Category Archives: open source

– Just Another Apps Competition?

Evergreen Apps winnersThe first-ever Evergreen Apps Competition came to a close last night in Seattle as we recognized the top applications developed over the last six months with government open data. Top honors went to Living Voters Guide with other prizes for WhichBus, Trash Backwards and Food Inspector.

I was one of the judges for the event, and, I have to admit, I had a lot of fun downloading and testing the apps on Android and iPhone platforms, as well using some apps on the web itself.   Full results are posted on the Evergreen Apps website and on Geekwire.

“Apps competitions” might seem a little passé these days. It sure seems as if there have been dozens of them, starting with the original Apps for Democracy in the District of Columbia in 2008.   New York City has had at least three renditions of their Big Apps contests and San Francisco continues to innovate with a whole catalog of apps.

What makes this one different?  And where should we be going with Government data and apps contests in the future?

Evergreen Apps ChallengeEvergreen Apps is different because it was a joint effort by the City of Seattle, King County and the State of Washington. Three governments at different levels, multiple different open data sites and $75,000 in prizes. Plus, of course, it was held in Seattle, center of the technology world, with over 100,000 people employed by companies ranging from Microsoft to Cozi to Amazon to Google to Socrata to Urbanspoon.

In return for the prize money, the rules stipulate the apps must be maintained an enhanced for a year. That, hopefully, will give some longevity to these apps. Alas, many of the results of apps contests elsewhere have resulted in dead ended apps which no longer work for a whole variety of reasons ranging from changes in the underlying data structure to developers who go on to other things.

A huge issue is sustainability.   One of my very favorite apps from the original Apps for Democracy contest – “Stumble Safely” which maps crime around your present geographic location – appears to be long dead.

Developers and their startup companies can’t live on coding alone – cash really REALLY helps, but apps built on government open data are hard to monetize.

Another huge problem is non-portability. An app built in Seattle with data.seattle.gov information works in Seattle, but not in LA or Chicago or Podunk Center. We need either much better standards for the underlying datasets, along the lines of Google’s GTFS for transit data. Many transit agencies have adopted this format because increasing their ridership is core to their business, and using the standard advances that goal.

As an alternative, we could use a schema and data interchange process to mask the differences in data between different cities, counties and states.

Cities Data GovI have great hopes for Socrata, a Seattle-based technology company which hosts the federal data.gov, data.seattle.gov, and hundreds of other government open data sites. They are one of the movers behind cities.data.gov, a first attempt at combining datasets from multiple cities.

If cities.data.gov or maybe a future states.data.gov or even restaurantinspections.data.gov can be made real, then an app writing against those open data sites would work anyplace in the world which contributes data.

City, County and State Open Data SitesAnother huge problem is simply the lack of governments who participate. Sure, there are 176 federal government agencies who make data open, thanks to the commitment of the Obama Administration, the United States CTO Todd Park, his Deputy Chris Vein, U. S. CIO Steve Van Roekel and data.gov evangelists like Jeanne Holm. But only 19 cities and counties in the United States, and only 34 states have open data sites. See the list here. And many of those have incomplete or only a few datasets.

When are local and state governments going to “get it” that transparency and open data are a way to enlist a wide site of private companies and developers into helping them better serve their constituents?

Finally, there is the abysmal situation with transparency in lawmaking. Most state legislatures and city/county councils and commissions put proposed laws and ordinances on their websites, but in PDF format or non-machine readable format, making them almost impossible to consume with apps. Is this stupid, shortsighted or maybe intentional? A positive development here is the recent launch of congress.gov, which the Sunlight Foundation hails as putting much more machine-readable bulk data online.

So where do we go from here? My suggestions:

  • Initiate a nationwide or at least statewide (for individual states) effort to standardize the format of the open data, or create data interchange software to mask the differences in the underlying data, as Socrata is trying to do.  Collaboration such as that shown by a City, County and State at Evergreen Apps is a great step forward on this path.
  • Establish statewide and GSA contracts with private companies to host the data. The State of Washington has done that and it ismuch easier for cities and counties in that state to build their own open data sites. Data.seattle.gov was live two months after we started the project, by using such a contract.
  • Pass laws which mandate all data produced by a city, state or county which can be on an open data site is put there. New York City leads the way on this.
  • Also mandate city, county and state legislative processes be open with machine-readable data, as congress.gov is starting to do.

In the end, of course, it all comes down to visionary leadership.

Open governmentPresident Barak Obama was really visionary in demanding open data and transparency from the Federal Government on his first day in office, on January 21, 2009. Then federal CIO Vivek Kundra and CTO Aneesh Chopra carried that ball forward. Mayor Mike McGinn in Seattle launched data.seattle.gov shortly after taking office in 2010 and I was proud to support him in that as Seattle CTO. Other visionary leaders range from Mayor Gavin Newsom in San Francisco to U.S. Deputy CTO Chris Vein in the White House to Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City.

But, alas, you can’t legislate leadership. You can only hope voters recognize it and cast their ballots for visionary candidates, and those elected officials, in turn, choose visionary CIOs.

We’ve got a great start on the brave old world of Government Transparency, and, with initiatives like Evergreen Apps, we’ll continue to push the “open data” ball forward.

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Filed under apps, egovernment, Fedgov, open data, open source, web 2.0

– Microsoft vs Open Source

Microsoft Public Sector CIO Summit - click for moreThis week is the Microsoft Public Sector CIO summit in that village named Redmond “across the pond” from Seattle. It’s also a week of continuing rotten economic news for public and private sector alike. In this environment, it sure is tempting to chuck Microsoft’s Office and web products and their complicated Enterprise and Select Agreements in favor of open source equivalents.

