“As we encourage more public engagement in the legislative process, I hope D.C. residents will take a moment to log onto the Madison project,” said Councilmember Grosso. “I look forward to seeing the public input on my proposed bills.”
“We are excited to support Councilmember Grosso’s unprecedented efforts to welcome residents – and their ideas – directly into the local lawmaking process,” said Seamus Kraft, co-founder & executive director of The OpenGov Foundation, on the nonprofit organization’s blog. “But what really matters is that we’re going to produce better City Council bills, with fewer frustrations and unintended consequences. These three bills are only a start. The ultimate goal of MadisonDC is transforming D.C.’s entire policymaking machine for the Internet Age, creating an end-to-end, on-demand collaboration ecosystem for both citizens and city officials. The possibilities are limitless.”
According to the third congressionally mandated report released by the Obama administration today (PDF/Text), the number of prizes and challenges conducted under the America COMPETES Act has increased by 50% since 2012, 85% since 2012, and nearly six-fold overall since 2011. 25 different federal agencies offered prizes under COMPETES in fiscal year 2013, with 87 prize competitions in total. The size of the prize purses has also grown as well, with 11 challenges over $100,000 in 2013. Nearly half of the prizes conducted in FY 2013 were focused on software, including applications, data visualization tools, and predictive algorithms. Challenge.gov, the award-winning online platform for crowdsourcing national challenges, now has tens of thousands of users who have participated in more than 300 public-sector prize competitions. Beyond the growth in prize numbers and amounts, Obama administration highlighted 4 trends in public-sector prize competitions:
New models for public engagement and community building during competitions
Growth software and information technology challenges, with nearly 50% of the total prizes in this category
More emphasis on sustainability and “creating a post-competition path to success”
Increased focus on identifying novel approaches to solving problems
The growth of open innovation in and by the public sector was directly enabled by Congress and the White House, working together for the common good. Congress reauthorized COMPETES in 2010 with an amendment to Section 105 of the act that added a Section 24 on “Prize Competitions,” providing all agencies with the authority to conduct prizes and challenges that only NASA and DARPA has previously enjoyed, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which has been guiding its implementation and providing guidance on the use of challenges and prizes to promote open government.
In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. Those efforts have expanded since the signing of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which provided all agencies with expanded authority to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives.
To support these ongoing efforts, OSTP and the General Services Administration have trained over 1,200 agency staff through workshops, onlineresources, and an active community of practice. And NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI) provides a full suite of prize implementation services, allowing agencies to experiment with these new methods before standing up their own capabilities.
Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy famously once said that “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” This rings true, in and outside of government. The idea of governments using prizes like this to inspire technological innovation, however, is not reliant on Web services and social media, born from the fertile mind of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. As the introduction to the third White House prize report notes:
“One of the most famous scientific achievements in nautical history was spurred by a grand challenge issued in the 18th Century. The issue of safe, long distance sea travel in the Age of Sail was of such great importance that the British government offered a cash award of £20,000 pounds to anyone who could invent a way of precisely determining a ship’s longitude. The Longitude Prize, enacted by the British Parliament in 1714, would be worth some £30 million pounds today, but even by that measure the value of the marine chronometer invented by British clockmaker John Harrison might be a deal.”
Centuries later, the Internet, World Wide Web, mobile devices and social media offer the best platforms in history for this kind of approach to solving grand challenges and catalyzing civic innovation, helping public officials and businesses find new ways to solve old problem. When a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, it can improve the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.
“Open innovation or crowdsourcing or whatever you want to call it is real, and is (slowly) making inroads into mainstream (i.e. non high-tech) corporate America,” said MIT principal research professor Andrew McAfee, in an interview in 2012.” P&G is real. Innocentive is real. Kickstarter is real. Idea solicitations like the ones from Starbucks are real, and lead-user innovation is really real.”
