Monthly Archives: June 2013

Ms. Pahlka’s Code Comes to America

The American Constitution may have been the first to codify the notion of “nailing it, then scaling it.”  At our best, states and the people themselves are supposed to be the “laboratories of democracy,” with the power to innovate and tackle old social problems in new ways.  Washington watches the many policy experiments underway in individual states, expanding what works locally to the rest of the nation.

Few recent civic problem solvers have worked as well as San Francisco-based Code for America (CfA).  Dubbed a “Peace Corps for geeks” by the Wall Street Journal, CfA helps municipal governments deploy cutting-edge tech tools, approaches and – most importantly – smart people, in order to spend less while serving their citizens better.  Sustainable “inside-outside” civic hacking like this may seem far-fetched, until you notice all of the American cities lining up to be hacked and all of the American young people lining up to do the hacking: 20 cities for 8 slots, and 550 applications for 26 fellowships, in 2012 alone.

CfA has only existed since 2009.  Their success has been astounding.  And much of it is due to the imagination, hard work and dedication of CfA’s Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka, who has just been named the new U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Government Innovation by U.S. CTO Todd Park.

We can not imagine a better choice for the challenge.  In short, Jen gets it.  Open government success isn’t just about great code, talented developers or tons of money.  It’s about putting the right tools and the right data in the hands of the right people – inside and outside of government.  As she wrote when announcing the move:

“We may have started with a notion that people from the outside could make a difference, and we’ve seen that they do, but what we’ve learned is that the long term, sustainable change comes from harnessing the creativity and expertise of the people who work in government, and giving them tools to change the culture and the system from within.”

Amen.  Since launching OpenGov a few short months ago, CfA has been a model for us as a non-partisan non-profit.  Every day, we start our work with a gut-check against the OpenGov Mission Pyramid – a crucial management tool Jen and her team developed to keep their mission-driven outfit driving forward.  And we’ve nailed to the masthead what Jen so eloquently describes.  “Sustainable change comes from harnessing the creative and expertise of the people who work in government” could be the first line of our operational game plan.

At a time when government information technology spending has hit “$79.5 billion federally and $55.4 billion for state and local,” budget-crunched and tech-challenged public servants everywhere can learn a lot from the thrifty, effective and people-first solutions coming out of CfA’s laboratories for democracy.  With Ms. Pahlka coming to Washington, the federal government has not only made a move that’s smart by startup standards (hire away the best talent!).  It’s looking to be smart by constitutional ones, too.  Can open government success follow the logic of the 10th Amendment and bubble up to the benefit of the nation?  If gambling were legal, we’d put a big bet on yes.

Congratulations Jen.  We’re here to help.  And this Bud’s for you!

Baltimore on the Derecho Path to Open Government

Working out of a ZipCar right now in the shadow of Baltimore City Hall.  As this mighty “Derecho” storm pelts the (very) mobile OpenGov offices, I’m reflecting on Baltimore’s sunny outlook for open government and open data.  If Hack for Change-Baltimore is any indication, Charm City is moving in the right direction and has the creative, hard-working and caring people in place to make amazing things happen.  Just look at the weekend’s results (via Sharon Paley):

Over 60 Hack for Change Baltimore participants created 10 diverse and useful projects over the course of the weekend:

  • EZ Resume, WINNER (Most Likely to Make a Difference) – a tool that allows individuals to easily walk through the process of developing a basic resume utilizing an interview process; potential users include the general public, libraries, and other workforce development organizations [video]

  • Code For Sex, WINNER (Most Likely to Make a Difference) – an application to improve the efficiency and quality of STD test result delivery for the Baltimore City Health Department [video]

  • Baltimore City Property Tax Map, WINNER (Best Philly Fork) – an accessible geographic visualization of property tax data allowing homeowners to quickly compare their property tax values to neighbors, potentially alerting them to the need for a reassessment [video]

  • Baltimore Vacants, WINNER (Most Transparent) – an interactive map of all vacant homes and lots in Baltimore, including neighborhood indicators such as: average household income; foreclosure rate; high school completion; and employment [video]

  • Baltimore Decoded – the first copyright restriction-free, open data publication of the Baltimore Law developed to give citizens a greater understanding of the laws under which they live [video]

  • Apps for Baltimore – a website which acts as a portfolio for any civic application developed to help the city of Baltimore [video]

  • Walk and Talk Baltimore – an application to increase visibility, awareness, and participation in community-oriented resources in East Baltimore through the lens of health and wellness [video]

  • Big Plane Data – a capture of data showing airport locations and near real-time flight information of various carriers to help solve problems in the air/space/maritime world [video]

  • SDAT Property Data Search and Display – improved search and display using Maryland State Property Records along with Baltimore City Property Tax data, GeoLocation data, and census data to provide details about a given property; lso enhancing functionality to allow hyper-linking between data elements (e.g. owner name, block #, etc.) [video]

  • Sheltr Baltimore/Philly – a map of homeless resources in Baltimore and Philadelphia that has the ability to be updated by resource providers with real-time data and status through SMS and online updates [video]

The breadth and scope is remarkable.  From opening the law to improving sexual health, citizens are not only attacking pressing city problems with code, but are doing so with a clear view towards those who are not already being served with apps, platforms and data.  We believe that the long-term viability of civic innovation depends on reaching and serving those who do not have regular internet access, who do not have smart phones, who are not living their days and their jobs on the Internet.  These people are often closed out of open government projects, but not in Baltimore.

