Civic innovation organizations to watch in 2011

From Code for America to, 2011 could be transformative for open government.

What lies ahead for Gov 2.0 in 2011 is worth watching, whether it’s international, federal or in states. Given the growth of citizen engagement platforms in 2010, expect more of the same in 2011. One of the most fascinating areas to track will be the evolution of smarter cities. Readers of the special report on smart systems at The Economist understand what “living on a platform” will mean. The technology landscape looks like a hybrid future, with the adoption of new cloud computing platforms from corporate giants like IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, Siemens and Google alongside the efforts of civic developers using open source components and smaller, scrappy startups.

Picture taken and posted to by Abhi Nemani, Code for America’s director of strategy and communications.

Philip Ashlock, open government program manager at OpenPlans in New York, concisely pointed out four key civic innovation organizations to watch in 2011 in a single tweet recently. 2011 trends have been on the docket this month, so his pointer fit right in. If there’s a civic surplus to be applied to smarter government, look for players from these organizations to apply it. Anyone interested in open government, open source software and civic entrepreneurship should keep an eye on the work of the following initiatives in 2011.

Code for America

In his inaugural address in January of 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” In 2010, the question has been updated: ask not what your country can code for you – ask what you can code for your country. Toward that end, Jennifer Pahlka has empowered developers to become civic coders through Code for America. The nonprofit allows some of the brightest technical minds of this generation to create applications that will help government deliver better services to citizens. It offers its fellows a new kind of public service.

Code For America has begun its work to create better government through code. Its first slate of projects were introduced late last year in a webinar, embedded below. Last week, Code for America kicked off, with great coverage in Fast Company and others. For some insight into what’s happening, read Pahlka’s report from Day One or Dan Melton on following the data, iterating and the $1,200 problem. [Disclosure: Tim O’Reilly is on Code for America’s board.]

Civic Commons

The Civic Commons code-sharing initiative is an effort to reduce government IT costs. Around the United States, city governments have created a multitude of software. Unfortunately, most of the time the code from those projects has not been shared between municipalities, which results in duplication of effort, and redundant or static software.

Civic Commons, launched at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington last year, is aimed squarely at helping city governments share the software they’ve developed. Like many civic innovation projects, the idea is relatively simple in conception but tricky in practice: track, archive, improve and re-share code developed by cities for use in other municipalities.

At launch, CivicCommons catalogued existing projects like the District of Columbia’s App Store and the Federal IT Dashboard. The long-term goal of the project, according to its founders, is “to develop the app catalog into an open ‘Civic Stack’ — a streamlined collection of software that cities can use to run core services.”

As 2011 begins, CivicCommons had some news: the city of San Francisco open sourced its enterprise addressing system. As Karl Fogel explained at

EAS is a web-based system for managing the city’s master database of physical addresses, tied to assessor’s parcels and the City’s street centerline network. We posted a short screencast of EAS in action a couple of months ago, and since then there’s been a lot of interest in it from other jurisdictions.

Keep an eye on the evolution of CivicCommons as more technologists come on board and cities become aware of the resource. is a new public resource in the Gov 2.0 world that’s set to launch later this month. The free, open source web application is based on, the nonprofit-backed website for tracking the United States Congress. will serve a similar function for state and local governments.

OpenGovernment is a joint project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. The beta version of will launch with information for five state legislatures: California, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, and Wisconsin. The nonprofit is actively seeking funding to expand to all 50 U.S. states and major cities.

OpenGovernment is also looking for a “few good civic coders.” (See a theme here? To quote Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, “developers, developers, developers.”) Here’s their pitch to the open government community:

We’re open-source to the core, evangelists for open standards, and activists for liberation of public data. We’re building the site in Ruby on Rails and we’d love your help — our code is available now on GitHub, and please join our brand-new Google Group to stay in touch. Our limiting factor isn’t ideas, or a lack of valuable government info to make accessible, but rather web development time — we have a huge wish list of data & features for this open-source community site, so let us know your skills & interests. We hang out in #opengovernment on

Read more about our projects, we’re easy to reach and eager to talk — don’t forget to sign up for our low-volume email list above. We hope you’ll help us grow and bring user-friendly transparency to every level of government, including your local community.

Urban Scale

Urban Scale brings another important focus to the virtual table: design for networked cities and citizens. Smarter use of technology is important, but good design is crucial for citizens to be able to navigate urban labyrinths, untangle regulations or understand critical instructions in crises. Designing for how people live and work is a crucial lesson from Web 2.0 for Gov 2.0, and it’s one that Adam Greenfield, the founder of Urban Scale, has clearly internalized. Greenfield, previously head of design direction for service and user interface design at Nokia and lead information architect at Razorfish Tokyo, founded Urban Scale to “bring a user-centered approach to the design of urban architectures.” You can read “Urban Computing and its Discontents,” written with Mark Shephard, as a PDF.

The @urbnscl Twitter account is proving to be a skillful curation of ideas and news related to urban design, with links to traffic indicators, DeConcrete (“everyday urbanisms without architects’ architectures”), a “parker app” from StreetLine Networks, and turning a city into an equation. With a core focus on the design of bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, data visualization for that class of services they call “citizen intelligence engines” and data collection from sensors deployed in public space,” UrbanScale and — similar urban design shops — are worth watching.

Editor’s Note: As Greenfield pointed out in the comments, UrbanScale is a business, not a nonprofit like the other organizations here. The open question might be whether an organization involved in “civic innovation” must inherently be a nonprofit, particularly at that size. If you have thoughts on the matter, please share them in the comments.

More to come

There are no shortage of other civic innovation organizations to watch, in addition to those listed above.

OpenPublic is a distribution of the open source Drupal content management system specifically tailored to the needs of government. OpenPublic comes from the Phase2 Consulting Group. There’s going to be a lot of focus on Drupal in government in 2011 (read up on moving to Drupal here at Radar) and this community and distribution will be one to watch.

Open Source Cities, slated to launch in the first quarter of 2011, will focus on “citizen urbanism,” ecological design, urban planning, open data and collaboration. Follow @Open_Cities on Twitter for updates.

GovHub is a new nonprofit out of Portland, Ore., that’s focused on “providing government agencies, non-profits and developers a place to collaborate on open source software.” Yes, that sounds a lot like what Civic Commons does or what Github provides right now, on some levels. And yes, the proposals for a “” could result in the creation a government open source repository. It’s worth keeping an eye on GovHub because of its location within Portland’s dynamic open source community.


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