OpenGov Tracker puts the best open-government ideas in one place

NASA employees use open-source tools to build a site in two days with no budget

Agency: NASA

Project: OpenGov Tracker


Technology: IdeaScale Application Programming Interface; Tornado, a lightweight, open-source web development framework; MongoDB, an open-source, document-oriented database; Googlechart, an API for chart generation; Uservoice, a free, Web feedback forum; and Github, a Web-based hosting service for projects that use Git revision control system.

Robbie Schingler, one of the developers of OpenGov Tracker, describes the site as a tiny hack — and in this case, the word “hack” means something good — with immediate value. Schingler, an executive at NASA’s Office for Open Government, and co-developer Jessy Cowan-Sharp, also with NASA, created the Web site in two days during the record-setting snowstorm in February that halted activity around the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

“Two developers, two days, no money” — that was Schingler's description of the project at a recent conference on Web development and new media for government Web managers.

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The Open Government Directive, which ordered agencies to open their doors and data to the public, was the motivation for the site. The directive states that each open-government Web page had to incorporate a mechanism to provide input on the agency’s open-government plan.
In early February, the General Services Administration offered a citizen engagement tool based on the IdeaScale platform to 24 federal agencies, including NASA. Twenty-three agencies accepted.

Open Gov site 

The online dialogue tool allowed members of the public to submit, rank and comment on ideas about how agencies could best fulfill the goals of the Open Government Directive by becoming more transparent, participatory, collaborative and innovative.

Schingler and Cowan-Sharp essentially developed a site consisting of one basic page that aggregates 23 of those sites to give the public a quick glance of the best-rated contributions in each of four categories: collaboration, participation, transparency and innovation.

For instance, in the participation category, someone proposed that the Education Department promote funding for open-source textbooks. The idea is to create free textbooks that schools could customize. Another example, in the innovation category, was to let NASA employees set aside time each week for unstructured, creative thinking.

OpenGov Tracker tracked all government ideas, votes and comments. It then highlighted agencies with the most or least ideas, votes or comments. NASA topped the list with the most ideas (470), votes (4,747) and comments (700). Those with the least ideas, votes and comments were organized in another category: Needs More Love.

The developers accomplished the task on their own time using their own server on the NASA Nebula cloud computing platform. In addition to using IdeaScale’s application programming language, open-source software formed the project's foundation.

The developers used the Python programming language with the Tornado Web development framework and MongoDB document-oriented database. The developers also used Uservoice, which is free Web feedback forum software, and Github, for storage, Schlinger said.

Here are some of their lessons learned.

  • Keep it new and fresh. The developers were able to pull in new information without human intervention.
  • Keep it simple. The developers only had one function, one page.
  • Make it fun.
  • Develop quickly. Allow developers to work in sprints and incubate the work, using open-source software and iterations, if useful.


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