Coordinating Open Technology among Public Agencies

The Civic Commons network is an effort to provide a permanent, sustainable organization to assist public agencies in the adoption of open systems and collaborative technologies, and to coordinate the co-creation of these technologies among agencies to ensure interoperability and shareability. Civic Commons will provide infrastructure, knowledge, and toolsets to government entities, and encourage the development of shared “civic software” and protocols, and supply optional technical infrastructure (such as data and project hosting) as needed.


Public agencies rarely have the organizational capacity to do collaborative development of technology projects in concert with equivalent agencies elsewhere. As a result, the same piece of infrastructure is often purchased repeatedly, and the same technology projects are redeveloped over and over again by staff in many agencies. This lack of coordination not only leads to duplicated effort, it propagates incompatible technologies and inconsistent interfaces.

However, recent efforts have begun to address these issues.

Trimet and Open311 Examples

In 2005, the Trimet transit agency in Oregon reached out to Google and others to integrate their transit schedules with online maps. This endeavor led to the development of the General Transit Feed Specification, an open standard that has allowed transit agencies everywhere to release their schedule data in an open and interoperable way. The open standard has led to a proliferation of transit apps (see, availability within online mapping platforms like Google Transit, and new open source applications to interface with the data. Going one step further, Trimet worked with OpenPlans and others to better leverage this data by creating an open source trip planner that could be shared and co-developed among many different transit agencies.

Not many public agencies are as forward thinking as Trimet, and even those who are must rely on partners to help disseminate the work, build community, and mediate collaboration with others. Another example is the adoption of the open, standardized, and participatory Open311 service, leading to the GeoReport v1 and v2 specifications.


But more is needed to scale and sustain these efforts. For example, there has been little to no coordination to establish standards, open technology, or collaborative tools for engaging with city-level legislation or for connecting with the most local of government representatives. Likewise, little has been done to establish standards or open source solutions for civic knowledgebases and other platforms where interoperability and cross-pollination between communities is key to providing value. Even public agencies that are eager to share source code or standardization efforts often lack the capacity to release their work in ways that are easily reusable by others.

As many observers have remarked (see #References), the challenge at hand is beyond the scope of any one organization. We now need to build a larger and more permanent network of organizations to help sustain collaboration among public agencies.


The core activity of Civic Commons will be spearheaded by a small group of dedicated facilitators and community managers from partnered non-profits who engage with public agencies, and by interested parties at the public agencies themselves. The network facilitators will work to better cultivate and steward a communities of practice by developing shared information resources and coordinating technology initiatives among agencies.

Civic Commons’ approach is to:

  • Actively discover common needs, put the right people in touch with each other.
  • Serve as a long-term repository for best practices and tools that don’t have an obvious home at a more specific agency. (For example: template language for procurement requirements and RFPs, so that civic procurement staff in different agencies don’t have to re-invent the same language over and over.)
  • Provide references and discoverability for information that does live at more-specific agencies. (For example, it is not Civic Commons’ purpose to become the home of the GeoReport v2 specification; that spec already has a home, and Civic Commons will refer to it there.)
  • Provide legitimacy where appropriate, by serving as a stable home for efforts whose initiators cannot necessarily guarantee long-term institutional backing but who have an opportunity right now.
  • Never get in the way. For efforts that are already successfully under way, Civic Commons’ role is to be an information exchange, to provide discoverability, and to provide advice where needed, not to set up barriers or process requirements.

Specific technical dialog will be delegated into working groups focused on individual technology projects, standards, and best practices. Civic Commons’ role is to bring together the right people and entities to work together on a particular standard or project – that is, to facilitate, rather than to arbitrate.

Civic Commons will be a proactive network with targeted engagement and facilitation. This means that network facilitators will maintain a birdseye view of many public agencies and will often act first to seek engagement. As third-party catalysts, the network facilitators will identify opportunities for collaboration on open technology among agencies. Such interventions will help:

  • Amplify the efforts of individual agencies and steer their projects toward reuse
  • Pull projects towards the adoption or creation of open standards
  • Build necessary open source and open network components

Open Source Development

Interest and involvement in open source development spans an increasing range of public agencies. Some are interested in cost savings, some in avoiding technological lock-in, and some in developing better solutions through collaboration with other agencies and with citizens. There are a number of sophisticated public agencies that do their best to follow open source methodologies, but may of these are unable to manage the overhead involved in building and maintaining a community, or in adapting their work so that it can easily be reused by others.

