The Knight Foundation, dedicated to information access for both the public and the press, named eight winners of the Knight News Challenge on Open Government this week. Winning projects were singled out for their potential to improve the way people and governments interact by providing new and useful tools. Recipients received more than $3.2 million for their ideas.

“While technology has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, it is only beginning to affect the civic sphere,” said Knight Foundation vice president for journalism and media innovation Michael Maness. “We see a tremendous opportunity in developing new technologies and approaches that can reinvent the way people relate to their governments, provide journalists the information they need and ultimately strengthen our democracy.”

Urban Planning in a Box

OpenPlans received $620,000 from the Knight Foundation for Plan in a Box. Frank Hebbert, director of Civic Works at OpenPlans, has been working on tools for civic engagement for several years. Hebbert's interest lies in building online tools that empower communities to be involved in making their neighborhoods better.

Plan in a Box will enable local governments to share updates about urban planning projects by identifying the essential information that will help people be better informed and make it easier for municipalities to share that information.

“We want to make good information about urban planning the norm, rather than the exception,” Hebbert said.

Hebbert talked to a number of municipalities and groups who work on urban planning projects in researching the solution. Although he sees this tool as being helpful for government, the main goal is to help municipalities empower citizens by sharing information and providing better project updates.

Plan in A Box will start with two "unconferences" to bring together people interested in urban planning, including city officials, community groups, news media and other technologists. Then it will develop a simple information-publishing tool in close collaboration with planners and community groups.

The software development process for the open source software will be collaborative -- users will be asked to weigh in along the way in order to see what works and what doesn't. Input will be used to revise and improve the tool.

“It's incredibly powerful to know what's proposed, what's possible, what is and isn't happening,” Hebbert said. “With that baseline of information, we're providing a foundation for engagement about many projects.”

Government-Ready Servers

GitMachines, which received $500,000 from the Knight Foundation, aims to smooth the path to government adoption of new software and technology by tackling security and compliance issues up front. GitMachines Co-Founder Rodney Cobb's background is in service learning and civic engagement, and he describes the project as near and dear to his heart. By pre-configuring servers to meet government guildelines, GitMachines can be up and running quickly, simplifying the adoption of open source software and other new technologies for public sector agencies. 

“Our team believes that delivering these key services will not only improve the relationship between average citizens' knowledge of government information, we also believe it will improve the internal IT development innovation cycles of government agencies,” Cobb said.

Greg Elin, GitMachines co-founder, has been a civil servant at the FCC for the three years and has interacted with others through cross-agency projects.

Elin describes the undertaking as building a grab-and-go depot of virtual machines (e.g., servers) that are built to government specifications. They can be up and running in minutes, reducing the traditional configuration hurdles of server set-up and making sure civic innovation projects can meet government certification and accreditation requirements.

Cobb says GitMachines will cover a wide spectrum of internal and external aspirations. Its team's combined years of knowledge in government IT, civic engagement and software development have allowed it to create a unique set of virtual machines that will be government compliant on every level. It will ensure that any civic developer will have the ability to download a GitMachine, be dependency free, meet all government accreditation and certification for open government projects and do it fast.

“We felt lowering the burden of IT certification and accreditation could improve how civic innovators and government IT administrators interact,” Elin said. “We'd love to see a number of large and small cities using GitMachines over the next year to try some technology and civic applications that they might not have otherwise tried.”

Cobb and Elin and their team plan to build 50 GitMachines for open government over the next year, using Knight funding. 

Other winners of the Knight News Challenge on Open Government include vacant property data tool Civic Insight; OpenCounter, open source software to simplify the business registration process; Open Gov for the Rest of Us, to encourage more data important to Chicago's low-income population; public policy simulator Outline.com; Oyez, a state and appellate court information tool; and Procur.io, which eases government contract bidding for small companies.

Kimberly Horg  |  Contributing Writer

Kimberly is a California-based writer who earned her Bachelors of Arts in Journalism from Humboldt State University, and has hundreds of articles published throughout the country on such subjects as health, science, education, entertainment, business and politics.