Monthly Archives: July 2014

Building Civic Collaboration, One Line of Code at a Time

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

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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.

Meet the Free Law Founders Coalition

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 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.


Nationwide Coalition of City Officials and Civic Technologists Announce Free Law Founders Movement to Reinvent U.S. Lawmaking

Officials from NYC, DC, San Francisco, Chicago & Boston join leaders in civic tech to develop tools that improve every citizen’s ability to access America’s laws, legislation and the legislative process itself on the Internet


(NEW YORK, SAN FRANCISCO, BOSTON, CHICAGO, WASHINGTON D.C.) –  U.S. open government leaders today announced the formation of The Free Law Founders (FLF), a nation-wide partnership 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.  Spearheaded by New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell and Seamus Kraft of The OpenGov Foundation, the Free Law Founders have accepted the challenge of creating the modern tools, data standards and processes our state and local governments need to meet the growing challenges of democracy in the Internet Age.  Open to anyone willing to help accomplish these goals across the country, Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, Washington, D.C. Council Chief Counsel David Zvenyach, Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology, and more have already signed up to contribute.


“I have been leader here at the Board of Supervisors in advancing open data policies and open government initiatives, and I’m proud to serve as a founding member of the Free Law Founders to advance the goals of open legislation, so that we can continue to modernize our democracy and find better ways to build and maintain civic engagement with our residents” said Supervisor Mark Farrell. “Laws and legislative information are often overlooked as open data, and I believe laws and legislative information are one of, if not the, most important data sets government keep. As legislators we should do everything in our power to ensure laws, codes, and policies are free and easily accessible to our residents.”


“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,” said Council Member Ben Kallos. “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.”


The goal is to create and share these technologies as free open source software and open data formats that any American legislature can easily adopt to serve citizens better, while spending less on the expensive and out-dated tools currently in use.   This is the Free Law Founders Challenge, which Council Member Kallos and Supervisor Farrell launched last month.  The desired result is a free and open source digital platform where government officials and residents can log onto the Internet to:


  • Draft legislation;
  • Comment on legislation;
  • Access laws and legislative information as authenticated open data,   with an open API;


The goal is to deliver a minimum viable product in the Fall of 2014.  Sign up to join the FLF to contribute to these efforts, and access the results.


“Open and accessible government can’t wait,” said Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza. “While the digital world long ago eclipsed the analog world, the way we practice civics is stuck in the 20th century. It’s time for policies that help the public use technologies to access government. I’m proud to join with elected officials and open government advocates to set a new agenda for major cities like Chicago to meet that goal.”


“Every day, we hear the same frustrations from citizens job creators: it’s ridiculously hard to find, access and use state and local laws and legislative information,” said Seamus Kraft, Co-Founder and Executive Director of The OpenGov Foundation.  “And every day, we hear those same frustrations from the government employees who create and maintain those laws and legislation, and the technologists trying to work with this vital civic information.  The Free Law Founders exists to bring all those frustrated users of democratic data together, so that we can partner to solve these universal challenges with free open source software and the best open data formats possible.  We’re thrilled to help, and invite every civic technologist, elected official and government employee in America to pitch in.”


The Free Law Founders takes the country’s open data movement into city government, where it can have a direct impact on millions of Americans. The goals of the Free Law Founders are to build cities and states across the country where citizens can:


  1. Access Complete, Timely, Machine-Processable and Primary Laws, Legal Codes and Legislation on the Internet without facing restrictions, paywalls, fees, or burdensome user agreements;
  2. Download, share, annotate, and reuse that legal data in non-proprietary, open formats that are both license-free and copyright-free;
  3. See and participate in the lawmaking process on the Internet utilizing the latest open-source software, on their own time and on their own terms;
  4. Freely engage with the law, and connect with their elected officials, other citizens and community stakeholders to collaboratively create and modify the laws when they want and how they want; and
  5. Expect that all those involved in lawmaking are committed to injecting innovation, iteration and improvement into their work.


The Free Law Founders have already begun to build upon and implement these goals with Supervisor Farrell’s legislation to make San Francisco the first “open legislation” city in the country, his change in city law that stemmed from direct constituent feedback, and his ReimagineSF initiative.


Councilmember Kallos has introduced landmark open information legislation, including eNotices Act, Public Online Information Act, Free and Open Source Software Preferences Act, Civic Commons Legislation Act, and his City Record Online Act of 2014.


“The Free Law Founders aim to put all law online is at once eliminating a massive source of waste, confusion and obstacles to the digital economy while at the same time providing a major source of new value for novel business and organizational models and profoundly important ways to enable the American form of self-governance,” said Dazza Greenwood of the MIT Civic Media Lab’s Human Dynamics group.  “Law that is online can be openly enumerated, tracked, measured, analyzed and evaluated so policy makers and those governed alike can test and deliberate about the effectiveness and results of those laws.  The goal of having the authoritative official version of all laws of the country at all level of government published as open data and available through public, common web-accessible interfaces is of profound value and importance.  Business, government and all organizations require this type and level of access to the law.  Moreover, individuals who are held to know and comply with the law must also have direct, simple and swift means to discover and access law.”


They have advanced the principles of open legislation through an open letter, with the City Clerk of Chicago Susana Mendoza, calling on Granicus to develop an open API and conversion tool which will help each City host and publish their legislative information in machine-readable formats so developers can create apps with city legislative information.


The Free Law Founders are an essential step in the growing international movement of open government,” said Curt Savoie, Principal Data Scientist for Boston’s Department of Innovation & Technology.  “Through open data, open source, and now open legislation; we are putting the tools and artifacts of government into the hands of the people. To quote the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” For governments to act justly they must have the informed consent of those within their jurisdiction. Information in an open and accessible form is therefore essential to a creating thriving and empowering democratic society. Opening up the laws that govern each of us to the public in order to facilitate a better understanding and dialogue is vital, and the Free Law Founders movement is the much needed catalyst. The work is just beginning.”


The Free Law Founders will continue to work with elected officials, government workers, and civic technologists across the country to continue to advance the principles of open legislation, and will not stop until all cities and states across the country can enjoy the benefits of living in more informed, engaged, Free Law communities.  Click here to contribute.


“Cities are where the open government movement can have the most leverage, but right now, the vast majority of data about municipal legislation isn’t fully open to the public,” said David Moore, Executive Director of the Participatory Politics Foundation.  “Many people touch on the political process through local laws – for example, zoning or public safety regulations. Open data for city council resolutions will create a level playing field for developers of civic apps and community activists.”