Prizes and competitions all rely upon the same simple idea behind the efforts like the X-Prize: tapping into the distributed intelligence of humans using a structured methodology. This might include distributing work, in terms of completing a given task or project, or soliciting information about how to design a process, product or policy.
Over the past decade, experiments with this kind of civic innovation around the world have been driven by tight budgets and increased demands for services, and enabled by the increased availability of inexpensive, lightweight tools for collaborating with connected populations. The report claimed that crowdsourcing can save federal agencies significant taxpayer dollars, citing an example of a challenge where the outcome cost a sixth of the estimated total of a traditional approach.
One example of a cost-effective prize program is the Medicaid Provider Screening Challenge that was offered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as part of a pilot designed in partnership with states and other stakeholders. This prize program was a series of software development challenges designed to improve capabilities for streamlining operations and screening Medicaid providers to reduce fraud and abuse. With a total prize purse of $500,000, the challenge series is leading to the development of an open source multi-state, multi-program provider screening shared-service software program capable of risk scoring, credential validation, identity authentication, and sanction checks, while lowering the burden on providers and reducing administrative and infrastructure expenses for states and Federal programs. CMS partnered with the NASA Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI), NASA’s contractor Harvard Business School, Harvard’s subcontractor TopCoder, and the State of Minnesota. The State of Minnesota is working on full deployment of the software, and CMS is initiating a campaign to encourage other states to leverage the software. COECI estimates that the cost of designing and building the portal through crowdsourcing was one-sixth of what the effort would have cost using traditional software development methods. Through the success of this and subsequent
challenges, CMS is attempting to establish a new paradigm for crowdsourcing state and Federal information technology (IT) systems in a low-cost, agile manner by opening challenges to new players, small companies, and talented individual developers to build solutions which can “plug and play” with existing legacy systems or can operate in a shared, cloud-based environment.
As is always the nature of experiments, many early attempts failed. A few have worked and subsequently grown into sustainable applications, services, data sources, startups, processes and knowledge that can be massively scaled. Years ago, Micah Sifry predicted that the “gains from enabling a culture of open challenges, outsider innovation and public participation” in government were going to be huge. He was right.
Linked below are the administration’s official letters to the House and Senate, reporting the results of last year’s prizes.
The last six months haven’t been kind to the public’s perception of the Obama administration’s ability to apply technology to government. The administration’s first term that featured fitful but genuine progress in modernizing the federal government’s use of technology, from embracing online video and social media to adopting cloud computing, virtualization, mobile devices and open source software. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau earned praise from The Washington Post,Bloomberg View, and The New York Times for getting government technology right.
Without improved results, however, those reforms won’t be sufficient to shift the opinion of millions of angry Americans. The White House and agencies will have to deliver on better digital government, from services to public engagement.
This week, the administration showed evidence that it has done so: The projects from the second round of the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program are online, and they’re impressive. US CTO Todd Park and US GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini proudly described their accomplishments today:
Since the initiative launched two years ago, Presidential Innovation Fellows, along with their government teammates, have been delivering impressive results—at start-up velocity. Fellows have unleashed the power of open government data to spur the creation of new products and jobs; improved the ability of the Federal government to respond effectively to natural disasters; designed pilot projects that make it easier for new economy companies to do business with the Federal Government; and much more. Their impact is enormous.
These projects show that a relatively small number of talented fellows can work with and within huge institutions to rapidly design and launch platforms, Web applications and open data initiatives. The ambition and, in some cases, successful deployment of projects like RFPEZ, Blue Button Connect, OpenFDA, a GI Bill tool, Green Button, and a transcription tool at the Smithsonian Institute are a testament to the ability of public servants in the federal government to accomplish their missions using modern Web technologies and standards. (It’s also an answer to some of the harsh partisan criticism that the program faced at launch.)
“Making Digital the Default: Building a 21st Century Veterans Experience: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is embarking on a bold new initiative to create a “digital by default” experience for our Nation’s veterans that provides better, faster access to services and complements the Department’s work to eliminate the disability claims backlog.
