A More Transparent City, with A Page for Every Capital Project

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on November 2, 2017

Few things impact the lives of New Yorkers more than the city’s “capital projects.” These projects create, maintain, and improve the infrastructure New Yorkers use every day, including: streets, bridges, tunnels, sewers, parks, and so much more. In 2018, the capital budget will be $16.2 billion, approximately 17% the size of the city’s $85.2 billion “expense budget.” What are these projects? How can you find out about them? It’s not easy, but it should be.

The Capital Budgeting process is a complex endeavour. The City maintains a 10 Year Capital Strategy that it updates every two years, and an Annual Capital Budget that is passed every year by the City Council, and a Capital Commitment Plan that is prepared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) three times a year, which outlines precisely how and when funds are being allocated to agencies on a project by project basis. The Commitment Plan is the most interesting because it’s the closest to the reality of how the city is planning to spend our money. It comes in fourvolumes” of PDFs containing 2,162 pages of table after table of information describing nearly 10,000 different projects. Printing this out results in a stack of paper about one foot tall.

In 2017, why isn’t all this information in an easy-to-use spreadsheet or database? The only reasonable answer is that the city doesn’t want the public to scrutinize this information too deeply.

Fortunately, recent advances in technology have made it much easier to turn PDFs into spreadsheets, and spreadsheets into web applications. And that’s what I’ve done at projects.votedevin.com, where you can now find a web page for every single capital project, organized by agency and sortable by project’s cost. Of course, our ability to display useful information about projects is limited by the information in the capital budget reports – but there’s more than enough information to pique any budget conscious New Yorker’s interest.

Here’s an example: Project HBMA23216 from the DOT is a $312 million construction project for the “Promenade over FDR E81st – 90th St Bin 2232167.” That’s a lot of money for a promenade. By Googling the project’s name, description, and various internal codes (FMS Number, Budgetline and Commitment Codes) we can find a lot more information, like the RFP Notice, proposed architectural plans, and more.

As you browse the budget, sorting the most expensive projects by agency, more questions arise: Why does the City’s 311 system need a “Re-Architecture” that costs over $20 million this year? Why isn’t the press reporting the over $120 million in renovations planned for the Brooklyn Detention Center (search BKDC)? Why does the “Vision Zero Street Reconstuction” [sic] go from $2 million in 2018 to $100 million per year in 2021-2023?

I’m sure good answers exist for these and other, more probing, questions. These projects are, after all, funded by us taxpayers. Making this information more accessible would not only create more opportunities for civic engagement, it would also allow the public, journalists, academics, and others to serve as watchdogs, which might result in millions of dollars of identifiable cost savings.

A quick trip to the New York City Charter reveals that the City is required by law to document its capital projects in a very specific way. Presumably the City follows its Charter, which means this information exists, so shouldn’t the city share more of it? Cost shouldn’t be the reason we don’t have access to this information. If the City spent just 1/100th of 1% of the capital budget on public documentation, they could easily fund an exceptional website with a team of data organizers and content publishers who could keep it up-to-date.

What would that website look like? It would certainly have a lot more information than what the city currently publishes in its PDFs and on their “Capital Project Dashboard,” which offers very little additional information about the 189 “active projects over $25 millions.”

Imagine if the City maintained a web page for every capital project that contained all related public information: project status, project scope summaries, location on a map, lists of hired contractors and their fees, and an activity log so we, the people, could watch as projects move through their various stages. Now that’s the types of transparency we should expect from our city government!

Who has the power to make this information public? Certainly the Mayor’s Office, but it’s easy to see why it doesn’t. The Mayor is responsible for directing the people and agencies leading  these projects, so creating more avenues for additional scrutiny, which could easily lead to bad press, is hardly a priority. Fortunately, New York City’s Public Advocate, which is an entirely independent office, has some statutory jurisdiction within the Capital Budget process and could force the city to better document the capital budget.

Section 216 of the New York City Charter states, “Upon the adoption of any such amendment by the council, it shall be certified by the mayor, the public advocate and the city clerk, and the capital budget shall be amended accordingly.” While I’m not a lawyer, it sounds like the Public Advocate could threaten to stop certifying amendments to the budget until the city releases a database of all capital projects with additional information to help New Yorkers better understand how their tax dollars are being spent.

That’s precisely what the Public Advocate should do, and as a candidate running for that position, I commit to making that demand when elected. It’s up to you, the public and the media, to ask other Public Advocate candidates how they’d use their oversight power over the Capital Budget. Will they also pledge to demand “A Page for Every Project”?

Until the city offers a page for every capital project, I’ll will keep updating projects.votedevin.com so New Yorkers can learn more about what the city does with our money. It’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it.

image of the city’s capital commitment plan vs. our website

“Big City” Libertarianism

The Libertarian Party (LP) is the third largest political party in the United States, with a membership that’s twice as large as the Green Party and twenty times as large as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Unlike the Greens and DSA, which draw a significant support from urban areas, the LP is significantly more popular in suburban and rural areas. Some believe this distribution of support is inevitable, as city residents rely on government more than rural their counterparts—but, it isn’t. The Libertarian party can reframe its values for urban populations, and develop an urban agenda rooted in social tolerance, good governance and urban empowerment. This will allow it to emerge as the most viable alternative to the two-party duopoly gripping municipal, urban politics around the country today.

Social Tolerance

Many people think that libertarian culture and the culture of our nation’s biggest cities are at odds because libertarianism is so often framed as a philosophy rooted in “rugged self-reliance” and urbanites are anything but “self-reliant” since they rely on large-scale, networked, complex supply chains to sustain themselves. In reality, libertarian philosophy is much more focused on people’s ability to self-organize  complex systems to meet their own needs through the “market” than it is on the notions of “self-sufficiency”. The same market forces that libertarians are so interested in understanding and utilizing are also the forces that make modern, urban life possible. As such, “Big City” Libertarianism should sideline aesthetics and notions of self-reliance and instead focus on how market forces and technological innovation can be best utilized to benefit all city residents.

