OG at National Conference on Media Reform

NCMR13_logoHead over to my just-published post on OC Blog to read more about OG at the #NCMR13.

At the conference (miropublishing hashtag #NCMR13, I believe) – on Saturday at 2pm MT in the room Governors Square 9, I’ll do a demo of our redesigned OG and ask attendees what questions they would like to ask their city councilmembers & mayors’ offices. Also excited to see friends & colleagues from our sibling non-profit, Fight For the Future. Ping me anytime, I’m david at ppolitics.org.

Over to OC for more links & shout-outs!

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OpenGovernment.org back at SxSW Interactive

You may already know that Austin is an amazing city to visit. Even during the SxSW conflagration, it’s one of the greatest cities I’ve been to in the States. An archevore’s paradise, with high-quality tacos & BBQ, and an independent music scene that survives this more-heavily corporate interlude.

OpenGovernment.org - for engagement with state, city and local government

OpenGovernment.org – for engagement with state, city and local government

I’m down at SxSW Interative from today until Wed. the 13th on behalf of our non-profit, the Participatory Politics Foundation, to give some sneak previews of the re-designed OpenGovernment.org – for engagement with state and city-level government. Pleased to be attending with James McKinney, the E.D. of the Canadian non-profit Open North and our technical lead on this phase of OG’s open-source & open data development. Check out my draft schedule, heavy on the civic engagement events – suggestions welcome, and ping me on AIM / Skype, I’m davidmooreppf there or david at ppolitics.org over email.

Also, PPF’s Andy Ross, the lead programmer on our flagship project OpenCongress since 2006, will be speaking Tuesday on community-building w/ Eli of MoveOn et al – don’t miss what he has to say about the state of online organizing. I’ll be there.

It’s been extremely pleasant to partner with the Knight Foundation community, especially the tech for engagement initiative from the National Program and under Damian Thorman & team, on this eight-month overhaul of OpenGovernmnent. Knight is really pushing things forward now in agile grantmaking for civic non-profits, #opengov hackers & startups. (Don’t miss the currently-running NewsChallenge, of course.) We hope that our free & libre work will be picked-up and remixed by the tech 4 engage community & other organizations such as Code For America. I haven’t written terribly much about this, but it’s been extraordinarily rewarding to chat and learn from other practitioners in city-level apps for communicating with government: Mark Headd, of Mayor Nutter’s office in Philadelphia; Mjumbe Poe, of the Philly open-data community and OpenPlans; Tom Norris, San Jose Public Records Manager; Knight Foundation community officers in Philly & San Jose, Donna Frisby-Greenwood & Judith Kleinberg; and the wider #opengov landscape (shouts to Phil Ashlock, James Turk & Open States, Juan Velez, and many others). I’ll Tweet out a time when James and I will be hanging out at the Knight Foundation expo booth to preview OG this weekend.

Two years ago, a newly-launched OpenGovernment was a semi-finalist at the Accelerator competition – with the pitch of being a version of PPF’s OpenCongress.org for all 50 U.S. state legislatures, in partnership with Open States project of Sunlight Labs. The new version of OpenGovernment we seek to launch publicly this May will include those original site features, aggregating campaign contribution data & issue-group ratings for state legislatures, along at least three pilot project cities: Philadelphia, PA; San Jose, CA; and Washington, D.C. But above & beyond this info, our development team has sought to find a new angle on facilitating open public discussion of city issues in Knight communities and others. The emphasis we’ll seek to test & iterate this year will be bottom-up, open-to-everyone question-and-answer forums with city elected officials, all tied to official government information (like city council agendas and votes) and social sharing of the most-popular questions. If you happen to be at SxSW and would like to see the early versions of the UI we’ve built, ping me and we can meet up for a sneak preview. (I’ll reiterate it’s all in open-source Rails code for re-use, see GitHub.)

I’m very proud that PPF & Open North are working the community of open-data developers on an open standard for city government data: the Popolo project, helmed by James McKinney and used by OpenGovernment. True re-usability! From this suggested standard & API format, more unique engagement apps for municipal government can grow and evolve. To be clear, our vision for a truly participatory democratic process is not simply a Web forum where a city manager can solicit input on an agenda item. Nor is it an hourlong public chat, “Ask Me Anything” style, where a city mayor & staff respond to questions for a period of time. Nor is it a neighborhood-based online comment forum that allows residents to raise local issues of concern – without a direct & ongoing connection to the people in power who can make progress on a response. Such apps would be nice, but they’re far, far from realizing the true potential of open-source software for continual, reciprocal communication with elected officials at every level of government. And they’re far, far removed from addressing the sticky real-world political issues that often impede progress on community self-determination – comprehensive electoral reforms, public financing of fair elections, independent re-districting, right-to-vote legislation, radical transparency around lobbying expenses & campaign contributions, score voting for more parliamentary-style representation, empowerment of low-income communities, and more.

