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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