Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Appleton Answers & DFD: Civic Hacking A ‘GoogleMuni’

Have you ever wanted find out government-related information about the city you live in, work in, are going to visit, or are considering moving to?

Some people think it’s hard to find the information you need or want related to a city or a city government. It's hard when you're on a city website and just as challenging when using Google. So lots of people, companies and governments have come up with different ways to solve the problem of how to find the info you want about a city. But nobody has yet developed a killer app for finding city government info or a market-leading municipal website design.

This blog post will take a look at two civic hacks that could make it easier for residents of Appleton or other cities in NE Wisconsin to find info they want about the city in which they’re interested.
In my mind, the best way to solve this problem is for a group of cities to work with Google and develop a defacto standard solution, GoogleMuni. Google’s mission, at least at one point, was “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Sounds like exactly what we need! Although I totally endorse competition and innovation, at this point in time I think it’s highly unlikely for anyone to come up with a better city info search tool than Google could. I think other solutions will just be less effective at finding the info you want than GoogleMuni would.

Among the hundreds (thousands?) of projects trying to address this problem are two civic hack projects from Code for America (CfA); Oakland Answers and Digital Front Door (DFD). CfA is an organization which promotes civic hacking, builds open source technology and organizes a network of people dedicated to making government services simple, effective, and easy to use. They have experience developing tools designed to make it easy for people to find the info they want about a city. CfA seems like the perfect organization to collaborate with Google to build GoogleMuni and to guide its refinement over time.

So my open proposal to Google and CfA is this:  Google and CfA, along with ten US cities, should launch a project to build GoogleMuni, an open source prototype for making it easy to find government-related info about a city of interest.

[Update on June 11, 2015 -- the above proposal seems to fit well with Google's new Sidewalk Labs initiative to improve cities.]

If Google thinks this is a worthwhile project but doesn't have anyone to work on it right now, they should hire me to be the project manager.

Because Google and CfA might take a while to realize the value of my proposal, here’s an alternate open proposal to the cities and citizens of NE Wisconsin: We should launch a civic hacking project in our area to make it easy to find out something about a city of interest.

The best two options I know of for this type of civic hack are Oakland Answers or DFD.

Oakland Answers / Appleton Answers

Oakland Answers is a website or city info search tool developed in 2013 by a CfA team and the city of Oakland, CA. Its website says “Oakland Answers is a new approach to a City website, designed to make it easier for people to find City information and services quickly.” This project was a fork of the open source code for Honolulu Answers, which was also developed by a CfA team of coders (in 2012).

After the CfA coders adapted the Honolulu open source code base to the city of Oakland, the city sponsored a civic hackathon called Re-Write Oakland to crowdsource the content for the Oakland Answers website. Oakland residents and other interested Bay Area citizens, as well as city of Oakland staff, spent a day writing answers to Oakland FAQ to put on the website. As the post “Re-Write Oakland Hackathon Answers Over 160 Civic Questions” puts it:
Last Saturday was the beginning of a new collaboration between the City of Oakland and its citizens. Some 70 Oakland volunteers gathered with 20 city staff...Working together, they produced a new, searchable community resource website...Out of 226 questions submitted, over 160 were answered. City staff are still going over the content and vetting it, but the website is expected to go official in the second half of June. One of the funkiest questions asked: who do you call for a dead animal on the sidewalk?...Cyd Harrell...explained that although she was a San Francisco resident, she was happy to be working in Oakland on the project...Volunteer Anna Linn attended from the beginning and liked the way the event was run. “This gave people a way to create content without and rules or parameters, so it was really what people were interested in. What I love about Oakland is that the community is all walks of life, all types of people. And its a lot sunnier than San Francisco.”...In a summary of ReWrite Oakland, Spiker told Oakland Local: “We set out to create a one day project for our city, but during the day we realized we’d created something much bigger than that...Later, in a posting about the day at his stevespiker.com blog, Spiker wrote: “The best result from today is the fact that we built something as a city together- city staff helping, contributing and writing content alongside librarians, tech developers, designers, retirees and advocates...”
On the National Day of Civic Hacking 2014, Oakland did another civic hackathon focused partly on Oakland Answers. “Oakland residents and City staff participated in the annual National Day of Civic Hacking...with an update to the on-going Oakland Answers project.  In total, 108 additional answers were added to the database, and many conversations took place that lay the groundwork for more collaboration between the City of Oakland, OpenOakland, and Oakland residents on the use of technology in government.”

If you haven’t already seen it, watch the TED video “Why Good Hackers Make Good Citizens,” and listen to Catherine Bracy explain the building of Oakland Answers. It sounds pretty cool when she explains it.

A website like Oakland Answers could be an official city website, like Oakland, or it could be done as a civic hack independent of the city.

