Sep16

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Madison v1.7 Release Notes: All About Simplifying Complicated Policy Conversations for Citizens

 

By Chris Birk, Lead Madison Developer

The OpenGov Foundation is excited to announce the release of Madison Version 1.7 (v1.7).  The latest edition of the Madison online collaborative policymaking platformis now available free for anyone to take and use on Github.  Madison v1.7 includes several bug fixes and design enhancements, but it’s also loaded with a few new features to make it easier for you to engage in conversation with fellow users, stay updated on the latest Madison activity, and break down language barriers to bring in wider pools of expertise around policy issues.  Madison is built for you, so please tell us what you think!

  • Discussion Panel Now, general document comments are separated from annotations on the document text itself, allowing users to easily differentiate over-all citizen input on a policy document from actual edits to the document.  The comments section functions more like a discussion forum than the previous activity feed. To join the conversation on a bill, click on the “Discussion” tab at the top of every document in Madison.

 

Madison-v1-7-discussion-tab-

 

  • Notification Engine Madison v1.7 now includes a notifications system.  In this release, Madison Notifications are only available to administrative users. So if you are running a Madison instance for your city council or state government, for example, you will get instant updates on everything that is happening, from new document posts to new user signups and new activity on documents. The OpenGov Foundation’s developer team will be expanding Madison Notifications soon to give all users the ability to stay updated on the Madison action they want, like responses to their posts, new activity on a document they’ve previously interacted with, and even new versions of a document in which they’re interested.
  • Social Logins Madison users can now log in and sign up with their Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn accounts. However, this addition has raised some interesting questions around the Madison signup process.

 

Madison-v1-7-Social-Logins


  • Automatic Translations Madison v1.7 now includes the Google Translation Library to automatically translate document content into your language of choice.  If Madison detects a browser set to a language other than the default English, you will be prompted to translate the page into another language if you’d like to do so. This new feature will help support the growing number of international Madison users.
  • Document Activity RSS Feeds Each document in Madison v1.7 now includes an RSS feed, allowing you to track every document comment, discussion or annotation.
  • Embed Madison Document Text on Other Websites Documents sponsors can now embed the text of any Madison document on any third-party website they want.  It’s as simple as copying-and-pasting with the embeddable Madison widget.

What’s Next?  Madison v1.8 is scheduled for release in late September 2014.  V1.8 will focus on helping the Madison community stay informed and on top of the discussions and policy documents they want.  There are plenty of other goodies in store with v1.8, like a step-by-step Madison how-to guide and custom policy document summaries from elected officials. Madison’s next milestone is coming fast.  Watch it come together on Github, or sign up to be the first to hear about the new features.  And we’re always Tweeting about Madison on @FoundOpenGov.  We’d love to hear your feedback and suggestions for v1.8 and beyond!


Bonus Question for You on Social Media Log Ins: Before this release, Madison identified users and give them access to the conversation with email addresses only.  Twitter, however, does not provide email addresses when using the service to log into Madison. The assumption that everyone would have an email address made it very simple for Madison to communicate with you. Now, we’ve had to rethink: should Madison ask you for an email address after you sign up with Twitter or move to a username-based login? Should we allow users to log in with either username or email, and if so, how do we set up notifications / communication for users who haven’t provided a contact email?  Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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Aug5

August is upon us.  We’re taking this quiet-ish time to review the year and recharge for the final sprint.  Here’s how The OpenGov Foundation will remember 2014 (so far):

 

Launched the Free Law Founders — a nationwide coalition to modernize American lawmaking for the Internet Age

In July, we helped launch the Free Law Founders, a nationwide coalition of local elected officials, non-profit software developers, educators, and city attorneys dedicated to upgrading how citizens can access America’s laws, legislation, and the lawmaking process itself on the Internet. Learn more about what the coalition does and how you can become involved here.

 

Abhi Nemani, fresh from Code for America, joins OpenGov Board of Directors

In June we were honored to have Abhi Nemani, former Co-Director of Code for America, join our board.  Abhi is a writer, speaker, organizer, and technologist who helped build the national non-profit, Code for America, from the ground up.

 

Citizens are reforming San Francisco laws with SanFranciscoDecoded.org

In July, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted into law one of the first ordinances created in the US through online citizen input.  Supervisor Mark Farrell introduced the bill after receiving a comment on SanFranciscoCode.org, one of our America Decoded sites, highlighting a law that prohibits storing bicycles in San Francisco garages.

