How user-friendly websites, open data and civic hacking are taking the pain out of accessing the law – and holding government accountable – in cities like San Francisco.
Finding timely answers with government technology is about as awesome as oral surgery. You grip the chair, grit your teeth and power through the agonizing – and long – process. You have no choice. Just as no one but a dentist can cure your toothache, nowhere but government has the answer for when the DMV is open, where it’s safe to travel abroad or how your elected officials actually represent you in Washington. All too often, the search dead-ends in futility, uncertainty and frustration.
Excuse me, but haven’t we solved this information discovery problem? It’s called the Internet, and our country pretty much makes it possible. American know-how lets you tap into 3,000 times all the information stored in the U.S. Library of Congress at the speed of light, at any time, anywhere…except, it seems, the free-flowing information you need to have a functioning democracy and free society.
As Father of the Constitution James Madison said, “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” And that’s what is disturbing. If you live in the United States, learning about your government – and influencing it – should be the simplest thing you can do online, not the hardest. Especially if you live in the same state as Silicon Valley. Yet even a simple search for the dog laws in Mountain View, CA gives you the pretty painful results results below. Make sure you grab a law degree with that leash!
We can do better. You have a right to civic information when, where and how you want it. Similarly, public servants deserve the tools they need to effectively listen to you and represent We the People. But everyday Americans, forward-thinking elected officials and creative, can-do computer coders are doing something about it. In fact, we are starting to demolish the very real barriers that exist between you and the open, accountable government you deserve…at $0 cost to taxpayers.
Put another way, software developers like us at the OpenGov Foundation are “hacking governments for good.” That means we’re tackling the hassles you face in the quest for answers and accountability, so that the civic information you want is at your fingertips when you need it most. Imagine Googling government. That instant, seamless and satisfying experience is the ultimate goal of our coast-to-coast campaign to upgrade and improve the way citizens like you can access public information and public officials. First we modernized Maryland. Then Baltimore. And recently, we pulled an all-nighter to launch the latest phase – “Operation Decode SF” – to help San Franciscans access their laws with ease, so that they can build a more user-friendly, accessible and accountable city government.
So how do you create a modern “Open Law City”? It starts with the law itself. From the Ten Commandments to the U.S. Constitution, the law is the “source code” for every community. But right now, most city and state laws that are online – from health codes to zoning regulations – are locked in paper-based PDFs, shackled by insane copyright restrictions or buried inside confusing, old-fashioned websites. The result? The most crucial information for citizens remains inaccessible to everyone but the most privileged insiders or those willing to pony up and pay to read the law. Tracking down the data – San Francisco’s “raw law” files – was the first step to a solution. (Here they are, courtesy of the San Francisco Mayor’s office.)
Next came the “civic hacking.” Now, when most people hear “hacking,” a bad image – or really bad movie – comes to mind. Civic hacking, however, is nothing more than everyday people coming together to creatively and quickly solve problems facing their community. No computer science degree or Star Trek obsession required.
With the “raw law” in hand, more than 75 geeks and non-geeks showed up to help solve San Francisco’s problem of less-than-accessible government information. (Team OpenGov participated from the East Coast via Google Hangout.) One team of citizens worked on “unlawyering” the raw files, determining the structure of, and relationships between, the city’s laws. Basically, they reverse-engineered decades of legalese, driving in a digital signpost when encountering each new section, or chapter or topic. The software developers followed, writing programs to organize, sequence and reassemble the now-unlawyered text around the structural “signposts.” This is where creative hacking skills come in, most notably, patience and persistence. So you can access the right law right when you need it, our software developers test and refine their programs…over and over and over again.
Today, Operation Decode SF is deep into this “innovate, iterate and improve” phase. And while it took decades to develop the thousands upon thousands of pages of rules, regulations and laws governing life in San Francisco, the trip from this humble hackathon to a user-friendly, “Open Law City” should last a matter of weeks.
Not bad for a bunch of everyday people looking to make a difference in their community. It’s what citizen-led innovation looks like. It means better government information that’s actually useful in the hands – or on the phones – of every single Bay-area resident. And that’s how we can get better government and better solutions that work in the real world, by giving everyday people the tools and opportunity they need to create a government listens, spends less and serves better.
Want your hometown to become America’s next “Open Law City”? Send us an email and tell us where. We’ll get hacking alongside you, your public servants and the civic hackers itching to use their skills to strengthen your community.
You can follow the progress of Operation Decode SF – and the OpenGov Foundation – on Twitter here: @FoundOpenGov.