Data Innovation: Unleashing the Power of Data Resources to Improve Americans’ Lives: This initiative aim to accelerate and expand the Federal Government’s efforts to liberate government data by making these information resources more accessible to the public and useable in computer readable forms, and to spur the use of those data by companies, entrepreneurs, citizens, and others to fuel the creation of new products, services, and jobs.
By the People, for the People: Crowdsourcing to Improve Government: Crowdsourcing is a powerful way to organize people, mobilize resources, and gather information. This initiative will leverage technology and innovation to engage the American public as a strategic partner in solving difficult challenges and improving the way government works—from helping NASA find asteroid threats to human populations to improving the quality of U.S. patents to unlocking information contained in government records.”
Up until today, the fruits of the second class of fellows have been a bit harder to ascertain from the outside, as compared to the first round of five projects, like RFPEZ, where more iterative development was happening out in the open on Github. Now, the public can go see for themselves what has been developed on their behalf and judge for themselves whether it works or not, much as they have with Healthcare.gov.
I’m particularly fond of the new Web application at the Smithsonian Institute, which enables the public to transcribe handwritten historic documents and records. It’s live at Transcription.si.edu, if you’d like to pitch in, you can join more than three thousand volunteers who have already transcribed and reviewed more than 13,000 historic and scientific records. It’s a complement to the citizen archivist platform that the U.S. National Archives announced in 2011 and subsequently launched. Both make exceptional use of the Internet’s ability to distribute and scale a huge project around the country, enabling public participation in the creation of a digital commons in a way that was not possible before.
This September, I visited the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice and looked at the last remaining section of the Magna Carta that remains in effect. I was not, however, in a climate-controlled reading room, looking at a parchment or sheepskin.
Rather, I was sitting in the Ministry’s sunny atrium, where John Sheridan was showing me the latest version of the seminal legal document, now living on online, on his laptop screen. The remaining section that is in force is rather important to Western civilization and the rule of law as many citizens in democracies now experience it:
NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor [X1condemn him,] but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.
From due process to eminent domain to a right to a jury trial, many of the rights that American or British citizens take as a given today have their basis in the English common law that stems from this document.
Over a cup of tea, Sheridan caught me up on the progress that his team has made in digitizing documents and improving the laws of the land. There are now 2 million monthly unique visitors to legislation.gov.uk every month, with 500+ million page views annually. People really are reading Parliament’s output, he observed, and increasingly doing so on tablets and mobile devices. The amount of content flowing into the site is considerable: according to Sheridan, the United Kingdom is passing laws at an estimated rate of 100,000 words every month, or twice as much as the complete works of Shakespeare.
Notable improvements over the years include the ability to compare the original text of legislation versus the latest version (as we did with the Magna Carta) and view a timeline of changes using a slider for navigation, exploring any given moment in time. Sheridan was particularly proud of the site’s rendering of legislation in HTML, include human-readable permanent uniform resource locators (URLS) and the capacity to produce on-demand PDFs of a given document. (This isn’t universally true: I found some orders appear still as PDFs).
More specifically, Sheridan highlighted a “good law” project, wherein the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel (OPC) of Britain is working to help develop plain language laws that are “necessary, clear, coherent, effective and accessible.” A notable component of this good law project is an effort to apply a tool used in online publishing, software development and advertising — A/B testing — to testing different versions of legislation for usability.
The video of a TedX talk embedded below by Richard Heaton, the permanent secretary of the United Kingdom’s Cabinet Office and first parliamentary counsel, explores the idea of “good law” at more length:
Sheridan went on to describe one of the more ambitious online collaborations between a government and its citizens I had heard of to date, a novel cross-Atlantic challenge co-sponsored by the UK and US governments, and a hairy legal technology challenge bearing down upon societies everywhere: what happens when software interprets the law?
For instance, he suggested, consider the increasing use of Oracle software around legislation. “As statutes are interpreted by software, what’s introduced by the code? What about quality testing?”
