Code for America: Inspiring a new generation of civic coders

What will the new Code for America Fellows be doing, now that the inaugural class has been chosen? Code for America’s CTO, Dan Melton, offered more insight into the forthcoming projects at the International Open Government Data Conference (IOGDC) today in Washington, D.C., where he talked about school ID cards in Boston, civic leader networks in Philadelphia and Seattle, and CivicCommons in the District of Columbia.

Audio of Melton’s talk is available on uStream. Melton and hundreds of attendees will be on the Code for America webinar today at 4 PM EST.

His presentation from IOGDC on “CRUD-ing the government,” which I was unable to record or attend due to my involvement in a parallel panel, is embedded below:

What’s the value proposition for open government data?

This weekend, I asked the Govloop community to tell me about the value proposition of open government data. Today at the International Open Government Data Conference in Washington, I’ll deliver a presentation that incorporates much of that feedback. I’ve embedded it below:

The audio livestream for my presentation and those of my fellow panelists will be available below:

The active backchannel on Twitter is embeddded below:

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Covering the International Open Government Data Conference

The International Open Government Data Conference (IOGDC) is taking place this week Washington, D.C. The IOGDC agenda is online, along with the presenters.

Look forthe livestream and liveblogging over at the new International Open Government Data Conference Govfresh page.

Geeks hacking smarter government: Kickstarter’s Andy Baio joins Expert Labs

As Anil Dash blogged earlier today, Andy Baio has joined Expert Labs as a project director for ThinkUp App. According to Dash, Baio will be working as a “Director of Hacks,” focusing on making better use of the data collected by apps like ThinkUp.

Andy’s new role marks the beginning of a whole new phase for Expert Labs; We’re now very tightly focused on working with agencies that want to get crowdsourced feedback, and the biggest request those agencies make is to better understand the ideas that people submit. We’re answering those requests with smart tools for presenting, visualizing, sorting and filtering ideas and suggestions that come in through Facebook and Twitter.

In short, we’ve already got the ability to collect responses to policy questions through a social network, and now we’ll be able to turn those responses into real insights.

In his own blog post about on joining Expert Labs, Baio elaborated further on the mission he’s taking on:

Our goal’s to help government make better decisions about policy by listening to citizens in the places they already are: social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Our first project is ThinkUp, an open-source tool for archiving and visualizing conversations on social networks. It started with Gina scratching a personal itch, a way to parse and filter @replies. But it’s grown to be something more: a tool for policy makers to harness the collective intelligence of experts.

There’s tons to do, but I’m particularly excited to tackle ThinkUp’s ability to separate signal from noise, making it easier to derive meaning from hundreds or thousands of responses, using visualization, clustering, sentiment analysis, and robotic hamsters. I’m planning on building some fun hacks on top of ThinkUp, as well as keeping an eye open for other vectors to tackle our core mission.

And his motivations for going to work in open government:

So, why would I go to a Gov 2.0 non-profit? For three main reasons:

It’s important. To tackle our most serious national issues, we need better communication between government and citizens. I want my son to grow up in a world where he doesn’t feel disconnected and disillusioned by government, and I want government to meet the needs of the people, rather than favoring those with the most money or the loudest voices.

It’s exciting. Technology is quite possibly our best hope of breaking down that divide, using social tools to disrupt the way that governments are run and policy is made. I love designing and building tools that use social connections to tackle difficult problems, and it feels like government is an area ripe for disruption.

I love the team. I’ve known Anil and Gina for years and have long admired their work. They’re both extraordinarily talented and creative people, and I feel lucky to call them both friends. The opportunity to work with them was too hard to pass up.

Welcome to the Gov 2.0 community, Andy. I saw him hard at work at the first FCC Open Developer Day in Washington this week, where we talked more about what it means to have members of the technology community work on technology to make government function more effectively.

When high profile members of the Web 2.0 community pitch in, their networks will learn more about what’s going on. Call it “digital diffusion.” That attention, scrutiny and tinkering is likely to be a good outcome for everyone.

For more on that count, I interviewed Expert Labs’ Gina Trapani at the FCC about ThinkUp app, the apps that came out of the developer day and this issue: what does it mean when geeks try to help government work better. It was a great conversation and I encourage readers of this blog to embed it elsewhere.

The NewsHour interviews Alec J. Ross on digital diplomacy and 21st Century Statecraft

What do State Department officials mean when they talk about ” 21st Century Statecraft?” The PBS Newshour’s digital correspondent, Hari Sreenivasan, sat down with Alec J. Ross, senior adviser for innovation at the State Department, to learn how technology is being leveraged to accomplish foreign policy goals. Sreenivasan subsequently published an excellent post on diplomacy and 21st Century statecraft at the Rundown, the Newshour blog, that includes the video below:

As Sreenivasan notes, the State Department has been rapidly moving forward in its use of technology, as reported in Radar on applying technology for Internet freedom. The question of whether the US should support Internet freedom through technology is a complex one, and deserves serious scrutiny as it moves forward, as evidenced by the Haystack fiasco.

What does 21st Century Statecraft mean? Sreenivasan takes a swing at reporting on Ross’s take:

In light of the seismic shifts taking place in how information and people interact and engage with one another, Ross says a broadening of the practice of statecraft is necessary. Going forward, that means using a balance of soft and hard power to enable and support relationships between non-state actors, and between representatives of governments.The prescription calls for far more than giving diplomats Twitter training, or simply using social media to push “the message” out. It is also about connecting people to resources efficiently and effectively, from NGOs to governments to people in need of aid.

In addition to spending money on new forms of digital diplomacy, the State Department has more often used its clout to convene bright minds from the private sector and the NGO world in a series of Tech@State conferences. They have included gatherings to share ideas on leveraging mobile technology, finding and empowering technology assistance in Haiti’s recovery and, more recently, rethinking Civil Society.

Sreenivasan included a host of excellent links to learn more about 21st Century statecraft, including:

  • An essay in Foreign Affairs entitled “America’s Edge” (requires one-time free registration) by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It was published around the same time that the former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton University was appointed as the new Director of Policy Planning at the State Department.
  • A essay by Eric Shmidt and Jared Cohen of Google titled The Digital Disruption, also in Foreign Affairs, which discusses the challenges facing diplomacy. As Sreenivasan notes, Cohen recently moved to Google from the State Department, where he had been working with Ross on 21st Century Statecraft. The New York Times Magazine covered their digital diplomacy efforts this this past summer.
  • Sam Dupont of NDN has gathered a list of 21st Century statecraft initiatives.

The Newshour has been extending its coverage into Gov 2.0 since Sreenivasan reported on the Gov 2.0 Expo and Summit earlier this year. For more of its past coverage, check out their conversation with Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer of HHS, and excerpts from their conversation with White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and federak CIO Vivek Kundra. It’s a significant evolution to see Gov 2.0 be discussed on the Newshour, CBS or Dan Rather reports. Whether it’s enough to raise national awareness of open government challenges, success or failure is itself an open question.

Celebrating Veterans Day Online

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
-President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

All over the Internet today, politicians, businesses, media companies and, most of all, people express their thanks on Veterans Day.

Over on YouTube, PostSecret published a special video of soldiers’ stories. Powerful.

YouTube also shared the story of Justin Constantine, an veteran of the war in Iraq that was injured in the line of duty, on its Twitter feed today.

Dipity published a wonderful Veterans Day visualization:

On this day of reflection, make sure to read Susannah Fox on inspiration for Veterans Day and a great BBC article on how social media is helping today’s war veterans.

As a reminder to U.S. citizens, today is also known as “Remembrance Day” abroad, honoring the millions who died in World War I, as this excellent history of Veterans Day from the History Channel explains.

In the world of open government, it’s important to recognize the work of the Veterans Department. The Blue Button from the Veterans Administration and Department of Health and Human Services has now eclipsed 100,000 electronic health record downloads. The Blue Button corrects a national shame, with respect to disabled veterans’ difficulties with repetitively filling out paperwork, and it is a notable example of a public-private partnership.

