Experiments in GitHub Based Procurement

The City of Philadelphia is experimenting with some new ideas that we hope will change the way that city departments procure technology solutions. The “petrie dish” for some of the more interesting of these experiments is the social coding site GitHub.

The Background

GitHub logo

Philadelphia is looking for ways to partner more closely with local technology companies on small to mid-sized technology projects undertaken by city departments. One of the biggest challenges we face in creating these partnerships is our procurement process, which wasn’t designed in a way that is conducive to working with small companies and startups. This is not a new problem, and there are actually initiatives underway in Philadelphia to mitigate this challenge and create valuable partnerships with local startups.

One of the unique characteristics of Philadelphia’s procurement system is the process used for “Miscellaneous Purchase Orders” (MPOs). MPOs are are personal and professional services contracts valued at $30,000 or less for which city departments are required to obtain quotes from no less than three different vendors. Traditionally, the process of outreach to vendors for MPO projects has been decentralized and opaque. Department personnel would (and still do) reach out to vendors that they are personally aware of and obtain a quote for services.

This traditional practice is suboptimal for city departments because the pool of vendors from which quotes are obtained is limited. It is also not optimal for local vendors, many of whom may be qualified to provide the service desired but who may be unaware of the opportunity.

With the support of Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor of Administration & Coordination and Managing Director, Rich Negrin, and at the direction of the Chief Innovation Officer, Adel Ebeid, we are experimenting with ways to change this practice for MPO projects (starting with technology projects), and we’re using GitHub to do it.

The Overview

$30,000 may not seem like a sizable budget for a big city project, but for some technology projects – specifically things like web site redesigns, mobile app development, etc. – this amount can go a long way, and provide ample funding for a small or mid sized effort. It’s probably not the right budget for larger companies but for small companies, or even freelance developers, this is nothing to sneeze at. It is these small companies that we want to create new partnerships with – today’s small startup is (potentially) tomorrow’s big company.

Philadelphia has a thriving technology community, and a robust network of developers and designers who would be ideal for many of the projects that city departments undertake as MPO projects. But until recently, there hasn’t been a mandate to rework how we conduct outreach for quotes on MPO projects. In addition, there hasn’t been the right concentration of knowledge within city government to think outside the box and try some new ways of doing old things.

The Managing Director and CIO have given the Innovation Management Team in the Office of Innovation and Technology latitude to try new things. A good chunk of this team is made up of former civic hackers, most of whom have collaborated on software projects with other developers in the past. When we got the green light to think of some new strategies, our collective interest settled almost immediately on GitHub.

The Experiment

We decided to try and use GitHub – from start to finish – as the mechanism for soliciting bids on a new technology project for the City of Philadelphia.

There are lots of reasons that we decided to use GitHub for this experiment. First, we wanted to utilize a platform that would resonate with technologists (duh, Github). Second, we wanted to have some insight into the quality of other work done by bidders – we expected that firms interested in bidding would already have GitHub accounts, allowing us to look at public repos to see what kind of solutions they were working on and how active they were in participating in other projects.

And finally, we were hopeful that by doing something different – something that potential vendors probably had not seen from a city government before – that we would encourage some “creative” responses.

To conduct our experiment, we needed the right project. The one we ended up choosing is called myPhillyRising – it involves the development of a mobile app to support the efforts of the PhillyRising Collaborative. PhillyRising is a “boots on the ground” effort that is run under the auspices of the Managing Director’s Office. It places city staff in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia to support residents that want to bring together their neighbors and organize community events and address chronic neighborhood problems. The objective of the mobile app is to give both PhillyRising staff and residents in the neighborhoods they serve an easy to use tool for communicating, sharing information and organization events.

The first thing we wanted to do was to post the description of the myPhillyRising project publicly, to enable us to share it widely through various channels with our local technology community. We decided to use a simple GituHub Gist for this.

We asked interested parties that had questions to post them as a comment on this public Gist, allowing other interested parties to see both the question and our answers. For those that wanted to submit a response, we asked them to do one of two things:

  1. If they didn’t have a paid GitHub account, we asked that they create a private Gist containing their response and send us a link for review.
  2. For those with paid GitHub accounts, we asked that they create a new private repo containing their response and invite us to be collaborators on that repo.

