Pursuing adoption of free and open source software in governments

at O’Reilly Radar: “Reasons for government agencies to adopt free and open source software have been aired repeatedly, including my article mentioned earlier. A few justifications include:

Document formats must allow citizens to read and submit documents without purchasing expensive tools.
Free software allows outside developers to comment and contribute.
Public ownership
Whatever tools are developed or purchased by the government should belong to the public, as long as no security issues are involved.
Proprietary formats can be abandoned by their vendors after only two or three years.
Free software allows the public to trust that the tools are accurate and have no security flaws.
The government has an interest in avoiding lock-in and ensuring that software can be maintained or replaced.
In the long run, an agency can save a lot of money by investing in programming or system administration skills, or hiring a firm to maintain the free software.

Obviously, though, government agencies haven’t gotten the memo. I’m not just talking metaphorically; there have been plenty of memos urging the use of open source, ranging from the US Department of Defense to laws passed in a number of countries.
And a lot of progress has taken place. Munich, famously, has switched its desktops to GNU/Linux and OpenOffice.org — but the process took 13 years. Elsewhere in Europe, Spain has been making strides, and the UK promises to switch. In Latin America, Brazil has made the most progress. Many countries that could benefit greatly from using free software — and have even made commitments to do so — are held back by a lack of IT staff with the expertise to do so.
Key barriers include:

Procurement processes
General consensus among knowledgeable software programmers holds that age-old rules for procurement shouldn’t be tossed out, but could be tweaked to admit bids from more small businesses that want to avoid the bureaucracy of registering with the government and answering Requests for Proposals (RFPs).
Habits of passivity
Government managers are well aware of how little they understand the software development process — in fact, if you ask them what they would need to adopt more open source software, they rarely come up with useful answers. They prefer to hand all development and maintenance to an outside firm, which takes full advantage of this to isolate agencies from one another and lock in expensive rates.
Lack of knowledgeable IT staff
The government managers have reason to keep hands off free software. One LibrePlanet audience member reported that he installed a good deal of free software at his agency, but that when he left, they could not find knowledgeable IT hires to take over. Bit by bit, the free software was replaced with proprietary products known to the new staff.
Political pressure
The urge to support proprietary companies doesn’t just come from their sales people or lobbyists. Buying software, like other products, is seen by politicians as a way of ensuring that jobs remain in their communities.
Lack of information
Free software is rarely backed by a marketing and sales organization, and even if managers have the initiative to go look for the software, they don’t know how to evaluate its maturity and readiness.

Thoroughgoing change in the area of software requires managers to have a certain consciousness at a higher level: they need to assert control over their missions and adopt agile workflows. That will inevitably spawn a desire for more control over the software that carries out these missions. A posting by Matthew Burton of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shows that radical redirections like this are possible.
In the meantime, here are some ideas that the panelists and audience came up with:

Tweaking procurement
If projects can be kept cheap — as Code for America does using grants and other stratagems — they don’t have to navigate the procurement process. Hackathons and challenges can also produce results — but they have a number of limitations, particularly the difficulty developers have in understanding the requirements of the people they want to serve. Some agencies can also bypass procurement by forming partnerships with community groups who produce the software. Finally, a possibly useful model is to take a cut of income from a project instead of charging the government for it.
Managers have heard of open source software by now — great progress from just a few years ago — and are curious about it. On the production side, we need to help them see the benefits of releasing code, and how to monitor their software vendors to make sure the code is really usable. On the consumption side, we need to teach them maturity models and connect them to strong development projects.
Most governments have familiar tasks that can be met by the same software base, but end up paying to reinvent (or just reinstall) the wheel. Code for America started a peer network to encourage managers to talk to one another about solutions. The Brazilian government has started a Public Software Portal. The European Union has an open source database and the US federal government has posted a list of government software released as open source.”

European Commission launches network to foster web talent through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Press Release: “The Commission is launching a network of providers of MOOCs related to web and apps skills. MOOCs are online university courses which enable people to access quality education without having to leave their homes. The new network aims to map the demand for web-related skills across Europe and to promote the use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for capacity-building in those fields.
Web-related industry is generating more economic growth than any other part of the European economy, but hundreds of thousands of jobs remain unfilled due to the lack of qualified staff.
European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes, responsible for the Digital Agenda, said:
“By 2020, 90% of jobs will need digital skills. That is just around the corner, and we aren’t ready! Already businesses in Europe are facing a shortage of skilled ICT workers. We have to fill that gap, and this network we are launching will help us identify where the gaps are. This goes hand in hand with the work being done through the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs”.
The Commission calls upon web entrepreneurs, universities, MOOC providers and online learners to join the network, which is part of the “Startup Europe” initiative.
Participants in the network benefit from the exchange of experiences and best practices, opportunities for networking, news updates, and the chance to participate in a conference dedicated to MOOCs for web and apps skills scheduled for the second half of 2014. In addition, the network offers a discussion group that can be found on the European Commission’s portal Open Education Europa. The initiative is coordinated by p.a.u. education and in partnership with Iversity.
Useful links
Link to EC press release on the launch of first pan-European university MOOCs
Open Education Europa website
Startup Europe website
Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs website”

