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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