Friday, June 25, 2010

Philly Software for Citizens Brainstorming Meeting - Thoughts

So, before I forget what happened, over the next couple of days I have to record my thoughts on the brainstorming session that took place tonight at IndyHall.  I'd normally post this kind of stuff on a more personal blog, but this was, after all, a public meeting.  Forgive me if the thoughts are a little stream-of-consciousness.

In my final analysis, I think that the meeting was valuable. I think some useful ideas came out of it. However, I think the next one won't be quite like it. The next thing that comes should be more action oriented. Maybe for a project. I have to contact the other people who were present and see what they think, and get some other input too.

  1. Firstly, I have about zero experience in open meeting facilitation. I just want to put that out there. Many issues below were exacerbated, if not caused, by this fact.
A digression: I'm often a little disheartened (though no longer surprised) at the demographics of the community. Though, don't get me wrong; I'm extremely thankful to those that did attend and participate (it is not presence, but absence that I lament). We had a few people come out. They were parts of (though not necessarily representing) various groups—city council, a civic platform, a neighborhood association, Drupal developers, the press. That was great. However, I wish that, more often, an equal showing of women, or a proportionally representative showing of all people were at these things.

So what happened?
Anyways, here's the statement of what I wanted to talk about:
I want to consider what we'd need to create a community that encourages engagement with the wider community, fosters developer and designer innovation around software for citizens, and participates in ensuring that the software can get made and that people—all people, or close to it—can use it.
In reality, we spent a lot of time all over the place (see #1 above).  I think for most of the time we were touching on (or at least around) the "ensuring that the software can get made" part, in the form of discussing government data and what strides were being made in opening it up.

We also talked a bit about the question of what [non-government employed] citizens' roles could be in assisting the process of getting the government to a point where their records (our records) were digitally available, even internally to the government. Councilman Green mentioned that part of the problem is the volume of data that the government receives in paper format.  For example, for tax return data, they require that six fields are input into an electronic system.  However, the tax return forms have 20 fields (e.g., SIC codes are not recorded).  Each piece of information that is not transcribed, for whatever reason, into a database is essentially lost (though I'm sure that reams and reams these papers are filed away somewhere).  So, the only way we can get to providing electronic data is to require every submission to the city to be electronic.  I think the gist is that it is a nearly intractable problem to have completely open electronic data when all the inputs, at the volume of inputs that a municipal government has, are not electronic.  It's just too easy for things to be lost in any analog to digital data transformation.

It makes some sense, though I'm not completely sold.  I think governments can get hi-fidelity enough, just by doing things like recording all 20 fields on the tax return (why would you record only 6?  why ask 20?).  However, I do agree that, for the sake of efficiency, data should go in electronically as well, and I believe it should be stored somewhere in a lossless format.

However, it still doesn't really address the question of what citizens can do.  I wish we had better answers.

Green did bring up examples of other states that require departments who are going to be doing "this stuff" (by which, I assume, he means improving their information infrastructure) to have an overall RFP, but to also break down each segment of the task so that people can apply for individual parts that they excel at.  That way the departments aren't only comparing monolithic proposals, but can also compare more piecemeal. This also allows smaller, local folks a chance to get some of the project money, as opposed to relying on the same large contractors that all cities around our size rely on.  Now, to be honest, I wonder whether this works.  While departments may be saving money, I would imagine that the coordination of projects like this across contractors costs a significant amount of time and effort.  But it's an idea.

It was certainly a mixed blessing to have Bill Green at the meeting. He was able to field a lot of questions about what's going on in the government with data, which is nice.  He's a very knowledgeable guy, and seems to be involved with a lot of potentially beneficial efforts in the city government.  However, since he was there to answer those questions, much of the conversation revolved around data (of course, I didn't help—see #1).

At some point some discussion on the use of data came up.  Who would be the main beneficiary of opened government data and why? Academics (Urban Studies, Political Science, Buisiness, ...) who use it to do comparative analyses and publish papers?  Citizen watchdog groups who might keep government honest?  Who else uses government data?  This is actually one question I've shied away from many times.  It's a hard question (particularly in light of the reality of relatively low civic involvement in Philadelphia).  It reminds me of a quote I heard from one of the PdF talks this May:
In defense of cities ... I think the responsibility is ours to show the more entrenched factions of the cities that are not letting go of the data where the use is, that there's a huge hacker community right now that's interested in cities.  Some subset of them are interested in it because it's just a brand new set of data, not because they're interested in cities per se.  And I'm worried that we need to move beyond the sense that just having the data solves the problem.  Carol Coletta of CEOs for cities made a comment a couple months ago that "if you listen, you'd think that you could fill a pothole with data.  Just pour it in, smooth it out, and fix your problem."  Basically, what I'm saying is the tougher nuts to crack in city government, I think, need to see tangible examples of the benefits, savings, efficiency ... So, part of the responsibility is ours.
John Tolva (at about 1:45)
At the meeting, someone suggested (similar to Tolva in the quote above) that perhaps the best way to discern what data to use and how is to:
  1. Choose a couple of simply defined problems,
  2. Determine what is needed for solutions, and
  3. Go from there
And that may be what needs to happen.  Perhaps, in Philly, instead of getting people together to talk about what we can do, I (we) should just get people together to do it (and figure out exactly what it is along the way).

