Our Thinking

The more we share the thinking, working and practices of ourselves and our fellows, the better

Seamus Kraft: New Means For Old Government

His Fellowship between 2014 and 2017 aimed to bring in key changes from the ground up to transform the relationship between citizens and government at local level. While his Madison project eventually ran aground after much election turmoil in 2016, The OpenGov Foundation have since established new ideas and continue to work on programmes delivering open innovation and, hopefully, culture change into higher echelons of federal government.

We spoke to Seamus about his Fellowship experience and how things have been going since. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Shuttleworth Foundation: Hi Seamus. Thanks for giving up your time to reflect on your Fellowship experience. What originally inspired you to start The OpenGov Foundation?

Seamus Kraft: I would say I was inspired uninspirationally! It came about because we didn’t have the tools to do our job. I was working in the House of Representatives, charged as a staffer with communicating on the Internet, not just with getting our messages out, but also to involve the people we served in day to day.

But the connectivity of engagement between government and people is very low. It’s inefficient, dissatisfying to all involved and everyone pays the price. But we have something right in front of us that’s really good at facilitating communications at scale - the open internet.

So that’s where we started. How do we leverage modern communications technology and the open Internet to improve the communication between Congress and the public, with the goal of delivering better outcomes for both sides of the conversation? That was the genesis of The OpenGov Foundation.

How did you get started?

Our birth moment was a series of really controversial, highly visible legislative processes around Internet freedom and intellectual property rights, specifically our opposition to two bills for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the House of Representatives Protect IP Act (PIPA).

These were terrible bills that would threaten the open Internet and give the justice department the ability to seize domains - without recourse. And if someone posted a karaoke video of copyrighted music, that would have made sites like YouTube accountable. It would have screwed up the whole open internet.

So we built a tool called Madison that opened up the legislative process on the Internet, in real time, for anyone to view and participate in directly. You could post a bill or piece of legislation or rule online, and just like you can do track changes in Google Docs or Word, you can do the same thing - but within the policymaking process.

On the backside it was the folks who were sponsoring that policy in government who were engaging with you directly, but in that targeted fashion, making it way more useful for both parties.

What led you to the Foundation?

By the time we had heard about the Shuttleworth Foundation, we got Madison out of Congress and into The Open Gov Foundation. We were working in six or seven local governments, to implement this software and help them do open annotation on policy documents.

That’s as far as we got, and we were really trying to figure out this open annotation thing which at that point was very nascent. It was just two of us - me and one other dev - and we ran into some serious massive technical barriers. We had just discovered this tech called the Annotator project, and an organisation that was centered around maintaining it, called Hypothes.is.

Dan Whaley’s project?

Yes, unbeknown to us at the time Dan Whaley was a Shuttleworth Fellow - and even more unbeknown to us Annotator itself had been started by Rufus Pollock, way back in the early days of the Foundation. It was one of his babies. Dan picked up that ball and ran with it - and we were picking it up for a third time, bringing it into the realm of government policy and government.

I didn’t figure all this out until the second year of my Fellowship. Rufus was there, he told us, and it blew my mind. It illustrates the beauty of the open internet and the beauty of what the Foundation puts out into the world. The humility behind that chain of events is striking…and very Shuttleworth.

What were you working on specifically during your Fellowship?

You can only open up policy documents by hand for so long. At that time I was using PDF docs, taking the text from them, cleaning them up by hand, and doing one document at a time. But legislators do hundreds of policy documents with tens of thousands of changes to them.

Multiply that impact on tens of tens of thousands of individuals, businesses and stakeholder groups across the whole United States and at some point doing this by hand isn’t going to work.

So, we looked at how we could create an open legal document production environment, so the people whose job it is to produce and maintain our laws and legislations, and rules and regulations, are doing open legal data from the start.

The theory of change was that if we put those tools in the hands of the people that need them inside city governments, people could access, understand and be heard on policies that impact their communities, their states, their countries or themselves. We wanted the process to become infinitely easier and involve far less friction.

It’s also about breaking down the barriers of legalese and discoverability. Right now you need to be a lawyer or a lobbyist type to just understand what this stuff is saying. All of those things are solvable if you have open data running underneath.

And how far did you get over the three-year Fellowship?

The project went very, very well, up until the 2016 election. By the third year we had established a unique - if not one of a kind - public private partnership with the Chicago City council.

We needed someone to be first to use an open data producing system and Chicago raised their hand, the city clerk brought us in and she became our chief partner. She was awesome and really engaged, so we were embedded for about a year and built about a quarter of the system.

But after the election she went from Chicago to the State of Illinois - into state office - to tackle the budget issues at the top drawer. We lost our chief sponsor and all of our working partners, which killed the project.

What about her replacement?