The Use of ICT for Open Government in U. S. Municipalities Perceptions of Chief Administrative Officers

Paper by Sukumar Ganapatiand Christopher G. Reddick in Public Performance & Management Review: “The extent to which U. S. municipal governments have adopted open e-government initiatives is examined through a survey and interviews with chief administrative officers (CAOs) along the three dimensions of open government: transparency, participation, and collaboration. A very high share of CAOs reported satisfaction with implementing open government overall. A majority indicated achievement along each of the open government dimensions. Whereas the CAOs had a significantly positive view of collaboration, their view on challenges was negatively significant for achievement and satisfaction with open government. The interviews indicated that the CAOs do not view open government as a fad and place it high on their respective agendas.”

Artists Show How Anyone Can Fight the Man with Open Data

MotherBoard: “The UK’s Open Data Institute usually looks, as you’d probably expect, like an office full of people staring at screens. But visit at the moment and you might see a potato gun among the desks or a bunch of drone photos on the wall—all in the name of encouraging public discussion around and engagement with open data.
The ODI was set up by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and interdisciplinary researcher Nigel Shadbolt in London to push for an open data culture, and from Monday it will be hosting the second Data as Culture exhibition, which presents a more artistic take on questions surrounding the practicalities of open data. In doing so, it shows quite how the general public can (and probably really should) use data to inform their own lives and to engage with political issues.
All of the exhibits are based on freely available data, which is made lot more animated and accessible than numbers in a spreadsheet. “I made the decision straight away to move away from anything screen-based,” curator Shiri Shalmy told me as she gave me a tour, winding through office workers tapping away on keyboards. “Everything had to be physical.”…
James Bridle’s work on drone warfare touches a similar theme, though in this case the data are not hidden: his images of military UAVs come from Google Maps. “They’re there for anybody to look at, they’re kind of secret but available,” said Shalmy, who added that with the data out there, we can’t pretend we don’t know what’s going on. “They can do things in secret as long as we pretend it’s a secret.”
We’ve looked at Bridle’s work before, from his Dronestagram photos to his chalk outlines of drones, and he’s been commissioned to do something new for the Data as Culture show: Shalmy has asked him to compare the open data on military drones against that of London’s financial centre. He’ll present what he digs up in summer.

From the series ‘Watching the Watchers.’ Image: James Bridle/ODI

Using this kind of government data—from local council expenses to military movements—shows quite how much information is available and how it can be used to hold politicians to account. In essence, anyone can do surveillance to some level. While activists including Berners-Lee push for more data to be made accessible, it’s only useful if we actually bother to engage with it, and work like Bridle’s pose the uneasy suggestion that sometimes it’s more comfortable to remain ignorant.
And in addition to reading data, we can collect it. Rather than delving into government files, a knitted banner by artist Sam Meech uses publicly generated data to make a political point. The banner bears the phrase “8 hour labour,” a reference to the eight-hour workday movement that sprang up in Britain’s Industrial Revolution. The idea was that people would have eight hours work, eight hours rest, and eight hours recreation.

A detail from Sam Meechan’s Punchcard Economy. Image: Sam Meechan/ODI

But the black-and-white pattern in the banner is made up of much less regular working hours: those logged by self-employed creatives, who can take part by entering their own timesheet data via virtual punchcards. Shalmy pointed out her own schedule in a week when she was setting up the exhibition: a 70-hour block woven into the knit. It’s an example of how individuals can use data to make a political point—the work is reminiscent of trade union banners and seems particularly relevant at a time when controversial zero hours contracts are on the rise.
Also garnering data from the public, artist collective Thickear are asking people to fill in data forms on their arrival, which they’ll file on an old-fashioned spike. I took one of the forms, only to be confronted with nonsensical bureaucratic-type boxes. “The data itself is not informative in any way,” said Shalmy. It’s more about the idea of who we trust to give our data to. How often do we accept privacy policies without even giving ourselves the chance to even blink at the small print?…”

The six types of Twitter conversations

Lee Rainie: “Have you ever wondered what a Twitter conversation looks like from 10,000 feet? A new report from the Pew Research Center, in association with the Social Media Research Foundation, provides an aerial view of the social media network. By analyzing many thousands of Twitter conversations, we identified six different conversational archetypes. Our infographic describes each type of conversation network and an explanation of how it is shaped by the topic being discussed and the people driving the conversation.
FT_14.02.20_TwitterPoster (1)
Read the full report: Mapping the Twitter Conversation”

