Seattle’s open data website: unfulfilled potential formally launched nearly two months ago, with a flurry of press releases, an initial batch of “60 datasets” and the promise of more.  I thought I’d take a quick look and see how the platform and the community are evolving.  Unfortunately, its potential is still mostly unfulfilled.  I’m bummed.

About the only positive thing I can find to say at this point is that the city wisely chose not to waste a bunch of staff time rolling its own data website platform, but outsourced the actual web-app problem to local startup  Socrata’s app is not terribly beautiful and quite frankly a bit clunky in many places, but it has a pretty decent feature set, and the city is reportedly only paying about $1000/month for hosting services.  That’s a pretty good deal for the functionality Socrata provides, and it frees the city from maintaining yet another web app.  Plus, it gives the City some hope of future feature/functionality upgrades as the Socrata codebase continues to mature.

That’s about all end of the praise I can dish out, though.  So far, is mostly disappointing and already looks stagnant, as if it was simply intended to tick off a checkbox on someone’s list of “Gov 2.0” initiatives, rather than as the opening salvo in a genuine, well-resourced commitment to opening the trove of public data that, as the Mayor reminded us, we’ve already paid for.

I hope that’s not the case, and I know that the city has got a long list of priorities and a big budget crisis on its hands.  So in that spirit, I’ll offer some thoughts about how I think can leap beyond its initial stumbles.

1) Get more worthwhile data up there. The launch publicity claimed to have 60+ datasets, and the site now claims to have over 140 datasets.  Unfortunately, it turns out that there are actually only 10 unique data sets on  The rest of the “140” sets are just filtered views and maps of data contained in a couple of those initial 10 datasets.  I know that a number of city agencies are working on prepping more data for release, but 10 datasets in two months, most of which were already available online just doesn’t seem like a very robust launch.  Worse, the 10 “real” datasets are almost impossible to find buried in the much larger, noiser list of filtered views and maps.  I’m looking forward to participating in a meeting with the City’s GIS team next week to offer some suggestions to their efforts to open their data.  But much, much more is needed.

2) Make sure the data that you post is actually usable.  At first, I was excited to see that the two of the initial launch datasets are the list of active building permits and land use permits.  Unfortunately, neither of these datasets includes a date field, so it’s impossible for anyone to build an app that, say, offers to alert users whenever there’s a new permit issued in their neighborhood.

3) Open up the process. There’s nobody identified as the project manager  of  No way to leave comments on datasets, or on the site, except for an email address.   No roadmap.  No space for conversation.   How about identifying someone as the “project manager” for the site, so we know who to contact?  Maybe even a little blog about the evolution of the site, a place for feedback and conversation?  The ability to leave a comment on a dataset, so the dataset owners can understand how it can be improved?  Open data isn’t just about the data, it’s about opening a conversation.   There is a “Suggested Datasets” tab on the whole page, but it’s got zero content, and I can’t tell if it it’s supposed to be a way to request additional datasets or what.  At a minimum it needs some explanation and some less confusing language.

4)  Get out there and promote it.  The site’s published stats show only a tiny amount of views on most datasets.  This is partially because most of the datasets are garbage right now, and I suspect partially because of some obvious UI problems with Socrata.  But a quick Google search turns up almost zero coverage or conversation about, besides the few bits of launch-day PR that the city churned out.  Get out there and start a public conversation about this, folks!

I have to confess, I’m pretty discouraged by so far.  It appears to be stumbling badly out of the gate, both in style and in substance.   It’s hard to see how the City is in position to launch an “Apps for Seattle” contest this summer with such a limited set of low-quality data, and zero visibility/conversation about the process.  The City is going to need to put a bit more effort and focus behind this, and to do it a lot more transparently, if it wants to build a thriving open civic data ecosystem here in Seattle.

WordPress Themes are GPL

WordPress released an opinion from the Software Freedom Law Center today confirming that WordPress themes must be GPL, although the images and CSS in a theme don’t have to be.

This is substantially similar to how Plone and Drupal have always thought that GPL applies to themes and add-on products, and it’s nice to see a project as large as WordPress putting its heft behind this common-sense interpretation of the GPL.

Community Leadership as Core Open Source Competency

David Eaves thinks that community leadership is *the* core, make-or-break competency of an open-source software project. I agree.

He shares a story that illustrates a pattern I’ve rarely seen in the Plone community, and hope to continue not seeing. 😉

One of the key ideas I’m interested in pushing is how “open” open
source communities are – and how they can make themselves easier to
join. I actually had an interesting experience while at FSOSS that
highlighted how subtle this challenge can be.

During one of the lunch breaks Mark Surman and I ran a Birds of a Feather
session on Community Management as the Core Competency of Open Source
Communities. In the lead up to the session, a leader of a prominent
open source community (I knew this because it said so on his name tag)
walked up to me and asked:

“Are you running this BoF?” (Birds of a Feather)

Not being hip to the lingo I replied… “What’s a BoF? I’m not super techie so I don’t know all the terms.”

To which he replied “Evidently.” and walked away.