In a ground-breaking civic engagement initiative, Supervisor Farrell also launched ReImagineSF, a competition offering scholarships to students in the city who use SanFranciscoCode.org to suggest improvements to the city’s laws. Supervisor Farrell announced the winners on July 15, and will introduce their ideas as bills to the Board of Supervisors later this year.

 

“Decoding” city & state laws gets easier with OpenGov-AmLegal partnership

In May, we announced a partnership with American Legal Publishing Corporation that gives us easy access to well-formatted legal code from over 2,000 American Legal client cities across the nation. Through this partnership we have built a parser that allows us to more easily make American Legal cities’ laws accessible and restriction-free online. We’re exploring a similar partnership with legal publisher Municode, too.  These partnerships enable us to scale our work in ways that previously proved difficult due to the lack of legal code in workable data formats.  Click here to get started “decoding” your laws and legal codes.

 

Madison powering online citizen-government collaboration on DC legislation

We launched a beta version of our Madison collaborative drafting platform in the District of Columbia in partnership with Councilmember David Grosso back in May. In addition, Councilmember Grosso brought comments received on Madison directly into the hearing, using citizens’ suggestions and questions in conversation with public witnesses.

Our general Madison instance continues to host key pieces of legislation from around the nation, including seven bills related to open government and open data authored by New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, and Senators Leahy and Cornyn’s FOIA Improvement Act of 2014. And we have created a new instance of the platform at the request of the United Nations’s International Telecommunication Union, to support the crowdsourcing of a document concerning the use of information and communications technology in empowering youth.

 

Partnering with the W3C on open source legislative & legal drafting platform

We have partnered with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which governs the architecture and rules of the Web, to create an entirely new tool that combines project workflow management, collaborative document editing, and intelligent information gathering. This tool will eventually replace the current editing tool on Madison, creating a powerful new way to approach policy-creation.

 

Won $7,500 from Hypothes.is to bring online annotation to older web browsers

In June, we were awarded a $7,500 grant from Hypothes.is to improve the open-source project Annotator, a tool for annotating the web, and which powers Madison’s annotations. The grant goes towards ensuring that Annotator works consistently across browsers and older versions of browsers.

 

“Design Whisperer” Jen Yu joins OpenGov Board of Advisors

We’re thrilled that Jen Yu has joined our Board of Advisors to serve as our “Design Whisperer.”  She has led wildly successful design and experience teams, from Disney to Adobe, Slide (acquired by Google), Jawbone, and Frog Design, to name a few.  On top of those amazing accomplishments, Jen has led the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) experience design team in building Plan X, the U.S. Defense Department’s foundational cyberwarfare program.  Right now, she’s the Chief Creative Officer of a Y Combinator startup in San Francisco.  And she says that if you buy her a cookie, she will gladly take it.

 

That’s where we’ve been.  Where are we going for the rest of 2014?  Just ask!

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Jul28

Learning from DC’s First Legislative Crowdsourcing Initiative

“[T]he Madison project . . . is going to revolutionize the way we draft legislation and policy in the District of Columbia.”

– DC Councilmember David Grosso

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 4.45.55 PM

 

In early May of 2014 we launched our first municipal instance of Madison along with DC Councilmember David Grosso, in what became the District’s premier legislative crowdsourcing initiative, and one of the first in the country. We also coordinated a live online committee hearing on one of the bills, Councilmember Grosso’s Urban Farming and Food Sustainability Act of 2014, on June 12.

 

In approaching this initiative, we had to consider how to measure success–how to determine if Madison was “working”. We concluded that anytime a citizen reads a policy document, watches a hearing, or interacts with policy who might otherwise not have had such access to their government, it counts as a win. But real success lies in whether public input on Madison reaches a document sponsor.

 

Of Councilmember Grosso’s documents, the urban farming bill received the most action on MadisonDC, with over 50 comments and 304 unique pageviews. The comments proved both thoughtful and substantive, and over 100 DC residents tuned in to the public hearing via the bill page on MadisonDC in the middle of a Thursday morning. But most importantly, Councilmember Grosso’s office reviewed all Madison activity on the bills, and during the public hearing, the councilmember used comments from MadisonDC to tease out finer points of the legislation in conversation with public witnesses. It formed a quietly groundbreaking moment in DC history, and our success with this document revealed some key lessons about using new technologies to facilitate civic engagement.

