Open Minnesota

Legislation to accelerate open government, open data, and civic technology statewide for all Minnesotans! #OpenMN

In the news – TechPresident and

We’ve attracted some national attention via TechPresident, one of the most vital news sources in the technology and politics space. zipped us a list of ten big questions, that we’ve answered. See the story here and a copy of our answers below.

Open Minnesota Team

Q1) What is the definition of phrases “open government”, “civic technology” and “open data” in this bill?

A1) We just released our draft yesterday with resource links:

These definitions would be worked into a grant agreement with the Department of Administration. Because this is an appropriation and not an amendment to statutes, working in detailed definitions into the legislation wasn’t advised.

Here is our working summary:

Open Government – Promotes greater citizen participation, collaboration, and transparency in government. This includes government accountability via improved citizen access to public government information, decision-making, and representatives.

Open Data – Data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone. The U.S. gov defines as: publicly available data structured in a way that enables the data to be fully discoverable and usable by end users

Civic Technology – Focuses on online innovation that generate social benefits. It is technology for good working to solve public problems. This includes software development, design, data analysis and visualization, and more leading to mobile apps, web services, and more.

I expect we will update the civic technology definition.

On a related note, the Knight Foundation just updated their analysis of civic technology start-up investments and grants to non-profits –…. Of the $700 million tracked, Minnesota appears to have attracted only 0.1% of these investments with Knight’s $625,000 support for E-Democracy’s effort and their $10,000 grant for Open Twin Cities/CityCampMN/HackforMN last year.

This is why we need to look to the Smart Chicago Collaborative for inspiration. They are working with their local tech and start-up community, the public sector, non-profits, and the wider business community.

Check out Chicago’s civic innovation ecosystem:

Q2) What is the bill status currently and what is the next step in the process?

A2) You can follow the legislation from…

Committee hearings have been requested by the chief authors in the House and Senate and they could be happen any day with limited notice due the compressed legislative session. In the House, the bill was assigned straight to the State Government Finance and Veterans Affairs committee, where our House chief author Representative Steve Simon is a member. In the Senate, the Judiciary committee, a policy committee, wants a first look to learn more about what “open data” means. They cover the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act and while we are making it clear that nothing in this legislation changes what is public or private government data (e.g., open data cannot be legally private data on people held by government agencies), in general there is a healthy concern that openness may impact privacy.

In addition to the website – – we’ve been Tweeting legislators #mnleg #openmn-… – to thank them for supporting the legislation and doing outreach on Facebook – – promoting a new Facebook Group about the effort:…

Q3) When and how can the public attend or otherwise view any future hearings that pertain to this legislation?

A3) Come one, come all. Please sign up to receive alerts on when the legislation goes before the committees:…

As the civic technology community is being driven by volunteers showing up with their skills at events like Capitol Code, CityCampMN, HackforMN, etc., you are also taxpayers with public interests. With millions of state dollars going to non-profit public broadcasting or the Minnesota Historical Society for example, what kinds of public benefits do you want to see generated that leverages your day job skills. It is great that corporate volunteerism programs help turn out people to build homes or pick up trash along streams. Well, why not clean up the data streams coming out of government and build online “homes” that generate information-age public benefits for all Minnesotans?

Whether this legislation passes or not with funding, everyone who believes in using their technology, design, data, writing, social media marketing skills, etc. to use deploy technology for good can sign-up right now on the Open Twin Cities online group and Meetup:

Q4) How much public grant money is being requested and how is this figure determined?

A4) If the legislature invests 10 cents per resident in this idea that would be just over $500,000 or at a dollar it would be around $5 million.

At the request of the lead authors, a speculative figure was left out because this is a long shot with limited funding available. The goal is to first focus discussion on the idea itself – does Minnesota need a collaborative effort to promote open government, civic technology and open data education that reaches across the entire state? Or is having a mostly all volunteer effort with concentrated activity essentially in Minneapolis good enough and all that we can be.

Minnesota can be somebody with civic technology.

However, with this, the first state budget surplus in generation, now is the time to propose some radically new ideas for investing in Minnesota’s future.

Yes, most of the $1.2 billion dollar surplus will be returned as tax cuts after the tax hikes last session, but this is a timely idea with a limited window of opportunity to position Minnesota as a leading state. (Note that a handful of state’s are exploring open data policies –… -, meaning with public datasets are pro-actively placed on the Internet. But none are talking about investing in preparing communities around their state to take advantage of this trend.)

Q5) Are there any concrete deliverables or requirements contingent upon public funding?

A5) This is exactly what the grant agreement with the Department of Administration will do. “Trust us” will not cut it. We drafted the legislation to give any interested government unit (local governments, public universities, other state officers) a say in advising the terms to make this a real government partnership with a well established Minnesota-based non-profit in this space taking the lead. (We’ve been around since 1994.)

Q6) E-Democracy, a private nonprofit run by Executive Director by Steven Clift, is named as the financial benefactor of this legislation. How do other potential recipients of public funding include themselves within this legislation?

A6) An earmark for open government is sort of an oxymoron isn’t it. 🙂

The hard truth is that the local Chicago-based foundations who have stepped up to both host (Chicago Community Trust) and support (MacArthur Foundation) the Smart Chicago Collaborative along with their mega-city status and a strong mayor committed to government action of open data –http://techplan.cityofchicago…. – represent a well resourced exception to the rule. Their 2.5 people on staff combined with a number of talented consultants and partnering organizations are unleashing amazing potential we need here and everywhere.

If state governments around the nation do not step up, for the most part only the largest cities will come to resource civic technology accelerator efforts. As we are seeing nationally already, the resources, jobs, and investments will go almost exclusively to the coasts. Civic technology models that in reality extracts revenue directly out of our state should be a real concern.

In terms of spreading possible funding around, we are working from the assumption that resources beyond what is envisioned for the core educational outreach initiative – – would strategically go into incubating specific and outstanding civic technology apps that win competitions or meet some criteria for funded project coordination. Most civic tech is a volunteer experience, but helping spark start-ups that attract venture funding is something very desirable. We can help big ideas gain attention through code-a-thons, unconferences, and online groups.

Also, when asked if this is one-time funding, my answer is that the purpose of this effort is both to launch something new, something statewide (very very important), and to bring ideas back to the next legislative session. I think a competitive innovation grant fund that requires collaboration by at least two government units, one non-profit, and one private business would be a great idea to explore in the 2015 legislative session. The one time $100,000+ investment by the McKnight Foundation in the University of Minnesota’s CURA Tech – – for civic tech focused on low income communitieis and people of color is something I am watching closely. Bill Bushey, the co-founder of Open Twin Cities and E-Democracy’s Technology Director is involved with CURA Tech and the development of this proposal. The more resources the more entities that should play a direct role as the amount of funding increases.

Q7) A public post made made by Steven Clift on March 6th reads: “The simple bill text (we had a longer version, but legislators felt the details are best left up to our partnering state agency).” Who is the partnering state agency and how is that determined?

A7) The Department of Administration agreed that they were well positioned to administer the grant. They administer grants for public broadcasting as well. This was the preference of the lead House author.

The details from the first draft are the basis for:

As you might imagine, state agencies via the Governor’s supplemental budget proposal have their own official priorities. Open Minnesota, with its non-profit-government-private sector-education collaboration and educational outreach frame is not the kind proposal that emanates out of government IT departments. Preparing communities as a whole, will be our role. This complements government open data policy efforts and work to get more government data online.

In our view, the government is getting their policy and open data publishing house in order, but how do we prepare Minnesotans to make strategic use of this data? How do we create awareness about public demand for specific kinds of data? Build they will come? I don’t think so.

With governments coming out to support codeathons over the last year, how do we provide them the technology community support and interface they are asking us for? (For example, three contractors with E-Democracy/OTC assisted the Secretary of State with their Capitol Code event – the other month. Bill Bushey can probably cite at least one government contact a week asking for advice, information, etc.)

The government units we’ve connected with the most include, MN.IT, DEED’s Office of Broadband Development, the Department of Administration, the Minnesota Secretary of State, MetroGIS, the MetCouncil, the City of Minneapolis, the City of St. Paul, and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Most of these entities contributed letters of support for a long-shot Open Twin Cities inclusive outreach grant we applied for previously:…

Q8) To what degree should public engagement and input should be a part of the process involving legislation of public data and allocation of public funding?

A8) That is what the legislative process is all about. Very very public. But it is a meat grinder of a process. It does take time to engage. You can’t “Like” this into law.

This is why we’ve created a public website, invited people to join the vibrant Open Twin Cities online group, started a new Facebook group, are working to engage on Twitter, etc. Links galore:…

In terms of navigating the legislative process, it helps that I worked in both the State Senate and

the Executive Branch. When I worked in the Executive Branch I was the founder and coordinator of the state’s North Star portal (now in 1995 and helped get Governor Arne Carlson up as our first governor on the web. As people are volunteer to help at the Capitol, we are slotting them into important roles.

If members of the public would like to propose amendments they should either contact the lead legislative authors directly (feel free to cc: ), contact their legislators, or ideally members they know best on the committees before which the legislation is appearing.

Q9) How will the public interact and collaborate with said agency in determining the details of this proposed legislation?

A9) The public could definitely have an influence on the terms of the grant if this legislation passes with funding. I can personally commit to at least one major public input brainstorm if the legislation passes. Since Open Twin Cities and civic tech has been so collaborative and filled with volunteers, that should continue. If Open Minnesota doesn’t fundamentally unleash more volunteer tech talent, then will not have the impact it needs to have. Those prospective volunteers are exactly the ones who should help influence how any state resources are spent.

I should note, that we’ve scraped the barrel to pay for some of Bill Bushey’s Open Twin Cities/CityCampMN coordination time, but as I’ve repeated many times we can’t expect volunteers to sustain the vital coordination and outreach work. It is work essential unleash community capacity.

Q10) Funding aside, what do you think the State can do within existing structures and budgets to relinquish more data owned by the public?

A10) Tons. This is where the bulk of government investment is and should be. The State CIO Carolyn Parnell has a great perspective on open data as an enterprise vision for the state. You should follow up with her directly.

At Data.Gov I noticed yesterday that 917 datasets related to “Minnesota,” while Wisconsin has 4871. Hmmm, let’s fix that.

With the interest in Minnesota’s GIS community and recent resolutions from the Hennepin County and Ramsey County boards on GIS open data, work in Minneapolis on an open data policy and new Councilmember Andrew Johnson’s interest there, things are starting to really move in parts of Minnesota.

However, Minnesota has hundreds of cities and scores of state government offices and counties. As someone with family roots on the farm and having gorwn up in Winona, I can tell you that Greater Minnesota matters and making sure they can help build the civic technology revolution and not just be an end user is in the direct public interest of the state.

I’ve been waiting twenty years for Minnesota to step up with open government and civic technology. That day is finally here. I left state government in 1998 because the focus was turning exclusively to services. We had a government excited to collect your taxes online, but not ask “And how would you like those taxes spent?” Services first, democracy later.

Now it is finally later. And it is awesome.


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