Elsewhere on the Web, Alex Horton reminded readers of the VA’s new blog, VAntage Point, of the battle in their hearts that war veterans carry with them.

Mark Drapeau wrote a thoughtful post on Sector Public about how Microsoft is helping veterans integrate back into civilian life.

The Experience Project is collecting memories of veterans and heroes. (HT
Reg Sadler)

Along with historic Veterans Day quotes like President Kennedy’s words above, you can see sentiments expressed in real-time on Twitter and Facebook:

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PBS has done a wonderful job pulling together online resources for Veterans Day, including their archives and more from elsewhere on the Web:

  • The photo-sharing website Flickr offers a roundup of community members’ Armistice Day photos (the national Armistice Day holiday declared at the end of World War I was the precursor to Veteran’s Day).
  • The Virginia state government’s education website offers “cool facts about veterans” geared toward children in kindergarten through fifth grade, while the Teachers Corner online features ready-made worksheets and puzzles to teach children about the importance of remembering America’s veterans.
  • provides extensive resources for Veterans Day celebrations, support services, and photographic story sharing.  The site provides a space for employers to seek veterans for hire and a buddy finder to reunite old co-workers and friends.

Great work by Lauren Saks.

To the more than 23.2 million veterans who have served the United States, thank you.

San Francisco passes municipal open data law

Yesterday, the San Francisco Board of Overseers voted unanimously to approve the first municipal an open data law* in the United States. November 9, 2010 is a milestone for open government.

That said, the moment comes with major caveats on open data appetite vs reality, as John Wonderlich points out at the Sunlight Foundation.

Here are the changes that came out of the committee, though:

AMENDED on Page 2, Lines 2-6 by adding ‘make reasonable efforts to’ after ‘shall’; deleting ‘all’ after ‘available’; adding ‘and with applicable law, including laws related to privacy’ after ‘(“COIT”)’; Page 3, Line 2 by deleting ‘all’ after ‘accounting of’; and on Page 3, Line 5 by replacing ‘would’ with ‘could’.
Those changes are comical. The ordinance now mandates that agencies have to try to follow the standards set by an IT oversight body, to release some information based on an audit of some subset of public data.

This is the language of the low-hanging fruit — the kind of aspirational mandate that isn’t really a mandate at all, but more of a statement of goals and principles, lofty rhetoric with a roadmap made up of other road maps, and plans for other plans.

Again, this declaration, and the others like it, aren’t inappropriate. Their effects probably vary based on the context, based on the actual commitment of everyone involved, from government officials to citizens.
If all these declarations do is to win some of the easy fights, then they’re well worth the effort, because those obvious decisions (like open local transit data) have been gotten wrong far too often in the past, and can have significant positive effects when they’re gotten right.
We need to avoid, however, thinking that these top-level political declarations are something they aren’t. Governments have a vast stores of information, and most of it won’t be reached by these pronouncements. There’s a whole world between the initial urge for government to “put all its data online” and the “please try to put some data online better when you remember to” that that urge decays into. At the first sign of trouble, “all” disappears, “must” becomes “should,” and a mandate becomes a suggestion. The San Francisco ordinance demonstrates just how far a vision for transparency can be from the kind of nuance and structure that makes it possible.

Wonderlich is onto something here. Read the whole thing.

*CORRECTION: As Philip Ashlock pointed out, “Portland’s open data & open source legislation passed a year ago in Oregon, though it wasn’t as explicit as San Francisco’s. See open data policy [at CivicCommons].” In his comment to FreeGovInfo’s story, he notes that Portland’s “law was largely influenced by the legislation passed in Vancouver about six months before that. The major difference (and a very important one) with San Francisco’s new legislation is that it is more explicit about using open licenses with the open data.”

I regret the error; the tweet from the White House @OpenGov account (“San Francisco passes first municipal open data law”) led me astray.

The text of the law is embedded below, courtesy of Chris Dorobek at Federal News Radio.

San Francisco open data law (11.09.2010)

HHS CTO Todd Park on, Text4Baby and open health data

The first chief technology officer of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Todd Park, has been working hard to make community health data as useful as weather data. If that vision for open government at HHS matures, the innovation released in the private sector could meet or exceed the billions of dollars unlocked by GPS or NOAA data. To see the first steps in that direction, look no further than the healthcare apps that have already gone online, like the integration of community health data into Bing search results.