But you know what, the City of Seattle is not going to do that. Why?

Regular readers of this blog – if there are any – know I’m from Seattle and most of you know I’m a serious supporter of Microsoft software and products.

Clearly, I’m prejudiced.

Microsoft provides 40,000 jobs in my area, we have hundreds of thousands of shareholders (many of whom are also constituents) living here. We benefit from the tremendous wealth which has flowed from the around the world into Puget Sound to literally thousands of people, institutions and non-profits in the region. That wealth flows elsewhere, of course, too. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing wonderful things for schools and libraries across the nation and around the world. Microsoft research and technology centers are at many locations outside of Puget Sound – indeed there are about 50,000 Microsoft jobs OUTSIDE of Washington State.

On the other hand, all governments have budget pains. I got my first official budget cut memo three weeks ago (we’ve been doing actual budget cutting for at least 9 months). In the past I’ve had to lay off people based almost solely on seniority (or, rather,”juniority”). And I’ll undoubtedly be doing it again at some time in the future, if my job isn’t cut first!

Microsoft’s licensing costs are a large part of our budget, as are the maintenance and licensing costs we pay to Oracle, IBM, ESRI, and many other vendors. We do need to examine alternatives and options.

But I’m somewhat baffled that any CIO of a large government would seriously consider using open source software for our mission critical systems and services. This seems a little bit like using cell phones to dispatch police officers and firefighters or outsourcing your help desk to India. It will save money in the short term and work pretty well “most” of the time …

What is the advantage of using software from Microsoft – or Oracle, or ESRI, or Peoplesoft, or Hansen or … any major software vendor?

No business large or small would seriously consider writing its own financial management system, even though, with web services, database software and a spreadsheet program we could probably do it. We could probably cobble together a computer-aided-dispatch system or work management system from similar components.

The advantage of off-the-shelf or “shrink wrap” is that it is pre-written for us, the bugs are fixed, the upgrades are provided and – of increasing importance – security issues are handled and addressed.

Sure, you’ll say, Microsoft software is really prone to security flaws and attacks. Why is that? Because it is the most popular and ubiquitous software in the world! Its logical that any software which reaches significant market share will become a target for teams of hackers employed by terrorist-nation-states and crime syndicates. And the software for open source is on the web and freely available for such hackers to view!

Now, I understand that open source is supported by a developer community, and that’s good. But this developer community is nebulous. It is a difficult place to find when something serious goes wrong. Governments now rely heavily upon technology to provide critical services and interact with constituents. CIOs are responsible to elected officials keep that technology reliable and available. To depend upon an amorphous “community” of developers with no direct stake in your mission is a risky proposition.

Few businesses -other than local governments – have technology systems so important that people’s lives are actually in jeopardy when those systems fail.’ Sorry, I don’t want a “nebulous” community supporting my public safety and utility system.

Next, in an open source world, what do we do about application integration? Gee, almost every vendor writes their software to work with Microsoft Office, Exchange/Outlook and similar products. Even hardware vendors such as Nortel or Avaya or Motorola will make sure their hardware/software integrates with Microsoft. If there is an issue with the way PeopleSoft HRIS or Government Financials works with e-mail software or office software, they will always fix the Microsoft integration first. When a hot new product comes out – like BlackBerrys – the vendor will make sure it works with Microsoft software right out-of-the-gate.

Believe me, I know this first hand, since the City of Seattle was (still is) a GroupWise e-mail user. I had department directors knocking down my door to get BlackBerrys but the GroupWise version was released FOUR YEARS behind the Exchange/Outlook BlackBerry.

Furthermore, many of our applications now vitally depend upon web services for their user interface. Most of those applications vendors will not be officially supporting open source versions of web services anytime soon.

So, if we – government CIOs – move to using open source software, how do we handle the support and integration?

Answer: like everything else, we hire smart people. Highly proficient technical people who understand the bits and bytes of how this stuff works and can make it happen. Managers who can develop networks of people in other jurisdictions and in the open source community to fix the bugs, get the new releases and work with the integration. Skilled “open source” employees who are dedicated to our mission of “making technology” work for our government and the people we serve.

Well, where is our budget pressure? Yes, it is in revenues and budget dollars. But it is also in FTE – headcount. How many times have each of us been told to reduce headcount? What is the one number (again, besides raw dollars) which newspapers, the public and elected officials always watch and measure? It is “Number of Government Employees”. There is constant pressure – even in good times – to hold the line on headcount, if not actually reduce it.

And when we do reduce headcount, what positions are cut and who is laid off? It is always the last hired, which are usually the youngest, tech-saavy (at least on new software or open-source software), most connected employees.

With open source not only will we have to increase headcount, we’ll become vitally depend upon those new hires and that additional headcount to make our most critical and important applications work.

By making us MORE reliant on headcount and FTE, I think a move to open source software actually exacerbates our budget problems.

On the other hand, elected officials and those with budget oversight are much more likely to accept payments to our software and hardware maintenance vendors as necessary requirements. They all have personal experience with technology, if only their cell phone and desktop computers. They all understand the need to maintain cars and buildings and computers.

But how much of our core and critical work can really be “crowd sourced”? Do we really want to open-source computer-aided dispatch systems or records management systems which have personally identifiable data or arrest/911 call information? And I’m very nervous about open sourcing any part of SCADA (utility control), or traffic management or other control systems which are vital to our governments and targets for attack and compromise.

In these high-pressure, budget-constrained, headcount-hunting times, use of open source software appears to be a high-risk, low-return proposition at best, and a “government fails” newspaper headline at worst.

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Filed under budget, economy, Microsoft, open source