OpenGovernment, of course, isn’t a full solution for all those pressing causes either. But it’s a start towards a more-connected relationship with city & local government that can increase trust in politics and filter up best-practices to ossified & understaffed county, state, and federal government entities. The above-mentioned electoral reforms all need solutions too – so lots to build! (Hopefully in open-source code, with full open data offerings.) Our goal w/ OG is not to enable a commenting layer on top of the existing political process – but rather a positive disruption of the status quo towards a more empirically-based, responsive, and widely-accessible representative democracy in U.S. cities. As in the health care movements towards metrics & checklists & big-data & best-practice dissemination, think continual, lower-stakes touches in constituent communications – as opposed to dramatic lurching elections & infrastructure transfers between the two major parties. It was PPF’s founding insight in ’04 that elections are important, but only partial, for democracy – and that more frequent, higher-information communications are necessary for public accountability and to effectively convey ideas & feedback to people in power.

Looking forward to seeing everyone’s work while I’m at the conference – looking forward to PPF’s good friend Chris Hayes’ book signing (see the first chapter of “Twilight of the Elites“, detailing massively-harmful cascading failures of important social institutions, for more context on why I’m so worked up about the urgent & evident need comprehensive political reforms) – looking forward to launching OpenGovernment again as a free public resource this Spring for more informed and engaged communities in the here & now.

Since you’ve read this far, couple more notes ::

  • I was last in Austin in Dec., so my breakfast-taco rating system is pretty current; but always interested in suggestions. This morning it was La Cocina de Consuelo, very good, but also interested in your Mi Madre’s & Tamale House preferences. 
  • Fantasy baseball season is coming up and the OG Product Manger (i.e. me) is very interested in your analysis of ESPN’s Mock 2 and Top 300 consensus ranks among their staff.
  • Shouts to David Longoria for putting James & I up, uptown baby. You know how we do.
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Introducing The Popolo Standard

OpenGovernment.org - for engagement with state, city and local government

OpenGovernment.org – for engagement with state, city and local government

Back in November, I wrote here that PPF was excited to be partnering with the Canadian non-profit Open North, and specifically their E.D. James McKinney, to serve as tech lead in bringing OpenGovernment.org to the city level.

Since then, James & I – and our terrific front-end developer Steven Trevathan of Dobot – have been working part-time on OG app development – thanks to support from the Knight Foundation & the Tech For Engagement initiative. (All free, libre, open-source, open data, and not-for-profit as always.)

Now, as part of our work on OG in particular and local #opengov in general, James has published an important and forward-looking new project:


People schema in Popolo – working draft – more on GitHub, jump in

The Popolo Standard – an open data standard for city government info.

More on GitHub (follow along there & contribute!) – James writes, “Popolo’s goal is to make it easier for civic developers to create government transparency, monitoring and engagement websites.”  So it’s a Ruby on Rails engine gem, a community-driven standard, and an API specification. Or, to speak to outcomes: it’s about facilitating truly re-usable, substantively open-source code. Read more from James & Ellie of Open North from last week on the NewsChallenge Inspiration Gallery. (Interesting discussion, there.) (By the way, “popolo” means “people” in Italian, hence the moniker.)

In short, Popolo is our suggestion – primarily James’ vision & heavy lifting, to his credit – for a community standard that will speed the deployment of city-level #opengov apps such as our OpenGovernment.org and others. For the benefits, see the always-pioneering Tom Steinberg’s take last July on MySociety’s component strategy. Tom wrote, “The Components will talk to each other, and to the rest of the web using simple open schemas which will evolve as they are built. Where possible we’ll pick up popular data standards and re-use those, rather than building anything ourselves.” Sounds like a working plan to us.

You may already know we’re launching the new version of OpenGovernment later this Spring for fifty U.S. state legislatures and a new focus on the governments of three pilot project cities – Philadelphia, San Jose, and Washington D.C. We’re building with an eye towards engagement with those Knight communities and we’re excited to get our new work out into the open for question-and-answer discussion with city councilmembers, enabling a more continual & reciprocal process of constituent communication. (More informed, public, and shareable to boot.)

But to be clear, there are at least a dozen other major U.S. cities with some level of open-data offerings that we could publicly display on OpenGovernment as soon as this summer – with additional charitable funding support. That’s not even to mention the ongoing efforts to HTML-scrape more city gov’t activities (agendas, minutes, and more) from a variety of official .gov sources. (More to come on that front.)

If a city formats its data in accordance with Popolo, it’s much easier for us to display that info publicly on OpenGovernment for collaborative watchdogging of city issues. As Ellie wrote in her NewsChallenge idea last week, “This should be easy, but it can only happen if the creators of government monitoring and engagement tools adopt common standards for representing the fundamental entities in government institutions.”

And to be clear – PPF’s public-benefit mission is to create user-friendly Web tools for continual, reciprocal communication with government and public accountability. We believe this happens optimally with truly bottom-up, open-to-everyone, open-source & open-data Web apps. Such tech tools can reform the legislative process in our representative democracy, mitigate systemic corruption in government, and foster new & creative ways for citizens to hold the people in power accountable for outcomes. We won’t be fully realizing the possibility of technology for the networked public sphere if city governments only deploy commercial apps to “check off” an #opengov box on their to-do list, without city services & public engagement actually improving and without empowering real-life communities.

