Tag Archives: Open Twin Cities

Sunshine Week focus on local efforts to make transparency happen

With good reason, Minneapolitans care about the health and welfare of their trees. Some wonder if the trees on the boulevard belong to the homeowner, the city or the Park Board. Residents can now learn this and more with a quick click on the City’s open portal, just one of scores of data files readily accessible online – and a taste of what is to come as the city expands the portal’s possibilities for data users.

Hopes and hype were high when the City of Minneapolis launched its open portal to data by and about the city. The expectation, if not the plan, was that inquiring minds would have ready access to massive banks of data essential to their work or personal lives. Though the endorsement of the City Council and staff is a commendable first step, the proverbial – and predictable – devil is in the details. Sunshine Week spurs us to capitalize on that first step – and to reflect on how we fulfill the promise of transparency and accountability as a goal for which the City and residents share responsibility.

For the past decade Sunshine Week (March 16-25) has challenged Americans to focus on transparency as the bedrock of our democratic government. During Sunshine Week we pause to reflect that the fundamental premise goes back to the nation’s forefathers whose vision was that, in a democracy, we the people – as defined in 18th Century terms – rule. To do so, today’s more inclusive “we” need to know what is going on with our government because we are the deciders. Life in the digital age calls for back-to-basics thinking about the idea of open government – the intent, scope, limits, barriers and mechanics of implementing systems that fulfill the promise and meet the real needs of the people governed.

In Minneapolis, the recent prominence of open data on the public agenda can be credited to a great extent to the work of volunteer coders, many working through OpenTwinCities, a local affiliate of CodeforAmerica. Their commitment and persistence raised public awareness to the point at which the staff and City Council launched the much heralded data portal. The measure of success of that portal is simple: the extent to which any user is able to find and use data created or collected by the city.

As has happened on a mega-scale with other open government launches, there were technical problems at the outset, glitches ably handled by City technology staff who moved quickly to the rescue. And there have been other problems, including some users’ dissatisfaction with missing documentation, the coder’s guide to how the data are configured. Of greater concern is the fact that, as use of the system expands, some City departments have not yet provided essential data; many more have been slow to eliminate barriers that stymie the seeker. By any measure it is clear that today’s portal offers promise, but not yet the full potential of open government.

The first principle of open government is the presumption of openness which means that government information belongs to the people, that limits to access must be assessed and justified; attention to openness must becomes the standard “pattern or practice” of city government. Further, it is essential that information seekers trust that the information by and about their government is not tainted by vested interests. Above all, data must be in a form and format that is both useable and useful; barriers to access – whether language or disability, lack of tools or skill, or fees – must be eliminated.

This requires a cultural change. On the one hand, elected officials and dedicated civil servants throughout city government are challenged to rethink their work. Cultural change demands that supervisors at every level reconsider their priorities and those of the workers they supervise. At the policy level it is the responsibility of elected officials to hold themselves and every staff member accountable to embrace the spirit of openness. Council members and their staff need to recognize and reward transparency as a strength of Minneapolis.

For our part we voters must place high value on a system that is committed to the presumption of openness. As Minneapolis residents we are challenged to rethink our role as information receivers – and providers. It is an unaccustomed challenge for us to play a dynamic role in the reconstructed digital environment that demands us to take personal responsibility to know the rules, to provide good information to the city, and to hold our elected officials accountable for the service we elect them to perform.

Traditionally, our responsibility has been to understand physical aspects of our city – safe streets, reliable utilities, wise investments and intelligent development. The digital age demands more of the City and of us as residents.

Transparency and accountability hold great promise for Minneapolis, a city whose residents have always embraced the challenge to learn, to share ideas, and to make decisions based on the common good. Our heritage and experience validate our high expectations of open government. In this digital age, knowing more about our City gives us an edge — it plays to our strength.





Real Digital Inclusion – A challenge for transparency advocates

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. Tim Berners-Lee W3C.

Some fundamental first principles:

1) The idea of digital inclusion is more expansive than we sometimes imagine; in fact, digital inclusion encompasses the right to appropriate access to the content made available through technology.   The distinction between availability and accessibility is at the core of the right of people with disabilities to receive, manipulate and share content.

2) Because the Web can either remove or erect barriers to communication and interaction the potential of today’s technology is radically and exponentially changed. Our thinking must do the same.

