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Rachel Sterne is Chief Digital Officer for the City of New York, where she focuses on the City’s digital media strategy. You can follow her on Twitter @RachelSterne or follow the City @nycgov.

Today is the last day to sign up for Reinvent NYC.GOV, the City’s first-ever hackathon. Civic-minded designers and developers who want to help improve NYC government are encouraged to apply at: reinventnycgov.com.

Why have we decided to invite the best and brightest of NYC’s tech community to help us improve NYC.gov? Here’s the backstory.


Improving Our Digital Footprint


When we asked New Yorkers for their input on New York City’s “Road Map for the Digital City,” one of the biggest topics of feedback was NYC.gov, the City government’s main digital presence.

Some New Yorkers praised the scope of information offered and ability to pay bills and look up records online. Others suggested we had room for improvement. Comments included: “NYC.gov is a little hard to navigate/search,” “NYC.gov could use a refresh” and “NYC.gov is just too unwieldy.” The refrain was clear: The site was muddy, but we had an opportunity to make NYC.gov more cohesive and user-centric while integrating it with different communication channels in social media.

Last week, New York City Government and General Assembly announced Reinvent NYC.GOV, our first-ever hackathon to help solve this challenge in an open, transparent, participatory environment.

Taking place July 30 to 31 at entrepreneurship-focused community learning space General Assembly, it’s an important step in our our Road Map to realize NYC’s digital potential. Here are a few reasons why we’re doing it:


Why NYC Is Hosting a Hackathon


  • 1. It will bridge sectors and connect the government and technology communities around a shared challenge.
  • 2. It will encourage collaborative problem-solving and a more open government. We’ve invited developers to share their ideas for improving a major digital “public space.” NYC.gov has almost as many visitors each year as Central Park and should be similarly cared for.
  • 3. It will create a mechanism for the public to share feedback and ideas for a website that exists to serve them.
  • 4. It can serve as a model for other governments, helping to affect national and international change.
  • 5. It will introduce creative and innovative concepts that could help to evolve NYC.gov to be more efficient and effective in serving and empowering New Yorkers.
  • 6. It will provide both individuals and teams with face-to-face access to the City’s decision makers.
  • 7. It creates a precedent and platform for evolving government through open innovation and participation.
  • 8. It will serve as the first step in a transparent design process. We want to gather as much input as possible. This is a way to move quickly to achieve our goals.
  • 9. It helps remove subjectivity from the design process by clearly showing what the public wants and needs.
  • 10. It equips developers with the internal data they need to make user experience decisions, such as analytics, as well as support from our tech partners, including DonorsChoose, ExpertLabs, Facebook, Foursquare, Google, Meetup and YouTube.

We think this model is an important part of New York City’s digital Road Map and feel that it can be an effective piece for other cities, as well. What are your ideas for the future of NYC.gov? Tell us in the comments below or tweet using the hashtag #reinventnycgov.


Image courtesy of Flickr, houyin

More About: dev, developer, government, hack, hackathon, new york, new york city, NYC, nyc.gov, Politics, Social Media

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The Free Software Foundation is has launched second editions of two landmark publications by Richard Stallman, a.k.a. rms, “the last true hacker.”

The volumes, Free as in Freedom 2.0 and Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, 2nd Edition are both now available from the FSF store as free downloadable PDFs and as signed copies. Signed hard copies cost $50 each.

And while you’re shopping, you can also pick up a stuffed baby gnu, the FSF mascot, for $25.

The free-software activist launched the GNU Project in 1983 to create a free Unix-like operating system. He also founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985. The Linux kernel was built on and still supports GNU Project components that came before it and laid the foundation for open-source operating systems.

Stallman is also the main author of several copyleft licenses, including the GNU General Public License, the most widely used free software license.

Stallman’s life work revolves around freedom, by which he means four things:

  1. The software should be freely accessible.
  2. The software should be free to modify.
  3. The software should be free to share with others.
  4. The software should be free to change and redistribute copies of the changed software.

These principles underlie and inform the free and open-source software movement, and they also are used in many of the arguments for Creative Commons licensing for art and music.

image courtesy of Flickr, jolieodell

More About: foss, free software, free software foundation, fsf, hackers, open source, rms, Stallman

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FAT Lab member Greg Leuch’s browser plugins have been mainly whimsical (abolishing mentions of folks like Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen), but now, the developer has gone political with the release of China Blocker. It serves as a protest against the detainment of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

Ai was arrested April 3 for evading “huge amounts” of taxes, according to Chinese state media. However, many, like Leuch, are not satisfied by this explanation — Ai frequently spoke out against the Chinese government, which some think a likelier reason for his detainment.