While we anticipated that the process of using GitHub to solicit bids would be interesting, the response that we got from local vendors – and the nature of some of these responses – exceeded our expectations.

The Outcome

By the end of the submission process, we had received 9 high quality responses from local vendors – a number that far outstrips the number of responses received for similar MPO projects, and three times the number of responses required. This underscores the importance of publicly posting opportunities of this kind – if the city gives local technologists an opportunity to bid on work, local companies will respond.

In addition, several of the responses were highly creative – responding firms took advantage of the fact that the submission platform was a GitHub repo and made the most of the opportunity. One firm created a compelling webpage using GitHub pages to tell the story of Philadelphia residents who might use the new mobile app – they didn’t do this in addition to their standard response, this was their response. Another firm committed prototype code to their repo that let the evaluation team test drive how the proposed app might look and work on a mobile device.

Beyond the initial submissions from interested firms, we found that GitHub Issues were an effective means of interacting with respondents. We used this mechanism for followup questions, to request additional information and even to help us schedule in person meetings with finalists.



Going into the final vendor selection, we expect to use the original GitHub repo that was set up to submit vendor responses as the mechanism for delivering the final working mobile application (and for all of the iterations and code reviews leading up to that point).

And ultimately, if we decide to release the code for the myPhillyRising app as an open source project, we can add the appropriate license and flip the winning vendor’s repo from private to public.

The Road Ahead

This experiment focused on a specific kind of city project. Even within the universe of MPO projects (which represents only part of the larger procurement picture), this effort was very narrowly focused on technology projects. This represents just a drop in the bucket of what the City of Philadelphia spends on technology projects.

That said, this exercise has given us valuable insights into ways that we can make the process of engaging with local technology companies easier and more efficient. The latitude provided by the MDO and CIO gave the project team room to try something that the city had never done before.

We are now expanding our efforts to reach out to local technology companies for small to mid-sized technology projects – aggregating new projects that have the right profile to a central website (a simple WordPress-based site) to make them easy to find and allow users to set up subscriptions for the kind of projects they are interested in. This will not be the last project to use GitHub as an integral part of the vendor selection process, and we are actively looking for ways to integrate GitHub into the processes used to interact with vendors on these projects.

We have much more work to do, but the steps that the City of Philadelphia is taking to engage more efficiently with small, nimble, local technology companies is really exciting.

It’s pretty cool to see GitHub being used as a part of these efforts.

Data Driven Startups

It’s been almost 10 months since I wrote a post on this site about steps that governments can take to encourage and support civic startups, and over 2 years since my first post on the connection between open data and entrepreneurship.

It’s really cool to see high ranking public officials like Federal CTO Todd Park and Energy Secretary Steven Chu talking about spurring entrepreneurs and innovation with open data.

Startup Weekend

It’s also really cool to see more and more startup focused events looking at open data from governments as the fuel for new ventures. I got to attend a Startup Weekend event in Philadelphia this past weekend, and there was a high level of interest in using open data from the City as part of several projects. The same weekend, there were similarly themed events happening in Baltimore, with similar comments from city officials there.

Cities in particular are stewards of vast amounts of data that can be used as the basis for useful apps and successful business ventures. In addition, the solutions built with this data can help address challenges that cities grapple with on a persistent basis.

We’re close to figuring out the alchemy for using open data to support new business ventures and to help address social problems. They fact that conversations on this point have gone mainstream among public officials is just a sign that we’re getting closer.

I believe that Philadelphia will be the city that figures it out first – the thinking here on this front is far clearer than in other places, and its helping guide our efforts around open data, civic hacking and entrepreneurship.

The last quarter of 2012 will see awesome startup and hacking events in Philly that will help push our understanding of how best to use open data to build successful business ventures.

It’s going to be a fun way to close out the year – looking forward to it!

Over 230 Startups Apply to Code for America

Just a little over six weeks ago, Code for America opened up applications for the CfA Startup Accelerator.