3) What’s good for people with physical and mental challenges will often enhance the lives of a broader constituency including seniors, people who live in remote or developing areas or who speak and read other than mainstream languages.

Because most of my waking hours are devoted to thinking about access to information by and about the government, the lens through which I see the world focuses on the inclusion of all as active participants in this democratic society. My mantra echoes the words of President Woodrow Wilson who reminded us that “government ought to be all outside and no inside.”

Thus it seems to me that Sunshine Week, March 15-21, 2015, presents a ready opportunity to connect the dots between digital inclusion and efforts to ensure the people’s right to know. Sunshine Week is a concerted effort by journalists and other open government advocates to shine light on the people’s right to know. (http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/blog/mary-treacy/thoughts-sunshine-week-2015-wwjmd) The problem: the unique needs of people with disabilities, and the potential of evolving technology to assure access, has remained in the shadows of the inclusion narrative. It’s time to connect the dots – to feature assistive technology as a key feature of the Sunshine Week agenda.

Clearly, advocates for open government must be in the front lines in the drive to expand the concept of digital inclusion to encompass the needs and potential of people with mental and physical challenges. Information by and about the government belongs to all the people; it is the responsibility of government at every level to embrace the potential of technology to remove barriers to access.

Linking the ideas and tools of assistive technology and open government is a poignant example of the challenge we face to create opportunities and incentives for new partnerships. In an era of warp-speed technological – and political – change, a world in which the web is pervasive, the stakes for users and government alike are great. The opportunities to learn and engage accrue to all concerned.

Last weekend I was able to participate in a workshop on assistive technology sponsored by Open Twin Cities and Hennepin County. There local and state accessibility experts described their accomplishments and hopes while coders shared ideas and skills to create apps that will assist people with differing abilities to navigate the enormous resources of the web. The energy in the group of nearly 50 enthusiastic coders engaged in a common cause was palpable.

Next step is for those who choose to drink more deeply of the Pierean stream to delve more deeply into the resources that Web access promises. At the risk of overload, here are some useful resources that can pave the way for those who want to further explore the how-to’s and why’s of web accessibility.

WAI – The Web Accessibility Initiative (http://www.w3.org/WAI/)

brings together individuals and organizations from around the world to develop strategies, guidelines, and resources. WAI engages representatives from industry, disability organizations, education, government, and research. The virtual door is open to all.

First Monday (www.FirstMonday.org) Started in 1996 this is one of the first openly accessible, peer–reviewed journals on the Internet, solely devoted to the Internet. First Monday is global in scope, indexed in a host of readily accessible reference sources.

Computers in Libraries (http://www.infotoday.com/cil2014/) The 30th Computers in Libraries conference is scheduled for Washington DC, April 2015. See also the journal of the same name. (http://infotoday.stores.yahoo.net/cominlibmags.html)

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Department of Economic and Social Affairs © United Nations 2008 -2015 (http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml)

When you’re finished changing, you’re finished!  Benjamin Franklin.






Capitol Coders Share Open Government Ideas & Apps

You can’t keep a good Minnesota activist down!  Saturday’s Capitol Code, initiated by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, drew a public-spirited crowd of open government enthusiasts who braved the slipperiest streets in the hemisphere to share ideas, tools and apps.  The free and open event at Uptown Cocoa was well organized by state staffers and Bill Bushey of OpenTC’s.  The buzz of the worker bees at Uptown CoCo offered a lively take on the information chain at work as data and ideas flowed to and from policy makers, data producers, app developers and the public.

It was a chance to view close up,  then reflect upon, the real-time evolution of the two disparate forces:  1) the two-way interaction between the government and the governed and 2) the marriage between information (the content) and communications (the exchange).  Putting these two forces together, it is clear that the challenge du jour is to create conditions that support the constant and mutually supportive role of information and communication technology to effectively achieve the shared goal to serve the public good of a democratic people.

The parallel paths of governance and technology are restructuring the world order as we the people blink in awe. Till now the public has watched the inextricable growth of the information and communications industries.  Policy makers and the massive structures of implementation they have shaped have struggled breathlessly to keep apace while citizens are lost in a sea of acronyms – technical and bureaucratic.

For the corporate world, it’s match between producer and consumer is as obvious as it is profitable.  Unfettered by the intrusion of the vox populi, the unbridled power of wealth swoops in to consummate the marriage made in heaven.  Policy makers concerned about the public good and hamstrung by the slow-moving wheels of government, may find the relationship more problematic.