As this becomes a data problem, “you need information to contextualize it,” said Sheridan. “If you’re thinking about legislation as code, and as data, it raises huge questions for the rule of law.”
Sheridan has been one of the world’s foremost proponents of publishing legislative data through APIs, an approach that has come under criticism by open government data advocates after the government shutdown in the United States. (In 2014, forward-thinking governments publishing open data might consider provide basic visualization tools to site visitors, API access for third-party developers and internal users, and bulk data downloads.) One key difference between the approach of his team and other government entities might be that the National Archives are “dogfooding,” or consuming the same data through the same interface that they expect third-parties to use, as Sheridan wrote last March:
“We developed the API and then built the legislation.gov.uk website on top of it. The API isn’t a bolt-on or additional feature, it is the beating heart of the service. Thanks to this approach it is very easy to access legislation data – just add /data.xml or /data.rdf to any web page containing legislation, or /data.feed, to any list or search results. One benefit of this approach is that the website, in a way, also documents the API for developers, helping them understand this complex data.”
Perhaps because of that perspective, Sheridan, was as supportive of an APIs when we talked this September as he had been in 2012:
The legislation.gov.uk API has changed everything for us. It powers our website. It has enabled us to move to an open data business model, securing the editorial effort we need from the private sector for this important source of public data. It allows us to deliver information and services across channels and platforms through third party applications. We are developing other tools that use the API, using Linked Data – from recording the provenance of new legislation as it is converted from one format to another, to a suite of web based editorial tools for legislation, including a natural language processing capability that automatically identifies the legislative effects. Everything we do is underpinned by the API and Linked Data. With the foundations in place, the possibilities of what can be done with legislation data are now almost limitless.
Sheridan noted to me that the United Kingdom’s legislative open government data efforts are now acting as a platform for large commercial legal publishers and new entrants, like mobile legislative app, iLegal.
The iLegal app content is derived from the legislation.gov.uk API and offers handy features, like offline access to all items of legislation. iLegal currently costs £49.99/$74.99 annually or £149.99/$219.99 for a lifetime subscription, which might seem steep but is a fraction of the cost of of Halsbury’s Statutes, currently listed at £9,360.00 from Lexis-Nexis.
What’s notable about the United Kingdom’s example, however, is that less then a decade ago, none of this could have been possible. Why? As ScraperWiki founder Francis Irving explained, the UK’s database of laws was proprietary data until December 2006. Now, however, the law of the land is released back to the people as it is updated, a living code available in digital form to any member of the public that wishes to read or reuse it.
The United Kingdom, however, has moved beyond simply publishing legislation as open data: they’re actively soliciting civic participation in its maintenance and improvement. For the last year, the National Archives has been guiding the world’s leading commercial open data curation project.
“We are using open data as business model for fulfilling public services,” said Sheridan, in our interview. “We train people to do editorial work. They are paid to improve data. The outputs are public.”
In other words, the open government data always remains free to the people through legislation.gov.uk but any academic, nonprofit or commercial entity can act to add value to it and sell access to the resulting applications, analyses or interfaces.
Since the start of the UK project, they have doubled the number of people working on their open data, Sheridan told me. “The bottleneck is training,” he said. “We have almost unlimited editorial expertise available through our website. We define the process and rules, and then let anyone contribute. For example, we’re now working on revising legislation, identifying changes, researching it — when it comes in, what it affects — and then working with editor. Previous to this effort, government hasn’t been able to revise secondary legislation.”
Sheridan said that the next step is feedback for other editorial values.
“We’re looking for more experts,” he said. “They’re generally paid for by someone. It’s very close to open source software model. They must be able to demonstrate competence. There’s a 45-minute test, which we’re now given to thousands of people.”
If this continues to work, distributed online collaboration is a “brilliant way to help improve the quality of law,” said Sheridan.