Honestly, when we did, we thought we would receive maybe a dozen or two applications. We weren’t sure if folks would know what we meant by “civic,” or be able to hear about it soon enough to apply; or even if they did, we couldn’t be certain they’d want to step up. Knowing full well that the market might be small, however, we chose to push ahead anyway, since we were just looking for a small first class, and we figured we could, if nothing else, learn about the scale of the space.

Turns out, we were wrong.

Philly Urban Apps & Maps Studio Launches

Yesterday, at the Fox School of Business at Temple University, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter helped launch the Urban Apps & Maps Studio – a civic business incubator that will support the development of software applications to address urban issues in Philadelphia.

The video below – by former Code for America fellow Anna Bloom – provides a nice overview of the focus of the new Apps & Maps Studio.

Introducing Urban Apps & Maps Studio from Anna Bloom on Vimeo.

The Studio, which will be led by Fox School of Business Professor Youngjin Yoo, is supported by $700,000 in grants from the federal government, and has the support and partnership of the City of Philadelphia and Code for America.

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Civic Accelerators Taking Off

Over the next few weeks civic accelerator programs will be launched in several East Coast cities, building on the momentum started by the announcement of the Code for America (CfA) backed civic accelerator in San Francisco.


As I telegraphed in a tweet earlier today, announcements for these new efforts are imminent.

Clearly the idea of building viable businesses out of civic projects that use open government data or that leverage government transparency is catching on. What remains to be seen is the specific approach these initiatives will take.

Beyond the kick off announcement of the San Francisco-based accelerator program, there are very few details of exactly how the effort will work, and CfA is still recruiting for someone to lead the venture.

The announcements that will be made on the east coast in the near term will provide more concrete information on exactly how these accelerator programs will work, and offer a glimpse into how supporters believe they can spin civic hacking projects into profitable ventures.

It will be interesting to watch as the upcoming announcements are made. Stay tuned!

(Picture courtesy of Flickr user wvs.)

Open Gov, Open Data, Open Doors to New Business

Great article in TechPresident today about San Francisco’s efforts to start a civic accelerator with Code for America, and what other cities are doing to implement the same idea in their own way.

Government 2.0 geeks will no doubt find the news exciting and look to San Francisco as a beacon illuminating the way forward in a year when more local governments contemplate leveraging their work with the tech sector — not just being a booster for their local tech industries, but actually doing business with the companies within it — an economic development tool.

“I think a lot of people were afraid of looking a little crazy, but now San Francisco has gone ahead and done it and made the idea legit,” says Mark Headd, a civic hacking advocate who is former chief policy adviser to Delaware’s tech and information department.

Headd has been urging local governments to think of open data as an economic development tool for some time. In particular, he has argued in the past that financially strapped states could leverage the data in lieu of loans and grants to stimulate the creation and growth of small businesses.

Expect to see some cool stuff on this front from Baltimore (mentioned in the article) and Philadelphia in the near future.

Interview on Gov 2.0 Radio

I had the pleasure of talking with Allison Hornery of Gov20Radio this weekend on civic hacking, civic startups and open government data.

Government 2.0 Radio

You can listen to this interview here.

2012 is going to be a big year for civic hacking and I make some fairly strong assertions about what we’ll see this year in terms of hacking, open data and civic startups.

Take a listen and leave a comment below if you want to follow up on any specific points.

I hope you enjoy it.

What Does A Civic Startup Look Like?

In my last post, I made reference to some of the qualities of civic startups – the special and important things about these kinds of small, agile companies that set them apart from other startups.

I think clarifying what civic startups are (and what they are not), as well as what we expect them to achieve is important.

Let me be clear, I have great respect for anyone who creates a startup. I have many friends in the technology community who either have, are or will work for a startup company. I do not mean to suggest that civic startups are, generally speaking, “better” than other kinds of startups.

What I mean to emphasize is that civic startups have particular qualities that make them attractive to both governments and citizens. Both parties have an interest in seeing these kinds of startups succeed because both will realize benefits when they do.

Let me explain.

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