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Announcing Civic Commons

Today we are here at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington DC for the exciting announcement of the Code for America project for DC. The project is called Civic Commons, and it’s a way to help governments share software they have developed, and thereby reduce IT costs, foster collaboration, and spur innovation.

Civic Commons

When we first conceived of Code for America, we knew that at the end of the first cycle, we’d have five great applications, custom developed for five great cities. Our next challenge would be to get as many other cities as possible using these applications themselves. We figured, however, that would be tomorrow’s problem. What we quickly found out though was that there was a great need for this functionality immediately. As far back as last January, Chris Vein, the CIO of the city and county of San Francisco, told me that he already had great software other cities could use — a hugely successful Master Address Database that was increasing tax revenues — and he challenged me and challenged Code for America to build a way for effectively sharing reusable government technology.

We also heard this from Nick Grossman and Philip Ashlock at OpenPlans, who work with cities, transit agencies, and other government entities on open source projects. Meeting with them almost a year ago, it was like looking in the mirror: that’s how closely our goals aligned and clearly we knew that we wanted to solve the same problems. In fact, we had each registered half of the available urls containing “openmuni,” with the same intentions. OpenMuni.org became our first partnership, with Philip Ashlock taking the lead on cataloging all open data initiatives, open source civic projects, and like-minded efforts he or anyone else knew about. Our next step was to find a way to enable sharing among cities, and to do it together.

The way to do this appeared several months later in the form of Bryan Sivak, the CTO of the District of Columbia and a true innovator. Tim O’Reilly and I were meeting with Bryan about his Code for America application. The District had applied to be one of the first Code for America cities, and with their reputation for innovation, we knew we wanted to work with them. But we were spinning our wheels defining the project our Fellows would work on. We had great ideas, but each project was either too small or too big. Finally Bryan got a gleam in his eye and said, “You know, DC doesn’t need another cool software project. What we need is a way to share what we have with other cities, and for them to be able to share what they build with us.” When Tim suggested that the Code for America Fellows assigned to DC could focus on solving this bigger problem, Bryan jumped at the chance.

We became aware that we weren’t the only folks thinking about this, and held some meetings of the like minds, including Andrew Hoppin of the New York State Senate, who had been dreaming of this kind of organization, and Vivek Kundra, the Federal CIO, who challenged us to think bigger — beyond just cities to all government agencies. Vivek is frequently asked by other public sector CIOs to share the code behind the Federal IT dashboard; like others, he’s happy to do it, but doesn’t have the resources to polish the code, document it, relicense it, and make it available to others.He’s looking to us to take on that burden.

What’s confusing here is that what we at Code for America have taken on as DC’s project a) isn’t a software project at all and b) isn’t really just for DC. It’s the building of a new organization, and it’s for all government entities, at all levels. Civic Commons isn’t a technology because the technology needed to share code is a solved problem. The barriers to sharing are organizational, legal, and human, so our efforts are focused on providing resources, fostering community, and building a sustainable organization. That organization is Civic Commons, and the plan is to spin it off as its own non-profit by the end of the Fellows term next November. So Civic Commons is an exception to the Code for America project model, but we think an exception well-worth making. It’s the foundation for making all of our applications more successful, for sharing what we do in a few cities with all governmental entities.

Civic Commons is also an exception in that we started it before our Fellows are even on board. We did this not only because there was so much interest from so many directions, but also because we wanted to maximize the value of our Fellows. We wanted the groundwork in place, so that when they started in January, they could immediately go to work growing the organization, reaching out to governments, and building the Commons. This was made possible because Tim O’Reilly graciously offered to lend an invaluable resource to the project a full six months before our Fellowship programs starts. Karl Fogel, who works for O’Reilly Media developing a government consulting practice, and is the author of Producing Open Source Software, has been busy seeding the Commons, working with CIOs and project owners to ready their code for sharing.

We’re grateful to Bryan for having the vision to put the District’s brawns (and Bryan’s brains) behind his effort. We’re grateful to Tim for providing staff to the effort on a pro-bono basis. We’re grateful to Gregory Heller and Henri Poole at CivicActions, who owned the url civiccommons.com and graciously donated it to the effort. We’re grateful to all the wonderful folks who’ve agreed to serve on the advisory board, and to our partners in this effort.

Mostly, however, we’re excited for what Civic Commons can achieve. It’s odd in some ways to have an organization as young as Code for America already be incubating a new organization, but we’re committed to building this movement for the long-term. So we’re thrilled to be part of the effort to get this off the ground. Indeed, this could be A Very Big Deal.