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An Effort to Bring Open Source to Government Faces a Major Change

BY Nick Judd | Monday, February 13 2012

One of a very few large-scale experiments in how to apply open-source technology into government will largely be put on hold.

Civic Commons, a non-profit created to foster use of open-source technology in government and to encourage governments to release the software developed on their behalf for peers to adapt for their own uses, will become part of Code for America, another nonprofit initiative that brings Web 2.0 technology teams to city halls around the country, CfA announced on Friday. The most experimental aspect of Civic Commons was its work as a sort of openness sherpa for governments, helping them build software that can be shared and reused by other governments as well as adapting the work of other cities rather than contracting out for duplicate systems from scratch. That work will be discontinued for the time being, CfA announced.

This marks a new turn for a group of open-government and technology advocates hoping to make cities better with technology, part of a unique and ongoing effort to find out what works and what doesn't when the worlds of the 21st-century tech sector and marble-floored city halls and statehouses collide.

CfA will continue to maintain another aspect of Civic Commons, Marketplace, which is a platform for tracking which software is being used by which cities and giving technologists the opportunity to compare notes. Going forward, CfA Director of Strategy Abhi Nemani will be the project manager on Marketplace.

Civic Commons is also the current home of Open311, a standard specification that now sees wide use in cities' non-emergency call centers and allows for third-party applications to interact directly with the data, plotting incident reports or adding incident new ones. Its de-facto community manager, Philip Ashlock, will continue working on Open311 through his role at the civic technology development shop and people-centric urban planning and policy group OpenPlans. CfA and OpenPlans cooperated last year in incubating Civic Commons until it was ready to become more of an independent organization.

The shift comes as Civic Commons reaches the end of its current funding and most of its leadership moves on to other projects.

Its current head, Nick Grossman, is leaving to head up a new issue advocacy organization intended to campaign on behalf of "networked innovation," he told me. The as-yet-unnamed group will work on issues that are relevant to emerging technologies, startups and innovation — things like patent reform, an already-proposed change to investment rules that would allow micro-investment, and issues around open data and open government, Grossman told me.

Civic Commons' Karl Fogel will move on to start a consultancy and will continue working with the Open Internet Tools Project, an effort to support open-source, secure, anonymous, reliable, and unrestricted communication on the Internet. Civic Commons' former head, the onetime Google executive and White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin, left Civic Commons last year to join Tumblr.

"When you talk about an open source project, the best outcome is if the instigators wind up leaving for some reason the community can take on the effort, and that's one of the things we're going to see around Civic Commons," Grossman said, adding that bringing the organization back into Code for America's portfolio had been in the offing for some time.

Code for America is tabling Civic Commons' consulting and outreach work in part because it has so many other efforts on its plate: The organization is also trying to develop an incubator in San Francisco for civic-minded startups, and is separately hoping to foster a community of technologists that extends beyond its own paid staff.

"I think we're just trying to be smart about what's a realistic growth rate for an organization," Code for America's executive director, Jennifer Pahlka, told me Friday. She said CfA will return to Civic Commons' outreach work after its other projects have developed.

But the work that's being postponed was also a difficult aspect of Civic Commons' mission. One of its earliest efforts to open-source government code — the Federal IT Dashboard — proved difficult, said Andrew Hoppin, an advisor to Civic Commons.

"The IT Dashboard code turned out to not be reusable even though it's open-sourced," Hoppin told me. "It was written so specifically for the federal government and its particular financial reporting, workflows and outflow," he added.

Pahlka and Grossman said that Civic Commons being folded into Code for America was not a function of available financing. But Clay Johnson of Expert Labs, a CfA advisor, says that as donor behavior changes, other projects may be forced to adapt.

"I think this year, 2012, is really gonna be the year where the organizations that are shipping continue to get funding and the organizations that do not, don't," Johnson said, "especially because donor money is going to be in part attracted to stuff that can impact the election."

Disclosure: Personal Democracy Media's Andrew Rasiej is also on the board of advisors for Code for America and Civic Commons.
This post has been corrected to clarify Karl Fogel's ventures going forward.