Review: OpenGovDC 2011, “Building (Better) Open Governments with Open Data”

Building (Better) Open Governments with Open Data
A Review of the OpenGovDC Conference 2011 (photos here)

Somehow the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Penn Quarter was the perfect venue for a conference on open source software (OSS) in government. Its sequestered subterranean level seemed an apt analogy for the visibility – and public understanding – of current policies on open source use, not to mention awareness of innovative approaches used by a handful of agencies. The conference dialog challenged us to raise our practices beyond outmoded styles to something For The People, By The People. This noble tone was established early by Steven VanRoekel’s keynote that split the audience into federal and non-federal employees. It focused on bridging cultures, branding, and user testing. He described a 2001 iteration of the web site of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a “site at rest tends to stay at rest,” with its myriad, cluttered, and unmaintained hyperlinks confusing even the most veteran of navigators. Of that agency’s three-pronged approach to migrating to a new site, the most notable components were social: both communication and participation engaged employees first to gain internal traction and citizens throughout as further user validation. Mr VanRoekel’s emphasis on “forming a culture club” from the top down – there were early senior management and general counsel buys-in for the migration – spoke clearly to building systems and processes to act on feedback. Instead of “papering over” technical software bugs during development, issues were resolved by creating public application programming interfaces (API) that would be extended by other agencies. Data from Microsoft Word documents were put into extensible markup language (XML) so they would be easily consumed by web services.

A significant entry point for the new web site catered toward both internal and external software developers who could innovate beyond the confines of the agency. Even the cleaner presentation of the FCC as a “brand” was driven by metrics collected from users browsing the old and new web sites. Using OSS, therefore, was vital, because it provided necessary agility, flexibility and cadence (three-week spins), whereas unwieldy proprietary packages and a fear of procurement timelines would have been prohibitive. Moreover, coupling the agency’s deep institutional knowledge with “big picture” awareness enhanced by consumer feedback represented a significant shift in the culture and values of that government community. Proceeding panels “struck a chord” with the audience by describing government “in beta” – people and laws evolve. Just as the OSS movement is transforming government – impatience spurring innovation – so the collaboration between agencies is propelling the latter’s “users” – US residents – to demand more intuitive and technologically current methods of engaging it. There is high hope that this sort of “participatory exploration as responsibility” can be furthered by applications available to mobile computing devices.

In what was to become a common theme during the conference, representatives from the US Agency for International Development’s Knowledge for Health (K4H) project, the Department of Energy, and the White House spoke toward a single, publicly available, reusable, standardized technological platform to reengage the US population. Many of the speakers at the conference described harnessing Drupal and social media presences on the Facebook and Twitter web sites to create ecosystems around which producers and consumers alike would interact. A panel on collaborative source code practices, which emphasized having really engaging “upstream” code providers and “downstream” users to grow said ecosystems, discussed the gravity of having the executive branch lead by example. Other agencies felt more comfortable using OSS, because the White House was sponsoring development of various OSS tools. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hosted a wildly successful open source summit that produced dozens of proposals and many hundreds of public comments. Its involvement in “maker days” and “hack days” to “interest people in creating things” spurred the creation of Random Hacks of Kindness, which drew global participation in developing OSS tools for disaster management. Mantras such as “partner, improve, extend” were quoted as the “jumping off” point for astronauts being able to “tweet” – post to Twitter – from space.

In another panel on securing open source software, Heather Burke reiterated the aforementioned mantra, citing the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command’s (US Navy) high returns on investment from crowdsourcing development, quality assurance, and support processes – all not easily gathered without engaging security expertise early, understanding community software development processes and cycles, coordinating with key members of developer communities, and contributing internal resources to push fixes back into the community. Finally, in perhaps the most human-centric panel discussion, the use of OSS in geospatial visualization highlighted the challenges of delivering large data with meaning and context quickly and without noise. Michael Byrne, Eric Gundersen, and Emily Drew emphasized providing all quantitative data in tabular form and pictorial representations of them – as well as reducing noise – for comprehensible maps that inspired action in low-broadband and (separately) in disaster areas. These sorts of visualizations affect the development of policies, from health and education to environmental and communications, and were enabled by OSS publicly hosted on github, a web-based hosting service for software projects using the massively popular Git revision control system originally developed by Linus Torvalds for the massively popular Linux kernel. And just like that, the use of OSS to produce open data for open governments dovetailed neatly with the refinement of policies that are driven by and further inspire positive change.