Feel free to get in touch, david at ppolitics.org, and read more about where we’re headed in our non-profit funding prospectus. With more funding support, we can speed the development of the open Popolo standard and also the community of #opengov apps around them that people use every day (as opposed to, say, top-down gov’t websites or closed-off social media services or poorly-designed apps). Tech/gov/data folks, please contact david at ppolitics.org, james at opennorth.ca – and get your hands dirty w/ Popolo  – and contribute your experience in schemas to the community effort. We’re hanging in #opengovernment on Freenode during weekdays, catch us there.

For updates with OG development, feel free to join our Google Group, and stay tuned for previews of screenshots. Hey, James & I will be at SxSW Interactive from March 8th-12th, come find us for an alpha preview. Austin is a terrific city, n’est-ce pas? Even during the South By Southwest melee. Excited to share our work with the Knight community and more widely. Remarkable #opengov leverage happening in cities right now, as is known.

Popolo is developed by Open North through a partnership with the Participatory Politics Foundation.”

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OpenGovernment seeks front-end Web developer / designer


Update Jan. 2013: We’re pleased to be working with Steven & Logan of Dobot, LLC, a design & development firm based in Cambridge MA who came highly recommended. So we’re set on this now, working on the layouts and user experience even as I type. Shouts @strevat & @loganfaerber. Thanks to everyone who applied; we’ll keep all resumes for later reference. Look forward to sharing our open-source code & design for the public benefit & city-level civic engagement. – David

We’ve started back up on development of our free & open-source web app, OpenGovernment.org – for local civic engagement and government transparency.

Our non-profit organization, PPF, seeks a front-end generalist Web developer to work on OpenGovernment with our collaborative-as-can-be team (me as product manager & James McKinney of Open North as technical lead).

This is a part-time, contract position over approximately four months – maybe the equivalent of half-time over that period, if that works for you. We’re pretty flexible, be in touch. Here’s more about where we’re headed with OG at the city-level, with support from the Knight Foundation community.

More specifically, we seek a Web developer to re-design our HTML/CSS with a clear, contemporary look. We’re aiming for a high-quality user interaction in finding & contacting city government officials & tracking local legislative issues – with intuitive prompts, clear buttons, building off and improving our existing UI. We’re looking for somebody who can bottom-line the creation of an innovative new neighborhood discussion forum here on OG, but who is also always using his or her full brain, putting him or herself in a user’s shoes.

Towards local civic engagement, there’s more ::

  • This is a telecommute position – we’re all in different cities, 100% remote.
  • Ideally we seek someone to start on this month, December, and work into April 2013. 25-40 hours a week is a good ballpark. Probably not less or more than that. We’re flexible on which hours & days.
  • Don’t worry if you’re not an excellent graphic designer – we can bring in a dedicated design contractor for some of the final elements. It’s more important for you to be able to make good UI/UX decisions on the fly.
  • Bonus points: knowledge of Ruby on Rails web apps (e.g., OG), #opengov APIs (e.g., those wrapped in our GovKit gem), civic engagement UX (e.g., commercial apps in CfA commons).
  • Bonus areas pt. II: ability to use analytics and A/B testing to optimize UIs; awareness of common cross-browser problems; JavaScript expertise.

To apply: email david at ppolitics.org with a brief resume, links to your HTML/CSS work. Feel free to include any Web design you’ve done of which you’re proud – and any public repos you may have (e.g. GitHub profile). Please use subject line: “OpenGovernment developer”. We’re looking to hire right away, so it’s fine to just dash us some links, no need to prepare anything special to apply. We won’t stop you if you want to add a few thoughts about why you’re interested in our local #opengov mission. Questions, or more info? Add me on AIM / Skype, I’m davidmooreppf, and we’ll find a time to connect voice, or email david at ppolitics.org.

Last, here’s more background about OG. We’re excited about where we’re heading with this new version, for local engagement – help us build an innovative & popular site. (Shouts to our friend Morgan Knutson, PPF’s former web developer & designer, who did the OG public beta that’s up now – get at us, Dribbble folks!)


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Meet James McKinney, OpenGovernment’s new technical lead

PPF is pleased to announce that we’ve teamed up with Open North, whose tech lead, James McKinney, will serve as tech lead for this next phase of OpenGovernment.org’s open-source development. Open North is a Canadian nonprofit that – like PPF – builds online tools to make democracy better.

"Open North"

Open North's homepage - check out their terrific work

I’m excited to work with James and to have him steering OG’s open-source development process and our GitHub account. If you’ve ever met James at a conference or seen one of OpenNorth‘s terrific projects, you can hopefully see how this is a natural fit. Let’s run it down – James brings skills & expertise in at least the following, covering the field: free & open-source Web tools, Ruby on Rails, #opengov website user experience, tools for increased community self-determination, legislative transparency, open government APIs, open city-council-district-mapping, tracking activities by elected officials, open civic data standards… it’s as simpatico as could be.