Civic Commons will partner to scale the efforts of organizations like, e.g., Open Source for America and Code for America. Specifically, Civic Commons will:

  • Provide guidelines and workflow for agencies who want to share their own code or want to use and contribute to open source software;
  • Organize tools to convene and facilitate broader developer communities working on open source civic software;
  • Coordinate the hands-on work to generalize code so that it can be used broadly among many agencies;
  • Provide curation to ensure that the quality and maturity of a codebase is clearly communicated;
  • Orchestrate support and maintenance of code by working with network partners who have open source expertise;
  • Convene multi-institution developer communities around specific areas of opportunity for ongoing collaborative software innovation;
  • Play a role in the planning and build-out of government clouds, app stores, and web services;
  • Facilitate legal guidance for concerns around open source licensing or policy.

Much of the challenge in leveraging the opportunity for collaborative development is matching common needs with collaborative partners or identifying solutions that already exist. With this in mind, Civic Commons will implement a more strategic way to coordinate opportunities for collaboration on civic technologies. This includes:

  • Providing broader exposure and cross-pollination of RFEIs and RFPs with opportunities for public comment, and suggestions for appropriate tools and approaches;
  • Highlighting tools that agencies need, but are unable to budget for and therefore do not produce RFPs for;
  • Mapping and categorizing the the virtual space of government IT and civic applications with an emphasis on areas that can be better leveraged by collaboration among citizens and other agencies.

There is also a huge need to aid in the discoverability of existing open source projects. Civic Commons will establish curated catalogs of open source civic projects with information about agencies and other institutions that support each project.

Standardization & Best Practices

In addition to facilitating open source development, Civic Commons will help establish standards and best practices. This includes everything from shared vocabularies and data standards to more robust interoperability frameworks, collaboration methodologies, policies, and general guidelines for information technology.

The process of documenting standards and best practices as well as developing new ones will be delegated into working groups focused on specific issue areas. In many cases, these groups already exist, but there is not enough coordination between groups and there is no centralized listing of existing best practices, standards, or working groups. The Civic Commons will provide this higher level coordination and inject community management resources in important efforts where needed. Like the open source software curation, there will also be a library of existing or coalescing standards and best practices. Specific resources that Civic Commons will focus its stewardship around include:

  • Civic and urban information systems design to aid the evolution of a cohesive body of civic code and APIs (the way the Kuali Foundation works can be an example for this);
  • Constantly-updated guidelines for engagement with social media within public agencies;
  • Events to convene multi-institution developer communities to coordinate areas of opportunity for innovation and increased interoperability of civic information services;
  • The development of specific data standards for civic technology with an emphasis on tools that facilitate civic engagement and feedback such as Open311;
  • Model contracts and RFPs that emphasize open standards and open source to ensure interoperability and long term sustainability as well as to thwart vender lock-in;
  • Success metrics and analysis to measure different criteria with an emphasis on increased participation rather than just efficiency and performance;
  • Answers (and maybe solutions) to common concerns about potential liability when distributing code;

Technology Categories

  • See Civic Software for a full list
  • Public transit tracking
  • Trouble ticket systems (bug/issue tracking, e.g. SeeClickFix). Plugs into Open311.
  • Geolocated citizen services (e.g., Open311/GeoReport).
  • Decision-making process information (simple legislative, public meeting notice and agendas eg. PublicMeetings.Info)
  • Constituent Relationship Management Software (NY Senate’s CiviCRM aka “Bluebird”)
  • Content Management Software (NY Senate’s Drupal Workflow)
  • Legislative Information System (Bills, Meetings, Agendas, Committees, History, etc. - eg. NYSenate Open Legislation System on NYSenate GitHub
  • Mobile app for Legislative Information - iOS (iPhone/iTouch, iPad) and Android, soon Blackberry - (simple, mobile interface to legislative information systems - eg
  • […]

Government Associations

Government associations that may be interested in Civic Commons. (Most in the US, for now, but should expand.)

  • NAGW National Association of Government Webmasters
  • NASCIO National Association of State Chief Information Officers (includes Washington D.C.)
  • National Academy of Public Administration - Contact Lena Trudea (Tim or Karl)
  • MIX Metropolitan Information Exchange (not to be confused with, which offers document scanning services).
  • NACo National Association of Counties
  • US Conference of Mayors
  • CIO Council
  • ICA - Contact Frank McDonough (reference Steven Clift)
  • Colorado Government Association of Information Technology. “We are a group of public sector Information Technologists. The group meets every other month to promote state-wide and regional cooperation. In addition, we convene at two conferences a year to discuss a wide range of topics and share ideas on how to improve technology solutions while saving money.”

These are places where there might be useful resources to point to, and in which to make occasional announcements. The usual “don’t spam” reminder: targeted announcements, on-topic for the particular group or forum. Check also the #Government Associations lists.