The Skinny: “Helping the White House Keep Its Promise” greets you in big, bold and black on WhiteHousePetitions.info, a new website measuring the responsiveness of President Obama’s team to petitions generated on the White House’s ‘We the People‘ platform. Talent: “Lovingly built” by Eli Dourado of the Mercatus Center Engine: The White House’s ‘We the People’ API. Accountability Features: the website has a clear, easy-to-read and easier-to-understand presentation of a crucial bit of information you need to hold government accountable for anything: deadlines, specifically what was to be done and when (below). The easy-to-understand presentation of, and speed-of-access to, this important accountability information isn’t apparent on the ‘We the People’ homepage (below). Looks: Its reasonably clean, beta-version design means it’s well on its way to the point where a majority of everyday citizens would you able to consume the information quickly and easily (below). Cool Stuff: nifty use of the White House API. We hadn’t come across it used for deadlines-only/accountability purposes. What It Doesn’t Do: it could use a simple “About” page near the top, with context and contact information, so everyday users don’t have to do as much sleuthing as we did to find out who built it and why. Straight From the Talent: ”[‘We the People’] has an interesting quirk: there is a section of the site dedicated to open petitions, and there is a section for White House responses, but there’s no similar section dedicated to petitions that have met their signature thresholds and are awaiting a response. So I decided to fix that.” – Eli Dourado in his August 13 announcement Our Take: WHPetitions.info is a useful beta accountability tool for citizens who’ve been promised responses to their petitions delivered through the White House’s awesome ‘We the People’ platform. An innovative reuse of open data produced through an equally innovative open government program, it would be even better if the user got a clear picture of what it’s all “About.” Maybe Eli and the ‘We the People’ team could sit down to share lessons learned, user-insights…and maybe even get down to some integrations?
66% Not Satisfied, 78% Want to Know About New Laws, Taxes, Regs
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ANNAPOLIS, MD – The OpenGov Foundation today released results of a survey in which registered Maryland voters point to three emerging open government and open data opportunities for exploration and further investigation:
- Improve the quality of public, government data delivered to citizens;
- Deliver it to impacted individuals and businesses directly, early and often;
- Low-to-no-cost social media solutions are already in the hands of the people.
614 Marylanders participated in the mobile research survey conducted May 13-15, 2013. It is an initial part of Team OpenGov’s work to learn what the “customers” of government – both inside and outside – need to make their lives easier, and their jobs more efficient and effective.
Key Insights – All Registered Maryland Voters
- 66% are not satisfied with the information they currently receive about new Maryland laws, regulations and taxes that affect them.
- 78% want advance notification about Maryland state government policies that will impact them, their families and their businesses.
- 56% use Facebook to engage & communicate
- 19% use Twitter to engage & communicate
Key Insights – Younger Registered Maryland Voters (18-49)
- 74% (+8%) are not satisfied with the information they currently receive about new Maryland laws, regulations and taxes that affect them.
- 77% (-1%) want advance notification about Maryland state government policies that will impact them, their families and their businesses.
- 78% (+18%) use Facebook to engage & communicate
- 26% (+7%) use Twitter to engage & communicate
Individual Survey Questions Enlarged for Easy Reading
- A easy admin code browser: http://codeforsanfrancisco.org/sf-admin-code (built by Matt Luedke the weekend prior and based on DCcode.org)
- SF Decoded:https://github.com/tlevine/sf-decoder, a group effort from Thomas Levine, Jason Lally, Jeremia Kimelman, and Simon Chaffez, which took the bulk files released by SF MOCI and and began parsing them into the State Decoded and DC Code formats. This project was supported by Seamus Kraft and Chris Birk of the Open Gov Foundation)
- SF City Officials Authorized Powers (http://city-officials.meteor.com/), built by James Gill and Colin McCormick – a proof-of-concept app which lists the city officials and what authorized powers are granted to them by the SF City Code. Each authorization is linked to the relevant section of the code that grants them the power. Currently, the list is a sample selected by hand, but once the SF Code is structured via XML (or similar), we could generate the list automatically.
- SF Administrative code archival files were merged into one file on GitHub (the commit history tracked changes between 9 different versions)
- A section of the admin code was put into Gizzoogle and then into Rap Genius, a website dedicated to the annotation and interpretation of hip-hop music SF MOCI is beyond thrilled to already have tangible products that can be cited as use cases as a result of this hack night. A recognition ceremony at City Hall recognized project submissions and work on August 9th. While the various uses generated as a result of open legislation are still emerging, one could envision Open Legislation eventually empowering groups like partner GitHub, to develop technologies on top of the data to enhance understanding, improve access, and discover new insights for the city and its citizens based on the City’s legislative resources.
- Working with the OpenGov Foundation get the State Decoded launched for San Francisco (estimated beta delivery by September) and building a long term sustainability plan around supporting that product
- Engaging the local developer community to help legislative technology companies like Socrata and Granicus build APIs for their products
- Working with City Hall agents to get support for the standardization and continued release of legislative data