Libertarians also need to interpret urban experiences from a libertarian lens to show urban residents that they share have libertarian tendencies and values. The core principle of libertarianism is that individuals should be free to do as they please as long as they don’t harm others. Sometimes this is called the “non-aggression principle”. Other times it’s referred to as just plain old “tolerance and acceptance.” Residents of big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami know that if their neighbors didn’t have tolerance for (and even love of) diverse lifestyles, races, genders, ethnicities, cultures, philosophies, religions, etc, their cities simply couldn’t function. While Democrats attempt to talk the talk of “social progressivism”, the Libertarian Party has walked the walk: nominating the first female Vice-Presidential candidate in the 1970s, supporting gay rights in the 1980, fighting to end the drug war in the 1990s and opposing the war in Iraq in the 2000s. Big City Libertarians should highlight the progressive history of the Libertarian Party and not be afraid to denounce regressive cultural elements in the party’s past and present.

To win hearts and minds in our nation’s cities, Big City Libertarians should focus their energies on issues where urban “progressives” are more aligned with the Libertarian Party than they are the Democratic Party. The “Drug War” and the resulting mass incarceration and police militarization it has spawned presents such an opportunity.

The drug war has fallen out of favor among intelligentsia concerned with public health because of an increasingly broad body of research showing that the Portuguese and Northern European approach of decriminalization and risk reduction is producing superior outcomes in every way: less drug use, less crime and less healthcare costs. The drug war is also falling out of favor among the young and “social justice progressives” because they recognize it as a method of social control – oppressing the most vulnerable and marginalized populations throughout the US. The numbers are staggering: black men are incarcerated at rates over 5x that of whites, even though they use drugs in comparable quantities. While many Democrats now support some type of marijuana decriminalization, almost all still support the drug war’s prohibitionist approach to “controlled substances.” Big City Libertarians should lead on issues of mass incarceration and police militarization, and offer something no political party has yet — a powerful solution: Ending the Drug War.

Good Governance

New York City, like many large cities throughout the US, is dominated by the Democratic Party. That means political bosses and party elite pick our politicians, and voters have little power to challenge the status quo. That’s one reason why NYC’s voter participation rate in local elections is under 25%. New Yorkers want more political options, but they certainly aren’t coming from the Republicans who maintains a hierarchical party infrastructure that benefits from maintaining the status quo. Many politically active urban residents have invested significant time in the project of reforming the Democratic Party, but their success has been minimal and frustration is high. Big City Libertarians should present themselves as the anti-corruption, good-government party.

By organizing local Libertarian Party chapters around values of openness, transparency, participatory governance, and by utilizing appropriate technologies to run themselves faster, better and cheaper than the competition, local LP chapters can become more effective effective political operations while also training their members in the same type of technology-enabled reform that we can pitch to voters as a solution to corrupt local politicians and lethargic, bloated bureaucracies.

Urban Empowerment

With Trump as president, many city residents have awoke to the fact that there are many layers of government – and these various layers don’t always agree or collaborate with each other. They’re realizing that they’d much prefer a structure where the federal government has less power and municipal governments have a lot more. This emerging “municipalism” is entirely consistent with libertarianism for two reasons. First, it localizes power and decreases the number of people each politician represents, making politicians and government more accountable. Second, it reduces the size and scope of the federal government, which is something every Libertarian supports.

By advocating at the national level for more local control of tax revenue, Libertarians can be inclusive of their rural and suburban bases, while maintaining a flexibility that allows them to advance in urban politics. Local control shouldn’t simply mean more policies are determined at local levels (although this is obviously a part of it), but should result in restructuring the tax system to shift the destination of tax revenue from the Federal government to state and local government.

Let’s call this “flipping the pyramid.”

Currently, the federal government gets most of the tax money, then states and lastly cities. This status quo should be flipped on its head so that the federal government receive the least amount of tax revenue, allowing states and local governments to gain significantly more. Now, many rural and suburban localities don’t want or need big local governments, and voters in those places can direct their governments not to raise taxes – leaving them with a significantly lower tax burden than city residents.

For example, a New York City resident who currently pays 20% to the Feds, 10% to the State and 5% to local government (for a total of 35%), would instead give 5% to the Feds, 10% to the State and 20% to the city (total remains 35%). This restructuring would allow New Yorkers to achieve more local control, sustain or even increase the level of services they receive, while still paying the same total amount in taxes. Meanwhile, a resident of Grafton, New Hampshire, who is currently paying 20% to the Feds, 7.5% to the State and 2.5% to their county (30% total) could then be paying 5% to the federal government, 5% to the state and 5% locally (15% total) – resulting in a massive tax break for them. So, for the New York City resident, the Libertarian plan might not lead to a tax decrease, but instead lead to a drastically better funded city government, while to the rural Grafton resident, the Libertarian plan does lead to a massive tax break. Big City Libertarians and small-government Libertarians can collaborate deeply on “flipping the pyramid” at the national level, and then both achieve their separate goals at the local level in their own communities.

The “regional differentiation” that will naturally arise when localities have more power to determine their overall tax rate is something we should all embrace. Instead of imposing our ideals on everyone in the country through the federal government, we should view people’s residency as a political choice. If people chose to live in a city or state with high taxes, they’re voluntarily accepting the high taxes. If they don’t want to pay those taxes, then they can move to a place with lower ones. This act of voting with one’s feet is the oldest manifestation of democracy, and the idea that people should actually get up and move from places that don’t share their values to places that do should be embraced, encouraged, supported and maybe even subsidized.