The person coming in afterwards said: ‘I know what this is, I love it and this is the future. But I’m hiring my staff, so come back in 6-8 months time.’ For us, that would have meant going out of business. We couldn’t wait around that long.

I think in parallel the other thing that killed it was the way we were being funded. The OpenGov Foundation was mostly grant funded, and the new political climate caused the entire civic/tech nonprofit world to dry up completely or redirect itself to far less neutral, less nonpartisan ends.

And you cannot get more neutral or nonpartisan than building the infrastructure of lawmaking. Everybody uses it, everybody needs it, but it lost whatever sex appeal it had to the funding community, just as my Fellowship was ending.

That’s how it went. But we got further than anyone else had and because we did everything in the open, it’s there for the picking up and running with in the future, whether it’s us or somebody else. There’s still that need, right?

Every government is running its processes in a paper based format, in inefficient systems, and the public still doesn’t get the access or understanding they deserve. So that’s a melancholy pause to the project.

I remember Jesse von Doom - an awesome Shuttleworth Fellow - put it beautifully when he stepped away from his Cash Music project. He said: ‘If you are doing openness the right way, the Shuttleworth Foundation way, there is no end - there are only pauses or handoffs.” We’re definitely in a pause.

What did you get out of the Fellowship on a personal level?

I can’t throw any superlative or adjective at you that would accurately or come even close to describing what Shuttleworth Foundation has meant to me. The team gave me and my team support when no one else did - or would - through incredibly trying times. That experience was worth more than any funding or support that they gave us financially.

But more than that, they helped me really develop a strategy of openness in one of - if not the - most closed aspects of our existence, which is government. Government runs on paper, it’s secretive, it’s behind the times. It’s all about accumulating power and information for self-interested outcomes.

Every direction points to the opposite of openness. And there’s a hybrid approach there. You can’t immediately put everything on the Internet because government would stop running.

There has to be - and there is - a happy medium between delivering on the rights of the public which skew hard towards openness, transparency and access, with enough privacy to facilitate frank deliberation and the day to day workings of government.

The Foundation really got that and helped me every step of the way to develop that theory of change and go out and implement it. It’s remarkable. I can’t believe they exist and that they found me, and I had the opportunity to learn and grow with them for three years.

What advice would you give future Fellows?

One of the hardest parts of the Shuttleworth Fellowship experience is that we are all ahead of the world in a lot of ways. And that really grinds you down sometimes. It’s so easy to get lost in that feeling of waking up every morning, and being righteous and angry and incomplete.

Because the the key part of accomplishing your Fellowship project and its ultimate aims is in the hands of Father Time. That can really take a lot out of you. It’s only from the Foundation’s cup, overflowing with encouragement and energy and enthusiasm and support, that it’s even possible to make a dent that we can make in one, two or three-year long Fellowships.

The parallel there is that you can light a fire with anger, but anger isn’t something that ultimately changes the world. It’s really hard to reach the world if you’re angry. Martin Luther King - and I’m not equating any of this to MLK by any stretch of the imagination! - he must have had more anger and frustration in his pinky toe than I have had in my whole life with the injustices he lived through in one day.

But he realised that channeling that into compassion and justice and reaching people through compassion and justice was the right way to do it. Ultimately, it’s the way to succeed. Compare that to the Malcolm X anger approach, which is of limited scope and duration, and flames out before you succeed.

So, how is life at OpenGov now, and what have you been doing since the Fellowship? What’s next?

As you can imagine, life is pretty hard working on the Rebel Alliance, light side of the Force. There is a headwind - that’s the easiest way to answer it - and those headwinds are enormous.

But in a different way I find it validating and energising. What the Foundation enabled me to do is to really refashion the critical infrastructure of representative democracy - not just in the United States but any free society. That’s a journey of a generation, and frankly, a journey that’s never over.

But after the craziness subsides - and it will - someone’s got to be there the day after tomorrow, ready to have the ship of state run efficiently and openly. And that’s what we are working on still with Article One Technologies.

It draws - literally, legally and projectwise - directly from the Fellowship project work. The problem is that unless there’s an easy way for government and those it serves to communicate at scale - we call it meaningful engagement - the outcomes are never going to be sufficient. This toxic cycle of disengagement and distrust is only going to spiral and get worse.

We are solving that problem with Article One and specifically looking at telephonic and voice engagement, SMS, voicemails, daytime calls and text-based comms using the House of Representatives as the alpha market.

I think it’s got legs, in a pretty significant fashion. We’re trying to pry open government and increase its efficiency and quality of connection and communication to individual citizens who have zero power, zero money, zero voice and are totally disenfranchised.

If you call a member of congress and its off-hours/office closed, you get sent to the voicemail box. But if you are in the House of Representatives your voice box messages are artificially capped at 150 messages. That can fill up in a matter of seconds, on a busy day. Article One negates this communications black hole effect, which is one of the main drivers of distrust and disengagement.

