Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Sharing Is Easy: Open Source Advocates Push For Better Civic Apps

by October 27th, 2014

LONDON (10/27/14) – In May of this year a network of 25 different civic technology organizations met in Santiago, Chile to figure out how to better succeed at giving their work away for free. The problem is that too many well-intentioned civic apps – be they web-based, mobile or “any kind of civic technology which helps people solve any problem to do with public life“ – simply fail to lift off. That’s according to Tom Steinberg, director of U.K.-based innovators mySociety. They’re developers of FixMyStreet and a series of other platforms to help people engage in politics and policy. Project failures can be due to poor design, he said, but in other cases the culprit may be a lack of shareable parts from cohorts. Steinberg spoke Sunday, October 26th during a forum he led at the Mozilla Festival (Moz Fest), here.

The problem is that too many well-intentioned civic apps…simply fail to lift off

The network is called Poplus, and its big value-add is a slowly-growing body of freely available and re-useable civic tech components which provide a code-based framework to integrate some key parts into new apps. These include tools for:

  • browsing and searching official meeting transcripts of public bodies
  • storing and publishing lists of elected officials
  • mapping political district boundaries
  • and pegging app users’ current locations to those districts

  • Steinberg said there’s no point re-inventing the wheel each time for common civic tech parts – and off-the-shelf “bits of technology” can shave four weeks off a 10-week development job, making a huge difference for volunteer coders.

    Some beneficiaries of shareable components indexed and made available by Poplus include the German site Wahl-O-Mat, which helps voters figure out which candidates to back, based on their positions. The site’s name was the most searched term on Google in Germany last year, said Steinberg. Others include, the Malaysian version of FixMyStreet, and a site providing searchable full transcripts of city council meetings, named Philadelphia – Say It.

    In an interview after the session Steinberg said mySociety is also teaming with U.K.-based digital content and engagement consultant, to seek a small start-up grant from NominetTrust’s Social Tech Seed grant program to develop a pilot for what could become another shareable module.

    The idea, Steinberg said, is to be able to regularly filter from a menu of new online public documents by very specific criteria including locale but also factors such as whether or not they contain any of the names of the 100 most influential people in the city as determined by local news editors. Then only the relevant documents would be provided to users, who would have to review them to mine possible news story leads. However, the pre-filtering function would be quite valuable for resource-limited local news operations, Steinberg said.

    Similarly, news sites, advocacy groups and others can benefit from access to keyword-filtering of full public meeting transcripts, as is possible now in Philadelphia, Steinberg added.

    An independent but related project emerging from beta at the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo is called Digital Democracy. It would yield keyword-searchable full transcripts of California state legislative committee hearings, and using technology from MapLight, would also tie in to state campaign contribution data on legislators and lobbyists involved in deliberations and votes.

    The idea is to help shed light on why and how certain decisions – to advance or bury a bill, for example – are actually made. Simply watching the videos of the committee meetings, which is already possible, does little for anyone without an insider’s scorecard.

    Leaders of the initiative say the technology will be easily portable to similar projects in other states.

    This article originally written by Matt Rosenberg and first published 10/27/14 at The Open Standard was produced under a Creative Commons license allowing full free re-use for non-commercial purposes.

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