FAT Lab has a history of creating projects that endorse open source technology and Internet freedom,” Leuch says. “We are attempting to raise awareness of Ai’s and others’ issues in China, and this is just a small part toward some of our larger goals of protecting Internet freedom and artistic expression.”

This awareness comes in the form of a browser plugin for Chrome, Firefox and Safari that blocks all Chinese websites. When you come across such a website, a middle finger (a homage to one of Ai’s works) will pop up, as well as info detailing how long Ai — and other artists — have been detained.

When Ai is released, users will be alerted, and the block will be lifted.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Daquella manera

More About: ai weiwei, china-blocker, FAT-Labs

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The Tor Project has been recognized by the Free Software Foundation for its role in the protests and revolutions around North Africa and the Middle East.

This software, which allows for safe and anonymous web browsing, was given the FSF’s Award for Projects of Social Benefit. The award is intended to highlight “a project that intentionally and significantly benefits society through collaboration to accomplish an important social task.”

Without question, enabling the Internet’s role in political revolution has been an important social task, and one that the Tor Project has explicitly supported. In its section on activist users, Tor reps state that anonymous browsing is essential for reporting abuses of power and organizing protests, especially from behind government-sponsored firewalls and ISP blocks.

“Using free software,” the FSF writes, “Tor has enabled roughly 36 million people around the world to experience freedom of access and expression on the Internet while keeping them in control of their privacy and anonymity. Its network has proved pivotal in dissident movements in both Iran and more recently Egypt.”

In Iran, political dissent before, during and after the 2009 election caused a firestorm on Twitter and Facebook; as a result, the government began censoring many apps and sites. The Tor Project allowed users to bypass the blocks and access the web apps they needed to continue to organize.

And in Egypt and other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, a couple months of steady political unrest has been punctuated by periods of site-specific blocks and even total Internet blackouts. Once again, Tor was instrumental for continuing to allow many users to access the web, where they communicated internally and externally and rallied for change.

Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project, was present to accept the award from the FSF and its founder and president Richard M. Stallman during a March 19 ceremony.

Previous winners of this award include such notable FOSS projects as the Internet Archive, Creative Commons and Wikipedia.

More About: award, Egypt, foss, free software, middle east, politics, tor

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The United States government has made its IT Dashboard, a cost-cutting tool for federal transparency, freely available for anyone, especially other governments, to use and customize.

The IT Dashboard gives citizens important information on how the government uses tax money for technology initiatives across various agencies. Citizens can see how government investments are paying off, and they can compare types of IT spending over time by accessing easy-to-reach charts and graphs.

But this clarity of and access to vital information isn’t just good for citizens; it’s also used by the Federal Government, including Congress, to make important decisions about IT budgets and spending. Open-sourcing this cost-saving tool is part of the government’s larger plan to save on IT by eliminating redundant efforts. In other words, the IT Dashboard already exists and has been paid for, and the government isn’t going to hide that light under a bushel.

Here’s a video demonstrating some of the features of the federal IT Dashboard:

The government is working with Code for America for this release. In am announcement, CfA said, “The IT Dashboard was a major component of the process the Federal Government employed to save over $3 billion in just its first two years of deployment.”

In addition to the Dashboard, the government is also open-sourcing the complementary TechStat Toolkit, a set of tools and processes for reviewing any yellow or red flags that might pop up while using the Dashboard.

In this video, U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra talks about the results the government has seen by using the IT Dashboard and how those results were achieved:


But open-sourcing something like this isn’t a cakewalk. The government worked with FOSS and government experts, Code for America and CfA’s Civic Commons project to get the job done.

Project lead Karl Fogel wrote on the Civic Commons blog, “We knew from the beginning that a high-profile project can’t be open sourced casually. It’s not enough to just put an open license on the code, move development out to a publicly visible repository, and call it done.”

He continued to note that for the Dashboard, Civic Commons had to ensure that all the code and documentation was safe for public use (i.e., not classified or a government secret) and audit the code; reduce dependencies on proprietary libraries; write documentation; ceate non-sensitive, non-classified sample data; work with the Drupal community; and much more.

Interested parties can download the Dashboard code now at SourceForge. While the Dashboard is intended to help governments cut costs and manage IT budgets, we can see such tools coming in handy at just about any large company, tech or otherwise.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, GottfriedEdelman

More About: code for america, it dashboard, open source, U.S. government

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Code for America, the non-profit organization that creates government-changing apps for communities around the U.S., has received applications from 19 U.S. city, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of State.

