National Day of Civic Hacking; My View From Seattle

On Saturday, May 31, 2014 – I was given the opportunity to give a presentation at the Code for Seattle, National Day of Civic Hacking event in the Bertha room at City Hall. It was a fun opportunity and reminded me that the secret to public speaking, like other things is practice, practice, practice. I m always really excited to see so many people willing to spend there time working to make their community a better place. Here’s a summary of my presentation.

Where do you start when trying to make a business out of a civic hacking project?

My lens for determining an appropriate business model is to look at a civic hacking project as existing somewhere on the spectrum between a purely policy problem and a purely business problem.

Policy problems are likely educational, informational, or transparency related, and they represent the bulk of problems being work on at civic hackathons. These are things like open data portals, writing an open data policy, visualizing public data: broadband availability, bus routes, affordable housing, etc.  Sometimes policy problems become business problems.

A great example of a policy problem is the current wave of open data portals. These are more focused on transparency and creating an ecosystem in which public data is consumed to create more citizen engagement, more economic value, and better government. Nevertheless, once an open data portal is launched, a very real business problem is created, and that problem is maintenance and upkeep.

Policy problems are typically government and citizen-focused and are solved and monetized when:

Governments –Executive or Legislative leaderships adopts a solution to a particular problem through some method of direct sales of product or services to sustain a business.

Citizens – Similar to the online news industry, some combination of a paywall, events, ads, and grants are used to extract revenue and sustain a business.

Business problems are transactional in nature. They are: collecting parking fees, paying taxes, Line of business systems (email, document management, ERP, hosting). Business problems can become policy problems when they fail to function correctly (e.g.

Business problems are typically government and commercial sector-focused and are solved by procurement and sales through one of three variations of the Software as a Service model (Open, full-service, and traditional) and Data as a Service (DaaS).

The pdf from my presentation can be found here:

Download (PDF, 605KB)


p.s. I’m always happy to discuss this via phone, or coffee. So please don’t hesitate to contact me:

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Benefit Of The Doubt: The Sweet Spot For Government Technology

About a year ago, someone asked me if their SaaS startup company, that does business with government, should go open source. I said something along the lines of, “No it wasn’t completely necessary. There are other ways of competing, but there are many advantages for open source, including the benefit of the doubt.” The reality is that there are many reasons you may want to operate in what I consider to be the sweet spot for government technology.

If you are currently or preparing to be in the software business with the government, federal, local, state of international, you should be aware that the procurement process is broken. This is the reality, and even though there are some very bright people working on it (Clay Johnson, Elon Musk, and more…) you should be prepared for navigating a process that at times will seem arbitrary and capricious. As a former federal employee who sat on multiple procurement panels I can assure you that, at times, the process doesn’t look any better to those of us administering it.

The best way software startups can do business with the government is to hack your customer. New, Fast, Novel, Innovative, Efficient, Agile, Leading Edge are all ways to describe technologies that have an appeal to technologists. These aren’t just buzzwords you can slap on your latest version of #OpenJoomla. These, despite there over-use, are values that hackers and technologists use to describe technology that they are passionate about. These are technologies they lose sleep over because of the possibilities. These are the technologies that solve problems. These are what your customers want.

Knowing that, what’s the lowest barrier to adoption to get you product in your customer’s hands? You can either hire business development “rain makers” to attempt cold calls, sponsoring conferences, mailers and social media campaigns with the eventual goal of navigating procurement (all methods I witnessed first hand), or you can give it away for free through one of two open source business models:

  1. On the Web; license your products free for non-commercial use, while charging commercial customers.
  2. On the Desktop; offer your product open source, with some sort of HaaS model along side it (see VC funded mapbox).

So what do you have to gain for this?

No sales means no RFP, and the process stays in the hands of the technologists for a longer time. This means that while your competitor lobbies the budget office for an RFP or agency tries to set up a process to buy a product, your product is already in-use. This means you have more time for internal buy-in from the people who matter; the every day users of your product, and in the end this makes you more likely to win any eventual RFP.

Growth Hacking. There are government technologists doing incredible things with data, mapping, visualization, and competitions.  While these aren’t the enterprise line of business systems that generate billions, these would represent the core of an innovation focused CIO’s agenda at any fortune 500 company. So even if you aren’t making money off of a government client, you are developing success stories, case studies, and examples, of your product, solving problems, in an extremely challenging business environment, all while building a user base of evangelists.