 

First, tools like Madison don’t have to completely disrupt the way government functions in order to be disruptive. Councilmember Grosso’s office was willing to use Madison because we collaborated with them to make sure Madison fit into their existing workflow as much as possible; if it had taken too much time out of their jam-packed schedules they wouldn’t have been able to use it. And the urban farming bill gained traction because community leaders activated their engaged networks to create interest around the bill. Leveraging existing resources remains key to creating real change.

 

Relatedly, it’s all about timing. We released the urban farming bill just as two council committees began actively reaching out to citizens for testimony. The committees held a joint in-person hearing on the legislation a month after our launch, giving us enough time to build interest and get people familiar with the concept of Madison, and providing an effective end-point to the initiative. It’s important to ensure that citizen input won’t just sit in Internet limbo, but also that people have enough time to get involved.

 

We also learned that yes, opening up the legislative process with new technology is worth the initial effort of getting started. The fact that Councilmember Grosso brought questions and suggestions received on MadisonDC directly into an official public hearing speaks to the usefulness of the conversation on Madison. And the fact that DC residents took the time to engage with the bill shows that they value the opportunity to become more easily involved in their government.

 

Finally, it’s tempting to think of revolutions as sudden and explosive, but in reality they constitute momentous amounts of small, incremental changes that lead to something new. The fact that our revolution lives primarily online doesn’t change that. Our platform is still in beta testing. So is the process of using technology to solicit citizen input directly on legislation. So we approached the initiative as an experiment, managing the expectations both of ourselves and our community and government partners. It was important for everyone to be on the same page and to keep an open mind if things went wrong.

 

Madison hasn’t yet changed the world. But small victories like the MadisonDC launch move us closer to a more inclusive and collaborative democracy, and it’s exciting to be a part of that change–one citizen comment and one line of code at a time.

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Jul24

Citizens, technologists and public officials working together to transform

state & local lawmaking for the 21st Century

Transforming America’s laws and legislation to meet the needs of the Internet Age requires a team effort.  State and local government officials, residents and civic software developers all have a role to play.  So do vendors, open government advocacy groups and cutting-edge research universities.  That’s the only way we can “decode” the United States, opening up online the central data in every democracy: the laws and legal codes that govern us.

 

Enter the Free Law Founders (FLF).  As Government Executive writes, the Free Law Founders is a nationwide “partnership to create new tools, data standards and processes for state and local governments to make public information and data better accessible to the public.”  Why the FLF?  The problems of today’s exclusionary, inefficient and paper-based laws and legislative process are faced by every single government in America.  Go to any city council or state house in the United States – as The OpenGov Foundation has done over the last year and a half – and you’ll hear the same thing: our software stinks and we hate PDFs, but we don’t have the time, tools or talent to fix it.

 

That’s a problem crying out for cross-country collaboration and low-cost open source solutions.  It’s “The Ultimate in Open Government.”  To get there, FLF members will be working on expanding and enhancing free tools like Madison, America Decoded and Councilmatic.  We’ll be working on crafting and passing policies to foster this open law ecosystem, with an open legal data standard to match.  And we’ll be sharing everything – our code, our data and our gameplans – at FreeLawFounders.org so others can benefit.

 

As NYC Council Member Ben Kallos, a founding FLF member, put it: “The law must be free. The government must belong to the people, and with it the source code that operates and improves legislation and laws.  Millenia ago, Hammurabi codified law and displayed it publicly for the people to see. Today, public means free and online, not behind a license or paywall.”

 

In addition to Kallos and The OpenGov Foundation, current FLF members include: San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell, NYC Council Member Ben Kallos, Washington, D.C. Council Chief Counsel David Zvenyach, Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, Boston’s Principal Data Scientist Curt Savoie, the Participatory Politics Foundation, and MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab.  As FLF members, we’re sharing our time and talents to vivify these basic principles of Free Law, and contribute to securing them for the entire United States.

 

The Free Law Founders is open for anyone to join.  Civic hackers, everyday Americans, government officials, private-sector vendors – everyone can contribute to achieving this massive modernization effort of how we make and access America’s state and city laws, legal codes and legislation.  Drop me a line to get started on the path to transforming your city and state laws and legislative process for the Internet Age.

 

Don’t get stuck in the Dark Ages of Democracy with PDFs, copyright restrictions and chaos.  Do something about it with the Free Law Founders.