While that might sound drastic or raise the specter of places becoming truly inhospitable to certain types of people in ways that they currently are not, we should recognize that (a) this process is already well underway for middle and upper class people who can afford to move, and (b) our nation’s structural resistance to regional differentiation has led to over a decade of Congressional gridlock and a vicious culture war that put a reality-TV show host into the presidency.

This doesn’t mean that the federal government should stop performing critical functions such as upholding the civil and human rights of US citizens, investigating corruption of state and local officials, regulating interstate commerce, helping with disaster relief and more. Rather, it means that the we must begin in earnest a visioning process that redraws the appropriate scope of local, city, regional, state and federal powers. While working to implement this new vision, we should also be investing our time and resources into upgrading the capacities of local layers of government so they’ll be able to absorb new responsibilities and effectively allocate more resources. Anyone involved with local politics knows that it can be just as corrupt, and even more so, than national politics. That’s why our strategy must also include a movement to transform local governments into open, transparent and participatory institutions that good people want to join and lead.

With over 135 million Americans living in metropolitan areas of over a million people, the Libertarian Party has everything to gain by creating a space for “Big City” Libertarianism to flourish.

Imagining SimNYCity

I was eight years old when I first encountered a computer game called “SimCity.” The general premise of the game was that you were the mayor of a virtual city, and you would use game money to create a place for communities of “Sims” to live. First you set up basic infrastructure like roads, pipes, and zoning and soon after, the “Sims” would arrive to build buildings and pay taxes. As tax revenue flowed in, you would use it to make citywide improvements by establishing public infrastructure like schools, hospitals and parks. The more robust your city’s services, the more Sims would want to live there, and the more taxes revenue would roll in. As the game progressed and your city grew, your decisions as mayor became increasingly complex. However, an easy-to-use interface simplified the tasks and made the whole experience a lot of fun.

That was 1994, and at the time, I assumed that one day, my neighbors and I would all have a hand in understanding and shaping New York City through tools and interfaces like SimCity’s. As the internet was getting increasingly popular, my confidence in that idea strengthened. How difficult could it possibly be for the biggest city in the world’s richest country to create “Sim NYCity”? Well, it’s been over two decades and it still doesn’t exist. I’m getting tired of waiting.

Thanks to the tireless work of open source software developers and open government advocates, the development of a SimNYCity system has never been easier. Let me explain a few of the features that would make such a system such a valuable contribution to civic life.

Interactive Community Maps

The centerpiece of the system is a map similar to Google Maps or the City’s Planning Lab’s new Community District Profiles website. It would have highly curated data layers that display education, health, police, fire and mass transit indicators (in SimCity parlance: data maps), as well as useful demographic information of residents. Anyone could click a few layers on and off to see which neighborhoods have access to which services, and which don’t. Users could select which facilities they’d like to see added to an area, and then receive a projection of how the addition of such a facility would impact access in the neighborhood. Of course, accurate projections would be difficult to create, but basic estimates wouldn’t be, and more importantly, the existence of such a tool would whet the public’s appetite for more information and involvement in planning processes.

Citizen-Driven Budgets

Offering opinions on the budget could be as easy as pulling a few sliders.

Managing the budget was one of the most important jobs of the mayor in SimCity. The tool for doing this was similar to a mortgage calculator. Income and expenses were presented with about 10 line items each, and you could pull the slider in one direction or another to change funding allocations and see how those allocation impact the entire city’s budget.

We should offer a similar tool to New Yorkers. We can synthesize the NYC budget from thousands of line items into a dozen or so, enabling anyone to quickly see how money flows in and out of NYC’s government. Then we can invite them to create their budget by pulling sliders. As they do, the city’s budget projections change. So, if someone would like to increase the education budget they would toggle education to the right. Then they might adjust income by increasing taxes to balance the budget. Bonds could be included into the mix too by showing a list of public bond offers and requests. This type of tool would allow New Yorkers to create the budgetary mixes they want to see, and they can share it with others. We could also generate statistics about all the different budgets New Yorkers create to develop insights about how the city’s budget could more accurately reflect the values of the city’s residents.

Decision-Making Moments

City advisers could send out messages to New Yorkers and ask for their direct feedback.

When time sensitive decisions were needed in Sim City, a popup would appear with a message from an adviser asking the mayor for a decision. “SimNYCity” could work similar by providing citizens with more opportunities to indicate their preferences on key civic issues. For example, when a controversial zoning change is being proposed, an alert from the Commissioner of City Planning could be sent to SimNYCity users saying something like: “Residents are wondering what you plan to do with the Bedford Armory. Here’s some information about the various interest groups. Do you think the current proposals should move forward or should it be rewritten?” Users could then say how they feel. This type of feedback could provide useful information for city leaders that they could incorporate into their decision-making processes. A similar workflow could be used for legislative and administrative decision-making.

Moving Beyond the Vote

Imagine if all the active and proposed city ordinances were laid out in a simple list.

Our current democratic processes are, unfortunately, failing New York City. Less than 25% of eligible New Yorkers voted in the last election cycle. In this cycle, over 95% of incumbents won their primaries and it appears that over 95% of general election races will be uncompetitive. This means that a very small group of (almost entirely Democratic) party insiders are the people determining who will serve in New York City government. That isn’t very democratic, and it’s the main reason so few New Yorkers show up to the polls.