Each of these government entities will compete to be one of the three to five communities that gets Code for America fellows to create a customized, open-source app to solve a pervasive problem in public service or government administration.

For example, in the last Code for America cycle, five cities were picked for projects such as an Open311-type project and an application that allows citizens to monitor and give feedback on city hall proposals.

The 19 applicants will compete for a spot in the next Code for America cycle. Applications will be judged based on the government’s commitment to the partnership, funding to support the project, and the openness, efficiency, and reusability of the proposed application or project. The selection process will be guided by a committee, which will announce the winning applicants in June 2011.

Once three to five candidates are selected, the custom apps will be developed by Code for America fellows, a team of 20 crack web and mobile developers hand-selected by an all-star committee that includes Irene Au of Google, Paul Buchheit of Facebook, Anil Dash of Expert Labs and many more.

Code for America’s Government Relations Director Alissa Black said in a release, “It’s great to see not only this much interest in Code for America, but also enthusiasm from public officials in using technology to change the way government works.

The response we’re seeing proves that government is thinking creatively about ways to innovate in response to our fiscal crises, and that the open government movement is really taking hold within government itself.”

Here’s the full list of applicants:

  • Anchorage, Alaska
  • Austin, Texas
  • Balboa Park – San Diego, California
  • California Department of Economic Development
  • California Department of Energy
  • Columbus, Ohio
  • Detroit, Michigan
  • Hartford County, Maryland
  • Memphis, Tennessee
  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • New York City
  • Omaha, Nebraska
  • Palm Bay, Florida
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Raleigh, North Carolina
  • San Francisco, California
  • Santa Clarita, California
  • Santa Cruz, California
  • U.S. Department of State

More About: code for america, developers, government, social good

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The 662 people I follow on Twitter have been talking about little else besides the protests in Cairo Friday, which continue to escalate in intensity and violence.

They are not alone. According to data pulled from real-time analytics tool Trendrr, 245,000 tweets containing “Egypt” were sent between midnight and 1:30 p.m. today, January 28. Thirty percent came from the U.S., 7% from the UK, 6% from Saudia Arabia and UAE respectively, and, notably, 8% came from Egypt, proving that users are indeed bypassing blocks placed on the service by government authorities:

Twitterers are using the service to share news and footage of the protests. Among the most shared links: a video that captured the shooting of an Egyptian protestor, Al Jazeera’s live stream coverage, and EA Worldview‘s news liveblog.

Users are frequently including the hashtags #egypt, #cairo, #mubarak, #jan28 and #censorship when discussing the protests.

In addition to tweets, 10 million new blog posts and 22,350 news results citing Egypt have been indexed by Google in the past 48 hours.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Al Jazeera

More About: cairo, Egypt, Trendrr, twitter




The State of the Union will be streaming online in several locations; here’s a quick rundown of URLs to tune into to hear and see U.S. President Barack Obama‘s speech Tuesday.

Here are some details you’ll need to know: The address will begin Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 9 p.m. Eastern Time, 6 p.m. Pacific Time. The speech, which is entitled “Winning the Future,” should last for about one hour. The president will be addressing a joint session of Congress from the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol.

The address will air on television as well as online, of course; but online viewing might give you a more interesting and informative experience than TV viewing alone.

For example, there’s the White House’s official portal, which delivers a unique and media-rich experience. With WhiteHouse.gov’s official “enhanced viewing experience,” you’ll be able to see data displayed on charts and graphs as the president speaks.

Also, the White House will offer special online events in the hours and days following the address to answer questions and address important issues raised. Interested parties can submit questions via Twitter, Facebook or a web form.

For those who favor commentary, PBS’s NewsHour is hosting an Annotated State of the Union in partnership with UStream (here’s an example from 2010). This interactive feature will bring “analysis during and after the president’s address by NewsHour correspondents and experts on a variety of topics.” NewsHour‘s UStream video will also be embeddable.

If you prefer a more cut-and-dry look at the speech, you can check out Hulu’s embeddable live stream. You can also check it out on C-SPAN, which will also offer enhanced coverage via its Twitter account.

Will you be watching President Obama’s speech tomorrow? If so, will you be tuning in online, on a TV or on the radio? Let us know in the comments.

More About: barack obama, obama, politics, SotU, state of the union, streaming, video