 

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Jun17

Transforming US Civic Data Into a “What You See Is What You Mean” Format

 

By Bill Hunt, lead OpenGov developer for America Decoded

City and state governments across America are adopting Open Data policies at a fantastic clip.  Technology hotbed San Francisco has one, but places far from Silicon Valley – like Pittsburgh, PA – are also joining the municipal open data movement.  The increasing availability of free tools and enthusiastic volunteer software developers has opened the door for a vast amount of new government data to be made publicly available in digital form.  But merely putting this data out there on the Internet is only the first step.

No-StandardsMuch of this city data is released under assumption that a government agency must publish something – anything – and fast.  In this rush to demonstrate progress, little thought is given to the how.  But the citizens who care about this data – and are actually building websites and applications with it – need to access it in machine-readable, accessible, and standards-compliant formats, as the Sunlight Foundation explains here.  This explains why most city open data sets aren’t seen or used.  There is a vast difference between merely opening data, and publishing Open Data.

By publishing data in good formats that adhere to modern, widely-accepted standards, users of the data may reuse existing software to manipulate and display the data in a variety of ways, without having to start from scratch.  Moreover, it allows easy comparison between data from different sources.  If every city and every organization chooses to adopt their own standard for data output, this task becomes absolutely insurmountable – the data will grow faster than anyone on the outside can possibly keep up.

 

Most Government “Open Data” Is A Useless Mess

Take, for example, the mess that is data.gov.  Lots of data is available – but most of these datasets are windows-only self-extracting zip archives of Excel files without headings that are nearly useless.  This is not what the community at large means by “Open Data” – there are lots of closed formats along the way.

Similarly, data which is released with its own schema, rather than adopting a common standard, is just as problematic.  If you’re forcing your users to learn an entirely new data schema – essentially, a brand new language – and to write entirely new parsing software – a brand new translator – just to interact with your data, you’ve added a considerable barrier to entry that undercuts openness and accessibility.

A good standard lets anyone who wants to interact with the data do so easily, without having to learn anything new or build anything new.  Standard programming libraries can be built, so that it’s as simple as opening a webpage for everyone.  This means that in most programming languages, using a standards-based data source can be as simple as it is to interact with the web, import httplib and you’re done.

 

Evaluating Existing Standards

Existing-StandardsEvery day at The OpenGov Foundation, I work with legal and legislative data.  Laws, legal codes, legislation, regulations, and judicial opinions are a few examples.  What standard do we use?  Well, let’s look at the most common standards available for publishing legal data on the Internet:

  • Akoma Ntoso – a well-known XML-based format that is very verbose. The level of complexity presents a high barrier to entry for most users, and has prevented its wide adoption.
  • State Decoded XML – the format used by The State Decoded project.  Currently, this only support law code data, and is not widely adopted outside of this project.
  • JSON – JSON is not actually a standard, but a general format well suited to relational and tabular data, and chunks of plain text.  A variant is JSON-LD which has all of the same properties, but is better for relational data.  It is commonly used for transferring data on the web, but it is not practical for annotated or marked-up data.

 

None of these are ideal.  But if I had to pick a single option to move forward, the USLM standard is the most attractive for several reasons:

  • It is older, established, and has good documentation
  • It is easily implemented and used
  • It is extensible, but not especially verbose
  • It is designed to handle inline markup and annotation, such as tables, mathematical formulas, and images

It also acts as a very good “greatest common factor” as a primary format – it can be translated easily into common formats such as HTML, Microsoft Word, plain text, and even JSON – but does not add any superfluous complexity to address most common needs (e.g., tables or annotations) that other formats require.

 

Setting the Standard for Open Law & Legislative Data

Building-A-StandardMoving forward, the next step beyond simply exporting USLM data from existing data sources would be to to have end-to-end solutions that speak USLM natively.  Instead of editing Word or WordPerfect documents to craft legislation, lawmakers could write bills in new tools that look and feel like Word, but are actually crafting well-formatted USLM XML behind the scenes, instead of a closed-source, locked-in format.  This is what we call “What You See Is What You Mean” – or WYSIWYM.

Here at The OpenGov Foundation, we believe in a rich, standards-based data economy, and we are our actively doing our part to contribute.  Our open-source online policymaking platform – Madison - already consumes USLM, and we are actively working on an WYSIWYM editor to make it easier to create and modify policy documents in Madison.  We are also investigating USLM support for The State Decoded - both as an input and output format.  Hopefully, other software projects will actively follow suit – creating an interoperable ecosystem of legal data for everyone in the United States.

What do you think?  Send me an email or find me on Twitter.

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