Beeck Data + Digital projects featured in Ideas That Transform series

October 13, 2020 – By Cori Zarek

Since 2014, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University has led the way with new ideas and approaches to reimagine our institutions to ensure they are designed to serve the people who need them most. 

We know we can track our package or pizza delivery every step of the way, but not an application for unemployment insurance. The technology exists, it’s just not accessible to everyone—and of course public services are far more complicated than packages and pizzas. We’ve looked at many of these systems to understand the tools and practices needed to make them better so we can work with institutions to implement change. Our Data + Digital portfolio now features nearly 30 fellows, students, and staff, and has organized around three main pillars to reimagine and rebuild trust in our institutions: Public Interest Technology Field Building, Data for Impact, and Infrastructure for Opportunity.

In the coming weeks, we’re partnering with our collaborators to feature some of this work as part of the Beeck Center’s Ideas That Transform series—we hope you’ll join us to hear more about what we’ve been up to.

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Public Interest Technology Field Building

The past decade has seen the founding and rise of what our friends at the Ford Foundation and New America have identified as public interest technology—using the tools and practices of modern design, data, and technology to work toward better outcomes in society. As the field matures, we’ve been thinking a lot about  how to raise its profile for greater credibility, to support public interest technology workers through skills building and mentorship opportunities, and how to cultivate community among those of us doing this work. Here are a couple events where you can learn more about our Public Interest Tech Field Building work.

  • Book club: The Beeck Center’s Taylor Campbell talks with public interest tech leader Cyd Harrell on lessons from Cyd’s new book, A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide, on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 1pm ET. Taylor and Cyd will focus on ways that curious, passionate people who work in private-sector tech can become civic technologists and use their careers to make a different kind of impact. Register
  • Managing change: Transitions are a way of life in government—whether there’s a change in management, new policies to carry out, or even a new administration—and we’re bringing together colleagues who have navigated a number of government transitions with a focus on continued support for data and tech through those changes. Join us on Thursday, Oct. 22 at 1pm ET for this conversation. Register

Data for Impact

The Beeck Center has long known that data can drive economic prosperity, more effective policies, and help us measure what matters. In projects pressing for data-driven approaches at all levels of government and throughout communities, Beeck fellows have led the way to make the case for data as a priority and to train teams to best use data to carry out their work. Chief Data Officers in government have a critical role helping governments prioritize data as a way to achieve their policy goals, and since September 2019, the Beeck Center has been leading states in this work as the home of the State Chief Data Officers Network. We’ll feature their work in an event next week.

  • Data-driven recovery: Join Tyler Kleykamp and Katya Abazajian on Monday, Oct. 19 at 12:15pm ET for a conversation about how neighborhood data can support state and local economic recovery from this pandemic in an event held in partnership with Smart Cities Week. Register

Infrastructure for Opportunity

When our systems use leading-edge practices and tools, they’re better equipped to serve people and to make it easier for the workers administering them. From reimagining foster care licensing, to scaling tools to make it easier for families to apply for social safety net benefits, to developing open source software for high-priority policy needs like unemployment insurance and paid family leave, our fellows and partners are rebuilding the infrastructure we need for greater opportunity and better outcomes. Learn more about some of this work in these upcoming events.

  • Follow the money: Government technology policies and projects often come with big budgets and relatively little oversight—and, unsurprisingly, most fail. Beeck fellows Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith spent four years at 18F pushing for better ways to budget for and oversee government tech projects to make them less risky and documented it in the recently released De-Risking Guide for government technology. Join them on Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 3pm ET for lessons that other government teams can adopt to avoid costly projects that don’t deliver. Register
  • Fostering better outcomes: Child welfare programs across the country help some of our country’s most vulnerable children and do so with limited resources. Non-governmental organizations such as Foster America and Think of Us work with partners, parents, and children to support and reimagine what’s possible. Beeck fellow Emily Tavoulareas has partnered with New America fellow Marina Nitze, these organizations, and public servants across the country to co-create the Child Welfare Playbook that captures tested best practices in a manner that is easy for others to adopt and replicate. Emily will facilitate a conversation with child welfare leaders on the results of recent field research examining how to improve life outcomes for youth of the foster system. Join us on Wednesday, Oct. 28 at 4 p.m. ET. Register

Through all of our efforts, we aim to work in the open and document what we find so others can learn from it and scale what works. We also work collaboratively with others—these efforts rely on entire ecosystems to be successful and we aim to convene and coordinate networks and communities of practice to work together for greater impact. Finally, we know this work is never done, so we invite you to pull up a chair and hear what we’ve been up to through this series and we look forward to adding more chairs at the table so we can do this important work together.

Cori Zarek is the Director of the Data + Digital portfolio at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. Follow her at @corizarek.

