When Knight Tackles Citizen Engagement, Open Gov Gets Cool


Getting thousands of people around the world to brainstorm innovative ideas for a new start-up or a new consumer product is easy -- just check out Kickstarter or Y Combinator or any given business plan competition. But innovative ideas around tools for government? That's a bigger challenge. There aren't a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs who say "I dream of ditching my day job to start a government tools app in my garage."

But leave it to the Knight Foundation to turn that paradigm on its head, and engage 3,500 people in developing ideas to improve how governments interact with citizens. In just a few weeks, Knight has sought out ideas and need statements, and then welcomed more than 800 submissions from nonprofits, individuals, and companies around the globe for better tools for open government.

At Phase2, we don't participate in a lot of grant competitions -- we're a services company that funds most of our innovation and product development through an internal R&D budget. But the Knight Foundation combines innovation, social good, and technology in a way that really resonates with our core values as a company.

And the subject of open government is near and dear to us. Our work on projects like Georgia Gov and FEMA, and our open source Drupal distribution OpenPublic have helped us learn the ins and outs, challenges and triumphs of moving toward a more open web for government at every level. So for this challenge, we engaged on three projects that we think are really exciting opportunities in the open government space:

  • Beyond 508: a proposal to take the accessibility testing work that we've done on some of our largest federal site builds, and automate it for a larger audience of cities, states, and municipalities seeking to make their websites more accessible to the 54 million people with disabilities. This project is championed by our own Catharine McNally, a web accessibility leader and our resident expert on the subject.
  • OpenFOIA: an open source FOIA request and fulfillment application, where we are partnering with the Open Forum Foundation to create this innovative tool for the much needed challenge of fulfilling transparency requirements in government. Open FOIA will provide a public-facing interface, a back-office FOI request management system, and a document repository.
  • Anywhere Ballot: a responsive, accessible ballot application, where we are partnering with Design for Democracy and the great team at Oxide Design Co. to take their incredible work on ballot accessibility to the next level with a “ballot in a box” tool that local governments, nonprofits, and citizen orgs can use to create ballots, hold elections, and see results in an accessible, trusted way. Catching the attention of The Atlantic Cities, the Anywhere Ballot has been named one of the "12 Fresh Ideas for Transforming the Places We Live With Open Data."

This week, thousands of citizens will comment, ask questions, and engage on these and the other 819 projects submitted to Knight's challenge. We encourage you to lend your support, applause, and comments and questions to the projects that you believe will "improve the way citizens and governments interact."

And in the meantime, way to go Knight. You gave open government a seat at the cool kids table.

Karen Borchert