Open Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving we have a lot to celebrate at The OpenGov Foundation. It’s been a jam-packed year, full of important lessons and exciting growth. We’ve each taken some time to reflect on what we’re thankful for. Here’s what we’ll be thinking about as we enjoy our Thanksgiving meals.

OpenGov Thanksgiving

 The OpenGov Foundation family

Congressman Darrell Issa, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board

I’m particularly thankful for a government that can be explored, one which groups like The OpenGov Foundation and, if necessary, the courts, can in fact hold accountable for the American people. I know there’s a lot of work to be done, but I think at Thanksgiving it’s important that we look at the cup as half full and not at the amount that could be added.” 

Seamus Kraft, Executive Director

There are so many things to be thankful for, but here are a few:

  • My family
  • My girlfriend
  • My country, and that it remains free and a beacon of hope for the world.
  • Phish
  • Sunrises
  • Hardworking public servants — staffers, career bureaucrats and elected officials — who never get enough credit or thanks for the jobs they do.
  • James Madison
  • My amazing dev team
  • The Knight Foundation and their amazing staff
  • The Shuttleworth Fellows and Foundation Family
  • PaperMate Flair Medium pens (black, blue and red)
  • The men and women in uniform who secure my freedom from oppression
  • My freedom of speech and expression
  • Waldo Jaquith
  • Dan Whaley & the Team
  • Abhi Nemani
  • Our amazing accountant and legal team

Chris Birk, Head Developer

I’m grateful for:

  • My family
  • My friends
  • My chocolate labs
  • The Indianapolis Colts
  • The OpenGov Foundation
  • The Internet
  • Craft beer
  • Spotify ( and the artists )
  • Ireland
  • The ability to travel
  • Noise canceling headphones
  • Comedians

Bill Hunt, Senior Developer

I’m always thankful for:

  • Family and friends
  • The OpenGov family
  • The DC civic hacking community
  • Good tea
  • Hope, in a world that needs more of it

Leili Slutz, Operations Architect

I’m giving thanks for:

  • My family and friends
  • The OpenGov Foundation team
  • Having a warm, safe home to live in
  • The Internet
  • Books. My Kindle.
  • Food, glorious food
  • The luxury to travel and explore my interests
  • Learning what good tea is, thanks to Bill Hunt

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“Once people can get their hands on [their local laws and legislation], they can say, ‘Oh, wait.  I don’t agree with this one, or we can make this better’…That’s a revolution in the way laws are changed.”  

– Liana Derus, San Francisco State University student and Community Member


Since launching The OpenGov Foundation in early 2013, we’ve been working towards the future so eloquently painted by Liana — one in which all Americans can access, understand and participate in the decisions that affect their lives. To get there, we need to refashion the very core of our local, state and federal democracies — the laws, legal codes and lawmaking process itself.




An initial $200,000 Knight Foundation seed grant, which we received in July 2013, helped us kindle our dream for digital democracy into something far greater than the first version of the Madison online lawmaking tool we built in Congress to help stop legislation many feared would limit Internet freedom. Now we’ve been given the chance to build on that work, and we’ll be moving forward with some valuable lessons we’ve learned in the last year and a half.


Build with not for


“I’m excited to work with The OpenGov Foundation to provide an innovative, transparent way for D.C. residents to get involved with their government . . . Madison DC will ensure that all residents have an equal opportunity to play a role in how Council’s legislative process.”

– D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, June 23, 2014

You can’t solve problems you don’t fully understand. We’ve been lucky to partner with members of the D.C. Council, and to speak with chiefs of staff and legislative directors in the U.S. House of Representatives, to better grasp how the legislative process works now, and how we can help make it more inclusive and efficient for the future. Our work wouldn’t make any sense without the community members and leaders we’re getting to know, and we’re excited to keep building solutions with them.




“We are proud of our commitment to user-friendly open data and even prouder to partner with The OpenGov Foundation to further increase transparency in local government through enhanced accessibility to municipal laws.”


–Stephen G. Wolf, president of American Legal Publishing Corp.


Partnering with other civic technology groups, state and local government, even private-sector vendors, is often the best way to address a problem.  If there’s no partner, reuse something already built. Nothing built? Only then start civic hacking. Our alliance with American Legal Publishing Corp., started in San Francisco and since expanded, has enabled us to move forward with The State Decoded project in a vastly more effective way.  Instead of “decoding” thousands of cities one by one, we’ve been collaborating with all the stakeholders involved to everyone’s benefit.


Understand your audience


“It takes a willingness to try new things. But it’s going to free you up to do the rest of your work more effectively. What we discovered is that by spending a little bit of time and energy up front to figure it out, once we published [the ‘decoded’ D.C. Code of Laws], it was easy street for us.”


– David Zvenyach, chief counsel for the Washington, D.C., Council


Users need to understand exactly how they will benefit from any proposed innovation. When approaching potential users, many civic technologists focus on the outside government benefits of their app or API. That’s a good start. But we’ve learned well that that’s not enough to create change within government. Waldo Jaquith of the U.S. Open Data Institute is brilliant on this. “It’s new and shiny and better” is never sustainable. Just listen to the D.C. Council’s top attorney, Dave Zvenyach, on why the city ultimately embraced open legal data and


It’s not about the tech


Changing the culture of any institution or community takes time, patience and perseverance. One can’t helicopter in for a weekend hackathon, a few months or even a year and expect to create permanent change.