Park shared the next step in opening up health data last month out in California, when he announced at the San Francisco Healthcamp. When interviewed yesterday at the mHealth Summit in Washington, Park shared more details about, which he says will launch in December. He also shared a new goal for text4baby yesterday, which has now grown to be the biggest mobile health platform in the United States: 1 million moms by 2012. will be a new part of with a health data catalog, including a roster of new public and private applications using the data, said Park. The site will launch with a new tool, a “Health Indicator Warehouse” with over 2000 metrics for United States, state and county health. will also host an online community dedicated to health data, which should allow practitioners, technologists and entrepreneurs to learn from one another. The site is the next step in the framework HHS has created for government to act as a platform through the Community Health Data Initiative. The next question will be whether these applications lead to better outcomes for citizens and businesses that expand, bringing on new workers. Measuring that meaningful outcome will require more time.

Insight on what’s next from Bill Gates: mHealth, mCommerce and robots

“People underestimate the amount of innovation going on,” said Bill Gates at the mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C. today. “They assume tech remains the same.” Given the thousands of attendees walking around the floor to see the mobile technology on display, there will be more awareness of what’s happening by the end of the day. Those listening to Gates in person or online could take away a few more lessons as well.

First of all, the key applications in the mobile health world are those that are tied to better outcomes, said Gates. Metrics like the number of children dying is one such metric, he said, and could be mitigated by mobile apps that register every birth on a cellphone to track vaccine coverage. Tracking supply chain for medical supplies and online medical records also can lower key metrics like child mortality, said Gates. Highlights from Bill Gate’s keynote conversation with Dr. Kristin Tolle are embedded below:

“In general, the world underfunds research because the person who takes the risk doesn’t capture the full benefit,” said Gates. “Government comes in for things the market doesn’t work well on.” Some research and development simply won’t get funded otherwise, in the absence of a strong profit motive. That’s likely one reason the Gates Foundation has focused on malaria, a disease that big pharmaceutical companies haven’t put significant resources behind.

“As the world goes from 6 billion to 9 billion, all of that population growth is in urban slums,” said Gates. That context provides a target for innovation in mobile healthcare technology, particularly given the increasing penetration of cellphones. Improving mortality rates is also relevant to that burgeoning population, he reflected. “Within a decade of having better health outcomes, people decide to have less children,” said Gates. citing the research of Han Rosling. Rosling’s TED Talk is below:

What’s the medical challenge for the aid community to target? “Funding vaccines is so clear,” said Gates. Polio may not get eradicated because of a  lack of funding, he said, reflecting on “going begging” around the world to try to get the last $800 million dollars for vaccine.

What’s next? Where will innovation be happening and change how societies work? “Now the idea is to do digital transactions where you don’t use currency at all,” said Gates, pointing to M-PESA in Africa and the huge growth in mcommerce.

Those changes may not be proportional to the greatest needs, however, nor grounded in the traditional frame of ‘first world vs developing world.’ According to Gates, “middle income countries are where the most innovation in healthcare is going to happen.” The poorest countries need to address the true basic for survival before mhealth can make progress.

In richer countries, meaningful change is already happening because of mobile apps. Some of those innovations are just beginning to filter in. “What percentage of people have to be put in longterm care, versus have someone stop by?” asked Gates. Cellphones already enable new monitoring capabilities for seniors, children and caregivers; he anticipates better sensors and connectivity to change how we communicate and watch one another even further in the decades to come.

In a bid for the hearts and minds (and perhaps wallets) of the entrepreneurs present, Gates observed that conditions like obesity, diabetes and smoking cessation are good candidates for mobile health technology to address in rich countries.

He also appealed to officials making decisions on government policy and funding decisions.  “The degree that health and education go together – I don’t think that’s surprising,” he said. “We should invest in both.”

