District of Columbia to experiment with collaborative lawmaking online

Residents of the District of Columbia now have a new way to comment on proposed legislation before the City Council, MadisonDC. Today, David Grosso, a DC Councilman-at-Large, introduced the new initiative to collaboratively draft laws online in a release and video on YouTube.

“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.”

MadisonDC has its roots in the first Congressional hackathon, back in 2011. The event spawned a beta version of the Madison Project, an online platform to where lawmakers could crowdsource legislative markup. It was deployed first by the office of Representative Darrell Issa, crowdsourcing comments on several bills. The code was subsequently open sourced and now has been deployed by the OpenGov Foundation as a way to publish municipal codes online, along with other uses.

“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.”

The first three bills on MadisonDC are the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014, the Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act of 2013, and the Open Primary Elections Amendment Act of 2014.

The DC Open Government Office at the city’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, commended the effort with a tweet:

Councilman Grosso further engaged the public on Twitter this afternoon, inviting public comment on his proposed legislation.

This post has been updated to include more statements and social media updates.

United States federal government use of crowdsourcing grows six-fold since 2011

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Citizensourcing and open innovation can work in the public sector, just as crowdsourcing can in the private sector. Around the world, the use of prizes to spur innovation has been booming for years. The United States of America has been significantly scaling up its use of prizes and challenges to solving grand national challenges since January 2011, when, President Obama signed an updated version of the America COMPETES Act into law.

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.

“This progress is due to important steps that the Obama Administration has taken to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox,” wrote Cristin Dorgelo, assistant director for grand challenges in OSTP, in a WhiteHouse.gov blog post on engaging citizen solvers with prizes:

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, online resources, 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.”

X-prize-graph-300x297Centuries 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.

COMPETES FY2013PrizesReport HOUSE Letter (PDF)/COMPETES FY2013PrizesReport HOUSE Letter (Text)

COMPETES FY2013 PrizesReport SENATE Letter (PDF)/COMPETES FY2013 PrizesReport SENATE Letter (Text)

[Image Credit: NASA SDO. Context: Solar flare predictive algorithm challenge]

Presidential Innovation Fellows show (some) government technology can work, after all

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.

Last fall, however, the White House fell into a sinkhole of its own creation when the troubled launch of Healthcare.gov led to the novel scene of a President of the United States standing in the Rose Garden, apologizing for the performance of a website. After the big fix to Healthcare.gov by a quickly assembled trauma team got the site working, the administration has quietly moved towards information technology reforms, with the hopes of avoiding the next Healthcare.gov, considering potential shifts in hiring rules and forming a new development unit within the U.S. General Services agency.

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.

pif-logo-300pxThis 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 toolGreen 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.)

In a blog post and YouTube video from deputy U.S. chief technology officer Jennifer Pahlka, the White House announced today they had started taking applications for a third round of fellows that would focus on 14 projects within three broad areas: veterans, open data and crowdsourcing:

  • “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.

U.K. National Archives makes ‘good law’ online, builds upon open data as a platform

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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.

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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.

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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.

I’d first met Sheridan virtually, back in August 2010, when I talked with the head of e-services and strategy at the United Kingdom’s National Archives about how linked data was opening up eight hundred years of legal history. That month, the National Archives launched legislation.gov.uk to provide public access to more than eight centuries of the legal history in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Just over three years later, I stepped off the Tube at the St. James Park Station and walked over to meet him in person and learn how his aspirations for legislation.gov.uk had met up with reality.

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.”

Open data as a platform

In the video below, John Sheridan talks about the benefits of opening up government data using application programming interfaces:

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.

ilegal-launch-website_05_indexThe 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.

This approach to publishing the laws of the land online, in structured form under an open license, is an instantiation of the vision for Law.gov that citizen archivist Carl Malamud has been advocating for in the United States. 2013 saw some progress in that vein when the U.S. House of Representatives publishes U.S. Code as open government data.)

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.

As far as Sheridan could recall, this was the only such example in the government of the United Kingdom where such a feedback loop exist. The closest parallels in the United States is the U.S. Agency for International Development crowdsourcing geocoding 117,000 loan records with the help of online volunteers [Case Study] or the citizen archivist program of the U.S. National Archives.

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

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In September, Sheridan also told me about an unusual challenge that has just gone live at Challenge.gov, the United States’ flagship prizes and competitions platform: a contest to assess the compatibility of Akoma Ntoso with U.S. Congress and U.K. Parliament markup languages.

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.