A geek's journal about a sillicon valley adventure

Civic Commons

A few weeks ago, I attended Code for America’s (www.codeforamerica.org) open house in their swanky new office someplace in downtown San Fransisco. Because of the natural synergy that CfA and Joget has, I’ve been very excited about what we could both achieve together from the get go. From a personal standpoint, I was enormously glad that they had the cool new pad that they do now. Might have just been me but it seemed like they would have to amend employee benefits to include either “large baseball bat” or “ferocious Rottweiler” if they haven’t moved.

In any case it was a really fun party. There were a number of “celebrities” there coupled with a generous amount of booze. Had a blast with general networking and even managed to snag Tim O’Reilly for a quick exchange. As a matter of fact, the only time I realized that I’ve had too much to drink was when I was midway thru my conversation with Tim, and I finally noticed that he was tremendously bulky, of african descent and didn’t speak english all that well.

Oh well, at least I made a new friend in Nokolulu Attwell.


In any case, one of the things that CfA is currently pushing hard for is an initiative called Civic Commons (www.civiccommons.org). In a nutshell, Civic Commons is a medium or a platform of exchange for civic software. It allows applications for civic use to be freely contributed and shared among the many cities and counties and even states of the US.

Now for those of you who have the trauma of knowing me well, who’ve read my bio or profile someplace or who has just been generally stalking me; you’ll know that working with civic development was a life I’ve lived in a different time. I think that’s probably one of the things that drew me to CfA and what Jen and her team are doing. The fact that their efforts struck a chord, understanding the pains they will inevitably face, knowing that the challenges might make them they contemplate jumping off a 16th story window (or pushing someone off), etc. Given that backdrop, I thought I’d pen a few words about what they’re about to embark upon and where I think their speed bumps might surface.

1. Getting the necessary traction. This one really is rather self explanatory. Given the nature of Civic Commons, it will be heavily dependent on the general acceptance and awareness from the civic community at large. No awareness = no participation = no contribution = very bad for everyone.

2. Cultivation of community. Any tech geek worth his/her salt will tell you that its never the building of software that takes the most time, its the maintaining and supporting it after. That’s precisely why the vibrancy and activeness of any given open source community usually defines the project’s success or otherwise. In this case, its really not about dumping a piece of software in an exchange platform on the web some place. Once an application is up, you’ll now need to worry about documenting it, supporting it, keeping an up to date knowledge base, troubleshooting during actual implementation, etc. The ground will look very appealing from the 16th floor if this isn’t well thought out.

3. Contribution management. When any initiative is open by nature, the parameters of exchange need to be fairly well defined. Some projects use technology councils to vet thru submissions, some rely on the community itself to screen thru contributions, others use something in between. Unfortunately there’s no hard and fast rule on which is better. The only general sentiment is that there just needs to be one especially in Civic Common’s case. Imagine if City A contributed Application 1, City B uses Application 1 but needs to make a small change to suit their case. City C takes City B’s change and changes it a litte more. All of a sudden you have 1 app with innumerable variance and nobody really knows how they’re different. The 16th floor just got elevated to 36th.

4. General scope issues. Make no mistake about this, Civic Commons is a *colossal* undertaking. The biggest reason why I say that is because of the sheer scope of what it tries to achieve. In a general sense, any community formed tends to be quite specific about its focus. For instance, the Linux community will be fairly focused on their issues and the MySQL guys will be focused on theirs. Unless you’re very drunk (or a bit of an idiot like me), you generally won’t wander into a Drupal community asking for help on your WordPress site. In this particular case, the scope is about as horizontal as it gets. So long as an application is meant for civic use, it will have a place in the exchange. The worse case scenario spells that every contribution is potentially a community by itself. That’s pretty darn big however you look at it.

There are a number of items I had on a list but I didn’t want come across as too being too much of a bummer. I think there are few more worthy cause to what these guys are doing at the moment and I really do hope it takes flight.

In closing, if you’ve not heard of Code for America, if you’re not aware of Civic Commons, maybe its time you educated yourself. I know its corny and its ridiculously cliche but I believe in our quietest moments alone, we all feel the need to make a difference no matter how immeasurably small. If that describes you, then what the heck are you waiting for ? Grab your IDE. Here’s your chance :)

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One response

  1. Michelle

    Michael –

    These are indeed critical challenges we face going forward with Civic Commons, and its fortunate that we have the thoughtful insights of experienced folks as yourself to help us.

    Balanced with such steep challenges is the increasing desire and demand among citizens (of which the number of whom are technically skilled is progressively increasing) to interact with their government. Civic Commons can offer the rewards that come with any Open Source project participation as well as offering the additional reward of having greater involvement with making your hometown operations safe, effective and efficient.

    Thanks for the shout out and we hope to see you again soon in our bowling alley!

    March 3, 2011 at 10:56 pm

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