To our mutual benefit, James has been following OpenGovernment’s development since we started back in 2010, and he forked our open-source GovKit gem for Canadian government. Most importantly, we share a vision of making OpenGovernment as modular and community-driven as it can be in its open-source development. (More to come on that as we build towards the next OG release in late Spring 2013, with previews along the way of course.) Just to be clear, while PPF continues to own & operate OG, we’re very glad to have OpenNorth as our technical partners in this effort – and James & his team’s ideas will be going directly into the mix.

I’ll hand it over to James to introduce himself, but in short, his priorities are ramping-back-up development as we work to bring OpenGovernment local, in partnership with the Knight Foundation National Program. (More background from Knight: Tech 4 Engagement.) Broadly, James is already fixing any tests for GovKit that are failing, bringing in fresh data from the Open States API (of awesome Sunlight Labs team), and evaluating new city government data sources (e.g. OpenDataPhilly). Check it, he’s even (separately, as an Open North project) collaborating with the Open States development team.

"MaMairie OpenNorth"

Screenshot of MaMairie, Open North's government tracking site for Montreal - in active development

To follow our progress, the best way is to join our OG G-Group for development updates (w/ the delivery settings you prefer, you know, so as not to be a distraction), and don’t forget to follow James on GitHub in add’n to the OG project. Come chat in IRC – we hang out all day in #opengovernment on freenode.net. If you’re into the micropublishing service, you can follow @opennorth & @mckinneyjames, plus of course the main project handle, @open_gov (& @govkit, why not). He’ll have an announcement soon about GovKit, and for questions you can reach us over email at david at ppolitics.org and james at opennorth.ca.

A few major thank-you’s are in order in the OpenGovernment orbit ::

  • To Damian Thorman, Paula Ellis, and the Knight National Program, for supporting this new work on a user-friendly web app for engaging with city councils in an open public forum. We’re so glad to be part of the dynamic Knight community.
  • To Doug Cole (@dougcole), a friend-of-PPF who generously volunteered his time in consulting with me on technical candidates and interviews – thanks Doug, appreciate it.
  • To Carl Tashian, PPF’s former Director of Technology, who worked hard to design OG’s technology from 2010-2011, and is now with a startup worth checking out in S.F. called Yerdle. (He’s a co-founder & VP, in fact.) Thank you Carl.
"Knight OpenGovernment PPF"

Knight Foundation profile page for PPF's OpenGovernment.org - #tech4engagement

Last, one must mention – we’re a small not-for-profit project, all-in for the public benefit. With more charitable funding support, we could improve OpenGovernment and accelerate our planned expansion to more cities – for starters, think most of the cities mentioned on the CfA wiki with #opengovdata activity. And more, sky is the limit – that’s the beauty of #opengovdata & open-source Web apps.

Please take a look at PPF’s non-profit funding prospectus, and circulate widely. Individual donations are tax-exempt; major philanthropic donors, get in touch about where we’re headed with OG for civic engagement. We’re working to enable the public to convey their ideas to people in power, all in a user-focused Web app providing easy access to official government data. Help us grow and help Open North & PPF & our user community scale OpenGovernment to states, counties, cities, internationally, and other localities. Thanks for reading.

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OpenGovernment is going local with the Knight Foundation

The team at the Participatory Politics Foundation is very pleased to announce that we’ve received a charitable grant from the Knight Foundation to take OpenGovernment.org down to the local level as a free & open-source public resource. We’re starting in two Knight Foundation communities over the next six months: Philadelphia, PA; San Jose, CA; as well as a third, Washington, D.C.

Check the official press release for more interesting info, the official Knight project page, and here’s a link to a micropublishing update to RT to help spread the word.

There exists a pressing public need for more free Web tools for local civic engagement. City government is an area where informed individuals and community groups can exert effective leverage; it’s also an under-understood political arena in need of greater transparency. How many registered voters in next month’s Presidential election can name their city council members without hesitation? How about their legislative priorities, or the local issues about which their neighbors are writing the council?

Local is clearly an area where civic hackers can make an impact, as a number of new startups and non-profit allies have recognized. PPF believes it’s important to build a cultural expectation of engaged, publicly-accountable government at every level, from local up to city, county, state, and federal. Technology and open data makes this possible, towards a more accountable and participatory representative democracy.

Our new work with the Knight Foundation is part of their exciting Tech For Engagement initiative, “founded on the ideal that technology has the power to transform our democracy.” Beyond usual tech rhetoric, all of us at PPF are really pleased to be part of the Knight Foundation community — the OpenGovernment project and Knight’s principles are absolutely in sync with PPF’s founding mission. Regards to our fellow grant recipients, part of a generous and forward-looking $1.3 million in support announced today for free local civic technology from Knight: Change By Us, DailyFeats, and Good360. Knight is doing a remarkable job spreading seed funding to agile-startup-informed non-profits and public-mission commercial startups. Cities worldwide will all gain from their investments in years to come, spreading tech tools & open data & online best practices in distributed & community-spirited ways. More background available from Knight’s recent Digital Citizenship report (w/ nice video).

