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New Grant to Open Legislatures, Make Cities More Interactive

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, October 2 2012

The people behind OpenCongress will hire a developer to build out a local-government version of their legislative tracking platform and the social network for civic projects ChangeByUs will get significant upgrades as the two biggest recipients of $1.3 million in funding announced today by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

As part of its Tech for Engagement program, Knight awarded $225,000 to the Participatory Politics Foundation for its OpenGovernment.org project, a state-level version of OpenCongress, to be further developed to work for local governments. CEOs for Cities will receive $590,000 for improvements to its Change By US project, which allows citizens to share and suggest ideas for city improvement projects.

OpenCongress developers the Participatory Politics Foundation will use the funding to implement sites that will allow people in Philadelphia, Penn., San Jose, Calif., and Washington D.C. to track city legislation and legislators, send emails to their city lawmakers and connect with other people over bills and laws, explained David Moore, executive director of PPF. In addition, the platform will be rolling out new engagement tools on those local sites.

As an example of the issue the project is trying to address, Moore gave the example of New York City's local government online presence.

"New York City is doing pretty well with open government. The New York City Council website gives some information on bills and who people are," he said. "But it's not easy to get a social sense of what's really happening in the City Council. For that you have to go other places, like a local political blog or an issue group like Reinvent Albany. This information is still siloed, and even when you can understand what's going on, you have to go to a third site to share an update on social media or sign on to a campaign or petition."

What distinguishes the new project from other platforms is that "we're bringing in official government sources and putting a social layer on what's happening in government," Moore said.

He explained that he chose the three cities for the project because they had existing open data sources. Philadelphia has OpenDataPhilly, which was a Code for America project now maintained by Azavea. San Jose has an open government initiative to make public records available, such as what is the most viewed meeting agenda. And Moore hopes launching in the West Coast will bring more attention to the idea of an improved law-tracking experience on the web.

"Being active in Silicon Valley will bring Open Government a lot of visibility," he said.

All three cities are so-called Knight Foundation Communities where the organization has had long-term funding interests. In a blog post, Moore noted that in contrast to the state legislature platforms, the city platforms will likely have an increased focus on meeting agendas and reports rather than legislative bills.

The three city platforms are expected to launch in spring 2013, Moore wrote in the blog post.

CEOS for Cities will use its funding to upgrade the Change By Us platform, which is active in Philadelphia, New York City and Phoenix, according to a Knight press release. Using the platform, citizens can propose local projects, recruit volunteers and become eligible for mini-grants. The next version will allow projects to crowdsource funding and will be integrated with Facebook, with the goal of making the platform easier and more affordable to be adopted by more cities.

DailyFeats.com, an online application and website aimed at helping people take small steps to achieve their goals, received $236,000 for a project to encourage people to do more for their communities. Good360.org received $250,000 in Knight funding to expand its program of connecting corporate donors with nonprofits to incorporate wish lists, the ability for nonprofits to seek financial support from their social networks and to share impact stories.

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