Which brings us back to the building outside the windshield.  Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who kicked off Hack for Change-Baltimore, has made improved governance through technology a hallmark of her administration.  Any politician can show up and give a speech, but Mayor Rawlings-Blake is putting her people – and the city’s money – where her mouth is.  The Mayor’s Office of Information Technology, and its growing OpenBaltimore repository of vital civic data, is working hand-in-hand with those of us hacking for change from the outside.  Chris Tonjes, Heather Hudson and their fine team are the government’s boots-on-Baltimore-ground working hard to ensure as much data as possible is opened, and that the city and her citizens work together efficiently and effectively wherever possible.

Though the weather outside is frightful, the open government work underway in Baltimore is delightful.  Now, can someone build an open source umbrella so we can get out of the “office”???


WATCH: Taking OpenGov to the People on Maryland Public TV’s “State Circle”

VIDEO: Visiting “State Circle” on Maryland Legislative Data, Website &

WATCH OpenGov’s Seamus & Chris on Maryland Public TV

Click to WATCH HD on Desktop

Click to WATCH on Mobile Device

OWINGS MILLS, MD – Last Friday, OpenGov Executive Director Seamus Kraft and Lead Software DeveloperChris Birk went on Maryland Public Television’s “State Circle” with Jeff Salkin to discuss their research on what Maryland citizens and public servants want enhanced on the Maryland Legislature’s website, OpenGov’s recent release of the first modern, accessible and restriction-free edition of the Maryland Code of Public Laws, and the first soon-to-be-released “open law city” – Baltimore, MD.  Desktop video, mobile video and transcript below.  Click here to send them an email with questions, comments or to get involved making Maryland a little more user-friendly.

“In America, what separates us from the rest of the world is citizens have a right to public information and a right to know what they get from their government.  But they also have a right to raise their hand, to speak up and contribute.  Back to Revolutionary War days when people gathered in a town square to debate policies going on in Congress, to today where that debate is happening online, we’re taking the tools and the glorious innovations available to people today – with software, with design, with mobile devices – and bring that to the government information, taking the world of James Madison into the 21st Century.”
– OpenGov Executive Director Seamus Kraft
Assessment of the New Maryland General Assembly Legislative Website
“It was an excellent step…Last week we held a focus group with a number of staffers and reporters who use this website on a daily basis.  They said it’s been a vast improvement, but there’s a lot of work to do.  We were trying to get some of the things that need to be built, things that need to be fixed, so that we can help fill that gap and build off of the great work that the Legislature’s done already.”

What Needs Fixing on MGA Website
“Some of the basic search functionalities.  There are things users look for but have to go to five or six different to get all the information.  If you could do a search and get all the information in front of you, it would be a big improvement for them.”

Citizens Should Get a Government Search Like Google
“Citizens today, including public servants and officials, access information online and access it in a way like Google.  You have a simple box, you put in what you want, and you always get in the information you’re looking for.  That’s powered by a lot of very smart geekery done on the back end.  That’s what we’re looking to help, so folks on the Maryland Legislature website get exactly what they’re looking for and get back to work.”

Why It’s A Hassle to Discover Maryland Legislative Information Today
“It comes down to the fact that you need to know the inside game, and how the information is sorted and put into the website, to get out of it what you want.  That number of people is very limited.  Most Maryland citizens don’t have the time to get a law degree or come down to Annapolis and know the bill number, or know the specific term they use to categorize that bill in the search.  What we’re trying to do is to make it more human and accessible to folks who are there every day.”

Extending the Good Work of Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services
“The Maryland Legislature and the Department of Legislative Services have done a great job getting information up and out online.  What we’re here to do is to take that information without having to bother them, or make them do more work, and build more tools and search functions that are more like the web you and I are familiar with when you go to a website like Google or ESPN.”

The Proven OpenGov Approach to Opening Government with Technology
“We grew out of the US Congress, where we encountered a lot of these technical obstacles to the jobs that public servants and citizens have to do.  Instead of throwing up our hands, we decided to get a smart guy like Chris and build something better.   How can we take what we learned there, what works and what doesn’t, and go to a state and do it in a way that’s helpful to everybody.  That’s why we’re a 501©3 non-profit, non-partisan foundation.”

On Hack for Change – Baltimore June 1-2, 2013
“It’s open government in action.  One of the projects we’ll be working on is we’re taking the Baltimore Code, which the Mayor just published in a restriction-free format, and making it accessible and user-friendly like we did with the state.  The way the law is online right now is paper-based, it hasn’t advanced much since the time when people only had books to turn to for information.  What we’re trying to do, is give citizens more choices to access that information and more tools to put that information to work whether you’re inside or outside of government.”