Tough as it may be, it’s time for the people to get a grip on our unalienable rights and our responsibility to defend those rights.  It’s time to butt in.  Accepting the fact that our forefathers got it right about our democratic government being based on an informed people, we need to keep an eye on how that information flows.  We need to care about how the information resource on which we depend – as individuals and as a nation — is first produced, then made accessible to the voting public in a format that is useful and usable.  That means everything from how the research agenda is determined to the format of the message to the free flow of information to the preservation of the public record.

We need to tend to the sources of information and to the channels of communication.  Above all, we need to hold accountable those charged with establishing and enforcing policy, the elected representatives of the people at every level of government.

The bad news – it’s complicated – obviously, we need to understand the tool.  What’s more, we need to know something about the responsibilities and the power flow among the levels of government.  We also need to be paying attention.

The good news, we don’t all need to understand the intricacies.  There are squadrons of good government organizations that tend to the mechanics.

What we need to do is to keep a critical eye on the process and the watchdogs, including the media, and to hold the system as a whole accountable.   Though nobody said it was easy, the burgeoning crop of hackers who participated in this weekend’s Capitol Code can attest to the fact that it can be a lot of fun!


Ideas + Collaboration = Solutions at CityCampMN and Hackathon

If the mayhem in Our Nation’s Capitol does nothing else it does inspire one to face and possibly solve the problems right here at home – the little stuff that makes a difference in our daily lives, the sorts of challenges that people of good can and will work together to solve.   Civic-minded activists who see the possibilities in technology should seize the chance to participate in these related projects set for Saturday-Sunday, November 9 and 10.

CityCampMN 2013: Engaging Civic Innovations (http://blog.e-democracy.org/posts/2276) is an “unconference” for Minnesotans who want to explore “passion-fueled technology-enhanced civic ideas and solutions.”  The unconference, organized by E-Democracy and Open Twin Cities, offers a chance to connect “active citizens, community leaders, technology buffs and government officials.”  The project promises to be a unique opportunity for collaborative problem solving during which “the group will discuss and imagine how to use technology to strengthen communities and create more open government.”

CityCampMN is Saturday, November 9, 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM at the University of St. Thomas Minneapolis Campus, Schulze Hall.  Registration options are $10 guaranteed spot, open donation, or free (limited space lottery).  All include free lunch and reception.

Topics of the day are wide ranging, something for everyone:  open government, civic technology apps, online engagement, digital journalism, open data, visualization and analytics, tech for social justice and equity, neighbors online, digital youth empowerment, civic hacking, digital inclusion, social media for good, with room for new ideas from participants.  (WHEW!)

The following day, Sunday, November 10, the learning continues at “A Hack for MN Mini-camp” sponsored by Open Twin Cities (http://www.opentwincities.org).  The hackathon is at DevJam Studios (http://devjam.com/about/devjam).  It’s a follow up to the issues and ideas discussed at CityCampMN.

The events are open to everyone who believes that access to information is key to a vital community.  Non-techies welcome.

Click here to register online for either or both events:  http://citycampmn2013.eventbrite.com.




Minneapolis Candidates 2013: Assessing their Access Agenda

Open Twin Cities (http://www.opentwincities.org/) is an assemblage of local hackers with a timely cause – to harness technology for the public good.  The group involves geeks, hackers, public employees and activists willing to put their technological expertise – and political influence – on the line to make change happen.  Their current initiative falls into the latter category and meets one of the group’s goals: to “lead a public discussion on open data and civic technology.”

Members of Open TC’s have mounted an aggressive campaign to raise candidates’ awareness of the basics.  In a questionnaire sent to candidates for Minneapolis Mayor and City Council the group poses a lengthy list of questions intended to raise candidates’ concern for the implicit, even esoteric, details of what it takes to assure citizens’ access to downloadable city data, which is collected by, and for the public good.

The idea is basic:  the city, like every public entity, collects mountains of data about virtually every function of city government, from crime statistics to street repair, from public transit patterns to who uses water resources, from building codes to neighborhood development.  Historically, the massive data resources have been available but not accessible, i.e. residents need to make a formal request, and probably pay for, access.  Technology can either facilitate or create barriers for public access to public information.