We don’t have to wait for deep reforms to our city’s democratic process before we start experimenting with new and innovative ways to provide participatory democratic experiences to New Yorkers. We can offer citizens methods for engagement right now – and if these methods turn out to be popular, then we can organize the public to pressure existing politicians into incorporating these methods into their decision-making processes. If politicians don’t want to use popular new processes, then we should vote new people into office who will.

One political position that’s perfectly positioned to bring more participatory tools and techniques into the heart of New York City’s government is the Public Advocate. This city-wide elected official is supposed to be the “direct link between the electorate and city government, effectively acting as an ombudsman, or “watchdog,” for New Yorkers.

That’s why I’m running for NYC Public Advocate as someone who will “put process before politics” and explore innovative ways to incorporate the public’s opinions into city decision-making. I’m convinced that, if we can make local politics more engaging and fun, then more New Yorkers will educate themselves about the city, participate in important civic conversations and demand a more direct democracy for New York City.

OpEd: Disaster Preparedness Requires a 211 System; New York City Still Doesn’t Have One

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on October 3, 2017

Over the last few weeks, New Yorkers have watched with great anxiety as Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, among many other places, were pummeled by massive hurricanes. Whenever we see storm destruction, memories of Sandy re-enter our consciousness; as does the question: Is New York City significantly better prepared for the next big one? My answer is “No.”

As a technology professional in disaster management, I’m constantly on the lookout for better ways to use software tools and information management practices to improve a city’s resilience. With new technologies coming out all the time, there are many pathways for improvement, and selecting the right place to focus preparedness efforts is never easy. In New York City’s case, however, it’s pretty simple: one of the most impactful things we could do, and certainly the lowest hanging fruit, is to build a canonical directory of all the health, human, and social services available in New York City so people know where to go to get the services they need before, during, and after a disaster.

The directory system I’m proposing is often called a “211 system.” In almost every major U.S. city and in over 90% of counties, if you call 2-1-1, you’re connected to a directory assistance representative that can refer you to the health and social services that meet your needs. If you call 2-1-1 in New York City, you’re connected to our 311 system — which is good at providing basic information about government services, but isn’t able to refer you to the vast majority of nonprofit services available in the city.

211 systems are essential infrastructure for any coherent social safety net. Indeed, without them we don’t even know what the social safety net looks like! These systems enable people to find a huge array of help for a broad collection of things, including: housing, employment, food, children’s services, domestic violence counseling, and so much more.

Without a 211, social workers are left to solve this information problem on their own. Many create their own lists on paper and in Word documents that they share with each other. Some organizations maintain resource directories for certain kinds of people or neighborhoods. Well-funded institutions even pay for-profit companies to find this information and provide it to their clientele.

Our lack of a real 211 system is a hindrance to every nonprofit and government service provider, and an embarrassment to every politician who claims to care about New Yorkers in need. If they really cared, wouldn’t they make sure it was possible for every New Yorker to actually find the services they’re entitled to receive?

Prosperous and powerful New Yorkers tend to be unaware that the city lacks a 211 system because they rarely, if ever, use nonprofit social services. But when a disaster like Sandy happens, many people who never before needed access to nonprofit services suddenly do. Because of this dynamic, 211 systems serve extremely important functions during disaster recovery by providing a canonical sources of information about services for survivors. They also tend to become the centers that convene and facilitate collaboration between government agencies, nonprofits and community groups.

211 systems in New Jersey and Long Island played this role after Sandy, and by most accounts their recoveries went much smoother than New York City’s. In New York City, no local entity took responsibility for organizing all the nonprofit service information, which led to a massive coordination crisis. Things got so bad that some intrepid FEMA staff created a 211-style services directory themselves, even though it was so far outside their traditional responsibilities that they had to pretend that other organizations had created it out of fear of political backlash. To this day, no one in city government or the nonprofit establishment has taken responsibility for these coordination failures. Nor has any agency or organization taken responsibility for ensuring that it never happens again.

While incremental improvements in disaster management and recovery processes have certainly been adopted over the last five years, one of the most important Sandy lessons is that New York City desperately needs a fully-funded and well-functioning 211 system. Until we have one, New York City cannot claim to be following even the most basic best practices in disaster preparedness.


Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on October 3, 2017

Photo: After Sandy (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)

It’s Time for a “Participatory” Democracy Instead of our “Consumer” One

This article was originally published September 16, 2017 at Education Update

Democracy in the United States was established nearly 250 years ago when news traveled at the speed of a horse and real-time collaboration required sharing a physical location. Today, ubiquitous internet access, smartphones, social media, and online collaboration tools have transformed how we work, play and consume, but the basic structure of our politics remains the same.

The result is that during an era of massive innovation, our static politics have disempowered the public and made our representative democracy feel more like a “consumer” one. Parties are brands; politicians are products; and our job as consumer-citizens is to purchase “our” politician with our votes. U.S. media and education systems strengthen the notion of “consumer democracy” by obsessing over the theatrics that motivate people to vote instead of educating people about the issues, policies and processes that impact all our lives. The public is not pleased. Congress and the President’s approval ratings are at record lows, as are voter participation rates.

How can democracies use technologies to strengthen themselves? Answers are emerging around the world, with the central theme being that technology can make politics more engaging, successful and legitimate by enabling people to become active producers of political outcomes instead of passive consumers. 

Two examples of “participatory democracy” are taking place in Taiwan and Madrid. In Taiwan, the “vTaiwan” project encourages the public to participate in a multi-month, multi-phase “consultation process” where citizens give issue-specific feedback offline and online. They use that feedback to create their own legislative and administrative proposals, and the most popular proposal are ratified and implemented by the government. Over the last three years, tens of thousands of people have participated, resulting in more than a dozen new laws and administrative actions. In Madrid, city government built a platform that enables citizens to debate issues and propose legislation. If that legislation meets a popularity threshold, it automatically becomes law.

Surprisingly, there are few if any truly participatory political projects in the United States. While New York City has “participatory budgeting,” its many restrictions and limited scope makes it fundamentally different than the open-ended participatory processes practiced overseas.

New York City’s Public Advocate is supposed to be the voice of all New Yorkers. As such, it’s the perfect position to bring a technology-enabled collective decision-making process to our City. Since it’s democratically elected, the Public Advocate can give “participatory democracy” real legitimacy. And since it has consultative status with the City Council and many city agencies, the Public Advocate can bring the public’s will directly to the people who run our city.

I’m running for Public Advocate to put “participatory democracy” on the ballot in November. With your help, we can put the Public exactly where it should be — directly in charge of the Public Advocate.

 

Devin Balkind works at the intersection of the nonprofit sector, the open-source movement, and grassroots community organizing to share and initiate best practices. He currently serves as president of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces open source information management system for disaster relief and humanitarian aid. He is running for NYC 2017 Public Advocate.

This article was originally published September 16, 2017 at Education Update

Presenting the Open Aid Movement at Open Source Bridge

“Open source” is a method for putting intellectual property in the public domain, allowing anyone to use it however they see fit. I’m an advocate of the “open source way” because I believe that if more people shared intellectual property of all types – whether its farming techniques, software code, music, etc – then we’ll eventually be able to meet the basic needs of everyone in the world, allowing all people to pursue their own happiness without fear of material scarcity.

This type of thinking can lead to some pretty impractical theorizing, so my route in actualizing this belief is to help build the open source movement by demonstrating how open source can improve the world. As president of the Sahana Software Foundation, a world leader in open source information systems for disaster and humanitarian aid management, it’s gratifying to work with talented people who feel similarly about open source and its role in the world as I do.

In my work with Sahana, I’ve discovered that there is a lot of curiosity among disaster management professionals about how open source thinking is impacting their field. I’ve given presentations about this topic at nearly a dozen disaster management conferences including those organized by IAEM, NVOAD, OASIS, IEEE SIGHT, NYCEM, ARC, STAR-TIDES, and other acronym-ed groups.

The basic thesis of my talk is that an “open aid movement” is emerging because of two factors:  (1) The maturity of free and open source software tools; and (2) The proliferation of open data practices among NGOs and government agencies. Together, these expand the public’s capacity to respond to disasters and enable them to form peer-to-peer disaster relief groups that can become assets during disaster relief efforts.  

These groups come in two formats: (a) “grassroots disaster relief networks” organized by local people affected by disasters and (b) “volunteer technical communities” consisting of volunteers who organize information online from anywhere on the globe to serve those affected by disasters.

This June, I had the pleasure of talking with an audience who has an affinity for open source, as opposed to a sole interest in disaster and humanitarian aid. This presentation took place at the Open Source Bridge conference, which is held annually in Portland, Oregon and “focused on building open source community and citizenship.” The presentation was modified to be more relevant to this unique audience. You can see it below.

Despite the conference’s general nature, most of my time was spent in conversations with people involved in other open source humanitarian projects such as Open Data Kit, Digital Impact Alliance and LibreHealth. These conversations focus on two critical topics: (a) how we understand, articulate and build awareness of open source as a coherent movement within the disaster/humanitarian sector, and (b) how open source projects within the disaster/humanitarian sector can achieve sustainability and scale without building centralized bureaucracies that ultimately undermine the peer-to-peer structure that makes open source projects so dynamic and successful.

The takeaway?  We have A LOT of work to do on both fronts to address the challenges ahead.

The first challenge is that there is very little collaboration taking place between the people and projects advancing open source in the humanitarian sector, despite the fact that open source developers and advocates within the sector recognize that they’re doing complementary work, encountering similar challenges and overcoming them in similar ways. This is something many people have identified as an issue, and something folks from DIAL’s very new Open Source Center are likely able to affect. DIAL’s OSC plans to “convene a vibrant, inclusive, free & open source software community that promotes knowledge sharing, collaboration, and co-investment in technology & human capacity to support positive social change in communities around the world.” Really exciting and certainly needed!

The second challenge is to define the “open aid movement” and use that shared understanding to organize an ecosystem of support services that make it easier for open source projects to deliver humanitarian practitioners the solutions they need while also ensuring those projects are stable over the long term. By doing this work, we can demonstrate that open source is more than just a useful “type” of software, but also a production methodology that enables the disaster and humanitarian management sector to most effectively utilize networked communication technologies.

As the maker of Sahana EDEN, the world’s most widely used information system for disaster and humanitarian management, Sahana Foundation can help define the movement and leverage its unique organizational format and administrative capacity to offer fiscal sponsorship and other support services to aligned open source humanitarian projects.

My Open Source Bridge experience confirmed to me that this is the right way to go. Let’s do it!

How to Run Collaborative Projects That Don’t Fall Prey to Bureaucracy

This piece was published at Sharable on July 21st, 2017.


Today, when people call something “bureaucratic,” they usually mean that in a negative sense, but bureaucracy didn’t always have this negative connotation. About 100 years ago when many professional bureaucracies were being built, they were seen as a means of bringing quality control, predictability, and integrity to administrations. But bureaucracy has taken on a life of its own since its inception, and now is often viewed as self-perpetuating itself in thoroughly mediocre and banal ways. People today hear “bureaucracy” and think of the opposite of innovation. They think of something driving up the cost of healthcare and education, suppressing economic activity, and turning social change organizations into risk-averse, hierarchical, and uninspired mini-corporations.