Many government executives, especially those with budget authority,  think of technology as a cost center, instead of being a cheaper and more efficient way to deliver services. Government is increasingly turning to open source, because budgets are getting thin and much of the civilian side of the government is understaffed, especially in positions of critical need. This open model of commercialization gets you in the door, and earns you the benefit of the doubt.

p.s. This article is a stub, if you want to help me build it out contact me:

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Open Data Platforms Versus Master Data Management Solutions; Public Versus Private Sector Approaches To Data

As the former program manager for the open source version of, I know this space, and I’m very interested in seeing Open Data, as a civic good or service, grow. That being said, I’ve wanted to write this for a while, and for various reasons I haven’t, but NDA’s withstanding, this is what I have to say. As it stands there is a massive gulf between the way the public and private sectors approach data.

In the public sector, the main emphasis and point of discussion has revolved around open data platforms. Products like: CKAN/DKAN, Junar, Socrata and more focus on delivering searchable data catalogs to users. These users are mostly civic hackers, but presumably anyone could navigate to, search through the data catalog, find a dataset through metadata, and use that dataset to solve some curiosity, policy or business need, like data visualization or an app.

CKAN and Socrata are the dominant open source and closed source applications in this niche. They have similar capabilities, but other than their business models, they are roughly equivalent. They both act as the endpoint, where data gets published, to the citizen. They both rely on 10’s of thousands of volunteer civic technologists to build an app ecosystem to fully deliver their value proposition.

Whether a government or agency uses the above products or less comprehensive solutions like FTP or github; this niche, the delivery of free data to consumers with no commercial reciprocity, is an inherently governmental problem.

In the private sector, the main emphasis is master data management solutions. Companies like IBM, Informatica, Oracle, Microsoft, SAP, and Talend. These are enterprise level products built for data warehouses, and the essential problem they solve is, data governance, making sure that when many different people and teams are performing business intelligence functions within an organization everyone is pulling from the same version of the data.

You can read more about some of these products in this Forrester Report, or more about how master data management works in this excellent paper (from 2006).

Whether a company uses an enterprise level tool, or something smaller master data management is that tool that enables a company to empower middle managers by decentralizing decisions. This is that unsexy, but necessary component to fostering innovation in large bureaucratic organizations that feed off of data. This may not lead an organization to develop the next iphone, but it surely will help them develop the next pop tart.

The key problem in the public sector of creating data and publishing data is different than the private sector problem that most companies focus on (e.g. how can I understand my customers and potential customers better). Nevertheless, government needs a product that addresses the master data management problem, and that problem isn’t likely to be one of the above mentioned private sector solutions. That problem, as it stands, is also not solved by CKAN or Socrata.

What will be the result when government embraces tools to allow better master data management and business intelligence functions, when decision making in government is centralized by design? Who knows. As it stands, there are three different companies that I’m aware of looking to solve this master data management problem from a government perspective. I wish them luck.

p.s. This article is basically a stub, if you want to help me build it out contact me:

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The Culture Problem And Government

After receiving a 150 million dollar investment from Peter Thiel, Brian Chesky of Airbnb asked for the single most important piece advice. Thiel’s response was simple, “don’t fuck up the culture.”  Brian describes culture as the key allowing creativity and innovation to flourish at Airbnb, beyond technology, process and even his lifetime in this terrific article.

Culture, especially in technology companies, as an enabler of innovation allows risk taking, and emphasizes the values of the Agile Manifesto.

Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools
Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation
Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation, and
Responding to Change over Following a Plan

As Dave Thomas has already written, Agile is dead, what remains is how much an organization values Agility on a spectrum. After all, “everyone is doing agile” these days.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to the government, how it’s operating, and how many of my friends and former colleagues are working to create that culture of innovation. Pulling and dragging it to the left hand side, despite it’s intentional design to be more like the right side.

It’s easy to see why the government has developed to favor the right hand side. Every few years leadership changes and with it much of the culture.  What remains is the civil servant, many of whom prefer the security of process over the whims of individuals and interactions.

We’re two years away from a leadership change; I hope the new culture sticks.

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5 Lessons From Standing Up This Blog, Again

It’s been a while since I’ve had both the time and inclination to write. In the meantime, a lot has changed. The last WordPress site that occupied this space had been hacked and ruined. At any rate, I want to start creating content that isn’t 140 characters, my resume, or family and friends oriented. This was my process:

Step 1, what do I have now? After evaluating the hacked wreckage of a WordPress site I long abandoned, I discovered my database been corrupted (my wp_user table had been deleted), a common problem in abandoned sites. After a brief search for methods to repair I decided that deleting it all starting from scratch was the way to go.

