Considering a New Information Architecture for the City of Houston

Chris Bronk, Tory Gattis, Vivas Kumar, Robyn Moskowitz
2011 Social Science Research Network  
For 10 weeks during the summer of 2011, two Rice University student interns from the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership collaborated with faculty from the George R. Brown School of Engineering and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy on a consultative engagement with the City of Houston. The program was initiated after stakeholders in the city's departments of Administrative and Regulatory Affairs and Information Technology indicated an interest in inviting outside talent to
more » ... ok at some of their most pressing issues. Under the supervision of Rice University adjunct faculty member Tory Gattis, the two students interns, Vivas Kumar and Robyn Moscowitz, worked to identify solutions, develop strategy, and prepare software prototypes for adoption by City of Houston offices. This report details the overarching framework that spurred our interest in bringing software engineering and information management talent to the City's problem set. With budgetary pressures continuing, there is a need for the City to better utilize its information resources and to migrate to more lean, nimble mechanisms that can locate, develop, and integrate the information services it needs. The days of seeking large, highly customized, platform-based information technology (IT) provided at high cost are over for America's large cities because the costs are unsustainable. Some answers will be provided by the proprietary IT market, but others will require unorthodox collaborations between small teams of software developers and government, with the end result being grassroots technical entrepreneurship. Beyond our philosophical model-what some are calling "open-source government"-we cover here the major programs undertaken in the summer program, as well as recommendations for future work conducted by Rice University in collaboration with the City. Three major initiatives were undertaken: (1) the development of a wiki platform to capture institutional knowledge; (2) identification of a solution to an email archive and retention issue; and (3) the development of a mobile computing prototype to replace the largely paper-based process currently in place in the Neighborhood Protection Corps. While we do not offer complete solutions to the City's information problems, we have undertaken efforts that might help city planners to think differently about how those challenges might be addressed. Considering a New Information Architecture for the City of Houston 4 Open-source Government In conducting the first Rice Center for Engineering Leadership-Baker Institute for Public Policy engagement with the City of Houston's Administrative and Regulatory Affairs (ARA) Department, we brought with us a philosophy borrowed from the field of software engineering. This concept is open-source computer software in which, through strong and capable governance, individuals collaborate on projects of utility to a reasonably wide audience and make it available to any who want it. While this open source collaboration baffles economists (as explained in Yochai Benkler's "Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm"), the movement has been responsible for the development of most of the software code that makes the Internet work. Our question centers on how the process of a municipality becomes encoded in software as technology makes its way into the business processes of government. We ask: How can public administration become a more open process in which the best ideas prevail rather than "bureaucracy as usual" in which things are done the way they have been done in the past? The City of Houston would greatly benefit from creating an open-source collaborative in which it engages in limited-scope projects with independent software writers or small agile development teams. The initiative would involve a forum calling upon the public to submit proposals for mobile applications that would serve private citizens' largest needs in relation to their interaction with the City. This would create an environment from which software developers gain ideas for creating applications that reap tremendous benefits for the city. The most notable example of this kind of project is New York City's "NYC BigApps" project. The NYC BigApps project ( invites the general public to submit ideas for mobile applications to help better their experience of New York City. The ideas range from the arts and culture of the city to civic engagements in which the general public contributes to constructing new ideas for planning, services, and other municipal functions. Engagement goes beyond attempting to communicate with an often-faceless bureaucracy and becomes a civic discussion, dominated by residents, but with participation from government. Considering a New Information Architecture for the City of Houston 5 How does this work? Novel ideas are voted upon by readers of a "new ideas" website, and New York City releases open source data necessary to accomplish the highest-ranked goals on the website, allowing software developers to create mobile applications over a set period of time. A panel of judges reviews the mobile application submissions and announces winners after judging the applications based on several criteria relating to the usefulness of the applications. For example, the first round of the competition resulted in WayFinder NYC (allows users to find the closest subway entrance) and Big Apple Ed (offers detailed profiles on schools throughout the NYC area). As the City of Houston aims to rehabilitate neighborhoods throughout its metropolitan