Some Thoughts Toward the Maturation of the Civic Innovation Sector of the Technology Industry

I saw this blog post by Derek Eder of DataMade last week and it made me feel good that we are taking steps over at OpenGovChicago to have some concrete discussions about  IT procurement in the municipal government of Chicago.

Almost invariably, when one looks at things more closely— as the people of Chicago should expect when the government is spending their money— things are more complicated and less glib than it first seems.

Over the last few years (we’re not a new movement anymore) we’ve had lots of great examples of innovations in the display of civic data but less innovation in the complicated tasks of collecting, managing, and publishing civic data. In order to move forward as a movement, the existing enterprise systems have to be better.

That means it has to be easier for tens of thousands of City employees enter data from across hundreds of miles of area, easier to pull data from systems in fluid & secure ways, easier to upgrade existing systems, and so on. We need to break the cycle of enterprise IT, where large companies with proprietary systems equate a one-time contract with an evergreen source of revenue. In short, we have to apply the principles that we hold dear— openness, loosely coupled systems, quick adoption of new technologies— to government IT.

But the civic innovation sector of the technology industry must mature if we want to take part in this change— to force it to happen. Currently, we’re playing around the edges. We have to move from our nascent non-revenue stage into sustained impact. That means forming real companies, creating products with revenue models, and, yes, getting business insurance and hiring accountants to create things like audited financial statements.

Here are some basic observations I have about the current state of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry as it relates to government IT procurement and systems:

  • In an effort to build a supportive community, grandiose proclamations in the civic tech world are habitually high-fived and retweeted with very little analysis or fact-checking. A main thrust of this bravado is the conflation of the *display* of data & information with the far more expensive and complicated tasks of collecting, managing, and publishing data
  • “Government IT procurement” is not a synonym for “Government IT systems”, though they are often conflated. Gov IT procurement currently does little to encourage innovation in civic tech. But w/o existing legacy gov IT systems, there would be no civic tech. The data we use for our civic tech projects doesn’t get collected, managed, and exported by itself
  • There’s often a stunning lack of appreciation (not in the “gosh, you’re awesome” sense, but in the “gosh, I can’t do anything without you” sense) for city IT systems in the civic hacking movement
  • In order to move from our nascent, non-revenue, anecdotal impact stage, the civic innovation sector of the technology industry must mature. That means forming real companies, creating products with revenue models, and, yes, getting business insurance and having accountants to create things like audited financial statements

I look forward to talking  more about this on Thursday!

Monthly Parking (A Short Play by Daniel X. O’Neil)

Scene: There is a small but growing fire on the top floor of a parking lot in the early morning  cold in the downtown area of a major city.  (Actual address: 191 North Clark Street). There are seven or so fire engines, alarms going off, and a steady stream of grey smoke pouring out of the building. A parking lot employee drops pylons in front of the entrance. He works with the urgency of a person responsible for a building that is currently on fire. A Range Rover pulls up in front of a fire engine. An extraordinarily well-dressed and well-coiffed middle aged man gets out of the vehicle, moves the pylon,  and starts to get back in his vehicle. Another middle aged man crosses the street, pointing to the smoke.

Alerter: There’s a fire in that building. (points at smoke)

Range Rover: What?

Alerter: There’s a fire in the building. It’s on fire. (points at smoke)

Range Rover:  (not  looking up, getting back in car) I have monthly parking here.

Alerter: (moves the pylon back in place) But the building is currently on fire. The fire department needs to do their work in there.

Range Rover: I’m putting my car in there and then I’ll leave. (moves the pylon back in place, pulls up to the gate, is unable to enter. Swears.)

In Praise of Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka, one of the most important American poets of the last century, died today in New Jersey.

By nearly all accounts, including his obituary, Amiri Baraka was a difficult person. But I loved his words, and his crankiness, and the beauty with which he stitched them together.

Notwithstanding— or because of— the fact that rejected entire swaths of American life with enormous vigor, he was a distinctly American poet. The pounding, staccato rhythm of poems spoken out loud. The rising, sped-up, indignance that is prevalent in discourse  everywhere. The belief that language could be messed with at any time. This is who we are. He was one of us.

I like difficult people. I always try to learn something from those who say ugly things, things I hate, things that make me cringe. Humans aren’t simple, and I like people who make me know that more closely. Make me feel something I might not want to. Amiri Baraka was a master at this.

Evidence of Ascension in America, Even When Only Half of Us Are Looking

I listen to Fox News on my Sirius XM radio while driving to and fro from Winfield. I consider it something of an intelligence-gathering  mission from the fact-based world, the one where we seek out the truth and take steps to understand it. I also seek to understand the roughly half of my country that aligns itself behind the thin theories that ring there.

So I know the special place that the Benghazi attacks have for the people at Fox News. For them, Benghazi is everything. It is the alpha and the omega of the Obama administration. It is the most popular player in their Fantasy Impeachment league, the one that exists in their stunted minds.

So I was stunned and surprised to see so much ink, and what appears to be such an enormous amount of reporting time, that went into the NYT reporting on A Deadly Mix in Benghazi. It is some of the most thorough, detailed, cited, minute-by-minute tick-tocks I’ve ever read in those pages. It’s unimpeachable, so to speak.

And no one in NYT-Land cares at all about this story. It is not in the top 20 viewed on emailed stories on the site. Nobody cared out there.

It’s a top story on Fox News, though. Because if this story is right, half of their news is wrong. Half of their editorial policy is wrong. So they spend a lot of words doing shoddy followup (unidentified witnesses, compound sentences with indeterminate noun clauses, etc.)

The cool thing is that nothing in the Fox report contradicts the reporting of the NYT whatsoever. They say it was a coordinated attack, and so does the NYT (their timeline starts with photographic surveillance hours before the disturbance). They say “The bosses on the ground were pointing, commanding and coordinating”, and so does the NYT.

Whenever they disagree on a point (like whether the main suspect was affiliated with Al Qaeda), the NYT has dozens of documented interviews with the suspect and people who have known him since he was a child. People who have lived with him in prison.  And Fox has an unidentified source saying ”…There is literal evidence in many forms and shapes, directly linking him.”

Literal evidence!

I feel the momentum of America. It’s evident everywhere. In gay rights legislation, in Boehner when asks about who’s kidding who, even in the acquiescence to a Pope who demands we love one another. Everyone.

Evidence everywhere.