Data sources for 2011 OG (beta) for states

With this next phase of development on OpenGovernment, we’re taking the popular OpenCongress model of government transparency and civic engagement down to the local level — rolling out first to Philadelphia, PA; San Jose, CA; and Washington, D.C. We chose to roll out our new engagement tools in these three cities first because each has a different #opendata source on which to build. (More about our open-source, not-for-profit development roadmap below.) OpenGovernment.org launched in 2011 with information for engaging with U.S. state legislatures: #opengov, #opendata, #openstandards, free-of-charge and libre-licensed and open-source and not-for-profit for the public benefit.

In each new area, we’re excited to partner with community organizations and local journalists and neighborhood advocates in the Knight National Program, coordinated by Damian Thorman (follow him at @dthorman). Again, the Knight Foundation’s work towards informed & engaged communities, facilitating online & offline grassroots action, is right where our tools land.

More specifically, in these three cities we seek to develop OpenGovernment as an open public forum for engaging in continual, reciprocal dialogue with local elected officials. As stated in the press release, local-level versions of OG will offer unique value by “allowing residents to track items before their city council, voice their opinions to elected leaders and share opinions and news with neighbors” in an open-source Web app, with the design skills of the founding OpenCongress team.

Along the way, we plan to expand OpenGovernment.org as an engagement tool for all 50 U.S. state legislatures, with open government data provided by the Open States project of the Sunlight Foundation. In the future, we envisiong rolling out OpenGovernment to more Knight Foundation communities – hopefully, as resources allow, to dozens more U.S. cities and municipalities as a not-for-profit, user-focused piece of civic tech infrastructure. We envision launching our first three cities publicly in spring 2013. (Stay tuned by following @open_gov on the micropublishing service.)

Towards these ends, we plan to re-ignite OpenGovernment as an active open-source software project (visit its developer hub). We believe there’s a massive opportunity to not only display local government data in standardized formats on the open Web, but also provide accessible context and innovative online participation tools to walk citizens up what I call the “chain of engagement” towards “public accountability with teeth”. These new versions of OG in Philly & D.C. & the Valley will allow citizens to track city government meetings, share newsworthy events with their neighbors, and raise local issues with their elected officials in the public eye. Note: we’re currently searching for Ruby on Rails programmers who believe in our local-watchdogging mission and are available immediately for contract work on OpenGovernment’s next development phase. Feel free to circulate that above-linked job posting and get in touch with a link to your GitHub account: david at ppolitics.org.

As mentioned earlier, OpenGovernment in Knight communities plans to draw on three different but publicly available #opendata sources for official government information:

  • Philadelphia through OpenDataPhilly, shouts to the great folks at Code For America and Azavea & team.
  • San Jose, CA through their official .gov open data portal & Silicon Valley allies.
  • Washington, D.C. through the Open States project, for which PPF’s GovKit Ruby gem was originally developed in 2010 and launched in 2011. Shouts to James Turk & Sunlight Labs team for an important resource.

Our primary goal – aside from getting OG back in active open-source development as quickly as possible – is to provide free, user-friendly Web tools for people to contact their elected officials and connect with fellow constituents over local issues. One major public-benefit outcome of this project will be to help previously-isolated individual city residents become locally-engaged collaborators - more-informed, continually-in-touch, and socially-sharing with their communities.

PPF’s flagship project, OpenCongress, was conceived in 2004 to address the closed-off nature of the federal legislative branch. All these years later, the U.S. Congress has proven even more systemically-corrupt and insistently resistant to structural reforms through technology than we could have imagined. For a number of reasons (resources, scale, proximity, increased good-faith collaboration from .gov agencies), municipal government offers a promising next focus for OpenGovernment. PPF is far from alone in this; lots of great allies in the local space, such as Code For America-tracked initiatives and others mentioned below.

As we ramp up, we’re interested in hearing what you’re looking for in a tool to engage in dialogue with your city council members and track local legislation. One issue we’ll clearly tackle is that, with federal & state legislatures, the basic building block is a legislative object, i.e. a bill — in city councils, as local #opengov experts can confirm, the atomic document is more likely a meeting agenda or report. But at least with these planned data sources, we’ll be able to work with city info liberated from a loony .pdf prison. And much of the planned functionality is the same as state-level: find all your city elected officials by inputting your street address; see context on your councilmembers, including recent actions & news coverage (and wherever possible, campaign contributors, longer story there); search for keywords of interest; track and share and comment on official council actions; email your representatives in an open public forum, then spread your communication immediately over social media. So please follow along as we experiment & test some new engagement tools on OG. We think there remains a lot of user experience work to do to make #opengov as popular & useful as it can be in towns & cities.

