Open Source Leadership in the First State

If you visit the State of Delaware’s official web page, you will find that the state is making use of the open source blogging software WordPress. There are (for now) a small collection of WordPress-based blogs set up as subdomains on the state’s official .gov domain. Although there are other state government entities making use of open source blogging and CMS software, I’m not aware of any that are setting up blog sites under their official .gov domains; except Delaware.

The flagship state blog in Delaware that uses open source software is that of Lt. Governor Matt Denn. Matt is no stranger to open source software. I worked closely with his campaign last year, and suggested that he migrate his then existing blog (which used Google’s Blogger service) into a full blown campaign website that uses WordPress. Matt and his team were eager to hear suggestions on open source tools, and when they were looking for a donor-management tool that could help track donations, fundraising campaigns and generate finance reports, I suggested Drupal and CiviCRM. These tools made it cost effective and easy to manage donations and generate reports.

It is heartening to see Matt expand on this initial use of open source software during his campaign into his official role as Lt. Governor. This underscores (in my mind) why it is so important for open source advocates to reach out to up and coming candidates, to introduce them to the power and benefits of open source software before getting in to office, so that they can become advocates for it when they are elected.

Delaware is now a national leader in embracing open source software as part of its official state web presence. Lt. Governor Matt Denn deserves the credit for leading the charge on this.

Here’s hoping that more state government officials follow his lead and embrace open source solutions.

Lots of Gov 2.0 Potential in Twitter Geolocation

So the new Twitter hotness will be the ability to add locational data to individual Tweets – not sure on exactly when this new feature will go live, but it will require someone wishing to add locational data to their tweets to:

  1. Explicitly opt in to this feature by changing their Twitter account settings.
  2. Utilize a Twitter client that is location aware, and can add lat/long to specific Tweets.

Twitter currently has some limited geolocation support that utilizes the account-level location field, but there is no validation on what is entered, so it is not terribly reliable.
The imminent support for “geo-Tweets” holds enormous potential for governments if you think of Twitter as another communications channel that citizens can use to interact with government. (Clearly, I do.)

Many government services are tied to a specific location – parks, libraries, motor vehicle offices, unemployment offices, etc. – and there are lots of good examples of information that governments generate that are location-specific – road closures and construction delays, pollution sites, crime incidents, etc.

As the application I built to query legislative information from the NY Senate Open Leg API demonstrates, Twitter can be used as a power application interface. It’s easy to use, available to people on a variety of devices and relatively easy for governments to set up. With the addition of locational data, Twitter will become an even more powerful interface for citizens to use when interacting with Governments.

Now, if a citizen wants to use Twitter to find out the hours of operations of libraries in their city or town, they can get an answer that is specifically tailored to their location – they can get a response back from a government application telling them the hours (and the address) of the library closest to their current location.

Governments need to think about Twitter as an interface to their services and applications – one that will soon be able to support location-specific data and responses. There is a lot of potential here for those interested in advancing Gov 2.0.

Longevity for Open Data and Gov 2.0

People that work for Gartner are starting to use “hype cycle” and “Gov 2.0” in the same sentence (or rather, sentences that are really really close together). There is also a thoughtful piece on GovLoop examining which aspects of Gov 2.0 are on the right track and the wrong track.

I’ve raised similar questions about Gov 2.0 efforts in the past, and the need to tie them to quantifiable performance measures.

With all of the excitement around the country and around the world focused on opening public data and Gov 2.0, proponents need to take steps to tie these efforts back to the core mission of the governments and agencies that they serve. If open data and Gov 2.0 are a fad, then their 15 minutes are probably almost up — the longevity of these efforts and initiatives will be a function solely of their ability to enhance the performance of governments.

Efforts that support open government data and greater use of alternative communication channels (like social media) for communicating with constituents are fast approaching an important tipping point. The initial attraction of these efforts is that they are seen as forward thinking and cutting edge — they are inherently attractive because of their “newness.” But when social media penetration has reached the point that even the local dogcatcher is on Twitter, its natural for people in government (particularly those that don’t live and breath this stuff) to start asking: “What’s the point?”