“It’s a way to get the work done — and the work is really hard. You have to invest time and energy, and you must protect the reputation of the Archive. This is somewhat radical for the nation’s statute book. We have redesigned the process so people can work with us. It’s not a wiki, but participation is open. It’s peer production.”
A trans-Atlantic challenge to map legislative data
The U.K. National Archives and U.S. Library of Congress have asked for help mapping elements from bills to the most recent Akoma Ntoso schema. (Akoma Ntoso is an emerging global standard for machine-readable data describing parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents.) The best algorithm that maps U.S. bill XML or UK bill XML to Akoma Ntoso XML, including necessary data files and supporting documentation, will win $10,000.
If you have both skills and interest, get cracking: the challenge closes on December 31, 2013.
In general, connecting more citizens with their legislators and create more resources for Congress to understand where their constituents and tech community stands on proposed legislation is a good thing. Last year’s Congressional hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act … Continue reading →
As significant as the revisions to San Francisco’s open data policy may prove to be, city officials and civic startups alike emphasize that it’s people are fundamental to sustained improvements in governance and city life.
“Open data would not exist without our community,” said Jay Nath, the city’s first chief innovation officer, this Monday at the Hatchery.
San Francisco’s approach to open innovation in the public sector — what businesses might describe as crowdsourcing, you might think of as citizensourcing for cities — involves a digital mix of hackathons, public engagement and a renewed focus on the city’s dynamic tech community, including the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, or SF.citi.
Cities have been asking their residents how government could work better for some time, of course — and residents have been telling city governments how they could work better for much longer than that. New technologies, however, have created new horizons for participatory platforms to engage citizens, including mobile apps and social media.
Open data and civic coders also represent a “new class of civic engagement focused on solving issues, not just sharing problems,” argues Nath. “We have dozens and dozens of apps in San Francisco. I think it’s such a rich community. We haven’t awarded prizes. It’s really about sustainability and creating community. We’ve six or seven events and more than 10,000 hours of civic engagement.”
San Francisco’s dedicated citizensourcing platform is called “ImproveSF.” The initiative had its genesis as an internal effort to allow employees to make government better, said Walton. The ideas that come out of both, he said, are typically about budget savings.
The explosion of social media in the past few years has created new challenges for San Francisco to take public comments digitally on Facebook or Twitter that officials haven’t fully surmounted yet.
“We don’t try to answer and have end-to-end dialog,” said Jon Walton, San Francisco’s CIO, in an interview earlier this year. Part of that choice is driven by the city’s staffing constraints.
“What’s important is that we store, archive and make comments available to policy makers so that they can see what the public input is,” he said.
Many priorities are generated by citizen ideas submitted digitally, emphasized Walton, which then can be put on a ballot that residents then vote on and become policy by public mandate.
“How do you get a more robust conversation going on with the public?” asked Walton. “In local government, what we’re trying to do is form better decisions on where we spend time and money. That means learning about other ideas and facilitating conversations.”
He pointed to the deployment of free public Wi-Fi this year as an example of how online public comments can help shape city decisions. “We had limited funds for the project,” he said. “Just $80,000. What can you do with that?”
The city is taking that feedback into account as it plans future wifi deployments:
Sites in progress
Walton said they’re working with the mayor’s office to make the next generation of ImproveSF more public-facing.
“How do we take the same idea and expose it to the public?” he asked. “Any new ‘town hall’ should really involve the public in asking what the business of government should be? Where should sacrifices and investments be made? There’s so much energy around the annual ballot process. People haven’t really talked about expanding that. The thing that we’re focusing on is to make decision-making more interactive.”
At least some of San Francisco’s focus has gone into mobile development.
“If you look at the new social media app, we’re answering the question of ‘how do we make public meetings available to people on handhelds and tablets’?” said Walton.
“The next generation will focus on how do they not just watch a meeting but see it live, text in questions and have a dialog with policy makers about priorities, live, instead of coming in in person.”
There are lots of views into engagement on Twitter, but we have the data to give a unique view into what it looks like from the @whitehouse perspective.