Email us anytime with questions or ideas: david at ppolitics.org, davidmooreppf on Skype, and follow us on social media: @open_gov & @ppolitics on a well-known micropublishing service; OpenGovernment page on a popular social networking service. More ways to contact us.

Big thank you to Damian, Paula Ellis, Alberto Ibargüen, and everyone at the Knight Foundation for this generous & much-needed support of our work. Together we’ll build innovative new tools for connecting citizens in coordination online. Link round-up ::

  • Shouts to our sibling non-profits PCF (makers of Amara) and Fight For the Future (leaders of the landmark stop-SOPA protests).
  • Shouts to PPF allies & data partners listed in the footer of our homepage, especially Code For America‘s extensive resources for city #opengov. To all the folks at the summit, excited to be building again with you, holler to get involved.
  • Shouts to friend-of-PPF Chris Hayes of MSNBC for praising OpenCongress & promoting the need for OpenGovernment in last month’s panel discussion at Philanthropy NY. PPF is a 501c3 non-profit; more about where we’re headed.
  • One could cite any number of relevant Alex Howard articles here on #opengov landscape & developments for O’Reilly — here’s a 2011 wrap-up post on “rise of the civic startup” mentioning OG, others surely findable.
  • Great Knight Foundation resources: Technology for Engagement & @knightfdn on Twitter.
  • (Last updated Tuesday, Oct. 2nd, 10am ET)
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Announcing OpenGovernment – Minnesota

We’re proud today to announce the launch of our next state on OpenGovernment: Minnesota. Now folks in Minnesota can track with ease everything their state legislature does — all the bills that are proposed, votes that are taken, money that was raised, and more. We’ve timed the launch of this, the sixth U.S. state on OpenGovernment, to coincide with the Netroots Nation conference ongoing this weekend in Minneapolis / St. Paul. We’re pleased to share this new public resource for accountability in government and citizen watchdogging with all the political bloggers & issue-based activists there.

Together with our partners at the Sunlight Foundation and with greatly-appreciated support from the Minnesota Historical Society, we’ve taken the clunky and outmoded official MN state legislature site, set up web scrapers to liberate the data, combined it with information from other transparency databases, and put it all in a user-friendly interface that’s designed to make the working of government accessible to everyone, not just lobbyists and insiders. Thanks go out as well to all of our open-source & non-profit data partners, especially the terrific Open States Project of Sunlight Labs, which provides the site’s backbone of legislative information.  In more detail, to everything in the MN state Senate and House of Representatives we’ve added the following:

  • Twitter, news, and blog mentions of bills and legislators that bring social wisdom and real-world context to the raw data.
  • Content view counts to help you understand what bills are getting noticed.
  • Comments forums that open up every bill in the legislature to public review and discussion.
  • Built-in buttons for quick sharing with your social networks.
  • The ability to easily write your elected officials – with more enhancements planned for this process, coming soon, stay tuned…
  • Visualizations for easier understanding of bill status and roll call votes.
  • Simple tracking of bill status, votes by members, and more through RSS feeds
  • Summaries on the homepage of the makeup of each chamber: Senate, 32 Democratic-Farmer-Laborers & 38 Republicans; House, (63 Democratic-Farmer-Laborers, 72 Republicans); plus links to the best online explanations of how the Minnesota legislature works, such as this handy news resource from MN Public Radio and the wiki Ballotpedia-MN.

For an example, here’s a sample bill info display from the official Minnesota government website:

And here’s how the same bill looks now on OpenGovernment-MN:

Since we launched the OpenGovernment platform in January, thousands of concerned citizens have used it to organize around legislation like Wisconsin’s anti-union budget bill and a gun rights bill in Texas, and to learn more about the special-interest money that funds campaigns, monitoring their elected official’s votes, and catching up with important floor activity that brings them right into the action.

Soon we’ll be connecting the federal information on OpenCongress with the state information on our OpenGovernment sites to make it possible for people to track the legislative issuess they care about across multiple levels of government in one place. Moving forward, we are seeking funding partners to roll out the OpenGovernment platform to all 50 U.S. state governments (not only the legislative branches, but also the executive & judicial). If you’re a philanthropist or if you work at a foundation, get in touch and let’s see if there’s a way we can cracking on opening up the legislature in your state. We’re building an open platform for citizen participation in government from the ground up. If you appreciate what we’re doing, please consider supporting our work.

Questions or feedback, or find some interesting MN-specific info that you’d like us to highlight here on the OpenGovernment blog? Let us know what you think. We would love to share some reactions from Minnesota-based political bloggers & state-house journalists, to whom we’ll continue to do outreach around this free & non-partisan resource — drop us a line, we’re easy to reach and glad to share your experience using the site for research & sharing. And as always, looking forward to continuing to build this non-profit tool for the Land of 10,000 Lakes and rolling out OpenGovernment to all 50 U.S. states. (Pictured above: MN state capitol in the public domain by Mulad; and Overlook of Watap Lake from the Border Route Trail, licensed by-sa-nc, all cool, by timdan2.)

More quick links to useful sample pages on OG-MN:

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OpenGovernment advances at #SxSWI Accelerator Contest

Outstandingly pleased that word just came down: OpenGovernment has been selected to advance to the next day at South by Southwest Interactive’s Accelerator Contest. Thank you to the judges and the staff here for recognizing our 501(c)3 non-profit, public-mission web application in the midst of the hyper-commercial social-media haystack. Big ups also to the other finalists, we’re glad to be building a more #opengov-savvy media ecosystem with you all. (OpenGovernment, of course, as an open-source project for public knowledge, has an open API in continual development, we look forward to the same from our colleagues and allies among the other projects. All-in for all-open.)

My understanding is that there will soon be available online video of my OpenGovernment presentation, developed with PPF’s masterful Director of Technology, Carl Tashian, as well as our dudes Nicholas & Dean of our sibling non-profit PCF, all of us sharing a house up in Cherrywood here at #SxSWi. Thank you again to the judges to recognizing the unique value proposition of a user-friendly government transparency resource for state legislatures — our leading example was of course #WIUnion #WIbill #SB11, the budget reform bill in Wisconsin, which prompted such incredible protests and which illustrated the pressing public demand for non-partisan information about state-level legislation.

We have information for five state legislatures from our partners at the Open States Project, and are working to roll out to the 45 remaining U.S. states. Help us grow– a 501(c)3 non-profit project, contributions are tax-deductible. OpenGovernment is a much-asked-for public resource for non-partisan information about bills, votes, issues, and elected officials at the state level — consider for a moment what one has heard recently about state budget crises and other pressing issues in state capitols nationwide (images right & below). We’re a community-driven project, let us know what you think.

Check out the 9-slide-deck that we presented yesterday (it was required to be on this presentation service, no promo intended). Today a more-extensive, five-minute presentation is called for, and we have a longer-version ready too, though I’ll likely just add a few more slides to our shorter one and aim to really hit our use cases. Hit me up anytime for a copy of our non-profit funding prospectus: david at ppolitics d0t org. We’re easy to reach and eager to chat about how our mission of making state- and local-level legislation more accessible meets your funding interests.  Grateful thanks again to the Accelerator judges, it’s all for the #FLOSS #opengov movement, and to Jenny 8. Lee & John Bracken & team at the Knight Foundation for curating such an impressive array of contributors, plus Chris Valentine for putting it all together.

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OpenGovernment Update, Headed to SxSW

Two of us from the OpenGovernment team — Carl and I, hi hi — are heading down to the lovely city of Austin today to attend the SxSW Interactive conference. There, we’ll present OpenGovernment as one of eights Finalists in the News category of the Accelerator contest — we look forward to meeting the other nominees, the judges, and taking in a rush of interesting presentations.

Now seems a good time to take stock of OpenGovernment since this early version launched seven weeks ago: what we have with this (still-in-its-infancy) open-source / #opengov project, and what we need (both short- and medium-term) as we seek to roll it out nationally to all 50 U.S. state legislatures.

What We Have To Work With (So Far — In Part, and In Summary) ::

The Open States Project, a volunteer-driven project coordinated by our partner organization, Sunlight Labs — providing standardized data of official legislative information from U.S. state governments, in open standards & via a free API. Five states already released and more are queued-up to launch on the march to data libre for 50 U.S. states.

GovKit — the open-source software that powers OpenGovernment.org. Put simply, GovKit is an API wrapper that brings together all the disparate data streams on the site: official government information (from the Open States Project), news coverage, blog posts, social media mentions, campaign contribution data, issue group analysis, and more. GovKit was designed to be remix-friendly for other open-government data sources from any locale: state, city, neighborhood, internationally, and more.

OpenGovernment.org – the free, libre, and open-source website for civic engagement, taking the proven OpenCongress model of government transparency down to more local levels. Released in a beta version on January 18th, 2011 as a joint project of PPF & Sunlight, OpenGovernment is a non-partisan and not-for-profit public resource that enables individuals and organizations to track and share what’s happening in their state legislatures. The “OG” web app displays all of GovKit’s uniquely-aggregated info — including bills, votes, issues, and legislators — alongside money-in-politics data, free public participation tools, and a more user-friendly web design. Currently, this beta version of the site contains info for five state legislatures — CA, LA, MD, TX, and WI — and we’re actively seeking non-profit funding support to roll out to the remaining 45 U.S. states and dozens of major cities.


What We Seek (Shorter-Term)

If you’re a web developer or programmer, we always welcome open-source web development time to take OpenGovernment out of beta and add core features, e.g. a non-commercial API providing access to all the user-generated data on the site. Check out our Developer Hub.

If you’re a political blogger or state-level activist, you’re invited to help evangelize this new tool by linking to our pages and simply using our free tools to track, share, and comment on everything you care about in your state capitol.

