What's New in Civic Tech: Uncertainty in the Age of Trump, Open Source Projects Abound

A look at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / November 10, 2016

Facing a Trump administration, civic tech leaders confront uncertainty

Headed into Tuesday night, almost every major poll showed Hillary Clinton winning the presidency. Then, Donald Trump won instead.

The shocking development has left many wondering what will change for the U.S. government starting in January — including the innovation and technology efforts that sprung from the administration of Barack Obama, a Democrat. Clinton had expressed explicit support for the federal digital consultancy 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, for example, while Trump said very little on tech policy.

Following election night, leaders in the civic tech community spoke out online in favor of soldiering on through the uncertainty that now surrounds the federal government. Some, such as 18F Director of Delivery Architecture and Infrastructure Services Noah Kunin, were a simple assurance that they would continue working.

“This movement is not bound to the current administration,” Kunin wrote in a Medium post. “It is not an ideological movement meant to serve a particular President’s agenda, or even a particular Congress’ agenda.”

David Eaves, a public policy lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote on his blog that he is reaching out to Republican officials to try to get a sense of what might change.

“What I’ve heard back is that the most plausible scenario is nothing happens,” Eaves wrote. “Tech policy sits pretty low on the priority list. There will be status quo for likely a year while the administration figures out what is next.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, embraced a message of stability and shared values.

“If you don’t like the outcome of the election (or if you do), this is a good time to remind yourself that politics isn’t government, and governing isn’t someone else’s problem,” Pahlka wrote. “It’s ours.”

U.S. CIO launches code.gov

After enacting a pilot policy calling for all federal departments to make at least 20 percent of the code for custom-built projects open source, the federal government has launched a repository for all that script: code.gov.

The website acts as a portal for departments to access one another’s code, as well as for citizens to improve upon it. It began with around 50 open source projects from 10 agencies, but U.S. CIO Tony Scott promised future growth in a blog post as more departments comply with the 20 percent policy. The early code available includes 3-D modeling from NASA, the commerce.gov API and an app from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that lets work supervisors calculate the heat index in which their employees are working.

“It’s a step we took to help federal agencies avoid duplicative custom software purchases and promote innovation and cross-agency collaboration,” Scott wrote in the post. “And it’s a step we took to enable the brightest minds inside and outside of government to work together to ensure that federal code is reliable and effective.”

Scott’s office collaborated with 18F and the U.S. Digital Service on the project.

Boston.gov goes open source

The federal government isn’t the only public entity going open source. Boston has launched its own Web portal as an open source project — its content management system is built on Drupal, which is itself open source — and the city’s Digital Team promised that anything it builds going forward will be “open by default.”

By making the portal open source, the team wrote in a blog post, it hopes to not only find help from the public but also to provide any code that might be useful to companies and organizations with similar projects.

“There’s a large, civic-minded ecosystem of software developers out there, especially in the Drupal community, and we’re hoping they will lend a hand to improve Boston.gov,” the post reads. “As an open source project, we can also more easily work with organizations (like our friends at Code for Boston) or academic institutions interested in helping city governments adapt to 21st-century needs.”

The city is asking for help on five specific projects related to its website:

  • Creating a Docker container for Boston.gov so that more people can contribute quickly and easily to the website.
  • Building a mapping component.
  • Researching information architecture to help the website fit what citizens are looking for instead of being organized around the structure of the city.
  • Helping to find an open source catalog tool for historical artifacts and artwork from Boston.
  • Setting up a “sample database” that auto-generates content when developers are working on open source projects for the site.

Already, several people have offered help to the city on GitHub.

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.