Month: October 2012


When I was going through my mail this morning one of the messages had the following in it:

Voting is almost never a way to reach consensus. Rather, it acknowledges that consensus has not been reached and side-steps further constructive attempts to reach it. — Stefano Zacchiroli

Stefano is the Debian Project leader and the discussion was about the procedure for taking over the maintenance of a program that has been neglected by its current keeper, but that isn’t really important. What blew me away about the quote was the completely different viewpoint it had about voting. I had been headed that way ever since I read about the Condorcet method but Stefano’s statement crystallizes the problem and puts a little bow on it.

In the already demoralizing context of the current election this statement rings even more true. It makes you wonder whether the lack of voter turnout is a function of disinterest in our collective fate or the rejection of a system that is clearly driving us apart.

The power of the cloud!

I’m struggling with a few of my customer’s sites that have services on Amazon again today. This is the second time I’ve had major trouble with them, the first being the multi-day outage last year. Luckily I don’t really recommend Amazon (mostly because of I/O performance) so my phone isn’t ringing off the wall. Apparently, the main value proposition of the cloud is that you have a better excuse for your system being offline. You don’t get real fault tolerance without a lot of thinking and provisioning. You looked like an idiot before the cloud but now you can send customers to a mainstream news story about other prominent web sites taking a poop and be forgiven.

Google App Scripting

I’ve been blissfully unaware of the scripting component built into Google Apps. Whoa! Shockingly easy! This kind of thing has always been around in Microsoft products and pretty easy to use but the “cloudiness” of Google Docs makes it feel like a whole different creature. The scripting is so simple that even a total n00b could get things done. Behold:

(oh, you need to be logged into Google to read that link.)

The Open Source community really needs to get on this kind of thing. We should be leading this kind of ecosystem but, so far, it seems to be largely the domain of corporations projecting the power of their proprietary platforms.

Code For America (with a little JavaOne snuck in)

The first day of Code for America Summit was a smorgasbord of wholesome #opengov goodness. The format is similar to O’Reilly’s OpenGov conferences. One track, one room, back to back talks and Q&As for panels but not speakers. The master of ceremonies for the event is David Eaves. A tall and friendly looking guy with a sunny manner, he’s definitely cut out for the job. He must be since he even has an agent! In addition to his MC and speaking chops, David is a prominent writer on public policy and open government. He is also a former director of the Code for America institute.

David kicked things off by introducing Jen Pahlka, the founder of Code For America, commenting on the progress they’ve made in the last year. He introduced her as “a beacon of openness that drew all of us moths in”. Jen radiates seriousness and organized togetherness a little bit like Martha Stewart but not quite as frosty. She called C4A a “conspiracy to reshape the relationship between governments and citizens”. That’s a good choice of words because its a pretty cool kind of conspiracy to be a part of. She also talked about the stunning success of the C4A program over the last year and talked through the list of new cities and fellows that would be participating in 2012.

In addition to the growth of the program itself she also noted that the number of attendees to the conference has more than doubled. This explained that this posed a challenge since they wanted every single person in the room to introduce themselves. With almost 300 people in the room their proposed methodology was to have everyone state only their name, where they were from and three words describing their outlook or mission. This ended up being not only effective but entertaining. The crowd had a surprisingly diverse array of attendees with, of course, plenty of representatives from city governments but also a wide variety of entrepreneurs, NGOs and select technology companies.

After working all the way through the room David introduced Edwin Lee, the Mayor of San Francisco. He’s a jolly Asian fellow who rocks a unique mustachioed look and, like most mayors, is a great talker. San Francisco had apparently been voted as the “best city in America” and he kicked off on that fact. His talk revolved around the concept of co-engagement – government and business, government and citizens, business and citizens and how important it is to get people to drop their guard a little and work with each other. He stressed that “innovation is not about technology, its about having a spirit of sharing”. San Francisco and Code for America will be working this coming year on a health and human services system as well as an on the job training system.