August 5, 2020 | Waldo Jaquith and Divjot Bawa

The database below has been created as a part of an ongoing effort to document examples of intergovernmental shared software. These examples have been produced by a government and both used and contributed to by other governments. This initiative acknowledges, that while the criteria for “contributed to” is, as of yet, undefined (e.g., does a single “commit” count, does the work of any one employee represent that government, etc.), collaboration may occur either in an informal way or may be formalized via, e.g., a non-profit organization with government agencies as members or an interstate compact. While many of the examples provided are from the United States, we also include excellent examples from other countries as well. 

This initiative has been developed through the work of the State Software Collaborative (SSC) which helps states collaboratively build and buy custom software and technical infrastructure, utilize modern software development and procurement practices, and develop shared processes to effectively deploy existing commercial software tools where ultimately, instead of 50 states buying 50 versions of near-identical, overpriced software, states can procure high-quality, fair-priced software just once and share it amongst themselves. With this objective in mind, the SSC believes it is imperative to “think out loud” and share our research as it is underway to not only obtain feedback while it is in progress but also publish and begin circulating this useful data as soon as possible. 

We are actively seeking out additional examples and encourage you to complete the following form if you would like to add to our growing repository. Once received, your submission(s) will be reviewed by the SSC project team and will be marked “Reviewed by the Beeck Center” within the Airtable. Additionally, this dynamic repository has been organized with several descriptors that allow users to easily navigate and sort through the database. If there are additional helpful data-points that you would like for the database to track, please leave us a note in the form.

Related Insights

August 3, 2020 | By Waldo Jaquith

We started the State Software Collaborative to facilitate sharing open source software between states, but the idea of governments sharing software is hardly novel. Governments around the world are sharing custom-built software already, and have done so for many years. It’s vital, cost-saving, and meets the needs of users.

Software can be shared via many different models. Here are a few examples that run the gamut, ranging from the deliberate and parochial clear to the incidental and popular.

Tax Appraisal Software

An important source of revenue for localities throughout the U.S. are taxes on real estate, and many have a similar tax on vehicles. Those taxes are on the current value of the property, which means that states and localities need to routinely reappraise the value of everything that they tax — every parcel of land, every car, every RV, every house. This means that every state has to maintain their own database of every taxable property — this “computer-assisted mass appraisal” software (or “CAMA”) has been around for decades, and there are several major vendors selling CAMA software.

But Georgia didn’t go the commercial route. In the late 1980s, before CAMA software was commonplace, Georgia wanted to modernize, but didn’t see a lot of options. So the Georgia Department of Revenue collaborated with the Tennessee Valley Authority and a Mississippi professor to build their own software to track the value of taxable property. They did this on a budget of just $20,000 ($43,000 in 2020 dollars), and in 1989 they deployed their Georgia Appraisal Program to 12 counties. The state continued to support the project for several years, in the form of technical staffing. They’ve evolved the software over the decades, and today the software travels under the name of WinGAP CAMA. This Windows-based software includes client software, runs on the desktop, and relies on a SQL Server back end. Every member county runs their own copy of the software with their own server.

screenshot of WinGAP CAMA data entry screen
Screenshot of WinGAP CAMA data entry screen.

Today, WinGAP CAMA is in use by 149 of Georgia’s 159 counties (the Atlanta metropolitan area uses commercial software) who collectively make up the membership of the GAP Group, a non-profit organization governed by a small executive board. Every member county pays modest dues of $1,500/year, which gets them both the software and access to the help desk. That $223,500 in annual dues — plus a state-operated help desk — is enough to fund everything.

The GAP Group attributes their success to their iterative development model and their relentless focus on the needs of end users. Going strong after 31 years, they’re a model of the value of user-centered design.

Public Transit Route Planning

Large cities need multimodal trip planning software — websites where people can plan travel via light rail, bus, bike share, etc. In 2009, there were three open source software programs that did portions of this. So TriMet, Portland OR’s transit agency, brought the creators of those programs together and persuaded them to collaborate, funded with a grant from Portland’s Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Two years later, the result was OpenTripPlanner, an independent, open source project that can be used by any transit agency to provide a public route-planning website.

Screenshot of Portland, OR TriMet Trip Planner
Screenshot of Portland, OR TriMet Trip Planner.

Today, the developers who created OpenTripPlanner have created a consultancy named Conveyal, where they continue to support OpenTripPlanner development.

The Java-based tool runs on a web server, consuming data feeds of routes and schedules. Over 100 people have contributed to the code in the past decade.

OpenTripPlanner isn’t a TriMet project. Its creation was fomented by TriMet, but today it’s used around the world, including by TriMet, and by New York and Vermont. The project has a documented governance process, with a project leadership committee that includes representatives from transit agencies around the world.

Mapping

Every government in the U.S. needs detailed maps, so they can track parcel ownership, where their water pipes are, the locations of their sidewalks and roads, even where every government-owned tree is. These are called Geographic Information Systems, and they can be enormously expensive.

And then there’s QGIS. This open source program was developed by Gary Sherman in 2002, and graduated to being housed by the Open Source Geospatial Foundation starting in 2007, and reached a version 1.0 milestone in 2009. As desktop software, it runs on Linux, macOS, Windows.