The movement to make public data accessible has taken on momentum as groups such as Open Twin Cities have stepped forward.  Committed access advocates in cities throughout the nation are pushing public entities at every level to publish datasets on websites and data portals.  They are actively demonstrating ways in which a concerned citizen, neighborhood group, or activist can download and manipulate the information that belongs to the people in the first place.

It is axiomatic within the movement that action requires knowledge and commitment of decision-makers to make change happen.  Thus, the questionnaire to prospective elected officials (http://bit.ly/MplsOpenDataQuestions.) raises some probing questions that elected officials need to consider.  The mailing includes some FAQs for candidates who may need a review of the concepts. Results, due by October 1, will be posted and shared with the media.

The intent of Open Twin Cities is to raise awareness and to generate discussion.  It remains to members of the public to seize the opportunity to join the access dialog by letting the squadrons of candidates know that access matters to the voters and to their prospective constituents.  Concerned citizens need not know the mechanics or how to make access happen within the city’s labyrinthine structures.  The devil in the details remains to the experts.  What the candidates need to know is that information matters, that good information leads to better decisions, and that the public, armed for action, will build a better community.

The bottom line is simple: public information in whatever format belongs to the people.  The technology exists to conceal the information, to use it for internal purposes only, to let it lie fallow, or to give it life by putting it to work in the hands of caring residents.  Informed residents offer the best hope – the only hope – of solving the city’s problems.  Today’s challenge to elected officials is establish as a priority strategies to make good information accessible – useful – to constituents of good will committed, as every candidate purports to be, to the public good.




Visualizing Neighborhoods: A Hackathon for Good – May 25

For some Minneapolitans the forthcoming Neighborhoods, USA conference, scheduled to meet in the Mill City May 22-25 offers a grand opportunity to parade the city’s robust mix of healthy neighborhoods, lakes, parks, commercial areas, shopping opportunities and more.   For others, the harmonic convergence of NUSA with the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial North America (FOSS4G) makes a unique opportunity to heard on the complementary energies of attendees who just happen to be in Minneapolis at the same time.

The response:  Visualizing Neighborhoods: a Hackathon for Good, sponsored by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) and Open Twin Cities.  It’s a day-long event designed to gather neighborhood leaders, technologists, data visualizers, designers, artists, scientists, civil servants, and others interested in resources and techniques for using data to create vital neighborhoods. Focus is on data for research, analysis, mapping, outreach, engagement and communication.

The day-long (9:00-5:30) event is at the Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall.  Registration required – no registration fee.  Lunch will be available for registered attendees.

To register or to keep abreast of information and ideas as they develop, click on the event site:  http://visualizingneighborhoods.eventbrite.com.  The roster of attendees is lengthy, but planners advise those who may be interested to keep checking.





Hacking Our Way to Good Government

As a profession, hackers are getting a well-deserved image these days of leaks and invasion of privacy.  Still, there are Good Hackers, those erstwhile folk who use their design, coding and analysis tools for good.

A stalwart cadre of hackers committed to open government are far from daunted by the bad press.  Instead, c.apitalizing on the media blitz, these committed transparency advocates are going all out to hack for open government.  They are currently at work on plans to sponsor the 2013 International Open Data Day Hackathon.  It’s scheduled for  Saturday, February 23, so there is not a moment to lose to envision, design, code and implement tomorrow’s tools of access..

The International Hackathon is a gathering of citizens in cities around the world whose goal is “to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data.”  The intent is “to show support for and encourage the adoption of open data policies by the world’s local, regional and national governments.”

Local government info geek and their fans are at the ready.  Open Twin Cities and Free Geek Twin Cities will host an open data Hackathon from 10:00 a,n,-6:00 p.m. on February 23.  The Hackathon action will be at 2537 25th Avenue South.

Local planners are sharing the word that “everybody is invited to help us build applications that curate and use Minnesota data, or to learn about open data and civic technologies.”

Anybody who is planning to participate in the local Hackathon should RSVP via Meeetup.  Follow the planning discussion on the Open Twin Cities Google Group.

The promotion pitch is to anyone who has an idea for using open data, who wants to find an interesting project to contribute, learn about visualization or analyze data, or simply who wants to see what’s happening.  Statisticians, librarians, designers, developers and members of the public are all invited.  The promoters are an inclusive group, saying  “we need ideas, cheerleaders, and friends to spread the word.”