Next up was Eric Ries. Eric has become famous for his book “The Lean Startup”. The message of his book (and his talk) was that continuous innovation and small, achievable experiments that verify expectations are critical to minimizing organizational risk and achieving success. Failure, when approached in a controlled way, provides a form of success because it identifies strategies that are not going to work. He explained that “executive leadership must create spaces for controlled failure” so that “validated learning” is part of the organization’s development process. The alternative, where organizations live in denial of possible failure, results in very risky situations like a five year plan that doesn’t provide any validation until you are four years into it.

Eric’s ideas really resonated with me and with what we’ve found in the Better Block project. The main reason that Better Block works is because it generates immediate activity without a large investment or a long lead time. As we have staged or collaborated in more and more of these quick events we’ve identified what works and what doesn’t. You can compare it to the “extreme programming” process, maybe a sort of “extreme city planning”.

The next presentation was a focus on the deployment of opengov software in Hawaii. They have had a particularly successful deployment in Hawaii and attribute their success to doing a lot of groundwork in advance.  Before the C4A process even began the city participated in CityCamp and had a number of HackAThons. They also prepped internal staff by sponsoring Ruby on Rails training. At the end of their presentation they did make the interesting comment that “staff would probably not be retained” when the next elected official came in. That is a recurring theme that really needs to be addressed. More than once I have heard about opengov implementations that lose their teams after the following regime change. For the open government phenomena to succeed we really need a durable presence. Cities need to see these solutions as an asset and the teams that implement them need to target city staff and get them invested in the solution so that they have a life beyond the implementation team.

Then we had a fairly long break where I talked with Pam Curtis with the Kansas City mayor’s office. She told me a pretty amazing story about the animal control agency “going rouge” and setting up a Facebook page. This one simple thing ended up causing a real increase in the rate of adoption of animals. They also had a situation where they couldn’t get the budgets for buying hot dogs that they used to give medicine to the animals and had a “hot dog drive” that ended up yielding nearly a year of hot dogs that they could freeze. I’m originally from Kansas City and it was great to see that they are doing exciting things and to hear about the impact that Google’s networking project is having from someone on the front line.

The next speaker was Anthony Townsend, a name I’m very familiar with thanks to his many messages on Debian mailing lists. It  was great to see Anthony talk in person. His talk touched on the history of city planning and had topics ranging from plans in the 50s to cut a highway through Grenwich Village to turn of the century Scottish city planning pioneer Patrick Geddes. Anthony stressed that even though people perceive the open government movement to be a new thing that the desires and even the methods that drive it have been with us pretty much as long as there have been large cities. Geddes’ “outlook tower” of the late 1800’s is essentially the same thing as an educational website, a tool for reaching out to the public and communicating a message to generate advocacy. (Jane Jacobs)

Anthony was followed by a panel featuring John Tolva, John Flowers, Anne Milgram, Steve Spiker and Jesse Bounds.

John Tolva is the CTO for the city of Chicago. Chicago’s economy is driven by its links to the railway industry. The cities vast railyards and stockyards were a by-product of the comparatively cheap prairie real estate in the area. This basic infrastructure nurtured a range of other complementary industries leading up to even modern commodities exchanges and the fiber optic networks that parallel the train network.

When open government got started in Chicago the mayor said he wanted a “Fedex view” of 311 services in the city. You should be able to track your 311 requests like a package in the FedEx network. This lead to the Chicago service tracker and participatory sites like John also detailed the Apps for Chicago competition that yielded apps like Mi-Parque, and “How’s Business”.

Next John Flowers talked through how they were using mapping visualizations to do a better job of dealing with code violations in New York. He showed a series of impressive “heat maps” that showed things like the number of complaints for illegally splitting up housing into multiple units versus negative outcome incidents like house fires where people were killed because of overcrowding. Turns out in many cases that the most problematic properties were in exactly the opposite areas from where the most reports were being filed. (ie. poor vs wealthy neighborhoods)

Anne Milgram is the former attorney general for the state of New Jersey. She outlined ideas for “money balling criminal justice” and detailed the challenges of getting good data in the police agencies. Police work presents a tremendous challenge both because of the tremendous impact that their decisions have on people’s lives (sending people to jail, etc.) as well as the extensive regulations controlling how they use the data that they collect. There is also a pervasive lack of technological sophistication and many times a “sticky note” approach is used to organize information.

