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Hack for Western Mass

Hack for Western Mass

For the second year in a row, I helped organize Hack for Western Mass, our local National Day of Civic Hacking event.

The Internet is full of people extolling the virtues of civic hacking and people criticizing civic hackers for building new things instead of connecting people to existing resources.

That’s all true, but there’s something more to hackathons—something beyond the actual projects.

It’s easy to take technology for granted and forget its purpose when you’re steeped in it every day. But technology isn’t about algorithms, frameworks, or finding the perfect text editor. It’s about meeting people where they are—wherever that is—and helping them do their best work, be their most creative, or maybe just get their stuff done faster and get on with life.

When a group of people comes together in a shared time and space to solve problems, an employee of a three-person non-profit learns about Google forms and saves hours of data entry. A community organizer changes the copy on her website for the first time. A group of kids learns that they have the power to make movies.

Say what you want about hackathons, but they’re both a catalyst of technology and a reminder of its true value.

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The Demise of Government-Created Statistical Data?

Washington MonumentLike most data people, I prefer order and logic. So it was a huge shock when I joined a federal budget research organization and started learning about the orderly and logical process by which the U.S. government creates an annual budget. An orderly and logical process that Congress mostly disregards.

Really, the whole politicized debacle offends my sensibilities as a citizen and as a data professional.

Furthermore, the recent zeal for budget cuts has resulted in budget cuts that affect our ability to make smart budget cuts. Specifically, I’m talking about attacks on government-created statistical data—data that’s* used by lawmakers, social service organizations, and businesses to make decisions and allocate increasingly-scarce resources.

Two examples I’ve written about recently:

  • Is Federal Spending Transparency on the Decline?: a guest post for the Sunlight Foundation’s blog about the demise of the Consolidated Federal Funds Report and why that makes it harder to understand federal spending.
  • American Community Survey Under Attack: the House recently passed a spending bill that prohibits the Department of Commerce from funding the American Community Survey (ACS). The yearly ACS replaced the decennial census long-form questionnaire, and its data helps* state and local governments determine how to distribute funds, among other things. See here, here, and here for more information about the widespread usefulness of the ACS.

Of course, order and logic sometimes need to be tempered with a dose of pragmatism. But when our governing body is governed almost entirely by short-term thinking, we should think about not electing them again.

*Language evolves!

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Be Accessible to the Dummy Demographic

I’ve always considered writing to be one of my professional strengths, and I’m passionate about making technology accessible to people. So when writing about government data for National Priorities Project, I try to make sure the language is easy to understand and non-wonky (wonk is the political equivalent of  nerd). After all, our mission statement says that NPP “makes complex budget information transparent and accessible.”

So when writing a brief paragraph to introduce a new dataset in the Federal Priorities Database, I thought I nailed it:

Federal tax collections represent the amount of federal taxes paid in a year.  The IRS publishes this information by state, breaking it into ten categories.  Because part of our job is to make government-published data more useful, we condensed these ten categories into three: taxes paid by businesses, taxes paid by individuals, and total taxes collected. We believe that these broad categories better reflect what most people want to know about tax revenue and are less confusing than the original data. In fact, the individual taxes calculation played an integral part in a recent publication, Federal Spending Keeps Iowa, New Hampshire Afloat.

I have a few trusted readers in the office, so I sent the text around for some quick feedback. About five minutes later, one of them appeared at my desk, saying that my language was non-accessible and “made her eyes roll back in her head.” Wow. Hard to hear, but she followed up with some specific suggestions that resulted in a much improved, non-eye-rolling version:

We recently took some data from the IRS and made it even better. We call it Federal Tax Collections, and it shows federal taxes collected in a year. Although the IRS helpfully provides these numbers for each state, they break the amounts into ten categories, not all of which are useful. For example, do any but the wonkiest people need to know how much railroad retirement tax was collected in 2010? To make things easier, we condensed these categories into taxes paid by businesses, taxes paid by individuals, and total taxes paid. We think these broader groupings are less confusing and more practical. Our recent publication, Federal Spending Keeps Iowa, New Hampshire Afloat, shows the individual taxes category in use.

Thank goodness for honest feedback! It seems obvious, but the lessons here are easy to overlook when you’re cranking through a to-do list.