You know, if you call Amazon and tell them your package hasn’t turned up, you get a real person on the phone within an hour. And in the grand scheme of things, that package isn’t as important as your healthcare or benefits. But if Amazon can do it, why can’t government?

It’s going to take a while. Let’s say a Member of Congress represents 750,000 individuals, and a fraction will communicate with them once over a year. Well, that’s going to take a decade to build up the trust and repeated, high-quality, satisfying discrete communications and turn it into true political capital.

Good luck - you’ll be busy! - and thanks for speaking to us. Do you have any final thoughts?

Only that what I just articulated…I’m damn well sure I couldn’t wake up every morning and do it without the preparation the Shuttleworth Foundation gave me.

It gave me the direct theory of change we are applying to our work today, that we developed with heavy Foundation support and mentorship during my years as a Fellow. I can’t believe I get paid - very little at the moment - to work on the problem I want to work on. And I wouldn’t if it wasn’t for Shuttleworth - I wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

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Open Locks: Legal commitments that lock in trust

by Andrew Rens, Arthur Attwell and SF Team, 7 July 2016

Contributors to your open project invest their time and energy because they trust you with their gift to the world. So the challenge is this: How can you keep their trust? Can you seal it in for the long term? There are many successful projects that have managed this, notably in open-source software. Linux, Firefox and Wikipedia are good examples. The practice of sharing knowledge in open-source-software communities is now common among researchers, civil society...

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Ito/Shuttleworth collaboration

by SF Team, 17 March 2016

At the heart of the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship Programme are two key values - openness, and supporting individuals. Inspired by the programme itself, we are evolving how we award Fellowships. Not only will we be selecting individuals to support, we have selected an individual to help us make that decision for the coming round. We are excited to announce that Joi Ito will be the honorary steward of the September 2016 fellowship intake. Joi, who...

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Dan & Peter - new alumni

by SF Team, 1 March 2016

Dan Whaley Dan is the founder of Hypothes.is, developing an open, interoperable conversation layer over the web. During Dan’s 3 years of fellowship, Hypothesis has grown from an early stage idea to a fully fledged organisation. They develop essential annotation tools and support annotation efforts in journalism, education and science. Hypothesis is also the hub of a coalition to Annotate All Knowledge. Coalition members have agreed to begin the exploration and experimentation required to understand...

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Welcome Aaron, Peter and Tiffiniy!

by SF Team, 29 February 2016

Aaron Makaruk The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” WHO, 2016, with both physical and economic access being considered. With increasing urbanisation comes greater distance between the consumers and producers of food. Along with growing demand, this has lead to trade-offs between volume, shelf life and nutritional value. Costs have gone...

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How we measure success

by SF Team, 22 September 2015

Applicants, and sometimes even Fellows, find it difficult to compute the broad question “what do YOU want to do?”. They keep looking for guidance to narrow down the scope of possibility and fit within prescribed parameters. Yes, we want open and innovative, we like technology and we get excited about access. Other than that, and even beyond that, we want applicants to tell us what they want to do, not the other way round. In...

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Welcome Adam, Astra and Waldo!

by SF Team, 3 August 2015

Adam Hyde has a particular talent for helping experts codify processes into manuals for the benefit of a wider audience. His started with technologists through Booksprints and has now turned his attention to academics. As someone familiar with, but not ingrained in, the way academic output is captured and shared, he is questioning the journal publishing process at both the conceptual and practical level. How can we increase the value of scientific output to benefit...

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Welcome Luka Mustafa

by SF Team, 5 March 2015

Luka’s fellowship is centred around the development of Koruza, a 3D printable wireless optical system for connecting buildings up to 100m apart with internet access. Internet connectivity in urban areas is reliant on fibre or wifi. Where neither of these are viable, there are few other options available. Luka’s work could offer a viable low-cost alternative in these environments. This would empower individuals to build last-mile connectivity with their own hands through the organic growth...

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Catharina, David, Jonas & Rory - new alumni

by SF Team, 5 March 2015

Catharina Maracke took on the issue of contributor agreements for free and open source software (FOSS) projects through the Harmony project in March 2012. Where Fellows typically bring their own project into the Fellowship, Catharina was in the unusual position of taking on an existing project with various and varying role players. Hers was a very nuanced role, having to be sensitive to industry and community dynamics. Catharina is a strong legal mind committed to...

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Our experiment in the world

by SF Team, 23 February 2015

This is not where we started and it is almost certainly not who we will be indefinitely. But our experience in philanthropic investment so far has resulted in a couple of key principles that govern how we behave in the world, and specifically how we structure our relationships with those we invest resources in. This is where we are today: We fund individuals in the first instance. Individuals carry their learnings, experiences, passions and hopes...