If you’re a college or university student, apply to be a summer intern with PPF in our shared New York City office. Working directly alongside our tiny non-profit team, you’ll help manage the OpenCongress and OpenGovernment user communities, as well as conduct research on legislative topics of interest to you for blog posts and do outreach over social media. For more info on our flexible volunteer internship positions, see this post on the OC Blog, and to apply, email me: david at ppolitics d0t org.

What We Seek (Medium-Term)

If you’re a philanthropist or affiliated with a charitable foundation, we’re actively seeking non-profit funding support to maintain our public-mission project and make it an even more powerful tool for accountable government. Contact us anytime to start a conversation about how this free-for-everyone online resource meets your giving interests or can enhance the work already being done in your program areas. Please feel free to email us for our full 501(c)3-non-profit funding prospectus for OpenGovernment : david at ppolitics d0t org.

Overall, it’s still very early in OpenGovernment’s life on the open Web, but we have a solid development roadmap and an inherently collaborative workflow, with several dedicated (and greatly-appreciated) volunteer developers submitting code contributions every week. We’ll keep building, hope you’ll keep using it to connect with hot bills in state legislatures. More yet to come on what people are already following on the site and key votes we already have in-hand in the most-social, most-user-friendly interface on the Web for this valuable public data. Let us know what you think as we work on moving OG out of beta — at left, David, and at right, Carl, we’re easy to find & eager to chat about our public-mission work.



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Fast, asynchronous analytics with MongoDB

We needed to do simple analytics on OpenGovernment, but not of the Google Analytics variety. We needed each object in the system to have view count aggregates that we could show in real time on the page, and we needed to be able to pull top ten lists and stuff.

Paul Dix at Web 2.0 Expo last year got me thinking about the idea of using ‘the right data store for the job’, which might mean a key-value store, a relational db, or perhaps a stone tablet. So when we started looking at doing basic view counts for objects in OpenGovernment (bills, people, etc.), my instinct was to avoid using PostgreSQL to store them. It seemed overwrought. And because analytics functionality is largely separate from the main application, it seemed reasonable to be able to split it off and go with some other data store.

So we started using MongoDB and have been very pleased with it. Rather than record every hit as a separate document, we make a maximum of one new document per hour and we store a total for that hour. Here’s the Page model:

class Page
  include MongoMapper::Document
  many :page_views

  key :url, String, :indexed => true
  key :countable_id, Integer, :required => true, :indexed => true
  key :countable_type, String, :required => true, :indexed => true


and PageView:

class PageView
  include MongoMapper::Document

  key :page_id, Object, :required => true
  belongs_to :page

  key :hour, Time, :indexed => true
  key :total, Integer, :required => true, :default => 0 # number of views

  key :countable_type, String, :indexed => true, :required => true
  key :subdomain, String, :indexed => true, :requied => true

  before_validation :set_countable_type

  def set_countable_type
    self[:countable_type] = Page.find(page_id).countable_type

We could do away with the Page model entirely if we didn’t want to store URLs. In PageView, we’re replicating countable_type to make aggregation by object type easier, and the subdomain field makes it easier to show “top ten bills in California” vs. some other state. We had to write one map reduce job to aggregate page views for a given page over an arbitrary time frame. That took 10 lines of code, which was 9 lines more than the equivalent Postgres query, but hey! We can do sharding! OK, we won’t need that for a while…

With the Mongo models in place, we now needed to mix analytics into one of our Postgres models. So we made a lib/trackable.rb that adds object.views and Class.most_viewed. The trickiest bit came when we needed to make the join between, say, Mongo’s most viewed bill_ids and the actual bill rows in Postgres. Given a list of 20 bill_ids from Mongo that are ordered by most viewed, how would we get that exact list out of Postgres without making 20 separate SQL calls?

In MySQL you can get rows back in an explicit order by using fields(). But not in Postgres 8.4. Our best option was, unfortunately, ORDER BY CASE WHEN bill_id = 5 THEN 1 WHEN bill_id = 4 THEN 2 WHEN bill_id = 99 then 3 .... Ugly, but it is plenty fast. So we, ahem, monkey patched ActiveRecord::Base with a find_in_explicit_order method that takes an array and returns a scope. If you can think of a better way to do this in Postgres, I’d love to hear it.

The controller side has two components. A piece of JavaScript that runs on document.ready() and injects an <img> tag in the document, and a Rack app that simply responds to /tracking.gif and marks the hit in MongoDB.

Oh, and we put /tracking.gif into our robots.txt, of course. And that’s it. We mark hits asynchronously, we store them in as little space as we can, and we return aggregates very quickly when needed. I think this will scale up quite nicely. If you’re curious, you can browse the full source on our GitHub.

PS. This is the kind of thing that yearns to be put into its own gem. If you’re a Rails developer and want to volunteer, this would be an awesome project because I think it has a lot of potential uses beyond our app. We’re always hanging out in #opengovernment on FreeNode IRC, so come on by.

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