, also gets people up and active (especially good to kick off early morning conferences), and also gets the people at the conference to get a sense of the cultural profile of their fellow participants… offline social network profiling.   Oh– and it’s fun.

What happened today is that I was part of a conference where the moderator of a session ran a barometer and gave attribution to someone in the audience who had run a barometer at another NASA event that the moderator had attended and enjoyed… But of course the person receiving the verbal attribution had gotten it from me at yet another NASA event that I had run that she had attended and enjoyed!  And I have gotten it from a great friend who at a political technology geek event in Oakland!   I *loved* the meme and the practice of the barometer coming back into my personal space at a NASA event without (anymore) having to have any association with or dependence on me!  T’was perfect.

Full credit to Allen Gunn for inventing the human barometer (as far as I know) and schooling me experientially in its appropriate and effective use.