Steve Spiker dug into issues around the graduation of African American males in the public school system. AAM are chronically absent and there is bad or incomplete data on causes. AAM also have the highest ratio of absence due to suspension. The leading cause for suspension is “defiance” an unclear term.

Finally, Jesse Bounds came back to the Open311 implementation in Chicago. He noted that “open311 is all about customer service”. He also put forward some ideas about “interoperable cities”. We need to get standardization between city systems so that we can get leverage.

After the panel the New Orleans team came up to demonstrate the solutions that they had deployed. When they first started their implementation in New Orleans the mayor, Mitch Landrieu, thought that providing apps to manage blight in New Orleans was a problem that couldn’t be solved or would at least be impossibly cost prohibitive. Working with lean Open Source technologies the NOLA team has created a tool called BlightStatus that provides an easy to use web based solution. The tool is inspired by the paper based processes that local neighborhoods developed after Hurricane Katrina by activists like “Miss Rita”. Miss Rita often spends four hours a day producing detailed hand drawn maps and paper reports that track every aspect of the blighted properties in her area. BlightStatus automates and streamlines the paper processes that Rita uses.

The last talk of the day was Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter.  Mayor Nutter was an underdog candidate in a city with some challenging problems. Philly has a 28.4% poverty rate and only 1 in 10 students graduate from college. The strengths the city does have are “eds, beds and meds” or education, hospitality and medical research and services. The mayor says he is trying to use technology to be open and innovative without losing focus on serving the people. They have created staff positions to pursue this agenda and Mark Head is the city’s “open data officer”. Their team is trying to use these new technologies to ensure that government will “communicate with rather than to its citizens”. They have also used ARRA grants to create computing centers reminiscent of the “telecentros” in Brazil. They also have a Change by us civic switchboard under way. In closing, Mayor Nutter stated that as he approached these problems he was guided by the concept that “I don’t work for the government I work for the people of Philadelphia”.

At this point they asked everyone to head downstairs for a meet and greet hosted by Amazon Web Services. It was interesting to see an array of large, well funded open source SaaS vendors sponsoring activities throughout the event. I had a beer and some tasty snacks, talked with some other attendees about what we had seen and then hurried off to catch up with some friends from the Java world.

Typically I have found myself in San Francisco in the Fall for Java One. I’ve been a pretty regular attendee since the mid 90’s and have gotten to know quite a few folks in the industry. Some of the guys like Gier Magnusson and Dalibor Topic I have know so long that it feels like I have shared a couple of different lifetimes with them. We’ve lived through the development of a Free Software java from its earliest humble beginnings in Kaffe and Classpath, through the boom and bust of the and finally its victorious global industry acceptance and strange marriage with Oracle. I’ve also gotten to be good friends with a number of prominent Java programmers from Brazil thanks to the DebConf event I attended there in 2004. The first person I met was Bruno Souza, an incredibly friendly, smart, talented and connected guy who has really become one of my best friends in the years since. Through him I met a whole community of funny, smart and very welcoming people like Mauricio Leal, Fabianne Nardon, Alexandre Gomes and the enigmatic “Lord Spy”. That was a landmark event in my life because it completely changed my view of the Americas, the influence and role America plays globally and what the national experience of other people is like. Its one thing to go to a tropical Latin American country on vacation and come back home, its another thing entirely to meet a group of intelligent people who practice the same craft as you do and discover the inner details of their lives. Beyond all this, the Brazilian Java community is just a little bit “special”. They are a little more wild, a little more fun loving and a little more open to coloring outside the lines. Here’s a video of them interacting with people coming and going from the Java User’s Groups meetup: