“Systems are broken because they exist to sustain themselves, and the people who run the system rely on the system to stay the same. Why should they change it? It works well for them.”
— Chris Guillebeau
My friends at Technical.ly Philly ran an interesting piece yesterday about the long road to the release of an important data set on property valuations and ownership in the City of Philadelphia. It’s definitely worth a read.
The story is compelling for many reasons. It details the interactions of a small group of people (myself included) moving into and out of government and employing different strategies to win the release of property data – a resource much sought after in the journalism and civic hacking communities in Philadelphia. Throughout the story an interesting dichotomy emerges.
“Buck the system” or “work the system” – which approach works better?
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sharyn Morrow
When we think about all of the work being done in the civic technology and open government communities over the last several years, it’s easy to see the impact.
Evaluated just in terms of the number of datasets that have been released by governments it is clear that the impact of those advocating for more open, responsive and agile government has been significant. But those working in these communities have far more to show for their efforts. One of the most under appreciated (at least in my opinion) is advice: solid guidance and recommendations for how to make things better.
Consider all of the work being done to provide recommendations for governments to use technology more efficiently and to become more open and transparent. There are countless examples where individuals that have developed expertise over many years of working to improve how governments use technology and data share their learnings and recommendations freely and openly. We don’t have a shortage of good ideas for governments to use to start making changes to how they use technology to build services and engage citizens.
But I think there is a legitimate questions as to whether enough governments are using these recommendations, or they’re not using them quickly or effectively enough.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately wondering why.
“The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.”
— The Hacker Hacked, by Brett Scott
Ever since I read Brett Scott’s engrossing piece on what he refers to as the “gentrification of hacker culture” I’ve been thinking about how this idea might apply to the world of civic hacking. The lament about the loss of the subversive nature of hacking resonates – Scott repeatedly uses this word in describing the origins of hacking and its focus on being antiestablishment and decentralized.
Image courtesy of Flickr user lchunt.
In another recent post, I talked about how public sector technology procurement was not well suited for the digital age.
But there are some efforts underway that seek to identify new methods of procuring technology solutions for government. As these ideas start to take hold, there is hope that those in the govtech community will create a set of strategies for more successfully implementing public sector technology solutions.
Built to fail?
The design of procurement policies that are used by our federal, state, and local governments are meant to encourage broad participation by requiring things like public announcements of solicitations, open vendor meetings, and fixed deadlines for submitting responses. The hope is to make the process as predictable and transparent as possible, and to level the playing field so that any qualified vendor can participate.
Procurement policies are also designed to mitigate risk and to ensure that selected vendors are competent and capable of undertaking the work required in government IT projects. It is important that these policies be consistent with the government’s duty to be responsible stewards of public resources.
In light of this, there is a great irony in the outcomes that these policies often seem to produce.
When we talk about the challenges that face governments in acquiring and implementing new technology, the conversation eventually winds around to the procurement process.
That’s when things usually get ugly. “It’s broken,” they say. “It just doesn’t work.”
What most people who care about this issue fail to recognize, however, is that while the procurement process for technology may not work well for governments or prospective vendors (particularly smaller, younger companies), it is not broken.
It works exactly as it was designed to work.
One of the realities of being a Chief Data Officer is that your day is often filled with meetings where you are the least popular person in the room.
Working with government agencies to release data – particularly if agencies are new to the open data process, or if the data in question has not been released before – can be challenging. Releasing open data can invite scrutiny of agency operations from the public and the media. Agencies may view releasing open data as falling outside of their core mission, particularly if their plate is already full and there is little or no funding to support the work that needs to be done to make data available.
Working with agencies to release data can be a lonely job.
Some people are taking a rather pessimistic view – or at least a “glass half full” view – of a recent study from the Pew Research Center.
A new study from Pew – entitled “American’s Views on Open Government Data” – looks at the general public’s perception of open data efforts at all levels of government. The highlighted findings suggest a somewhat muted enthusiasm among the general public on the benefits of open data programs:
Americans have mixed hopes about government data initiatives. People see the potential in these initiatives as a force to improve government accountability. However, the jury is still out for many Americans as to whether government data initiatives will improve government performance.
It’s an interesting study, well worth a full read. And for advocates of civic hacking and engaging with groups outside of government to use open data, I think there is some good news tucked away in the body of the full report.
A new focus on the user
These days, in the world of civic technology, it’s all about the user.
Digital government service redesign, with an enhanced focus on a higher quality user experience, is being institutionalized in the federal governments of the U.K., U.S and Australia. The civic technology community is rallying around a new focus on building solutions that are needs-responsive and community-driven.
“Build with, not for” became the unofficial theme of last year’s Code for America Summit, and the upcoming Personal Democracy Forum in New York will feature a similar theme with talks and panels focused on broader engagement and inclusiveness in the development of civic technology.
Organizations like Code for America have long been focusing on redesigning government service interfaces, but this idea now seems to have permeated every corner of the civic technology movement. This wider embrace of the need to enhance the user experience with government is coupled with a recognition that civic tech solutions are most effective when developed with the full participation of those that they are meant to benefit from them.
Well, not really – But I do dislike certain things about most open data portals. Even the ones that I work with every day or that I have been involved with in the past.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a true believer in the power of open data. I love that every day there are more and more governments posting open data to specialized sites meant to make their data available to external (and, increasingly, internal) users. But there are things about the way that most open data portals are structured and used that bother me – I think we can do better. And I think a lot of people will agree with me.
Uber is not generally characterized as “civic technology” company. But the recent announcement their request API seems like a real game changer to me.
Today, the Uber API team is excited to announce the public release of our Request endpoint. With the Uber API’s initial launch last August, we made it easy to surface information about Uber products within third party applications, but getting a ride always required deep-linking to the Uber app. With the Request endpoint, you can now build applications that incorporate the entire Uber experience.
There are a number of very practical applications that can be built on the Uber platform which have a clear civic value that are now within easy reach of developers.