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Commons For Europe

Within my Code for Europe role to explore how to increase civic software reuse, I’ve been looking at a couple of areas:

  • Building an apps catalogue similar to the Code for America Commons, to show civic software and adoption across Europe. More on this later.

  • Connecting with people inside and outside local government to see how groups could connect and work together on projects, leading to greater reuse of shared open source software.

One of the key elements of local government IT is a council’s website: it is the online home of the council and the route for many citizens to access information and services. It helps to have some rough idea about what is currently being used. A hack using the wappalyzer library to scan ~430 council sites gave some approximate idea about the use of different Content Management System (CMS) technologies:

  • Jadu    36
  • Immediacy    30
  • GOSS iCM    28
  • Drupal    22
  • Microsoft SharePoint    14
  • EIBS – EasySite    10
  • Squiz Matrix    7
  • iSiteSQL    4
  • Joomla    4
  • SilverStripe    4
  • Umbraco    4
  • TYPO3    3
  • Contensis    2
  • VerseOne    2
  • WordPress    2
  • Kentico CMS    1
  • Libertas ECMS    1
  • Sitefinity    1
  • no CMS / could not detect   250

It is clear that there is a huge scope here in the UK for greater adoption of open source platforms, which can support:

  • Cost savings compared to closed source systems.
  • Faster delivery of innovative web services that citizens expect.
  • Encourage government as a platform, creating more potential for innovation inside and outside government.
  • Designing for participation: greater interoperability and cooperation.

Also it gives some idea of who uses similar technologies but little about those that are developing a new beta site, or at even earlier stages of planning. Along with Dominic Campbell from FutureGov, I was recently asked to give a short presentation about this work at a LocalGov Digital steering group meeting. The following discussions touched on a number of ideas around how to create opportunities to work across councils, including mapping skills (which Phil Rumens has written about in this post on the Knowledge Hub) and how to achieve more open source development projects.

Phil has subsequently kicked off a group looking at sharing Umbraco development. There are also some other interesting activities around fostering OSS in local government: Paul Brian is building an OSS4Gov campaign and planning a breakfast meeting at the upcoming LGA conference. OSS-Watch ‘s next Open Source Junction event is also on the topic of Open Source meets the Public Sector.

I’m also looking at how to encourage similar activities using Drupal. There are a significant group of councils already using Drupal and others who are at various stages of development or planning. Lambeth is publishing their new Drupal website build on GitHub. Over in the US Drupal is now being used on ~24% of all government websites. OpenPublic was an early Drupal distribution (a packaged configuration tailored to a specific purpose) aimed at government. More recently in Canada the Web Experience Toolkit is defining best practice around accessibility and usability, with ports to most major platforms including Drupal.

Panopoly is a distribution that “is designed to be both a general foundation for site building and a base framework upon which to build other Drupal distributions.” Both WxT-Drupal and Open Atrium 2.0 (an intranet site distribution), use Panopoly as a base. We could take a similar approach, building discrete Drupal apps that fit into the Panopoly framework. I’ve done a small amount of experimenting with this by setting up an OpenCouncil configuration and a very basic planning applications module (see this example with some Lambeth data pulled from OpenlyLocal).

What might the next steps be?

  • Start defining common specifications such as a content model (I’m capturing some brief notes here, including possible overlaps with the GDS content model). This could be applied to other systems like Umbraco, WordPress, Joomla as well. A shared definition of site specifications could be one step toward improving services.
  • Start to design and build Drupal apps that work together within a framework, so they can be more easily reused and adapted to local needs.

There is an opportunity to move toward a vision of being digital by design – join the LocalGov Digital Network or Drupal groups on the Knowledge Hub, and do get in touch. Lets make this happen.

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Six forward-thinking city authorities across Europe are currently working with talented data technologists and designers to leverage technology to innovate their services. The Code for Europe ‘Fellows’, based in Manchester, Berlin, Amsterdam, Helsinki, Barcelona and Rome, are all starting to map out digital solutions to key challenges the cities have set them. These range from maximizing use of city-owned buildings and spaces, to creating digital tools for museums and heritage and building new applications for use of public transport in the cities.

We know that innovation is accelerated by the exchange of ideas, solutions, best practice, even software code, so network development to share practice is high on the agenda of Code for Europe. The Fellows met in Barcelona in January just as their placements started to explore connections between projects and meet regularly to share solutions in development. From 4-6 March 2013, we’ll host them at Nesta for two and a half days of meeting open data entrepreneurs from the UK, including mySociety and Mudlark, connecting with those championing open civic solutions at Civic Commons and Code for Africa, and sharing advice, ideas and code with one another in shaping up city projects.  We’re also taking a site visit to the Open Data Institute – a new UK-based company which is catalysing the evolution of open data culture to create economic, environmental, and social value.

Key to the conversations we’ll be having is the question of how we can accelerate the ideas being generated and the network across these six cities so that we can create a connected community in Europe and beyond for city leaders and technologists who believe in the power of tech for social good. Pockets of great work are happening around the world – a host of ‘Code for…’ initiatives which build on the movement started by Code for America now exist in countries from South America to Africa, and we’re successfully starting to sync platforms which showcase and encourage reuse of digital applications through of sites which have emerged using the Civic Commons tools.

I hope through the workshop at Nesta even more connections emerge. 

Nesta, in partnership with 6 European cities, is launching Code for Europe to put the talent of data technologists at the heart of city halls. We are exploring how this contributes to a step change in how cities and local governments run public services. Our aspiration is that cities become more open and transparent, more effective at gathering relevant talent to deliver services with impact for citizens and more efficient in using technology to best effect.

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Helsinki

Helsinki street ©Haidee Bell

I chaired a panel session at OK Festival in Helsinki in September on the theme of reuse of digital public innovation. Below is a reflection on the discussion.

We are experiencing a wave of change across city halls in Europe and beyond as a host of new digital civic services are being created, many built on newly released open data, frequently through collaborations with disruptive technologists, some directly with citizens. This is increasingly accompanied with a willingness to share practice, to find platforms and networks to tell others about these trials in a welcome move towards more openness between cities. That said, it would seem that those running our cities are much better at opening up their own inventions for others to imitate than they are at copying innovation from elsewhere. As Philip Ashlock, US Presidential Innovation Fellow, commented at OK Festival, cities are more likely to share than to borrow.

Herein lies a problem of supply and demand. Whilst the application of open source principles to sharing practice between city halls is a trend to celebrate, it’s not a simple case of ‘if it’s open, they will come’.

Why is this?

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Despite their different appearances, on a functional level, every city around the world is the same: they are connected by their need to provide services to large numbers of people in a condensed area. It is clear that digital public service innovation is something that tends to be initiated on a local level, as citizens respond to problems they observe in their own environment. However, cities are reluctant to look to each other for the use of technological applications and platforms, which results in them wasting time and money in essentially reinventing the wheel. We don’t see nearly enough sharing and collaboration, whether nationally or internationally.

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