area, expand public transportation, and improve essential infrastructure, it should look beyond the boundaries of its in-house workforce by publishing open-source data and allowing third-party developers to compete in developing applications to address technological needs. The City of Houston (hereafter "the City") has a great opportunity to tap into a huge pool of talent by allowing talented software developers and civic organizers (read: volunteers) to create applications based on its citizens' largest needs. One of the threats to this model of software development is that nearly anybody from throughout the world can access the open-source information that the City decides to release. However, if the City is selective about which pools of data are released to the public, helpful applications can be developed without interfering with sensitive municipal processes. Another avenue for the City to explore is in spinning out private enterprises from the development of applications in order to bring in an additional source of income. Applications developed to improve business processes that produce positive results and proceeds from investment in civic software could be licensed and sold to other cities throughout the country, and profits from the license sales could be used to bolster the City's bottom line. This concept of open-source government, where data begets software applications, is not a radical concept. Other cities have moved in this direction, and applications are beginning to grow from early open-source government projects elsewhere, including the "SeeClickFix" mobile Considering a New Information Architecture for the City of Houston 6 phone app that is being employed around the country to digitize 311 service systems. This overarching view of the open-source city, in which processes are opened up and data is removed from confusing hierarchical stovepipes, guided the efforts of the Rice University project team in its initial engagement with the City in the summer of 2011. Below is a summary of the team's efforts during the summer project period, as well as pointers to future directions for building out innovative IT that is the platform for a citywide knowledge strategy that changes managerial, administrative, and technology development processes. A Wiki of the City While the pace of social media development-Facebook, Twitter, YouTube-across the last several years has been rapid, perhaps one of the most important developments in the Internet information sector is Wikipedia. In less than a decade, Wikipedia has grown from a hobbyist project to a threat to traditional sources of information-and a massive, self-correcting resource for storing thousands upon thousands of articles in more than 100 languages. Disappointingly, we in academia did not produce such a resource, but a free encyclopedia now exists. Germane to this report is that the software that makes Wikipedia work also has already found application in government, in the U.S. Intelligence Community, and in cities in Canada and Australia, as well as in many of the world's corporations. Large organizations need repositories of readily available information. Houston is no different. We entered into the summer engagement with ARA and the City's IT Department with the belief that Enterprise 2.0 tools, especially wikis, should be adopted for the purposes of knowledge management, increased collaboration across all sectors of government, transparency of government proceedings to constituents, and to engage constituents more closely. Considering a New Information Architecture for the City of Houston 7 Figure: HoustonPedia prototype The costs to start-up a wiki are nearly negligible because the City already possesses the necessary servers and databases to run a dynamic wiki. Two kinds of wikis could be useful to the City: internal (where the wiki becomes a repository of knowledge about City policies and procedures, and can only be accessed by City employees) and external (where the wiki becomes a means by which citizens from the City collaborate with government). By implementing a wiki platform upon which employees can collaborate on documents, the City can reduce server space utilization and increase general efficiency. An internal wiki will also be effective in mitigating the effects of employee turnover by serving as a central collection of the City's internal knowledge. Assessment of Wikis Strengths A key value of wikis lies in the capacity for several individuals at any time to edit a single instance of a document and changes remain uniform throughout the process of document Considering a New Information Architecture for the City of Houston 8 creation and finalization. The simple fact that all users will be working on one document instead of distributing several drafts of documents results in the reduction of server space utilization. By administering edit-tracking specifications during the wiki creation process, users can track the changes to the document over time so that they can intercede to settle conflicts over content evolution and information management. Weaknesses Wikis do possess some weaknesses that require serious consideration. The most pressing is a phenomenon known as the 90-9-1 Rule. This states that in online communities that base their progress on the interaction and contribution of users: 90 percent of users never contribute actively to the site although utilizing the site for their own gain; 9 percent of users contribute from time to time while utilizing the site for their own knowledge; 1 percent of users are heavy contributors who sacrifice time and energy to maintain the site and actively track the evolution of content on the site.
doi:10.2139/ssrn.2270858 fatcat:zut5ddc7tfbbdpvtyctc6aml2e