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Mission #2 Identify Needs Find out more...

Make government monitoring projects easier to re-use

Groups shouldn’t require a small army of savvy developers in order to launch useful government monitoring tools in their communities. These tools should be designed, documented and shared so as to make re-use easy.
There are many examples of civic technology projects that are easy to re-deploy: Code for America’s Adopt-a-Hydrant, OpenPlans’ Shareabouts and mySociety’s FixMyStreet to name a few.

In the case of government monitoring websites, however, there is relatively little re-use. As Tom Lee of the Sunlight Foundation writes, “the more specific a project's use case, the harder it is to generalize its adoption.” Government monitoring websites tend to be designed specifically for one jurisdiction’s legislature, making it difficult to re-use in others.

However, all democratic jurisdictions have much in common: they have *people* who are elected into *positions* in *organizations* (like a legislature) and who are *members* of other organizations (like a party or committee). The organizations publish *documents*, such as agendas and bills. The organizations have *events* like a meeting or the reading of a bill.

The above entities that make up our democratic institutions are fundamental. It is possible to abstract the common functionality of each. For example, not all jurisdictions have bills with earmarks, but all jurisdictions have a name or label for each bill.

In other words, there can be a lot more re-use of government monitoring and engagement tools than there currently is. Imagine the following possibility:

  • A community group without any technical expertise uses mySociety’s PopIt to manually build a database of politicians and their positions in their local city council
  • A member of the group visits, an app that allows residents to ask questions in public to elected officials, and that publishes their answers on its website
  • They paste the URL of their group’s PopIt instance into a sign-up form on
  • The community group instantly has their own Question-and-Answer app for their local council

This should be easy, but it can only happen if the creators of government monitoring and engagement tools adopt common standards for representing the fundamental entities in government institutions.

The idea is to come up with those standards, so that:

  • open government groups like the community group above require less technical expertise to deploy useful government monitoring tools
  • larger groups who *do* have technical expertise can spend less time reinventing the wheel and more time creating new, innovative tools for citizens
Ellie's profile photo
Inspiration submitted by: Ellie Marshall
February 15, 2013, 12:55PM
294 views 12 comments 9 applause Applaud
Mission #2 Identify Needs Find out more...


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February 15, 2013, 03:29PM
I really like your message Ellie. We need to lower the barrier to entry for developers by creating a foundational, all-purpose open-source (imo Affero GPL) platform for creating government monitoring tools. As you say there are certain entities all democratic republic governments share. Legislation, constituents, officials, candidates, groups, committees (a type of group), events...

Then there are different functions we would typically want these platforms to do such as let users share a Vote (a binary Yes or No response) or a Stance (a response with any number of possible responses, including Yes or No). Also users should be able to make a profile for themselves and message other users, create a group themselves, etc....

Can you refer me to a webpage or message board that is actively trying to develop government monitoring platform open standards? If there are multiple websites you know of where this discussion is publicly happening, I'd appreciate you linking me to each of them. If you don't know of any, or any that are adequate for your goals, want to start one?
Ellie Marshall's reply to Mitch Downey's comment
February 15, 2013, 03:37PM
Open North (the non profit James started and I work for) is working with the Participatory Politics foundation to develop "Popolo" an open standard for government monitoring at the local level. You can check out where we are at on Popolo at

Open North will be using Popolo to launch a government monitoring platform called in three Canadian cities later this year. We have more information available at
James McKinney's reply to Mitch Downey's comment
February 15, 2013, 03:42PM
Hi Mitch, in terms of mailing lists, discussions of open standards often come up on the Sunlight Foundation's and the Open Knowledge Foundation's mailing lists:!forum/fifty-state-project!forum/sunlightlabs

One group that is actively authoring standards for open government is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)'s Government Linked Data Working Group: For example, their organization ontology is very good:

I think it's best to try to keep discussions in the existing forums, to avoid fragmenting the discussion too much :)
Mitch Downey's reply to Mitch Downey's comment
February 17, 2013, 01:58PM
Thanks so much for this list James, very helpful.
Mitch Downey's reply to Mitch Downey's comment
February 17, 2013, 04:51PM
James, since you have been helpful and are familiar with the discussions in the Sunlight Foundation's and Open Knowledge Foundation's mailing lists, I'd really appreciate your input on the question below, which I left as a comment in the "Federation of government monitoring tools" thread.

"I'm sure money is the reason these sites haven't been integrated yet, and I totally understand and am sympathetic with that barrier. My bigger concern is that I have not yet found evidence of these sites even discussing the possibility of integrating their overlapping services, and federation will never begin to happen without that conversation.