Asked to reflect upon where to invest next, Gates was clear: “If you just pick one thing, it’s got to be robots,” citing improvements in robotic mobility, dexterity, productivity and the growing needs of both an aging population and childcare.

He also reflected upon the future hinted at by the increasing use of big data tools to deliver insight. “Our ability to discover drugs using computation – that is changing,” he said. “In a ten to fifteen year period, it will be utterly different.”

Curry and Co-Creation: A new US-Indian Partnership on Open Government

What will a new US-India partnership on open government mean to the two countries? Shared resources, shared technologies, and maybe, a culture that trends towards a more open, accountable and participatory government.

No one who has watched the progress of open government in the United States would posit that it’s been an easy path. In India, the challenges are, if anything, even greater, given the immensity of the issues posed to the country’s population by poverty or literacy, a legacy of bureaucratic intransigence or outright corruption. There’s a reality behind Indian website that speaks volumes about that culture.

That said, there are many reasons to be hopeful about this open government partnership, particularly around the growth of mobile technology as a means of reporting issues.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India walk down the Cross Hall

Image Source: White House Flickr Account

As Nancy Scola points out at techPresident, learning Indian-style open government offers many opportunities to adopt the rapidly evolving platforms for mobile citizen participation from India.

For a sense of how such platforms can grow, look no further than Ushahidi, which was originally created to be an election reporting platform in Kenya.

Now we’ve got a joint statement from Obama and Singh, striking in how it frames the United States as a junior partner in the open government partnership. It noticeably credits the progress India has made in using technology to empower democratic engagement while striking a decidely more aspirational tone when it comes to the Obama adminstration’s work in the open government field: “This will build on India’s impressive achievements in this area in recent years and the commitments [link] that the President made to advance an open government agenda at the United Nations General Assembly.”

That statement is embedded below:

Us-India Open Government Partnership

In his remarks to a joint session of the Indian parliament in New Delhi, President Obama elaborated further on his vision for an Indian-US partnership on open government:

In the United States, my administration has worked to make government more open and transparent and accountable to people. Here in India, you’re harnessing technologies to do the same, as I saw yesterday at an expo in Mumbai. Your landmark Right to Information Act is empowering citizens with the ability to get the services to which they’re entitled — (applause) — and to hold officials accountable. Voters can get information about candidates by text message. And you’re delivering education and health care services to rural communities, as I saw yesterday when I joined an e-panchayat with villagers in Rajasthan.

Now, in a new collaboration on open government, our two countries are going to share our experience, identify what works, and develop the next generation of tools to empower citizens. And in another example of how American and Indian partnership can address global challenges, we’re going to share these innovations with civil society groups and countries around the world. We’re going to show that democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for the common man —- and woman.

The question, as ever, is what this will practically mean when the glow induced by lofty rhetoric fades and the hard work of open government moves forward. The US-Indian open government dialog might mean more open source collaboration. As Information Week reported, a US-India partnership on open government practically includes $1 million dollars “toward public efforts to share best practices in working toward improved services and democratic accountability.” In the United States, that might not go very far. In the Indian subcontinent, it might be enough to seed funding for a number of mobile platforms to grow.

As Steve Ressler pointed out at Govloop, the mobile aspect of open government mainstream deserves special note. Why? Tom Friedman’s recent New York Times op-ed on the growth of mobile technology in India highlighted the same thing that Scola did: the potential to leapfrog a generation in wireless tech and see the creation of many new businesses:

India today is this unusual combination of a country with millions of people making $2 and $3 a day, but with a growing economy, an increasing amount of cheap connectivity and a rising number of skilled technologists looking to make their fortune by inventing low-cost solutions to every problem you can imagine. In the next decade, I predict, we will see some really disruptive business models coming out of here — to a neighborhood near you. If you thought the rate of change was fast thanks to the garage innovators of Silicon Valley, wait until the garages of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore get fully up to speed. I sure hope we’re ready.

If just a few of those mobile entrepreneurs focus on creating platforms for open government, the civic surplus of hundreds of millions of citizens in India and abroad could be harnessed to co-create government on a scale never witnessed before in history. There are reasons to be be skeptical, naturally, but the opportunity is there.