It’s a true community project — features have been contributed by hundreds of people over many years. But QGIS is essential to government, too — not only is it widely used at all levels of government throughout the world, but governments actively contribute to the advancement of the software.

Screenshot of QGIS Map
Screenshot of QGIS Map.

For example, sponsors of QGIS include Ireland’s Office of Public Works; the state of Vorarlberg, Austria; the municipality of Syddjurs, Denmark, Bathurst Regional Council, Australia; the Tasmanian Planning Commission; and City of Canning, Australia.

Governments also contribute to QGIS by sponsoring new features — paying to add functionality that they need. For example, the town of Megéve, France funded a new trim/extend feature, and the canton of Zug, Switzerland funded JSON support for GeoPackage files. By covering the development costs, Megéve and Zug got the functionality that they needed, but so did everybody else who uses QGIS.

It’s important to agencies that they be able to call somebody when their software breaks, and that sort of support is available for QGIS, via the dozens of private vendors that sell support contracts, many of whom are also contributors to QGIS.

QGIS did not originate with government, and it does not live within government now. But it is nonetheless software relied on by governments, shared between governments, and contributed to by governments, via mechanisms that exist entirely outside of government.

Conclusion

Intergovernmental software sharing is not new — as we can see here, this practice is decades old, quietly powering government right under our noses. There are different sharing models that make sense for different types of software, and these mature projects have all found the model that works for them.

This powerful, effective approach to software production and maintenance is a top-tier method of procuring software within government, at a cost 10–100 times cheaper than traditional methods of software procurement. Before they write a solicitation, agencies would be wise to research whether there is an existing shared software product they can use, or if they could team up with other agencies to share the cost of procuring software to address their collective needs.

 

Waldo Jaquith is a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and the co-founder of the State Software Collaborative. Follow him at @waldojaquith.

May 6, 2020 | By Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith

Only 13% of major government software projects succeed, and the successful and failed ones alike cost 5–10 times more than they should. When those projects fail, so too do the public policy initiatives that depend on them: unemployment insurance, small business loans, paid family and medical leave, SNAP, Medicaid, etc.

As we’ve seen in the response to the COVID-19 crisis even if lawmakers move quickly to pass legislation to get money to laid-off workers, small businesses, and hospitals, those policies can’t be implemented effectively when the technology tools used to apply for, distribute, and track funds can’t be easily modified or don’t work.

This is an egregious state of affairs. But we know it doesn’t have to be this way. At a time when technology allows us to order a new pair of shoes on our phone and have them delivered the next day, it’s increasingly clear that technology isn’t the problem, but instead how government currently procures technology and uses it to deliver service to the public.

Today, in an effort to begin solving this problem, we are starting the State Software Collaborative at the Beeck Center, in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation.

States need to take back control of the systems they rely on to fulfill their mission. Our goal is to help them do that, through a combination of teaching legislative staff about best practices to budget and provide oversight for major software projects, coaching agencies through using modern procurement practices, and teaching states how to center all of that work in modern software development practices (Agile software development, user-centered design, product thinking, DevOps, etc.)

By knitting together states’ agencies based on common needs, we can help states collaboratively procure, develop, and maintain the software they depend on, so instead of 50 states buying 50 versions of near-identical, overpriced software, they can procure high-quality, fair-priced software just once, and share it among themselves.

States’ needs differ substantially — because of different policies, laws, cultural norms, and technical environments — so it would be a mistake to expect as-is reuse of monolithic software projects. We expect the resulting software to be something like 80% complete, leaving room for the customization necessary to serve each state. We’ll coach states through procuring and managing scrum teams to complete the final 20%, documenting emergent best practices for other states to follow.

State governments have the subject-matter expertise, the funding, the technical knowledge, and the digital infrastructure that is necessary to deliver high-quality, technology-intermediated services to the public. They just need a little help bringing together that expertise from across states and establishing the processes and governance structure to execute on that promise, and that’s where the State Software Collaborative comes in.

We come to this project not as an academic exercise, but as practitioners with decades of experience in this subject. Robin is deeply familiar with government procurement processes from her time as Missouri’s Secretary of State and knows that states are the linchpin to our nation’s COVID-19 response, but as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, too often that work is made harder by old, hard to update and maintain legacy technology systems.

For the past four years we have helped state and local governments through our work at 18F, a tech consultancy inside the federal government General Services Administration, developing and promoting best practices for government procurement of custom software. At a time when states are on the front lines of the government’s COVID-19 response, they must take back control of systems they rely on to fulfill their mission.

The current crisis has shown how important it is for states to both learn from each other and work together in procuring critical supplies. We’ll continue to build on that collaborative spirit and states get the tools they need to support the country as we recover.

Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith joined the Beeck Center as fellows in Spring 2020. They will support the State Software Collaborative project as part of the Data + Digital portfolio. Follow Robin on Twitter at @robincarnahan and Waldo at @waldojaquith.

Photos by Mackenzie Weber & Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash.