Open (local) Government

Last night I went to the Burlington, Vermont City Council meeting to listen to our newly re-elected mayor, Bob Kiss, give his State of the City speech and watch the City Council attempt to elect a new council president. I said “attempt” because, after 14 rounds of voting, they were still deadlocked 7-7 for opposing candidates. However, that’s not what I want to talk about. In Mayor Bob Kiss’ speech he made the following statement:

My administration worked closely with the Open Government Committee formed by resolution of the City Council. In response to committee recommendations, we’ve included more information about public meetings on the City web-site and the Planning Department added a new section about proposed and pending zoning amendments. During the campaign it was clear that people want to know more about the activities of each city department. Over the next year we’ll look closely at how to finance and build a more uniform, responsive and user-friendly City website that will keep you better informed about public meetings and how you can participate in the process of government.

I’m all for open government and the City of Burlington, Vermont could certainly use a better website. I’d like to give the city some advice on its priorities in building a better website. This blog post is my first round of advice, but I’d like to hear reactions from other web people in and around Burlington — or anyone else who has an interest in our city having a better website! This advice is based on the goals outlined by Mayor Bob Kiss: that the website is inline with the spirit of Open Government, is responsive, and is user-friendly.

First, the website must be accessible and use open standards. I put these two together because by using open standards the website can be accessible. Specifically, the website should use strictly semantic XHTML. This allows for its use in the widest range of user agents (browsers) by the widest range of user abilities (as opposed to disabilities). Its presentation should be progressively enriched through CSS and its behavior should be progressively enhanced through unobtrusive JavaScript. Progressive enhancement means that the website is useful, at its core, without any CSS or JavaScript. It becomes more useful through the use of CSS and then, perhaps, even more useful through the use of JavaScript. However, neither CSS nor JavaScript should be required to access the website’s content.

Second, the website should be built using free (as in freedom, not cost) and open source software. It is our government’s responsibility to use non-proprietary software wherever possible. When it comes to building websites and web applications, there are no excuses for not using free and open source software. The capabilities of the open web platforms available equal, or exceed, the capabilities of proprietary web platforms. Any custom software developed for the city’s website must be licensed to the city under a free and open source license (this does not mean that the city shouldn’t pay for this software to be developed).

Third, the city should embrace the concept of open linked data. This means that the city should publish data, not just content. This data should be both human and machine readable. This allows third parties to access raw data and repurpose this data in new and interesting ways. To this end, data and content should be either put in the public domain (which is probably the case already) or use a Creative Commons license. Where possible, the city’s website should consume open data published by others rather than duplicating effort. There are several technical approaches to publishing and consuming open linked data including Microformats and the Semantic Web.

I hope these recommendations are useful. Once I’ve heard some feedback from other web people, I’ll forward these recommendations to my city councilors and the mayor. Hopefully they’ll find it helpful in improving the city’s website!


  1. Jani
    Posted April 7, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    While I agree with what you’re saying, there is a small issue in saying that governments should use open-source software etc.

    Consider the fact that a lot of governments are already using Windows based servers (at least over here), or other proprietary software. Interfacing them with software from other manufacturers can be much more costly and difficult, than say getting a Windows server and building a site with ASP.NET.

    Of course, this highly depends on whether or not there is a dependency on old systems with such software. In such case, it’s a matter of justifying the possibly greater cost of development.

  2. whereofwecannotspeak
    Posted April 7, 2009 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I would add that the city web site should make it easy to access its historical content, either via an “archive” or a more real-time mechanism that stores content in a database (as e.g. wikis do). It doesn’t do much for accountability if controversial content, data, etc. can later be “fixed” by city employees.

  3. bradley-holt
    Posted April 8, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    @Jani Good point about government websites integrating with existing proprietary software. I’d hate to see them become more entrenched in proprietary software based on existing lock-in but you make a very valid point.

    @whereofwecannotspeak Good ideas! I’ve always hated the idea of an “archive” on the web – if you need an archive, that means you didn’t think through the fact that your information architecture should have factored in chronology to begin with. For example, blogs typically don’t need an “archive” because they’re based on chronology to begin with. Interesting idea too about showing all edits ever (like a wiki). That could certainly help with transparency and let people raise questions when data/content is changed.

  4. bradley-holt
    Posted April 8, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    In the second suggestion, using free and open source software, I should have talked more about the benefits of this approach. The city would be free to run the software however it sees fit, without fear of license restrictions. The city would be free to maintain, extend, and modify its own software as it sees fit. The city would be free to share the software, in whole or in part, to other cities that may find it useful. The city would be free to release the software to the general public so that others could benefit from this software. All of these activities would benefit the cause of open government and would not be possible through the use of proprietary software.

  5. ashawley
    Posted April 8, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Your “advice” may be a bit abstract to a city official, and it doesn’t specifically reference the current site, besides “could certainly use a better website”. I predict they want advice in the form of a concrete answer.

    Also, what is proprietary about the site or systems so far? I don’t know.

    If you want to follow what the current committee recommendations Kiss spoke of see

    (Perhaps your next blog post?)

    The election software for IRV is *loosely* free software. So, I think free software support has legs in Burlington.

    I don’t mind the current site, IMO. It just needs a lot of loose ends tied up.

  6. Ryan Freebern
    Posted April 8, 2009 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    You have some very good ideas, and I agree with them wholeheartedly. I also agree that concrete and specific examples are the easiest way to encourage adoption, and if interested local techies (like you and me) could volunteer our time and effort to assist the city’s IT department in getting this working, I’m sure they’d be much more enthusiastic.

    Here are some things I’d like:
    – an RSS feed for parking bans, so that I could set something up to send me a text message as soon as a parking ban is declared.
    – an API for retrieving past, current, and planned road work information, including location and duration, that I could mashup with Google Maps.
    – an API for retrieving information on reported and confirmed crimes and other law enforcement incidents, including latitude/longitude or street address, date and time of incident, who responded, and the result of the incident.
    – ways to look up my own personal info that the city has on file, such as my car’s registration information, information on the building I live in (owner, lot details, tax info, etc.) — as long as this info is protected from others’ queries.

  7. Smadraji
    Posted April 9, 2009 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    Nice Posting

  8. Steve
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    I was just thinking about the Open Gov. Comm (OGC) the other day. I was on that committee last year. I did push for open source software, but the vibe I got from Tim Barden (the city's IT director) was that they weren't really considering it, at least not seriously. I was the only geek on the OGC so as soon as I started talking about about open source CMSs (joomla in particular) everybody's eyes kinda glazed over (except for Tim who was happy to debate with a fellow geek). The website for the city of Santa Fe seemed to be the direction most of the OGC was leaning towards.

    The City's biggest challenge is staffing. Aside from the learning curve, they say they just don't have many people to input the data. I argued since they are already typing this stuff (usually into a MS Word .doc -Lame!) it wouldn't take any additional staff to type it into a database.

    One of the biggest complaints was that the info wasn't making it to the website, or when it did, there wasn't enough notice for meetings or events. Hilariously, our first meeting did not make it on to the website.

    I had been wondering what had been done with our recommendations since we presented them last August. From what I can tell they haven't done much if anything (though I have yet to look closely at the development recommendations and progress).

    I could babble on for a while, but instead I'll refer you to my previous blather.

    OGC "Diary"

    The Monster List

    Thanks for actually taking interest in this.

    Steve McIntyre