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Download our legal templates

by SF Team, 6 February 2015

Since 2007 we have required Fellows to apply open licences - first CC-BY-SA and then CC-BY - to all intellectual property created during the fellowship. The same principle applies to works produced within the Foundation. Openly licensed resources are only as useful as the number of people who can access to them, so now we are eating our own dogfood and making our Fellowship Agreement and Project Agreement available on GitHub. These agreement outlines are...

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Arthur & Jaisen - new alumni

by SF Team, 1 September 2014

During his three years as a Shuttleworth Fellow, Arthur Attwell worked on Paperight, a rights clearance house for literary and educational works to allow distributed, local, on-demand book printing. Access to reading materials is critical to learning in its broadest sense. Arthur’s passion is to ensure universal access, with access including at least legal and physical dimensions. Digital is showing promise, but has not yet resulted in the scale needed, and never will if legal...

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Welcome Sean Bonner

by SF Team, 26 August 2014

We are excited about Sean’s work as he is literally putting the tools in the hands of the people who need them, localising the measure-report-decide cycle around environmental risk factors such as radiation and noise pollution. There are may questions around the quality, reliability and cost-effectiveness of open hardware in general, and specifically open sensing tools. Sean has shown that he can address these questions critically and engage relevant stakeholders and experts. We look forward...

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Welcome Seamus Kraft

by SF Team, 26 August 2014

Seamus applied to the Foundation to expand his work on the Madison Project which aims to open up government by increasing transparency and citizen participation in policy-making. We have seen a lot of open government applications in the past, and Seamus’ is the most practical one by far. He is starting off by focusing on a small scope in a very specific context and is uniquely positioned to implement these first steps thanks to his...

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Welcome Peter Bloom

by SF Team, 26 August 2014

Through Rhizomatica, Peter is setting up affordable local mobile phone networks in under-served areas in Mexico. We have invested in telecommunication initiatives before, as communication is absolutely key to be part of society as we know it. As long as you are not connected to the global communication network, you are excluded from participating in human development beyond the limitations of time and distance. Access to telecommunication is a matter of cost, infrastructure, hardware and...

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September 2014 fellowship intake

by SF Team, 26 August 2014

We had submissions from all over the world, exploring areas of science, education, culture, health, privacy and many many more. We spoke to people working on issues from personal safety to universal access to knowledge, from designing open hardware to alleviating poverty. All of the applications showed passion and personal commitment. We continue to be impressed. We were drawn to initiatives that are at the early stages of development and not yet widely funded, to...

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The How of Open

by SF Team, 15 May 2014

This success has also made the term fashionable and sometimes leads to overenthusiastic uses of the open label or, more worryingly, open-washing. It can result in uncertainty and confusion for those who plan to open up knowledge resources for strategic purposes. The detail of how open is open, matters. Although governments and inter-governmental organisations are adopting the creation and use of open knowledge resources, there is a surprising lag by the majority of non-profit organisations,...

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by SF Team, 21 April 2014

We do this because who we are and how we behave has impact on others. We want to present the best, most relevant parts of ourselves in a given context. We choose to ignore the warts and wobbly bits in favour of the identity we’ve claimed as our own in that space. It’s part of being human, being in control of our own lives and choosing what we reveal about ourselves, under what circumstances and...

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Open as a Strategy for Philanthropy and Social Change

by SF Team, 3 March 2014

The more we expose the thinking, working and practices of our organisation, our ideas and our projects, the better. Exposing this information allows other organisations, project implementers, funders, policy makers, change agents, advocates and academics to learn from what we have done. We have found that being intentional about making knowledge resources, funded and/or produced by us, freely and openly available creates a number of strategic opportunities: You can buy one copy, give 1000′s free....

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Application pointers

by SF Team, 20 February 2014

Prospective applicants often ask us to narrow down the parameters for applications and be more specific about what we’re looking for. We are not planning on doing that, as we want to be surprised and intrigued by applicants, no matter how unconventional the idea may be. However, we can provide some thoughts on what to keep in mind while developing your application for our fellowship. We hope these are useful, for applying for the Fellowship,...

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From Traditional Funder to Today

by SF Team, 16 February 2014

Our main goal was to improve the quality of education in South Africa. We invested in projects that offered unique and innovative solutions to educational challenges in a developing society, focused on the areas of science, technology, entrepreneurship and maths in education, as well as propagating the use of open source software. The Foundation operated as a traditional funding agency – we accepted proposals and funded them. Grantees implemented their projects and came back with...

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by SF Team, 15 January 2014

The open source software movement has not only created widely used software but million dollar businesses. Although the model is well established for software development, distribution and use, it is not the case for education, philanthropy, hardware or social development, to name but a few important endeavours. The default imposed on knowledge resources by copyright law is automatic lock down. This default makes little sense if your agenda is social change. We wanted to understand...