Skepticism is probably most imminent for open government data projects because they typically require some investment of staff time and other resources. These efforts need to be carefully crafted to ensure a tangible relationship to the underlying mission of the governments or agencies undertaking them. How does opening government data help realize the goals of an agency? How does opening government data make the job of government cheaper or more effective?

These kinds of questions can be difficult (even offensive) to address when there is a strong belief in open government data as a principle. Nevertheless, if open government data projects and Gov 2.0 are to be around longer than 15 minutes, these are the types of questions that need to be answered.

Leveraging the Government 2.0 Platform

A couple months back, I was thrilled to see the New York State Senate expose an API for querying the status of bills in its Legislative Information System.

The release of this API is just one component of an exciting change underway in the Senate’s IT management (under NY Senate CIO Andrew Hoppin and his talented staff), and to my way of thinking it perfectly captures what people like Tim O‚ÄôReilly mean when they talk about government as a platform.

The NY Senate is doing a lot these days to make government more open and more efficient (through the use of open source software tools like Drupal). But the API excites me the most because of what I think it says about open government.

When governments make their data available in public formats, and expose APIs for querying such data, they are throwing the door open to outside developers to build useful things. That’s significant, and the NY Senate should get some major props for being among the first (if not the first) legislative body in the country to provide an API for their legislative information.

When governments make data available through an API, they are telling developers: “Use any platform or programming language you want to access our data.” The basic requirements for invoking an API like the NY Senate’s (or the District of Columbia’s 311 API) is the ability to communicate via HTTP and to parse XML, or JSON. Since pretty much every modern programming language and development platform can do these things, it creates opportunities for developers of all stripes.

But if APIs are platform and language agnostic, they are also modality agnostic – if the data exposed through an API is compact enough, there are lots of different ways to present this data to an end user.

In my opinion, government APIs also make a very compelling (albeit somewhat more subtle) statement about the different modalities that can be used to access data. More traditional types of applications that use government APIs are browser-based, visual applications. But if APIs are platform and language agnostic, they are also modality agnostic – if the data exposed through an API is compact enough, there are lots of different ways to present this data to an end user. Providing multi-modal access to government data and services is something I have been interested in for a long time, and this interest was the catalyst for the Access Delaware project I helped start when I worked for the State of Delaware back in 2003.

Shortly after the folks at the NY Senate launched their API, I began working on an application that would allow someone to query the status of a bill using an Instant Messaging Client. At the time, I said that I wanted to add additional functionality for different user agents (including regular telephones) to make my demo application truly multi-modal.

I’ve been getting things done in dribs and drabs, but I now finally have the telephone interface complete and the latest code checked into GitHub. There are four different methods for querying legislative information exposed via the NY Senate API:

  • Instant Messaging Client (Jabber):
  • Twitter Client: Send a tweet formatted as a @reply to @opensenate
  • Short Message Service (SMS): Send a text message to (315) 308-1943
  • Regular Telephone: Call (646) 736-2439 (Available in both English and Spanish.)

The same underlying application logic services all four modalities. The telephone interface requires an additional layer – I opted to use CCXML for this because the send/response format that can be used to obtain data from external sources is very similar to the response format used for the other three modalities.

Right now, I’m using the Voxeo/IMified platform to host the application. It’s very much still hosted in a staging environment, so it probably won’t stand up to a heavy user load. Its also why I’m a bit limited right now in the phone numbers deployed for SMS and voice access — I would prefer to have only one number for this, but at least the two numbers I’m using are both NY State numbers.

There are a host of other services cropping up that specialize in hosting multichannel communications apps – one of the more exciting is called MessagePub (look for a separate post on the MessagePub service in the next week or two). This is good news for governments that want to encourage developers to build multichannel applications.

Even though this is just a small demo application, It demonstrates what can be done when an organization like the NY Senate has forward thinking IT leadership, that embraces open standards, open source and open information.

Remember; its about the platform.