In my work experience, I’ve seen prestigious nonprofit organizations and government agencies with tremendous resources at their disposal rendered useless in the face of overwhelmingly inefficient and convoluted bureaucratic processes. I’ve also seen activist groups with tremendous grassroots energy dominated, subdued, and balkanized by bureaucratic tendencies among their members.

I’ve met my fair share of people pursuing excellence within organizations — big and small — who have to quit (or are fired) because they’re too frustrated by the intractable dynamics they find themselves embedded within. They generally choose to go in one of three directions: pursue freelance work that allows them to serve clients directly, create a startup that they promise won’t fall prey to bureaucratic bloat, or join grassroots groups that never develop administrative capabilities. I’ve done all three and often tried to combine approaches to arrive at a scalable organizational format that doesn’t develop a mediocre bureaucracy but does have the ability to provide dependable, quality-controlled services. The best format I’ve encountered for doing this is a project-based “spokes council,” which the P2P Foundation describes as follows:

“The spokes council model allows for mediation between autonomous working/affinity groups, or nodes within the network, and the larger institutional body. … These collectives meet separately with varying degrees of regularity. Some groups are relatively inactive while new ad hoc groups may spring up spontaneously to face a particular challenge. Several groups maintain their own listservs and wiki pages.”

In my experience, there is one glaring problem with a conventional spokescouncil model — the “affinity groups.” Affinity is nice, but it’s a very broad reason for people to come together. At Occupy Wall Street, where I first encountered this organizing model, “groups” didn’t stay healthy for very long. They often lost their way, became unproductive, and hosted lots of  internal conflicts between members. Groups that formed around an area of interest (ex. visions and goals) became unproductive and collapsed much faster than groups based around an action (ex. kitchen). Interest-based groups attracted people who felt entitled to participate in decision-making processes both internal to the group and within the council as a whole, while action-based groups just wanted to get the meetings over with so they could do the actual work. Ultimately, a few dysfunctional groups ruined the entire council’s capacity to make good decisions.

Occupy Sandy, which took place about a year after Occupy Wall Street, worked a bit differently. We recognized the flaw in a council of affinity groups and instead organized a spokes council around projects. Project members, unlike group members, had to agree to maintain a membership list, vouch for their members, and articulate success metrics that the group had to meet to remain in good standing with the council. Those elements made a world of difference. The Occupy Sandy Project Council successfully managed hundreds of thousands of dollars through a consensus-based process that, while sometimes contentious and stressful, actually succeeded in allocating funds to impactful projects in transparent ways that won the respect of myriads of people — from city officials to direct action organizers. I’ve been trying to translate this “project spokescouncil” approach to other types of organizations ever since, with some success.

Here’s how I’ve been applying these principles:

  • Instead of creating an “organization,” create a charter that explains how to run a network.

  • Instead of figuring out all the things you want your organization to do, find people already doing these things and invite them to join your network.

  • Instead of creating a central administration to run the network, encourage projects to commit to performing the various functions needed to sustain the network, including administrative ones.

One of the great features of the project spokescouncil approach is that participating projects don’t have to agree on anything more than a charter. For-profits, nonprofits, cooperatives, coalitions, grassroots projects, and other groups can all coexist without forcing their processes on each other.

After Occupy Sandy, I became involved with the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that makes open source disaster management software. After serving on the board and advocating for the project spokescouncil organizational model, I was elected president to implement that vision. Before this model was employed, the CEO of the organization made the financial decisions. One of the goals of our organization was to develop a center that could be a powerful force for advocating for open source practices in the humanitarian sector. That type of center costs a lot of money, which meant we needed to bring in a lot of revenue to support its development. When funding fluctuates, as it tends to do when your business model is doing contract work for other NGOs, life can become very stressful and organizations undergo a lot of stress.

My approach was different. My first questions was: What is the minimum amount of expense we need to incur to keep the organization functional? That became the budget of the “Operations” project. Then we went to the main areas of activity within the organization, and encouraged the people doing that work to reframe it as an autonomous projects within the Sahana Software Foundation. That was easy for the open-source software project, which had a very clear output. It was a bit more complex for our other programs which combined research and implementation of technical systems to make change. After a few months of conversation around how the project could become more autonomous and defined, a new project was formed. Each project then created its own budget, and collaboratively determined who gets which portion of the funds to be spent.

Since we don’t have a CEO anymore, just a president who works part-time on the Operations Project, it freed up more money up to be collaboratively spent by other projects. So far so good. Our transparent, distributed, counter-bureaucratic process has become attractive to other open-source humanitarian projects that often find themselves either unincorporated or sponsored by a conventional, bureaucracy-driven organization. We can offer an organizational home that functions like an open-source project. We also offer a clear process that facilitates collaboration between member-projects while mitigating against the subtle power dynamics of conventional organizations and the bureaucracies that inevitably arise within them. Instead of having a bunch of folks with relatively ambiguous titles and hierarchies, we’re all equals representing projects in a council. That keeps things simple.

My dream is to add more open-source humanitarian aid projects, such as CrisisCleanup, to the Sahana Project Council, and to spread this organizational model to groups working in other sectors. If many project councils emerge, with similar charters and similar processes, then it will become much easier for projects to find the organizational homes they need, and it will also allow projects to move between organizations with ease. This last characteristic is key. Projects develop organically but organizations don’t. Organizations have inflexible budgets and staffing and have to worry about grant cycles and the politics of fundraising. Projects are different. They can be extremely responsive and flexible, and can pivot to meet immediate needs and transform to rapidly scale their best ideas. But as projects develop, they’re often pressured by their host organization to do so in ways that fit within the needs of the host organization. And moving a project from one organization to another is often practically impossible. But with a project council, projects have options and moving from one organization to another can be a breeze. Indeed, we might discover that, without the limitations and structures imposed by organizations, projects can become the core organizational unit of the production process of an increasingly networked world.

Imagine if there were a “project standard” that people could use to form and document their work, and then the project could seamlessly move between councils as conditions and collaborations change. Could this be an alternative to the bureaucratic organizational format that currently runs the world? We’re going to find out. Stay tuned.

Header photo of Occupy Sandy spokescouncil meeting by Devin Balkind

When Platform Coops are Seen, What Goes Unseen?

If you’re involved with the “cooperative community” on social media, you’ve probably heard a lot about platform cooperatives in recent years. The vision is simple: what if Uber or AirBnb were owned by its users, who could share decision-making responsibility and profits among themselves? Instead of being exploited by platforms, users could and should be running them. Just like cooperative supermarkets, these “platform co-ops” could market themselves as democratic alternatives to the venture-backed “Death Star” platforms coming out of Silicon Valley.

While I certainly agree we need to see new organizational forms take on the dominant venture-backed startup model, platform cooperatives have yet to prove that they’re up to the task. In fact, there are so few financially sustainable platform cooperatives in existence that, when Shareable magazine tried to list them in their article “11 Platform Cooperatives Creating a Real Sharing Economy,”, it had to include businesses that don’t sell any products or services yet, businesses that aren’t cooperatives, and businesses that aren’t platforms. Some people complained about the exaggerated tone of the article in the comment section, so Sharable added a disclaimer at the bottom of the story.

The fact remains that, despite two years and two high profile conferences in support of the concept, you can count the amount of genuinely successful platform cooperatives on one hand. And it’s not like this is a radically new concept that people have to wrap their heads around. Cooperatives are a very popular and proven business structure.

Despite platform cooperativism’s modest gains, I do see the concept’s value. Its existence pressures successful online platforms to share some of their profits with their users, and invites entrepreneurs who want to create new platforms to try out a new organizational structure. I worry, however, that the cooperative community only has a limited amount of cognitive capacity it can use to process information technology innovation, and the fantasy of platform cooperativism is taking up space that could be better used by promoting and applying open source, open data, and peer-production principles to overcome some of the cooperative movement’s most pressing challenges. Instead of spilling lots of ink dreaming about how technology companies could be cooperatives, the “cooperative community” should be asking how cooperatives can benefit from technology development models that have a proven track record of success.

The two models I wish were being more widely discussed in the cooperative community are open source technology and open data practices.

Open source software and the peer-production process it has spawned have been wildly successful at challenging conventional software technology business models. In 2001, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft called Linux, which is the world’s most used open source software project, “a cancer.” A decade later, Microsoft was in the top top five corporations contributing to Linux. Google’s core operating systems, ChromeOS and Android, both run on Linux, and so do emerging competitors, many out of Asia, that are leveraging Android’s open source core to compete directly with the Google in the smartphone market. That is just one of a myriad of open source success stories that include WordPress, Firefox, Wikipedia, and so much more.

Corporations are adopting open source and other peer-production processes such as open data, open knowledge and open hardware like wildfire—not because they want to share, but because they want to make money. Meanwhile, cooperatives are expected to follow a set of principles, one of which is “cooperation among cooperatives,” and yet their adoption of open source and open data within the cooperative community is minimal. Evidence of the cooperative community not adopting open approaches and following principle six include:

  • Research reports from cooperative support organization often have restrictive copyrights them instead of open, permissible, Creative Commons ones.
  • Research data is locked away in PDFs instead of being made available in open data portals.
  • Information about cooperative networks and membership organizations is often organized in proprietary data models instead of open ones, and not made openly available in bulk using open data formats.
  • Cooperatives are often structured hierarchically like banks instead of horizontally like open source projects.
  • There still isn’t a searchable online directory of cooperatives in the United States, much less an open data compliant one.

All of the above problems could be resolved if the cooperative movement followed best practices emerging from the unfashionable but very useful open source, open data, free culture and open access, and peer-to-peer movements. These practices have proven track records for enabling highly productive, widespread collaborations among many different types of stakeholder groups. One thing they very rarely do is organize themselves as cooperatives. Instead, open source projects tend to use for-profit, nonprofit and unincorporated entities.

We tend to view platform cooperativism as a vision that has yet to be realized, but it could just as easily be viewed as a potential future that never came. Cooperative organizational structures are not new. They have impacted a myriad of giant industries including food and agriculture, electricity and real estate. So why haven’t cooperatives been successful at software development? The answer to this question could be a key to moving platform cooperativism forward.

What is “Municipalism”?

Originally posted at municipalist.org

The definition of “municipalism” is still up for grabs. If you Google the word you’ll be given a snippet from Wikipedia about “libertarian municipalism”,  a compelling but very specific utopian political philosophy of Murray Bookchin. Surely “municipalism” can and should mean something more.

Over the last fifty years, the percentage of people around the globe living in urban areas has increased from 30% to over 50%, but cities have not seen a corresponding increase in political power. Instead, nation-states and transnational institutions that network them have become the centers of power relations. Many people predict this dynamic will change: and it is. Efforts like UN Habitat III created space for cities to represent themselves at the UN for the first time in that organization’s history. The C40 Initiative has brought cities together to fight climate change by making significantly more aggressive emission reduction pledges than nation-states did at the Paris Summit. The Global Parliament of Mayors is provides a venue for municipalities to share knowledge and make collective decisions. You can find more entities in our directory.

Over the last two thousands years, cities have frequently been more politically powerful than the nations and empires in which they’ve been located. Cities, municipalities and regional governments have performed many nation-state like functions such as building trade networks, engaging in foreign relations, waging war, completing massive public infrastructure projects and protecting their residents from state violence.