Technical Disconnect
Another thing that was discussed was the communication gap between neighborhood associations (at least the one we had represented) and developers. This actually reminds me of another idea that a friend of mine brought up to me (and I'm sure others have had this idea as well) of some kind of jobs site for local neighborhood organizations looking for technology solutions. Seriously, there are many professionals out there that have jobs and are looking to donate a few hours a week (or at least work for minimal pay). It would be a relatively easy service to set up. The difficulty would be in the rest of the execution.

Would it be like a jobs board? Jobs boards work well when an organization knows what it wants a potential employee to do. With neighborhood associations, it's often the case that they don't have knowledge of what specific technologies could be applied to solve their issues. They just know that they have an issue. So, maybe it should be more like an issue tracker. Where someone from an organization could go and describe their issue, have it discussed, and eventually assigned and resolved. There would have to be good documentation on how to write an effective issue report—include a descriptive title (not "WE NEED HELP!"), methodically structure the report (something like: (1) current process, (2) what goes wrong, (3) what should happen, and (4) maybe a proposed solution), try not to harp on specific technologies for solutions, etc.

Issue: Center City residents don't know about CCRA events
Posted By: The Center City Residents Association
More Information:
  • Current process -- CCRA plans meetings and events
  • How it breaks (undesireable outcome) -- neighborhood residents don't know about events
  • What should happen (desired outcome) -- neighborhood residents should be informed of (and maybe even RSVP for) events
  • Proposed solution -- A CCRA community calendar online
(I don't know whether this is an actual issue the CCRA has. It's just an example)

I like an issue tracker better than a jobs board because it allows for interactive formation of solutions. With a jobs board, you have "i need this" to which someone replies "ok, i can give that to you", and that's it. With an issue tracker, people can request specific additional pieces of information, propose and comment on potential solutions, etc. That's all appropriate for this instance because it's not just technical skill that the creative community can provide, but also best-practices advice on how to use tech products.

Now, in addition to the site (this is that execution part), I think there should perhaps be a get-together every month or two for people who post issues to the site (general public folks) and developers who address issues on the site. If there's no face-to-face community around this stuff, it's just gonna be that much more difficult to maintain. This wouldn't have to be a formal thing. Maybe part of it could be like a show-and-tell for things that have gotten done through the site. Like at the end of GiveCamp. Except with alcohol, and with fewer seats. And more mingling.

So, how does this help build the community?
  • Community Engagement: Philadelphia organizations are provided a place to go and discuss technical problems with professionals/volunteers. Also, the happy-hour thing reinforces the connection between tech and the city.
  • Developer Innovation: It provides a way for developers (be they full-time employed or not) to get involved with community issues. The issue-tracker format allows a structured, but open-ended approach to finding solutions.
  • Political Advocacy: I'm not sure it necessarily covers any technology advocacy areas. Whether it would require any opening up of technology depends on the nature of the issues presented. It's possible that an issue might require (or benefit from) some as-yet unopened data, or extending tech access to an underserved group, but I don't know. This also doesn't prescribe a way of dealing with those issues if they were to come up. Have to think on that one further.

"North Philly needs Kiva"
One idea that came up that I wish we had returned to (my bad—see #1) was the "North Philly needs Kiva" comment.  This is certainly provocative (in that it draws inspiration for a Philadelphia program from a model that is effective primarily in so-called third-world my knowledge), but nevertheless, it's an idea worth pursuing. Or at least thinking about.

I mean, let's do this for a second. Let's call it "Phiva" (terrible name?).

First of all, there would be a large amount of coordination involved in this: between neighborhood business associations, lending coordination institutions, etc. The creative community should probably not shoulder it all, but should be there as consultants for as much of it as possible.

It would be nice to get input from the Philly community-at-large about the idea, how they might use microfinancing if it were available to them. To get this kind of information we might go to local business centers in the areas that would be most served by these microloans. I'm thinking places like the Enterprise Center in West Philly. I don't know an equivalent in other neighborhoods, but that could be looked into. We could either try to get information on how microfinancing would be used from them, or we could ask them to hook us up with some contacts from the community from whom we could get the info. Again, the creative professionals/volunteers involved shouldn't necessarily have to become experts in microfinance institutions, but they should get a good idea of requirements (technical and social).

So how does Phiva help build community around civic software?
  • Community Engagement: Hopefully it would prompt interaction between developers/designers and maybe community business associations or something.
  • Developer Innovation: As a specific project, it would require developer innovation to implement. However, it wouldn't in-and-of-itself foster an increased capacity for developer innovation within the creative community. It would be a hell of a thing at show-and-tell though. It might encourage people to get involved with other projects.
  • Political Advocacy: Things like Kiva work to shift the power relations in society. I like that. In terms of technology advocacy, however, I'm not sure. I would hope, though, that it would at least further the conversation about how access to technology is often access to opportunity.

Really, Phiva wouldn't be something that I'd look for the developer community to come up with on their own. perhaps it would be something put into the issue tracker.
Issue: Small West Philly businesses are unable to obtain micro loans
Posted By: The Enterprise Center
More Information:
  • Situation: West Philly businesses look for loans
  • Undesireable outcome: They cannot qualify for large loans, and don't have access to smaller ones
  • Desired outcome: They have access to loans in the amount they need
  • Proposed solution: Phiva

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