PPF Blog

Existing Open Projects for Digital Public Spaces

This coming week, the New Public Festival will kick off with a phenomenal group of participants examining better, less commercialized, public spaces on the internet. “We believe that the reckless design of our current, privately-owned digital spaces is tearing at our social fabric and poses a grave danger to our ability to collectively identify and solve social problems,” they wrote.

For the past 15 years, non-profit tech projects that have libre software licenses, build open-source code, and liberate open data offerings have shared many of the same principles. While many civic-commons technology projects have achieved traction, they have not received funding support that help them reach modest sustainability. But compared with other public-benefit investments, these projects have the ability to engage more new people, who can use the below tools to meet their information needs and start participating.

Here are five existing tech projects, non-profit and open-source, designed to enhance digital public spaces. They are libre to be remixed by communities for their goals, a fundamental difference from for-profit & closed platforms like Facebook and Nextdoor.

One: Councilmatic

A user-friendly website for searching city council information, getting city council meeting agendas over email, and submitting public comments for your council district office to read. The app makes it easy to find your city council members based on your street address and follow what they’re working on in city government. Currently up in Chicago and Philadelphia, and with volunteers continuing to work on versions in other cities, the New York City Council recently discontinued its official version of the Councilmatic website, so it is not currently up in NYC, leaving a dedicated user base of local government watchdogs stuck with the clunky official legislative portal.

Two: AskThem

The only questions-and-answer website with every elected official nationwide and more candidates for office, from the U.S. Congress to state governments down to city governments. The website supports non-profit public dialogue with any participating elected official, candidate, and more public figures for civic engagement and public accountability. AskThem succeeded in recruiting over 80 elected officials at all levels of government to commit to responding monthly to the top public questions in an open online forum. We’ve made progress on a total redesign of the back- and front-ends, and could relaunch it this year with support.

Three: CBDB

A database for community boards to track community issues, from the non-profit BetaNYC, whose years of research reveals that constituent relationship management (CRM) is among community boards’ preeminent needs. Imagine being able to track the status of an issue in your neighborhood, as with Open311.

Four: 59Boards

Community board map & meetings calendar scraper. Currently, most community boards do not have technical capacity to send email alerts of agendas and receive public comments, creating a bottleneck and barriers to participating in local meetings. This volunteer project, in flux, made it possible to find your community board by street address and begin finding ways to connect with local officials and other residents.

Five: Shareabouts

From the team at NYC’s former non-profit public tech organization OpenPlans, Shareabouts is an online mapping tool to gather crowdsourced public input in a social and engaging process. Previously, OpenPlans partnered with the non-profit project CivicCommons to support knowledge-sharing and open-source tech tools for more responsive government partners. In August 2011, they wrote, “this project will foster the creation and growth of a community of civic technologists sharing not only information about the applications they use and their experiences with them, but also the very application code.”

Here are some additional tech / civic projects around public spaces that could have used these tools in developing their sustainability:

  • 596 Acres maker of online advocacy tools like NYCommons, which helped New Yorkers impact decisions about public land and buildings in their neighborhoods.
  • Participatory Budgeting programs’ local deliberation around infrastructure, which could use continued support in NYC government.
  • Storefronters Campaign ”from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, helping small businesses threatened by rent increases.

The operations of most of these projects linked above could be supported for a year on what previous civic tech organizations have spent in a month on office rent. Despite over a decade of civic commons work in NYC, city residents still do not have free apps to get email alerts of what their council members are working on, ask public questions to their state legislators online about issues their communities care about, or submit comments to their community boards online. With charitable funding support for non-profit and open-source projects, these projects could have been operating for over a decade, creating thoughtful new peer-to-peer discussion networks about what’s happening in cities for greater civic engagement.

In January 2016, I wrote in Open Data Infrastructure for Civic Engagement:

“My intentionally-provocative proposal here is the ‘1% Open Tech Rule,’ that civic tech nonprofits or open-source projects should receive at least 1% of the venture-capital funding of their commercial equivalents, to keep the field slightly competitive and provide open-source & open-data alternatives.

  • So a Dec. 2014 round of $25m to Change would entail $250,000 to AskThem for open data on candidates & elected officials, and p2p connections between users (not just advocacy orgs.) on local questions & national issues;
  • A May 2014 round of $15m to OpenGov.com would entail $150,000 to Open Budget Oakland‘s open code, with locally-connected explanations of the budget process and ways to get involved (not just top-line visualizations);
  • Sept. 2014 round of $17m to Mindmixer/mySidewalk would be $170,000 to Shareabouts, for open-source mapping & suggestions in a user-friendly interface, deepening local ties with place-based community planners;
  • March 2015 round of $110m to NextDoor would be, well, a reasonable amount for an open-source neighborhood discussion site—say, Discourse, or OpenPlans tools.

It would be an astonishing development for the non-profit field if even a $1m fund was set up with grants along the lines above, allocated quarterly by an Advisory Board of civic tech figures, to keep open-source & open-data & open-standards tech alternatives up and running. This is wildly imaginary, but hopefully offers a valuable corrective tendency for shareable infrastructure in the civic tech landscape, towards a networked public sphere.

How about it—a half a million from one foundation, half a million from another funder, awarded something like the NewsChallenge for open standards projects?”

In the years since, the Fast Forward accelerator has accepted non-profit tech tools, New Media Ventures has invested in non-profit startups, and since 2016 there’s been Open Collective for open tech crowdfunding. But other funding support for open-source and free software projects has been difficult to secure, even though volunteers in many cities have expressed interest in deploying these tools. Our 501(c)3 non-profit organization would welcome the opportunity to stand up Councilmatic and AskThem again in 2021 for a healthier public digital space. Get in touch anytime: @ppolitics.

More screen-grabs of previous open tech projects for civic engagement:

Sample NYC Councilmatic email alert for city council members and bills
Answered question from a city council member on the non-profit AskThem Q&A platform
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