We’ve tracked their activity for the last couple years using ThinkUp to analyze and publicly release large datasets. We decided it might be nice show how the White House engaged their audience last year — without resorting to cheap gimmicks like linkbait infographics.
As Baio points out, if you want to work some mojo on this data set, you can download the .CSV file and have some fun. Kudos to the Expert Labs team for making both the open data and visualization available to all.
Last Friday, President Obama hosted a townhall at the University of Maryland in College Park. At the end of his time on stage, he offered words addressed to the young students gathered in Ritchie Coliseum and those listening around the country:
…we’ve got a lot of young people here, I know that sometimes things feel discouraging. We’ve gone through two wars. We’ve gone through the worst financial crisis in any of our memories. We’ve got challenges environmentally. We’ve got conflicts around the world that seem intractable. We’ve got politicians who only seem to argue. And so I know that there must be times where you kind of say to yourself, golly, can’t anybody get their act together around here? And what’s the world that I’m starting off in, and how do I get my career on a sound foundation? And you got debts you’ve got to worry about.
I just want all of you to remember, America has gone through tougher times before, and we have always come through. We’ve always emerged on the other side stronger, more unified. The trajectory of America has been to become more inclusive, more generous, more tolerant.
And so I want all of you to recognize that when I look out at each and every one of you, this diverse crowd that we have, you give me incredible hope. You inspire me. I am absolutely convinced that your generation will help us solve these problems.
Unfortunately, one of my tweets on Friday reporting out the president’s words was missing two important words: “help us.” And, as it happened, that was the one that the White House chose to retweet to its more than two million followers. I corrected the quote and deeply regret the error, given the amplification and entrance into the public record. The omission changed the message in the president’s words from one of collective responsibility to shifted responsibility.
During the 2008 election, then Senator Barack Obama said that “the challenges we face today — from saving our planet to ending poverty — are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.”
As president, finding solutions to grand challenges means that Obama is looking again to the larger community for answers. Whether he finds them will be a defining element in judging whether a young Senator from Illinois that leveraged Web 2.0 to become president can tap into that collective intelligence to govern in the Oval Office.
In 2011, there are more ways for the citizens of the United States to provide feedback to their federal government than perhaps there ever have been in its history. The open question is whether “We the people” will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better.
The evolution of these kinds of platforms isn’t U.S.-centric, either, nor limited to tech-savvy college students. Citizen engagement matters more now in every sense: crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, crowdmapping, collective intelligence, group translation, and human sensor networks. There’s a growth in “do it ourselves (DIO) government,” or as the folks at techPresident like to say, “We government.”
As institutions shift from eGov to WeGov, their leaders — including the incumbent of the White House — will be looking to students and all of us to help them in the transition.
This February, New York City adopted QR codes in a significant way. “QR” stands for “quick response” codes. QR codes enable somebody with the appropriate software and hardware to quickly scan a code for information from any direction. As TechCrunch reported, NYC will put QR codes on all of its building permits.
The QR codes will link users to a mobile version of the Department of Buildings Information System, and will give them the option to click a link that will initiate a phone call to the city’s 311 phone service, where they can register a complaint about noise, safety or other concerns.
As permits at 975,000 building and construction sites that already have them are replaced, they will have QR codes added; all New York City permits are expected to have QR codes by roughly 2013.
QR codes can be scanned by smartphones equipped with relevant software in much the same way that a handheld scanner can scan the more familiar horizontal barcodes used globally in shipping and retail industries. Their use is hardly limited to building permits, however, as Zach Seward pointed out at the Wall Street Journal:
But the New Yorkers who responded to Sterne are more excited about the prospect of applying QR codes to the city’s public-transit system. One commonsuggestion: place them at bus stops, where schedules aren’t always displayed and are often out of date.
So where should New York City place QR codes? As Seward reported, New York City’s chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, is looking for ideas. Seward captured her questions and the responses of citizens (including this correspondent) using Storify: