A Roadmap for Open Government Apps on Drupal

Today we are hosting the OpenGovDC conference, an event for government stakeholders who want to better understand—or build—technical platforms that support open government using open source tools. This is one of our main passions, preparing government to make great technology solutions that cost less and create more for the public good.

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Today we are hosting the OpenGovDC conference, an event for government stakeholders who want to better understand—or build—technical platforms that support open government using open source tools. This is one of our main passions, preparing government to make great technology solutions that cost less and create more for the public good.

This event will, among other things, provide us an opportunity to reflect back upon the Open Government Directive which required that executive departments and agencies, and the public sector as a whole, consider four steps to improving government transparency and achieving open government goals including:

1. Publish Government Information Online

2. Improve the Quality of Government Information

3. Create and Institutionalize a Culture of Open Government

4. Create an Enabling Policy Framework for Open Government

These objectives are why we built OpenPublic, and why we created it the way we did. We wanted to provide a tool set that was easy to setup to make government sites with these types of features. We also wanted to make simpler, clearer and less redundant sources of public information on the web.

This week the White House announced plans to have Vice President Biden work with a new Government Accountability and Transparency Board, a group composed of independent inspectors general and high-level agency officials who will help root out waste, fraud and abuse across the government. Interestingly, one of the main areas they have targeted is redundant websites. I couldn't agree more that the Federal government is better served with a few hundred great websites than a few thousand lousy ones.

When we created OpenPublic, we set out to build a completely open source platform that could help public sector organizations achieve this using open source. What we learned in the process was the importance of re-use and consistency: solutions that are replicable, that prevent duplication of services, and that provide examples of best practices that could be repeatable.

Our method of instilling consistency for OpenPublic users is a module concept called Apps. Like the "apps" you've come to know on your smart phone and computer, OpenPublic Apps feature discreet pieces of functionality packaged with the necessary dependencies and configurations to implement a specific purpose quickly and easily. This keeps the installation of the OpenPublic distribution lightweight and performant, while allowing organizations to choose the functionality most useful to them or to try out new functionality that they hadn't yet considered.

The value of Apps is threefold:

1. it's functionality that's cheaper and easier to implement,

2. represents best practices, and

3. represents an opportunity to try out "best thinking" and innovation without heavy risk or cost of implementation.

Apps are not fundamentally different than the concept of Drupal modules and layer upon the functionality made available through Features, a way of developing fully-featured and highly functional modules.

We see that as a "transparency multiplier"–a way to achieve transparency and open government goals in multiple ways, with one simple concept. While we have envisioned many apps that might play into this framework, our current order of business is to build a set of OpenPublic Apps in the spirit of the Open Government Directive, which when installed, make a killer Open Government site. Specifically, here's what we think needs to be in that set of apps and an inventory of what we have so far.

1. Access to public officials via an Open Staff Directory:

Knowing who to ask about what is central to the public's understanding of their local, state, and federal government creates accountability. OpenPublic's "profile" feature allows sites to create a directory of staff and leadership. We're retooling this feature as an App, to make it more powerful for those who need it, and removable for those who don't.

Status: Beta complete (in OpenPublic), to be released as app

2. Access to Public Documents with public comment:

Publishing government documents online is important to many agencies and organizations. But making them available for public comment can make them truly "open." OpenPublic's current "document" functionality achieves part of this goal, but we're working on an app to allow for more public participation.

Status: Beta complete (in OpenPublic), to be released as app

3. A mechanism for Public Idea Generation

We cracked this one with the Ideation app co-authored with Development Seed, which is being customized and utilized by public sites now like the Department of Education. (As a side note, the OpenPublic community site will use this as well)

Status: Beta complete, released

4. Data Visualization through Open Source Mapping:

Making data simple to find, visualize, and understand is key to open government. Again in partnership with Development Seed, the Project Mapper app makes that possible. See it here in action.

Status: Beta complete, released

5. A FOIA Assistance Dashboard:

Improving access to government information can be helped with a streamlined FOIA request process, electronic reading rooms, and other improvements. A FOIA app will make that possible.

Status: Alpha underway, unreleased

6. An Open Data Catalog:

The large amount of data being published by organizations needs to be accessible and available in both machine and human readable formats. An App that allows staff to create, manage and publish data sets while also providing the tools for people to access this data is underway that will mirror the functionality of Data.gov.

Status: Alpha underway, unreleased

7. A tool for Public Petitioning:

It's a simple way to make one's voice heard and to generate a campaign of public value, and it's time to bring it to public sector web sites. We're working on a petitioning tool now that we'll add as an App to OpenPublic.

Status: Planned, unreleased

So while members of the public sector are considering the components of their open government plans: transparency, participation, collaboration, and public involvement. Increasingly, they're finding that the tools they need to achieve this need to be modular, extensible, flexible, open source, and most importantly - simple to implement and use. That's why we've committed to this first set of Apps to get started with. We believe they can help organizations achieve the Open Government Directive and fulfill its spirit, so that's what we're building today.

In general, we envision a lot more categories of apps emerging. Some will provide access to commercial solutions and others will empower "one click" tools to improve the quality of public sites for accessibility, SEO, multi-lingual translation and many other needs. To move this concept forward, we've put together a pilot group – organizations and firms interested in building specific functionality for OpenPublic, and who are willing to test out the Apps module and documentation and give us feedback on what's going well. If you missed inclusion in the Apps Pilot Group, and are interested, please contact us right away.

Jeff Walpole

Jeff Walpole