An example of an excellent independent website that provides information about Appleton is Jeff Lindsay’s site, http://www.jefflindsay.com/Appleton.html. Because the source code for Oakland Answers is open source, the cost to build the website is minimal. So if a coder like Mike Putnam, or an enthusiastic Appleton promoter like Jeff Lindsay, or another civic-booster individual or organization who thinks it’s worthwhile to make it easier to find government-related information about their city wants to champion a local version of Oakland Answers, it could easily be done. That individual or organization could form a team to build, improve and maintain an Oakland Answers clone for as long as they are motivated to do so. At some point, if the city sees high value in the site, they could either accept responsibility to maintain the site or they could fork the open source code to launch their ‘official’ version of the site.

Click here to check out Oakland Answers.

Digital Front Door

A CfA webpage about DFD says that “municipal websites are the digital front door to a city - a place for sharing information, conducting business, and collecting feedback about what residents want and need.” Take a look at that webpage if you want an overview of the project. DFD is sort of Oakland Answers v.2.0 and sounds like it’s aimed at doing more than just providing a solution to ‘how do I find info about this city.’

My guess is that DFD is being developed for Oakland as a result of lessons learned from building, improving and maintaining Oakland Answers, as well as other CfA projects in Oakland. The learnings from Oakland Answers and the initial design for DFD would be perfect guides for CfA to bring to a partnership with Google and ten partner cities for designing GoogleMuni.

I’d love to see an Appleton DFD, but I’m 99.9% sure the city is not at a point where they’d be interested in supporting or adopting the CfA city website model. And a DFD civic hack would have to have the full support of the city or the hack would fail. Where DFD would more likely be a success in NE Wisconsin is in a small city which has a very old website, wants to replace it with something new, and is willing to experiment and innovate. I’d gladly get involved with a small city that was highly enthusiastic about forking the Oakland code to create a DFD website in NE Wisconsin.

If you’re highly interested in DFD, click here to go to “Digital Front Door - Oakland, Phase 1 Report” from October 2014.

Click here to check out the alpha version of Oakland’s DFD.

Appleton Answers

After watching "Why Good Hackers Make Good Citizens," Mike Putnam and a couple other people mentioned to me they would enjoy working on an Appleton Answers civic hack. Developing a tool to easily find out what you want to know about city government-related topics would have high value for many residents and visitors to the city.

We could even approach Google about supporting a NE Wisconsin-based major open source project for Xxxxxx Answers, including support through the Summer of Code.

Based on Mike’s comment, I decided to research the topic of ‘city info’ civic hacks for this blog post. The conclusion of my research is that Appleton Answers (or Xxxxxx Answers, where Xxxxxx is a city in NE Wisconsin) would be a worthwhile civic hack to build if one or more of the four statements below is true.

  1. The mayor of Appleton or someone influential from the city staff is highly interested in supporting an Appleton Answers civic hack.
  2. A local organization other than the city of Appleton is highly interested in supporting an Appleton Answers civic hack.
  3. Mike Putnam or another NE Wisconsin civic hacker or influential civic booster wants to help make Appleton Answers a reality.
  4. An influential city staff member, organization or civic hacker from another NE Wisconsin city wants to take the lead on launching an Xxxxxx Answers civic hack.

Caveats Concerning Oakland Answers and Digital Front Door

  1. Honolulu Answers, the first CfA ‘Xxxxxx Answers’ website, has been shut down. When you try to use old link to the site, http://answers.honolulu.gov/, you get a 404 page that says “HONOLULU ANSWERS", A PILOT PROGRAM WITH THE CITY & COUNTY OF HONOLULU, IS NO LONGER IN OPERATION. FOR INFORMATION ON CITY SERVICES, PLEASE VISIT OUR WEBSITE AT WWW.HONOLULU.GOV”.
  2. Oakland Answers appears to be headed for extinction also. The OpenOakland website says this about the status of this civic hack: “Ready for retirement when Oakland rolls out its ”Front Door” project.”
  3. I couldn’t quickly find a lot of clones or forks of the Honolulu / Oakland Answers civic hack. The only two related civic hack items I found were the Charlotte version, which appears to be unfinished and a Redeployment Spotlight page for Greenville, SC. It's likely there are more forks of Oakland Answers, and looking for those would be part of a project to do this hack in NE Wisconsin.
  4. Digital Front Door seems to be much more ambitious, trying to design an optimal city website, or at least a ‘city answers’ shell for the city website. It would provide more information and have more capabilities than Oakland Answers, but it would be more challenging to build and maintain. It would also have to be a city-driven project, whereas an Xxxxx Answers could be done reasonably well as a non-city-driven project.

Next Steps Re Appleton Answers

  1. If someone wants to be the champion for Appleton Answers or Xxxxxx Answers, I’ll be happy to develop a project plan for that, do more background research, and reach out to people at CfA, OpenOakland, and other appropriate organizations to help us make the best answers tool possible.
  2. I’ll send emails to a few people in Appleton and throughout NE Wisconsin to ask if they want to be the champion for Appleton Answers or Xxxxxx Answers.
  3. If anyone responds to either this post or my emails saying they’ll be the champion for this civic hack, they can either run with the project or they can meet with me and discuss a cost / benefit evaluation before a project is launched to build the site.
So if you're interested in this topic, email me at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com.


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