Step 2, should I just update my old technology? I poked around my webhost, erasing superfluous user accounts and databases, before locating the one-click install, and finally with a few clicks it was done, or so I thought. I ended up repeating the process of erasing and one-click installing a couple of times. My host’s delay in completing a process made this painful, which left me with plenty of time to look for something else.

Step 3, what’s trendy, and what’s new? In the last two years, Github, at least in government circles, has moved from a way for developers to co-create code, to a way to collaborate on documents, to publication platform. It’s very hip to use github to solve problems, every problem, even weddings.

The fact is that several technology leaders I look up use Github pages as a publishing platform, and when making technology decisions, I always try to follow the best. So I started looking for a great template to fork.

Step 4, what are my actual requirements? I stood up pages a few weeks ago, but I left it unfinished. My second glance today, left me as discouraged. I wanted out of the box, fast, lite, clean, easy to update, and my search left me disappointed. What I found, were good snippets of solved problems; examples of headers here, well done pagination there, social media links and rss feeds. What I wanted was all of them, in 10 minutes.

Thinking about what I needed. I realized, I could either spend a day or more forking, and hacking together blog functionality in pages, or I could just go back to WordPress and it’s legendary 5-minute install.

Step 5, when is good enough good enough?  The latest version of the on-click install worked. The next step was to add a few plugins, and find a clean theme, and presto, I’d be done. What I found as I searched through themes were lots of bloated “feature rich” themes with “responsive” drag and drop menus all over the place. I finally settled on the pilcrow theme for now, just to get this up and running.

The process left me thinking that WordPress is far different from when I started tinkering with it in 2007, but it’s good enough for now. I’m going to have to take another look at pages, maybe building up features is better than stripping them down. In the meantime, here are some of my lessons learned.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  1. Maintaining technology is costly and necessary
  2. Technology is both a marathon and a sprint
  3. Good technologists copy, Great technologists steal
  4. Trendy and new doesn’t matter if it doesn’t solve your problems (but sometimes it’s worth it anyways)
  5. Sometimes the devil you know is best

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Heartbleed Bug Underlines The Strength And Weakness Of The Open Source Business Model

Unless you were hiding under a rock last week, you’ve probably heard of the heartbleed bug in OpenSSL  that exposed around 17% of the internet’s secure servers to an exploit. What I find remarkable about this, isn’t the bug or it’s far reaching impact, but the fact that OpenSSL is being supported by an organization of  5 people, 4 full partners and 1 affiliate (not including volunteers). That’s 5 people responsible for a protocol that supports over 500 million servers, which is many if not most of the websites I visit on a daily basis.

Heartbleed aside, it’s amazing how successful they’ve been at solving a fundamental problem on the Internet, aka how to have a secure transaction, since 1998. Nevertheless there comes a point when shared vision, idealism, amazing technology, and even community don’t deliver. Luckily, the money guy (his joke) from the OpenSSL foundation has put out a request for help in funding 6 new positionsWhile I doubt it will be, I hope at least one of the new positions is a director; someone dedicated to securing funding,  marketing, and even shamelessly promoting the OpenSSL Foundation and all the wonderful work they are doing.

I know that’s not very “Open Source” of me. I know it’s antithetical to how many open source projects start, as just a few friends and acquaintances working to solve an interesting technical problem together. I know “the real work” is code reviews, and that the moment a non-technical person starts poking around, the party’s over.  Nevertheless, at some point, you need to incorporate other people with other skill sets, like fundraising, design, marketing, product development, etc. At some point, when your technology takes over the world you have to adjust otherwise you become a victim of your own success.

P.S. The Open SSL Software Foundation can be donated to here.

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Transportation Lessons For Civic Hackers From Portland

In a recent conversation with fellow Seattleite Sid Burgess from, we discussed the direction and needs of civic data, and how the open data movement can, is, and is not fulfilling its promise. A key walk-away for me from that conversation was that technology products have to solve real business problems.

Put another way.

If technology products solve business problems, then the people with those problems will likely pay for you it.

Not every civic hacker is doing it for a full time job, and not every project has to have to earn revenue to be successful, as many of us see civic hacking as a way of getting involved with our community, in a high impact, low red tape environment.