Municipalism should refer to the idea that cities and regions should have more autonomy from the nation-states in which they’re located, while also being active participants in a global network of peer municipalities that upholds human rights and humanitarian standards.

It should be an idea that incorporates old and new concepts from all over the social, political and economic landscape, including urbanism, bioregionalism, paradiplomacycommunity-based economics,  civic technology, participatory democracy, social ecology and more.

It should help mobilize residents to participate deeply in local problem solving and inspire municipal governments to share solutions with cities around the world.

Most of all, municipalism should provide a positive alternative to the failure of the nation-state and an affirmation that we can recenter political control at the local level while advancing human rights and humanitarian standards globally.

What does “municipalism” mean to you now? What do you think it should mean in the future? Let us know below.

Cryptocurrency Can Shift the Balance of Power Between Cities, States and Nations

Originally posted at municipalist.org

One of the most powerful tools of a modern nation is its central bank’s ability to create money “out of thin air.” Nations can use this new money to purchase their own nation’s debt in the form of treasury bills, bonds and notes, allowing it to spend more than it earns in taxes and other income. If a nation prints too much money, however, it can create inflation, which reduces the value of their currency. In some instances, central banks can lose control of their currency’s inflation rate, destroying the value of the nation’s currency, collapsing its economy and leaving it at the mercy of predatory financial interests. Fear of inflation keeps nation’s from printing infinite amounts of money.

The US dollar is a bit different than other currencies because it isn’t simply the “reserve currency” for the United States, but also functions as the world’s reserve currency. Ever nation in the world uses US dollars because it is the easiest, and sometimes only, currency that can be used  to purchase large quantities of commodities in international markets. The most important of these commodities is oil. Some commentators call this monetary arrangement the “petrodollar system” and view it as the successor to the Brenton Woods system, which still relied on nations to maintain gold reserves. The Petrodollar system was established through a series of arrangements between the US and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

Since the 1970s, we’ve seen the development of other transnational monetary systems such as the Euro and the development of giant commercial “money center” banks, which have further consolidated the monopoly on monetary production in the hands of fewer and fewer institutions. If you asked an economist a decade ago about the future of global monetary production, they’d have predicted more consolidation. The Euro in Europe would be complemented by the Amero is North America, and slowly but surely, the world would integrate into a single market with a single currency.

The financial collapse of 2008 helped undermine the vision of a global currency, but it was the invention of Bitcoin and the blockchain technology behind it that has given people a viable alternative to global monetary consolidation. Blockchain is a new type of database that is extremely good at producing “digital cash” and executing financial transactions. It’s open source, so there are no limitations or restrictions on who and how this technology can be used. Currently, blockchains are making it possible for people to create secure, digital money systems for extremely low costs. It’s being used by big banks to speed up their SWIFT international fund transfer systems, it’s being used by countries to create new national digital currency systems, and it’s being used by entrepreneurs and online communities to create their own currency systems outside the purview of the nation-state. It’s only a matter of time, it seems, before sub-national governments and municipalities create their own currency systems and begin to challenge the nation-state’s monopoly on the production of money.

Under normal political conditions, the idea that cities and states would risk disrupting the current monetary order by creating their own currency systems would be outrageous. US city and state governments benefit greatly from the US government’s petrodollar system. Not only does the federal government give cities and states significant amounts of money in the form of grants, they also allow people to deduct income from municipal bonds from their federal taxes. The makes it possible for cities and states to access tremendous amounts of capital at a rate much cheaper than corporations or individuals. These municipal bonds are used to fund everything from a local government’s general operations to specific infrastructure projects. But with the Trump administration and sub-national governments around the US on a collision course over immigration and other policies, it’s possible that federal governments will start trying to squeeze the finances of “sanctuary” cities and states. In fact, Trump declared he’ll do precisely that by threatening to cut off federal funding to cities and states that don’t implement his widely unpopular immigration policies. Eliminating the federal tax deduction on municipal bonds would be an even more aggressive move that he could try to use to coerce cities and states to follow his policies.

In the past, the only institutions that cities and states could look to for financial assistance were the federal governments and large commercial banks. But that is changing. The blockchain makes it possible for sub-national governments to create their own financial systems and begin to insulate themselves from federal monetary policy and budgeting decisions. Cities and states could do many things with their own cryptocurrency networks. They could create cryptographically secured paper monies, credit and debit cards and online transaction systems that enable their residents to more easily engage in local commerce, create international remittance systems allowing residents to transmit money around the world, and create new types of financial contracts that aren’t mediated by the commercial banks or federal entities. These monetary systems could be “backed” by valuable assets owned by cities and states such as real estate, taxes and other revenue streams. The technology to implement these types of systems is new, but its developing rapidly. Financial institutions invested nearly $2 billion in blockchain-based technologies in 2016. And the commercial banks are investing billions of dollars a year to continue to improve these alternative systems.

By developing autonomous, networked, blockchain-based financial systems for themselves, cities and states can create deep and direct financial ties with each other and challenge the US government’s monopoly on the production of money. This challenge, if delivered in a credible way, could threaten the US government’s capacity to pay its debts and seriously impact the federal government’s financial health.

I want to be clear: I’m not advocating for a financial war between US cities and states, and the federal government. Rather, I’m recognizing that blockchain-based technologies could enable sub-national governments to build a new type of power that they currently don’t have: the ability to compete with the nation-state-based monetary systems. This threat could be an extremely powerful tool for cities and states when they negotiate with the Trump administration. If the federal government is going to threaten to undermine the financial health of cities and states, then cities and states should find ways to credibly threaten the federal government right back.

If you’d like to read more about how the blockchain technology fits into a broader history of DIY finance, check out my essay Finance without Force.