And thus ended my first contact with this particular open source
community. With its titular leader nonetheless. Needless to say, it
didn’t leave a positive impression.

The lesson:

At some point everyone has to have a first contact with a community –
that first impression may be a strong determinant about where they
volunteer their time and contribute their free labour. Any good
open-source community will probably want to get it right.

I’m on the Plone Foundation board!

I’m thrilled, humbled and honored to have been elected to the Plone Foundation board of directors! I’ll be joining an amazing team of people, including:

  • Nate Aune
  • Geir Bækholt
  • Joel Burton
  • Darci Hanning
  • Alex Limi
  • Steve McMahon
  • (and me!)

Plone Conference 2007 has been an inspiring, energizing, brain-filling week. I’ve talked with dozens of people and heard a ton of amazing ideas. I’d love to hear more, though. Please leave a comment and share your vision of what you’d like to see happen in the Plone community over the next year.

I’m looking forward to working with all of you to help make those visions happen, and I can’t wait to read the next chapter of the incredibly story we’re all writing together!

Update: Christian Scholz captured the announcement on video; you can watch it here!

Plone Conference Liveblogging: Tom Moroz’s Keynote

Tom Moroz, Open Society Instiute

– Intro by Alan Runyan: the future of open source software looks
very much like the path that nonprofits and civil society
organizations have blazed.
– Heard a lot about Seattle 2006 conference and the strong
community. At first I wondered what the connection between open
society and open source was, but the more I’ve gotten involved
with Plone, the more I’ve come to see that we share the same path.
– A few months ago, we met Peter Hollands from Cisco Foundation who
helped Oxfam work on Plone. Helped him see the relevance of the
work we’re doing for the broader NGO/social change space.
– Eben Mogeln’s inspiration talk at Seattle 2006 helped further
draw that connection.
– Hope to show that the Plone community is an “open society”
– Open Society Institute: mission based on democracy, human rights,
rule of law. Local policy work, plus global alliance building.
– Plone’s power: helping build alliances online.
– OSI: works in over 60 countries and in 20+ program
– Founder: George Soros, became a billionaire investor, then in the
early 90s, became very interested in promoting open society in
the fomer Soviet Union, then has expanded organically from there
over the years. Now, 32 independent national foundations.
– Challenge: how to connect a very decentralized network?
– Many OSI programs have realized that policy advocacy is critical
to social change. This is filtering across their program areas.
– Example: education program supporting everything from preschool
to higher education.
– Key OSI inititaives:
– advocacy
– education/scholarships
– media/information
– local government
– human rights
– justice
– public health
– Tom’s definition of Open Source: a set of principles that promote
open access to the design and production of goods and knowledge.
– This definition applies to software development, but also to
government, media, education, business… and beyond!
– Open source is becoming integrated into the fabric of society
– “Wikinomics” – you only grow by making your knowledge open and
– Strong philosophical overlap between the Open Source philosophy
and Open Society Institute
– Knowledge is provisional and fallible
– Open Source: get the software out there, and then improve
it. User input into software design.
– Responsiveness
– Also, tolerance of differences. Rapid improvement. All
bugs are shallow in open source.
– Transparency
– example: Iraq Revenue Watch. Publish the numbers,
improve the policy.
– Obviously at the heart of Open Source!
– Pluralistic
– Open Society is very diverse and multicultural. Respect
for differences is at the core of both Open Society and
Open Source. Bringing everyone to the table really
– High degree of personal responsibility
– It’s up to the individual to interpret their own values.
You’re self-motivated to improve both society and
– Open Society values that don’t (obviously) map to Open Source
– Freedom and human rights are at the foundation
– Me: Software freedom is a form of intellectual
freedom — that’s what Eben Moglen argues
– Social mobility is a measure of openness
– Plone at OSI
– The problem: global intranet
– Timeline
– July 2006: chose Plone
– May 2007: KARL 1.0 beta release
– October 2007: KARL soft launch
– Process: extensive conversations with partners.
Conclusions: we don’t know all of the great work we’re
doing. We need to build more awareness of what we’re
doing. Started by looking for proprietary solutions, but
none could meet needs (e.g. Sharepoint), and also wasn’t
consistent with organizational philosophy.
– Had great experience with using Plone for the planning
– Presenting KARL to OSI board next week!
– Brief demo of KARL
– User-created Communities
– Tags
– Organization-wide news, events
– Local news, events, etc.
– Things we need to generalize
– Great tagging UI (!)
– Already very strong adoption, even in beta testing!
– Vision
– A microcosm for the global future of collaboration
– Vision of a hosted service for smaller organizations
– Host must be a trusted consortium!
– Importance of “soft” technology and methodologies
– Peter Senge, learning organizations.
– How can we replicate effective real-world
collaboration online?
– Closing thoughts
– Spiritual activism: social change comes from the
bottom, motivated by internal vision.
– Cells begin to find each other during metamorphosis.
– We’re starting to find local cells of change, and
they’re beginning to connect.
– Plone can be an amazing tool for connecting people.
– The journey is just beginning.