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It’s About People

As the civic tech movement grows and local government continues to seek new ways of doing more with less, it is important to ensure that the knowledge and experience does not become siloed among the early adopters. As many have recognized, we need to reduce fragmentation and duplication among cities working to address similar civic challenges with technology; to create channels for sharing information, knowledge, and technology tools; and provide a platform for local governments to collaborate on the implementation of new applications.

These are the ideas that motivated the creation of the CfA Commons: a data-sharing platform comprised of an app directory and a wiki knowledge base where civic innovators can post and find information, reviews, and the code for a variety of civic applications. And while CfA Commons is a resource that has seen great growth in the last year, it currently serves primarily as a community-edited clearinghouse of software and what’s being used, where. The vision of a platform that lets cities exchange open source code, surface the best technology, and collaborate to develop new solutions to shared challenges hasn’t yet been realized.

David Eaves recently published an excellent post on learning from past efforts as we move forward in this area. If we’re serious about reuse, collaboration, and open source for government, we must be constantly learning and evolving our strategies. In that spirit, here are some of our goals as we move forward:

Aligning on data standards.

Standardized data are the raw materials for building software that’s actually interoperable and portable across jurisdictions. Many of the successful instances of reuse we’ve seen so far — like transit apps, Adopta, and 311 reporting apps — have been enabled by (or, in the case of Adopta, would greatly benefit from) civic data standards adopted by municipalities everywhere.

Building capacity.

With limited time and budget, we need to build capacity in government — create opportunities and supported structure to allow them to pool resources (time, personnel, information, etc.) and work on collaborative projects that would not be feasible for a single jurisdiction to take on. Successful models of this working in the education sphere include the Kuali Foundation and BC Campus. Equally important is building individual capacity by equipping local government officials with the tools and know-how to drive these initiatives forward internally.

Reforming procurement.

As David Eaves points out: “Many cities have policies, explicit or implicit that prevent them from using open source software, to say nothing of co-creating open source software.” It also makes it difficult for small businesses who provide alternatives to traditional proprietary software to contract with local government.

Part of this is challenge is institutional mindset. Empowering leaders within city hall with proof and data to demonstrate the benefits of open source internally (and strategies to manage change) can help break down those implicit aversions to alternative approaches to IT. And the other part of this challenge is procedural, which will need to be tackled through policy and process changes. Some municipalities have made efforts to make their procurement policies open source-friendly, while projects like RFP-EZ — a project of the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows — seek to streamline the procurement process and make it easier for smaller vendors to contract with government. We need to focus on spreading those approaches more widely.

The Code for America Peer Network is the evolution of CfA Commons, incorporating what we’ve learned from those efforts. In the new iteration, the CfA Peer Network will build in a human layer for collaboration and interaction among local government stakeholders, creating an engaging and dynamic place for support, learning, and connection between participants and the civic innovation community.

In addition to building upon lessons learned through the CfA Commons, we plan to leverage the Peer Network to address issues like data standards, capacity building, and procurement reform that can lay a path for more successful reuse and collaboration in the future. With our growing network of dedicated civic change agents committed to working together, we’re excited to start taking on these important problems.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.