Sustainable culture change is precisely why we helped start the nationwide Free Law Founders coalition. And it’s why we’re taking these hard-earned lessons to heart. Over the next two years, with the continued support of Knight Foundation, we’re excited to deliver — to paraphrase community member Liana Derus — an evolution in how the people inside and outside of government make, access and understand the laws that affect their lives.


By Seamus Kraft, Executive Director, The OpenGov Foundation

Contact Seamus Kraft on Twitter, @SeamusKraft, or write him a note.

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Adding the Power of Open Online Annotation to Older Web Browsers

Wrap-Up Report on’ Open Annotation Fund Grant to The OpenGov Foundation

  – By Bill Hunt (@Krues8dr)


The Annotator Problem: New Tech in Older Web Browsers Web-Browser-Logos

A few months ago, The OpenGov Foundation was awarded a grant from’ Open Annotation Fund to add cross-browser support for Annotator, the tool powering inline annotation on government policy documents – like legislation and regulations – with Madison. For the civic technology community, this is no small obstacle: new, life-improving technologies often founder on the shoals of out-dated web browsers and operating systems. Some context: in the United States, for every person surfing the web with Chrome last month, two were not, according to StatCounter.


At the April 2014 I Annotate conference in San Francisco, we identified many older browsers, particularly Internet Explorer (IE), that simply could not run Annotator; therefore, large swaths of the world could not harness Madison. Since many citizens and government offices use older versions of Windows and Internet Explorer, in order to achieve our open government goals with Madison, we needed to modify the Annotator software package to support all of our users, not just those with new computers running the latest Internet browsers.


Creating an Assessment


The first task was to assess the scope of the problem. In today’s current web browser landscape, where does Annotator work as it should? Where does it break? Since Annotator has a built-in test suite, the fastest way to answers was to run the tests in every browser we wanted Annotator to work. To get a more comprehensive view, we needed to create an automated test runner and find a way to run our tests across multiple browsers.


For this, we used SauceLabs to create virtualized browsers to run our test suite against, since it contains almost every platform we care about. The SauceLabs API provided an easy way of creating these test runs, and the grunt-saucelabs package gave us an easy way to interface with them via Grunt. We investigated other solutions, but none were nearly as stable and mature. SauceLabs can also easily be integrated with most continuous integration tools, though we did not go that direction on this project.


Browser Testing Begins, Fails Immediately


While trying to run the initial tests in most versions of IE and older versions of Safari, the tests simply wouldn’t go. There were clearly major issues to investigate. Several of these problems turned out to be related to the way we ran the tests–some help from SauceLabs set us on the right track.


Next, we discovered that several of the testing libraries in use – including Chai and Sinon – didn’t offer out-of-the-box support for IE version 8. For Chai, we are only using the assert method for testing, and were able to make a straight replacement for assertive-chai. Implementing the bundled sinon-ie library solved the Sinon issue.


That was the easy part.


Patching for Features, Shim Libraries


The main problem with older browsers attempting to run Annotator is that they were written before current Internet standards became widely adopted, or in some cases, before those standards were even created. As a result, older browsers simply lack features from modern tools, or define and handle those features differently. In many cases, there are shim libraries available to make these features work properly, but not always.


In IE8, for example, the console api is only available if the Developer Tools window is open. When the window is closed (the default), using any of the console functions will cause an error. Since console sends the error messages in Annotator, it had to be replaced when not available. Since only a few lines of code are needed to replace console with an empty object, we wrote a custom shim to solve the problem. Similarly, there are a few calls to constants on the DOM Node constructor which is not present in IE. We therefore created a replacement Node object and hard coded those values.


As to other Annotator aspects, there are some very well established shim libraries to add support for commonly-used features. The ECMAScript-5 shim library adds support for many of the functions added by ECMA 5 to Javascript; mainly this is to complete the many Array functions we use, such as map and reduce. Douglas Crockford’s excellent JSON library allows us to manipulate JSON. Last, we used Rangy to provide a consistent interface to the getSelection and createRange document APIs. Also needed was a patch for Object.keys support for one of our dependencies: backbone-event-standalone.


Passing the Tests (Mostly)

With that done, most tests passed. However, Annotator still didn’t work perfectly in older browsers. A few features still eluded our tests, such as the handling of click events, which were inconsistent across browsers. We also had to do some tweaks to the CSS, as the rgba() css function, used for creating transparent colors, was not available. An opaque fallback color was used in those cases. The only other issue was CORS support, which we were able to manually enable in jQuery.


Wrapping Up & What’s Next
By the time we completed all of this work, we had run out of time for further improvements, like continuous integration and Selenium-based acceptance testing. And since the existing tests do not provide complete coverage, passing every test doesn’t guarantee that Annotator works perfectly in every browser, every time. While it will be up to the Annotator community to maintain and extend this project, we made significant progress. Thanks to the Open Annotation Fund and, millions more Internet users can put Madison to work where they live, in whichever web browser they want – or have – to use.

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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.




  • 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.



  • 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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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

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, 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 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 to bring online annotation to older web browsers

In June, we were awarded a $7,500 grant from 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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