Making We the People More User-Friendly Than Ever

The White House: “With more than 14 million users and 21 million signatures, We the People, the White House’s online petition platform, has proved more popular than we ever thought possible. In the nearly three years since launch, we’ve heard from you on a huge range of topics, and issued more than 225 responses.

But we’re not stopping there. We’ve been working to make it easier to sign a petition and today we’re proud to announce the next iteration of We the People.

Since launch, we’ve heard from users who wanted a simpler, more streamlined way to sign petitions without creating an account and logging in every time. This latest update makes that a reality.

We’re calling it “simplified signing” and it takes the account creation step out of signing a petition. As of today, just enter your basic information, confirm your signature via email and you’re done. That’s it. No account to create, no logging in, no passwords to remember.

We the People User Statistics

That’s great news for new users, but we’re betting it’ll be welcomed by our returning signers, too. If you signed a petition six months ago and you don’t remember your password, you don’t have to worry about resetting it. Just enter your email address, confirm your signature, and you’re done.

Go check it out right now on

In Defense of Transit Apps

Mark Headd at Civic Innovations: “The civic technology community has a love-hate relationship with transit apps.
We love to, and often do, use the example of open transit data and the cottage industry of civic app development it has helped spawn as justification for governments releasing open data. Some of the earliest, most enduring and most successful civic applications have been built on transit data and there literally hundreds of different apps available.
The General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), which has helped to encourage the release of transit data from dozens and dozens of transportation authorities across the country, is used as the model for the development of other open data standards. I once described work being done to develop a data standard for locations dispensing vaccinations as “GTFS for flu shots.”
But some in the civic technology community chafe at the overuse of transit apps as the example cited for the release of open data and engagement with outside civic hackers. Surely there are other examples we can point to that get at deeper, more fundamental problems with civic engagement and the operation of government. Is the best articulation of the benefits of open data and civic hacking a simple bus stop application?
Last week at Transparency Camp in DC, during a session I ran on open data, I was asked what data governments should focus on releasing as open data. I stated my belief that – at a minimum – governments should concentrate on The 3 B’s: Buses (transit data), Bullets (crime data) and Bucks (budget & expenditure data).
To be clear – transit data and the apps it helps generate are critical to the open data and civic technology movements. I think it is vital to exploring the role that transit apps have played in the development of the civic technology ecosystem and their impact on open data.

Story telling with transit data

Transit data supports more than just “next bus” apps. In fact, characterizing all transit apps this way does a disservice to the talented and creative people working to build things with transit data. Transit data supports a wide range of different visualizations that can tell an intimate, granular story about how a transit system works and how it’s operation impacts a city.
One inspiring example of this kind of app was developed recently by Mike Barry and Brian Card, and looked at the operation of MBTA in Boston. Their motive was simple:

We attempt to present this information to help people in Boston better understand the trains, how people use the trains, and how the people and trains interact with each other.

We’re able to tell nuanced stories about transit systems because the quality of data being released continues to expand and improve in quality. This happens because developers building apps in cities across the country have provided feedback to transit officials on what they want to see and the quality of what is provided.
Developers building the powerful visualizations we see today are standing on the shoulders of the people that built the “next bus” apps a few years ago. Without these humble apps, we don’t get to tell these powerful stories today.

Holding government accountable

Transit apps are about more than just getting to the train on time.
Support for transit system operations can run into the billions of dollars and affect the lives of millions of people in an urban area. With this much investment, it’s important that transit riders and taxpayers are able to hold officials accountable for the efficient operation of transit systems. To help us do this, we now have a new generation of transit apps that can examine things like the scheduled arrival and departure times of trains with their actual arrival and departure time.
Not only does this give citizens transparency into how well their transit system is being run, it offers a pathway for engagement – by knowing which routes are not performing close to scheduled times, transit riders and others can offer suggestions for changes and improvements.