Crowdsourced transit app shows what time the bus will really come

Springwise: “The problem with most transport apps is that they rely on fixed data from transport company schedules and don’t truly reflect exactly what’s going on with the city’s trains and buses at any given moment. Operating like a Waze for public transport, Israel’s Ototo app crowdsources real-time information from passengers to give users the best suggestions for their commute.
The app relies on a community of ‘Riders’, who allow anonymous location data to be sent from their smartphone whenever they’re using public transport. By collating this data together, Ototo offers more realistic information about bus and train routes. While a bus may be due in five minutes, a Rider currently on that bus might be located more than five minutes away, indicating that the bus isn’t on time. Ototo can then suggest a quicker route for users. According to Fast Company, the service currently has a 12,000-strong global Riders community that powers its travel recommendations. On top of this, the app is designed in an easy-to-use infographic format that quickly and efficiently tells users where they need to be going and how long it will take. The app is free to download from the App Store, and the video below offers a demonstration:

Ototo faces competition from similar services such as New York City’s Moovit, which also details how crowded buses are.”

Sinkhole of bureaucracy

First article in a Washington Post series “examining the failures at the heart of troubled federal systems” by David A. Fahrenthold: “The trucks full of paperwork come every day, turning off a country road north of Pittsburgh and descending through a gateway into the earth. Underground, they stop at a metal door decorated with an American flag.

Behind the door, a room opens up as big as a supermarket, full of five-drawer file cabinets and people in business casual. About 230 feet below the surface, there is easy-listening music playing at somebody’s desk.
This is one of the weirdest workplaces in the U.S. government — both for where it is and for what it does.
Here, inside the caverns of an old Pennsylvania limestone mine, there are 600 employees of the Office of Personnel Management. Their task is nothing top-secret. It is to process the retirement papers of the government’s own workers.
But that system has a spectacular flaw. It still must be done entirely by hand, and almost entirely on paper.

The employees here pass thousands of case files from cavern to cavern and then key in retirees’ personal data, one line at a time. They work underground not for secrecy but for space. The old mine’s tunnels have room for more than 28,000 file cabinets of paper records.
This odd place is an example of how hard it is to get a time-wasting bug out of a big bureaucratic system.
Held up by all that paper, work in the mine runs as slowly now as it did in 1977….”
See also Data mining. The old-fashioned way: View the full graphic.

Exploration, Extraction and ‘Rawification’. The Shaping of Transparency in the Back Rooms of Open Data

Paper by Denis, Jerome and Goëta, Samuel: “With the advent of open data initiatives, raw data has been staged as a crucial element of government transparency. If the consequences of such data-driven transparency have already been discussed, we still don’t know much about its back rooms. What does it mean for an administration to open its data? Following information infrastructure studies, this communication aims to question the modes of existence of raw data in administrations. Drawing on an ethnography of open government data projects in several French administrations, it shows that data are not ready-at-hand resources. Indeed, three kinds of operations are conducted that progressively instantiate open data. The first one is exploration. Where are, and what are, the data within the institution are tough questions, the response to which entails organizational and technical inquiries. The second one is extraction. Data are encapsulated in databases and its release implies a sometimes complex disarticulation process. The third kind of operations is ‘rawification’. It consists in a series of tasks that transforms what used to be indexical professional data into raw data. To become opened, data are (re)formatted, cleaned, ungrounded. Though largely invisible, these operations foreground specific ‘frictions’ that emerge during the sociotechnical shaping of transparency, even before data publication and reuses.”

Government Surveillance and Internet Search Behavior

New paper by Marthews, Alex and Tucker, Catherine: “This paper uses data from Google Trends on search terms from before and after the surveillance revelations of June 2013 to analyze whether Google users’ search behavior shifted as a result of an exogenous shock in information about how closely their internet searches were being monitored by the U. S. government. We use data from Google Trends on search volume for 282 search terms across eleven different countries. These search terms were independently rated for their degree of privacy-sensitivity along multiple dimensions. Using panel data, our result suggest that cross-nationally, users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the U. S. government. In the U. S., this was the main subset of search terms that were affected. However, internationally there was also a drop in traffic for search terms that were rated as personally sensitive. These results have implications for policy makers in terms of understanding the actual effects on search behavior of disclosures relating to the scale of government surveillance on the Internet and their potential effects on international competitiveness.

Charities Try New Ways to Test Ideas Quickly and Polish Them Later

Ben Gose in the Chronicle of Philanthropy: “A year ago, a division of TechSoup Global began working on an app to allow donors to buy a hotel room for victims of domestic violence when no other shelter is available. Now that app is a finalist in a competition run by a foundation that combats human trafficking—and a win could mean a grant worth several hundred thousand dollars. The app’s evolution—adding a focus on sex slaves to the initial emphasis on domestic violence—was hardly accidental.
Caravan Studios, the TechSoup division that created the app, has embraced a new management approach popular in Silicon Valley known as “lean start-up.”
The principles, which are increasingly popular among nonprofits, emphasize experimentation over long-term planning and urge groups to get products and services out to clients as early as possible so the organizations can learn from feedback and make changes.
When the app, known as SafeNight, was still early in the design phase, Caravan posted details about the project on its website, including applications for grants that Caravan had not yet received. In lean-start-up lingo, Caravan put out a “minimal viable product” and hoped for feedback that would lead to a better app.
Caravan soon heard from antitrafficking organizations, which were interested in the same kind of service. Caravan eventually teamed up with the Polaris Project and the State of New Jersey, which were working on a similar app, to jointly create an app for the final round of the antitrafficking contest. Humanity United, the foundation sponsoring the contest, plans to award $1.8-million to as many as three winners later this month.
Marnie Webb, CEO of Caravan, which is building an array of apps designed to curb social problems, says lean-start-up principles help Caravan work faster and meet real needs.
“The central idea is that any product that we develop will get better if it lives as much of its life as possible outside of our office,” Ms. Webb says. “If we had kept SafeNight inside and polished it and polished it, it would have been super hard to bring on a partner because we would have invested too much.”….
Nonprofits developing new tech tools are among the biggest users of lean-start-up ideas.
Upwell, an ocean-conservation organization founded in 2011, scans the web for lively ocean-related discussions and then pushes to turn them into full-fledged movements through social-media campaigns.
Lean principles urge groups to steer clear of “vanity metrics,” such as site visits, that may sound impressive but don’t reveal much. Upwell tracks only one number—“social mentions”—the much smaller group of people who actually say something about an issue online.
After identifying a hot topic, Upwell tries to assemble a social-media strategy within 24 hours—what it calls a “minimum viable campaign.”
“We do the least amount of work to get something out the door that will get results and information,” says Rachel Dearborn, Upwell’s campaign director.
Campaigns that don’t catch on are quickly scrapped. But campaigns that do catch on get more time, energy, and money from Upwell.
After Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, a prominent writer on ocean issues and others began pushing the idea that revitalizing the oyster beds near New York City could help protect the shore from future storm surges. Upwell’s “I (Oyster) New York” campaign featured a catchy logo and led to an even bigger spike in attention.


Some organizations that could hardly be called start-ups are also using lean principles. GuideStar, the 20-year-old aggregator of financial information about charities, is using the lean approach to develop tools more quickly that meet the needs of its users.
The lean process promotes short “build-measure-learn” cycles, in which a group frequently updates a product or service based on what it hears from its customers.
GuideStar and the Nonprofit Finance Fund have developed a tool called Financial Scan that allows charities to see how they compare with similar groups on various financial measures, such as their mix of earned revenue and grant funds.
When it analyzed who was using the tool, GuideStar found heavy interest from both foundations and accounting firms, says Evan Paul, GuideStar’s senior director of products and marketing.
In the future, he says, GuideStar may create three versions of Financial Scan to meet the distinct interests of charities, foundations, and accountants.
“We want to get more specific about how people are using our data to make decisions so that we can help make those decisions better and faster,” Mr. Paul says….

Lean Start-Up: a Glossary of Terms for a Hot New Management Approach


Instead of spending considerable time developing a product or service for a big rollout, organizations should consider using a continuous feedback loop: “build” a program or service, even if it is not fully fleshed out; “measure” how clients are affected; and “learn” by improving the program or going in a new direction. Repeat the cycle.

Minimum Viable Product

An early version of a product or service that may be lacking some features. This approach allows an organization to obtain feedback from clients and quickly determine the usefulness of a product or service and how to improve it.

Get Out of the Building

To determine whether a product or service is needed, talk to clients and share your ideas with them before investing heavily.

A/B Testing

Create two versions of a product or service, show them to different groups, and see which performs best.

Failing Fast

By quickly realizing that a product or service isn’t viable, organizations save time and money and gain valuable information for their next effort.


Making a significant change in strategy when the early testing of a minimum viable product shows that the product or service isn’t working or isn’t needed.

Vanity Metrics

Measures that seem to provide a favorable picture but don’t accurately capture the impact of a product. An example might be a tally of website page views. A more meaningful measure—or an “actionable metric,” in the lean lexicon—might be the number of active users of an online service.
Sources: The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries; The Ultimate Dictionary of Lean for Social Good, a publication by Lean Impact”