As reported over the past year, a great deal of excitement exists around the potential for cities and governments to use technology to become more efficient, transparent, and participatory. At the same time, most cities are having a hard time just managing the delivery of basic services like education and public safety – especially in this economic climate. While the open city model of “government as a platform” is intended to provide cost savings the longer term, cities often have to make immediate investments to make their current technology infrastructure (and staff) ready to support the shift. Fortunately, most city governments do similar things, so there’s a lot of potential for local governments to cooperate to make coordinated investments to develop best practices and technologies that can power open, data-driven, and collaborative city services.
Recognizing both the need and potential for cooperation, a pair of civic organizations have partnered with the Washington, D.C. City Government to incubate a new non-profit organization to tackle these very issues. Dubbed Civic Commons, the organization would serve as a facilitator for knowledge sharing and coordination between cities working to develop and implement open city initiatives. By coordinating and leveraging the collective efforts of cities around the country, the organization would ultimately foster the creation of a “civic stack” of software and data standards that could allow cities adopt open city technology – such as constituent relationship software or transit tracking – while avoiding the time and expense of reinventing the wheel.
Civic Commons emerges from several leading efforts in the open city movement. The first is Code for America – a non-profit organization that is placing talented fellows with five cities around the U.S. to help them develop new open city technology projects. Working with Code for America, the Washington D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer will develop an initial repository of programs, case studies and policies based on their own experiences deploying their own apps and data catalog. Also part of the team is OpenPlans, a New York based non-profit which has been managing Open 311, a collaborative effort to create an open data and technology standard for city 311 services, and OpenMuni.org. Building upon all of these efforts, Civic Commons aims to emerge as a valuable intermediary in helping cities adopt these new technologies and work together to share knowledge and resources.
Like any new initiative, the first step will be securing funding to staff the organization and support its programs. Once the organization is up and running, it’s envisioned that Civic Commons will provide code sharing services, maintain an open marketplace of tools and policies, offer guidance on procurement of open technologies, and support the development of open data standards and practices. Already over a dozen cities and government agencies have pledged to contribute and share the applications and policies that they have developed. In the longer term, the organization could also help coordinate development of new tools, standards and practices by leveraging resources from a large pool of cities and organizations.
Given the potential for Civic Commons to reach beyond the top-tier of cities and bring the benefits of open city technology to cities of all sizes and means, the organization is certainly a worthy cause, and should be able to attract the necessary resources from to succeed at its mission. By bringing together the best thinkers from government and technology to work together to develop open standards and software, Civic Commons is uniquely positioned to move the open city movement past its current stage of excitement into a period of wide-scale adoption.