It is entirely possible however that this conversation is happening and I'm just not close enough to open gov to know about it. Can anyone recommend some articles, videos, or posts that talk about federating the existing government monitoring services?"
February 15, 2013, 02:05PM
I agree Ellie.

One issue we all know but, is worth saying for context, is that in a competitive capitalistic society we're in a mentality of may-the-better-app-win. My city had a challenge recently where of the eighty or so projects entered about seven were mobile city problem reporting tools (i.e. reporting potholes, graffiti etc.). Yet, there are myriad of such apps already in place around the nation. Ultimately one of these apps won the challenge.

Another issue is that our municipalities are all under different levels of technological sophistication. An app that works great for one city won't work in another because their database is incompatible. Or, the cost of implementing is too great. Or, resistant municipal staff won't consider the options.

I know CodeForAmerica has their Civic Commons [] which I believe serves the purpose of cataloging apps and resources. Also, I understand [ is working on identifying the many layers of local governments [].

I too am very interested in reducing the amount of duplication but, for the first statement, having many people competing to build the best widget is great - but, will result in a lot of duplication and incompatible data and systems... not easy to spread across the nation easily.

We also have to assess our existing data systems and that in and of itself is a warning that this is a very deep pond.

It is interesting to see the direction many are taking - assessing the current status of our nation from a data systems perspective.

My hope is we then begin dreaming about how to put all these pieces of the puzzle together _because_ there are many benefits to doing so. Perhaps we need to have another group start here... what are the benefits of a more common system?

It seems pretty obvious that 40,000 municipalities with different computers, databases and interfaces yet, with American citizens who pretty much care about the same things, is a bad model. The easy part is most Americans probably care about the same things nationwide - public safety, schools, health issues, neighborhood resources, honest elected officials etc. The hard part is getting our 40k municipalities to start thinking more alike and streamline their systems to match those needs more uniformly.
James McKinney's reply to Mitch Downey's comment
February 15, 2013, 02:33PM
Jerry, I think there may be some confusion. This idea is all about working together better - it's not about creating 100 different government monitoring tools that all do the same thing.

This idea is also about civic technology groups - like eCitizens, mySociety, Sunlight, Code for America, etc. - working towards common schemas for their data, so that their tools can interoperate and build off each other.

The idea is not about governments adopting common standards - that idea is already covered by

Your above comment kind of goes into a lot of territory that this idea isn't really dealing with. I look forward to a little clarification about what you're getting at.
Jerry Hall's reply to Mitch Downey's comment
February 15, 2013, 02:57PM
James, I was talking about the challenges of getting govs to migrate to more common platforms so tools could be more widely adapted.

I totally agree re: your clarification. This would much more easy to do and gov would likely follow if industry and movement were pulling in this direction.

I don't fully understand the semantic Web 3.0 insofar as building groups to create them but, it seems there should already be ontologies for local gov (like:

Perhaps there are already ontologies for many apsects of local gov but, if not and assuming this would be a starting point who or what would be a good institution to lead such an effort?

James McKinney's reply to Mitch Downey's comment
February 15, 2013, 03:08PM
oegov hasn't seen adoption and is unlikely to, because it is not trying to solve a specific problem and is instead trying to be as comprehensive as possible, making it a sprawling, unmanageably large vocabulary.

There are certainly existing ontologies, like those authored by the W3C Government Linked Data WG. Most of these live in RDF-land, so few civic developers are aware of them, because few civic developers work with RDF.

This idea would be about coordinating existing groups to have a better look at what standards already exist and to commit to adopting some of them, so that we can use each other's data and integrate each other's services more easily.

In terms of process, it can begin as a few organizations committing to the project, and once some agreement has been made in terms of schemas, formalizing it as a community group within the W3C Web Schemas Task Force, which is responsible for other popular web schemas like
Jerry Hall's reply to Mitch Downey's comment
February 15, 2013, 03:33PM
Ok, that helps to understand.

I'd be willing and available to work on such a project from our perspective of local gov and agency documents and multimedia.

I'll also be working closely with any of the big document management services that are interested in collaborating as well. I would love to invite them to the discussion as they seem to be the subject-matter experts. We could all probably learn a lot from their perspectives since they touch so many facets of gov records.

Others groups might include representatives of planning and development, public safety and health to name a few. Education and judicial perspectives would be great as well.

James McKinney's reply to Mitch Downey's comment
February 15, 2013, 03:40PM
Indeed! I think this can be fleshed out more in the upcoming submission phase :)


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