Nevertheless for people who are looking to transition from volunteer/hobbyist to pro you should take a look at what GlobeSherpa has done. They built a simple, clean app, which allows people to buy tickets and ride Portland’s public transpiration. Since launching in September, 2013, there have been 1 million ticket purchases through that app, with half of those purchases happening in the last 3 months (hat tip to GeekWire).

One the one hand this growth doesn’t compare to the mobile gaming app market, on the other hand Portland was the city that Google partnered with to help launch the public transportation data schema that dominates the U.S. and other markets. So that’s 1 million tickets in Portland in 8 months now, with an eye toward the U.S. public transportation market tomorrow, with its 10.5 billion trips per year tomorrow.

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What Makes The National Broadband Map #Gov2.0?

This is a copy of the post I wrote while working for the NTIA on the National Broadband Map. The original post can be found here.


What makes the National Broadband Map #gov20?

On January 21, 2009, President Barack Obama, in a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, directed Federal departments and agencies to promote public trust through transparency, public participation and collaboration. One of our goals in launching the National Broadband Map (NBM) is to effectively embody those three principles.

Here are some of the ways we are doing so:

The National Broadband Map is transparent.  For example, we provide information on the source of each part of the dataset and how the data were collected. We take a soup-to-nuts approach towards publishing this “data lineage,” beginning with access to the methodologies that each state grantee developed to describe its data collection and validation processes. We include lists of the broadband providers that volunteered data in each state and those that are still working on it. The National Broadband Map also provides information detailing how NTIA and the FCC integrated, evaluated, and mapped the individual state datasets. Finally, the data described above come alive on the website itself through features such as search/findranksummarize and map. And if you want the data for yourself, are all available via API or direct download.

The National Broadband Map is participatory. In fact, we are actively seeking your participation. When you search for information by address, we want you to tell us whether you have access to the specific broadband providers and/or maximum advertised speeds listed (feature coming soon). If your provider isn’t listed, we encourage you to let us know. More importantly, every bit of crowdsourced information, positive and negative, will be available to the state grantees that are collecting and updating the data. Grantees will be able to use your feedback to expand and improve their next dataset, which will be updated every six months.

The National Broadband Map is collaborative. Thanks to an unprecedented partnership among NTIA, the FCC, all 50 states, 5 territories, the District of Columbia, and more than 1650 unique broadband providers, the National Broadband Map is the most comprehensive telecommunications dataset ever released by the government — and we’re just getting started. This Federal-State partnership isn’t solely intended to produce the map, however; the map is part of the State Broadband Initiativedesigned to create capacity and facilitate the expansion of broadband throughout the country. We’ll continue to highlight the work of these efforts to plan, coordinate, and accelerate broadband deployment and adoption across each state, and encourage you to get involved.

So what really makes the National Broadband Map #gov2.0? You do.

Andrew MacRae
Program Officer, State Broadband Initiative
National Telecommunications and Information Administration”

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The Executive Branch Goes Government 2.0; Now What?

With the launch of we are seeing significant efforts by the Obama Administration to finally start bridging the technology divide between government 1.0 and government 2.0, but when it’s all said and done there’s a lot more to web 2.0 than mere technology. After all, it’s really about the conversation that the technology is supposed to help facilitate. Conversation is something that the government seems less apt at than even the most archaic corporations for many reasons, and in the end I fear many conversations will end with “because it’s the law that’s why”. (Read point number 20 on Steve Radick’s 20 thesis for Gov 2.0)

Whether the EPA, OMB, or IRS is using YouTube, Flickr, XML, Google Maps, etc. the real value for citizens is getting the information we need in a timely and accurate manner. APIs can be expected to enable a better digital user experience by leaps and bounds for citizens. Nevertheless, the most crucial element to citizen engagement is not the information we receive from the government, but how the government reacts to the information it’s getting from us. Will our questions, comments, and concerns to the executive branch be aggregated, considered, and responded to? Or, will bureaucrats treat citizen comments with little regard? Will this alter the way we interact with the Executive Branch? Instead of being administered by the Office of the Presidency with oversight by Congress, will the Executive come under increasing account to the people? Finally, as citizens and watchdogs are able to evaluate government performance under a better microscope, how will this effect the Legislative Branch’s constituent services?

I look forward to this “change” and what it can bring, but I don’t believe that a website can’t replace a community. Nor can it replace the neceessary conversation between the people and our government. In the meantime is a great first step to rebuilding our social capital.

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