A gateway to more open data

One of the most important things that transit apps can do is provide a pathway for more open data.
In Philadelphia, the city’s formal open data policy and the creation of an open data portal all followed after the efforts of a small group of developers working to obtain transit schedule data from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). This group eventually built the region’s first transit app.
This small group pushed SEPTA to make their data open, and the Authority eventually embraced open data. This, in turn, raised the profile of open data with other city leaders and directly contributed to the adoption of an open data policy by the City of Philadelphia several years later. Without this simple transit app and the push for more open transit data, I don’t think this would have happened. Certainly not as soon as it did.
And it isn’t just big cities like Philadelphia. In Syracuse, NY – a small city with no tradition of civic hacking and no formal open data program – a group at a local hackathon decided that they wanted to build a platform for government open data.
The first data source they selected to focus on? Transit data. The first app they built? A transit app…”

Procurement and Civic Innovation

Derek Eder: “Have you ever used a government website and had a not-so-awesome experience? In our slick 2014 world of Google, Twitter and Facebook, why does government tech feel like it’s stuck in the 1990s?
The culprit: bad technology procurement.
Procurement is the procedure a government follows to buy something–letting suppliers know what they want, asking for proposals, restricting what kinds of proposal they will consider, limiting what kinds of firms they will do business with, and deciding if what they got what they paid for.
The City of Chicago buys technology about the same way that they buy health insurance, a bridge, or anything else in between. And that’s the problem.
Chicago’s government has a long history of corruption, nepotism and patronage. After each outrage, new rules are piled upon existing rules to prevent that crisis from happening again. Unfortunately, this accumulation of rules does not just protect against the bad guys, it also forms a huge barrier to entry for technology innovators.
So, the firms that end up building our city’s digital public services tend to be good at picking their way through the barriers of the procurement process, not at building good technology. Instead of making government tech contracting fair and competitive, procurement has unfortunately had the opposite effect.
So where does this leave us? Despite Chicago’s flourishing startup scene, and despite having one of the country’s largest community of civic technologists, the Windy City’s digital public services are still terribly designed and far too expensive to the taxpayer.

The Technology Gap

The best way to see the gap between Chicago’s volunteer civic tech community and the technology that the City pays is to look at an entire class of civic apps that are essentially facelifts on existing government websites….
You may have noticed an increase in quality and usability between these three civic apps and their official government counterparts.
Now consider this: all of the government sites took months to build and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Was My Car Towed, 2nd City Zoning and were all built by one to two people in a matter of days, for no money.
Think about that for a second. Consider how much the City is overpaying for websites its citizens can barely use. And imagine how much better our digital city services would be if the City worked with the very same tech startups they’re trying to nurture.
Why do these civic apps exist? Well, with the City of Chicago releasing hundreds of high quality datasets on their data portal over the past three years (for which they should be commended), a group of highly passionate and skilled technologists have started using their skills to develop these apps and many others.
It’s mostly for fun, learning, and a sense of civic duty, but it demonstrates there’s no shortage of highly skilled developers who are interested in using technology to make their city a better place to live in…
Two years ago, in the Fall of 2011, I learned about procurement in Chicago for the first time. An awesome group of developers, designers and I had just built – our very first civic app – for the City of Chicago’s first open data hackathon….
Since then, the City has often cited as evidence of the innovation-sparking potential of open data.
Shortly after our site launched, a Request For Proposals, or RFP, was issued by the City for an ‘Online Lobbyist Disclosure System.’
Hey! We just built one of those! Sure, we would need to make some updates to it—adding a way for lobbyists to log in and submit their info—but we had a solid start. So, our scrappy group of tech volunteers decided to respond to the RFP.
After reading all 152 pages of the document, we realized we had no chance of getting the bid. It was impossible for the group to meet the legal requirements (as it would have been for any small software shop):

  • audited financial statements for the past 3 years
  • an economic disclosure statement (EDS) and affidavit
  • proof of $500k workers compensation and employers liability
  • proof of $2 million in professional liability insurance”

Citizen Engagement: 3 Cities And Their Civic Tech Tools

Melissa Jun Rowley at the Toolbox: “Though democratic governments are of the people, by the people, and for the people, it often seems that our only input is electing officials who pass laws on our behalf. After all, I don’t know many people who attend town hall meetings these days. But the evolution of technology has given citizens a new way to participate. Governments are using technology to include as many voices from their communities as possible in civic decisions and activities. Here are three examples.
Raleigh, NC
Raleigh North Carolina’s open government initiative is a great example of passive citizen engagement. By following an open source strategy, Open Raleigh has made city data available to the public. Citizens then use the data in a myriad of ways, from simply visualizing daily crime in their city, to creating an app that lets users navigate and interactively utilize the city’s greenway system.
Fort Smith, AR
Using MindMixer, Fort Smith Arkansas has created an online forum for residents to discuss the city’s comprehensive plan, effectively putting the community’s future in the hands of the community itself. Citizens are invited to share their own ideas, vote on ideas submitted by others, and engage with city officials that are “listening” to the conversation on the site.
Seattle, WA
Being a tech town, it’s no surprise that Seattle is using social media as a citizen engagement tool. The Seattle Police Department (SPD) uses a variety of social media tools to reach the public. In 2012, the department launched a first-of-its kind hyper-local twitter initiative. A police scanner for the twitter generation, Tweets by Beat provides twitter feeds of police dispatches in each of Seattle’s 51 police beats so that residents can find out what is happening right on their block.
In addition to Twitter and Facebook, SPD created a Tumblr to, in their own words, “show you your police department doing police-y things in your city.” In a nutshell, the department’s Tumblr serves as an extension of their other social media outlets. “

Civic Tech Forecast: 2014

Laura Dyson from Code for America: “Last year was a big year for civic technology and government innovation, and if last week’s Municipal Innovation discussion was any indication, 2014 promises to be even bigger. More than sixty civic innovators from both inside and outside of government gathered to hear three leading civic tech experts share their “Top Five” list of civic tech trends from 2013m, and predictions for what’s to come in 2014. From responsive web design to overcoming leadership change, guest speakers Luke Fretwell, Juan Pablo Velez, and Alissa Black covered both challenges and opportunities. And the audience had a few predictions of their own. Highlights included:
Mark Leech, Application Development Manager, City of Albuquerque: “Regionalization will allow smaller communities to participate and act as a force multiplier for them.”
Rebecca Williams, Policy Analyst, Sunlight Foundation: “Open data policy (law and implementation) will become more connected to traditional forms of governance, like public records and town hall meetings.”
Rick Dietz, IT Director, City of Bloomington, Ind.: “I think governments will need to collaborate directly more on open source development, particularly on enterprise scale software systems — not just civic apps.”
Kristina Ng, Office of Financial Empowerment, City and County of San Francisco: “I’m excited about the growing community of innovative government workers.”
Hillary Hartley, Presidential Innovation Fellow: “We’ll need to address sustainability and revenue opportunities. Consulting work can only go so far; we must figure out how to empower civic tech companies to actually make money.”
An informal poll of the audience showed that roughly 96 percent of the group was feeling optimistic about the coming year for civic innovation. What’s your civic tech forecast for 2014? Read on to hear what guest speakers Luke Fretwell, Juan Pablo Velez, and Alissa Black had to say, and then let us know how you’re feeling about 2014 by tweeting at @codeforamerica.”

Why This Simple Government Website Was Named the Best Design of the Year

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on Gizmodo: “When was the last time you tried to find a government form on the Internet? For me, it was a few months back, trying to track down an absentee ballot. And while I love American flag GIFs as much as the next patriot, I was amazed at the labyrinth of independent sites I had to visit before I found what I was looking for. Bringing the web presence of an entire government under one roof is a Sisyphean task, and the UK is one of the only countries that’s managed to do it, with, a one-stop-web-shop that launched earlier this year.

Today, at a ceremony in London, the site was named the 2013 Best Design of the Year by the Design Museum, beating out 99 shortlisted buildings, inventions, and cars for the honor. It’s the first website to ever win the six-year-old title, too—which illustrates just how remarkable the achievement really is.

Here’s what makes it so deceivingly special.


Why This Simple Government Website Was Named the Best Design of the Year


Why does a straightforward, cut-and-dry website deserve the award? Because of that straightforwardness, actually. “There were thousands of websites, and we folded them into to make just one,” says Ben Terrett, head of design at the UK’s Government Digital Service, in a Dezeen-produced video. “Booking a prison stay should be as easy as booking a driver’s license test.”…

Terrett describes as an attempt to bring web design up to speed with technology like Glass, where the user interfacer all but disappears. “We haven’t achieved that yet with most web interfaces, [where] you can still see the graphic design,” he says. “But technology will change, and we’ll get past that.”

Safety Datapalooza Shows Power of Communities

Lisa Nelson at DigitalGov: “The White House Office of Public Engagement held the first Safety Datapalooza illustrating the power of communities. Federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari hosted the event, which touted the data available on and the community of innovators using it to make effective tools for consumers.
The event showcased many of the  tools that have been produced as a result of  opening this safety data including:

  • PulsePoint, from the San Ramon Fire Protection District, a lifesaving mobile app that allows CPR-trained volunteers to be notified if someone nearby is in need of emergency assistance;
  • Commute and crime maps, from Trulia, allow home buyers to choose their new residence based on two important everyday factors; and
  • Hurricane App, from the American Red Cross, to monitor storm conditions, prepare your family and home, find help, and let others know you’re safe even if the power is out;

Safety data is far from alone in generating innovative ideas and gathering a community of developers and entrepreneurs, currently has 16 different topically diverse communities on land and sea — the Cities and Oceans communities being two such examples.’s communities are a virtual meeting spot for interested parties across government, academia and industry to come together and put the data to use. enables a whole set of tools to make these communities come to life: apps, blogs, challenges, forums, ranking, rating and wikis.
For a summary of the Safety Datapalooza visit Transportation’s “Fast Lane” blog.”

Continued Progress: Engaging Citizen Solvers through Prizes

Blog post by Cristin Dorgelo: “Today OSTP released its second annual comprehensive report detailing the use of prizes and competitions by Federal agencies to spur innovation and solve Grand Challenges. Those efforts have expanded in the last two years under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which granted all Federal agencies the authority to conduct prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their core missions.
This year’s report details the remarkable benefits the Federal Government reaped in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 from more than 45 prize competitions across 10 agencies. To date, nearly 300 prize competitions have been implemented by 45 agencies through the website
Over the past four years, the Obama Administration has taken important steps to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox. In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. In March 2010, the Office of Management and Budget issued a policy framework to guide agencies in using prizes to mobilize American ingenuity and advance their respective core missions. Then, in September 2010, the Administration launched, a one-stop shop where entrepreneurs and citizen solvers can find public-sector prize competitions.
The prize authority in COMPETES is a key piece of this effort. By giving agencies a clear legal path and expanded authority to deploy competitions and challenges, the legislation makes it dramatically easier for agencies to enlist this powerful approach to problem-solving and to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives…
To support these ongoing efforts, the General Services Administration  continues to train agencies about resources and vendors available to help them administer prize competitions. In addition, NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) provides other agencies with a full suite of services for incentive prize pilots – from prize design, through implementation, to post-prize evaluation”

E-Government and Its Limitations: Assessing the True Demand Curve for Citizen Public Participation

Paper by David Karpf: “Many e-government initiatives start with promise, but end up either as digital “ghost towns” or as a venue exploited by organized interests. The problem with these initiatives is rooted in a set of common misunderstandings about the structure of citizen interest in public participation – simply put, the Internet does not create public interest, it $2 public interest. Public interest can be high or low, and governmental initiatives can be polarized or non-polarized. The paper discusses two common pitfalls (“the Field of Dreams Fallacy” and “Blessed are the Organized”) that demand alternate design choices and modified expectations. By treating public interest and public polarization as variables, the paper develops a typology of appropriate e-government initiatives that can help identify the boundary conditions for transformative digital engagement.”