  • No matter what kind of deadline you think you have, it’s always worth the time to get other eyes on something your organization will publish, even if it’s just a small blurb, and even if your colleagues are busy. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest to show the world your best stuff.
  • Make sure your trusted readers include, as my friend calls herself, the dummy demographic, a term of affection for readers who aren’t experts in your subject matter.
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The Lazy Card

lazy

The administrator of a blog I follow recently asked the question, “should I force our blog’s authors to use Markdown?”

I then read a completely unrelated post on another blog that advised WordPress users to get rid of the visual text editor because “it makes you lazy” and you should “force yourself to learn some basic HTML.”

When I got into a heated discussion with another developer about the above two items, he used the same word to describe non-Markdown/HTML-writing, WYSIWYG-dependent online content authors: lazy.

This isn’t the first argument I’ve had with a technologist who likes to play the lazy card, and it won’t be the last. I’m not disputing that everyone in today’s workforce should always be learning; the days of doing the same job the same way for thirty years are over. But to imply that a blogging co-worker isn’t holding up her end of the learning bargain because she doesn’t want to learn HTML or Markdown is arrogant.

As technologists, we explore and experiment with new technology. Our content-creating colleagues presumably explore and experiment in their respective areas of expertise. Who are we to dictate that they should increase their cognitive overhead by worrying about valid XHTML markup?

Yes, WYSIWYG editors are pretty terrible. They puke out Microsoft Word detritus and let you change the font color to cyan. Forcing people to write in Markdown, however, shifts a technical problem from the technologist to the user, which is the opposite of ideal.

This rant isn’t about blog authors or Markdown. It’s about acknowledging that technology isn’t everyone’s primary concern, nor should it be.

Of course there are appropriate times to force technology changes. But even in those situations the resistors aren’t lazy–they just have a different job than you. In today’s hectic and stressed workplace, shouldn’t we give colleagues the benefit of the doubt and help them succeed with technology rather than slapping a label on them?

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Python, Django, MySQL & Win 7

When starting to learn Python and Django, my goal was to set up a robust development environment similar to what we use at National Priorities Project: isolated virtual environments, MySQL, and tools like pip and iPython. Stubbornly, I resolved to make it all work on Windows.

I achieved the goal, but not without a lot pain. If you’re a Windows user getting started with Python/Django, you might have an easier time installing a virtual Linux machine.

Here’s a re-cap of the Windows-specific instructions for installing Python, Django, MySQL, and a few necessary packages and tools.

Parting thoughts:
  • I abandoned the Cygwin approach after running into trouble with Cygwin’s Python install vs the Windows Python install.
  • People have good things to say about ActivePython as a tool to help Python developers to avoid headaches.
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Two month milestone

flowering tree in Childs Park

Monday marked two completed months with the National Priorities Project. Though these weeks haven’t produced much writing, they’ve been a whirlwind of learning:

  • Python
  • Django
  • MySQL
  • The joy of setting up a proper Windows dev environment using the above three items
  • Piston, a tool for powering APIs through Django
  • Linux
  • Git/Github
  • The Federal Budget process
  • The Consolidated Federal Funds Report , a huge annual file of government expenditures.
  • Various other indicators about the state of our union: gas emissions by state, average teacher salaries, people in poverty, insurance enrollments, etc.
  • Finally, I’m NPP’s interim Twitterer, a fascinating distraction.

One day soon I’ll write a Dummies Guide to Setting up Python/Django/MySQL on Windows post. In the meantime, it’s great to be back in the hands-on tech saddle.

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Save the data, save on FOIA?

Last week I wrote my first entries on the National Priorities Project’s (NPP) blog. Friday’s piece concerned the potential $32 million cuts to the Federal government’s open data initiatives.

Alexander Howard wrote a tremendous overview of the situation, from the recent history of open government platforms to the less-than-perfect implementation of those platforms to the implications of having their funding cut from $34 million to $2 million.

He quoted some of NPP’s numbers that try to put $32 million in context. In terms of the Federal budget, it’s a tiny sum of money–.0009% of the proposed FY11 spending.

That’s an interesting figure, but even if $32 million is just a drop in the bucket, that’s not to say we should spend it carelessly. I’m new to the open government scene, but you don’t have to dig too far into Data.gov to realize it’s far from perfect. Howard’s primer provides some insight into the perverse incentives behind quirks like datasets split up by geography and agencies that don’t publish their juicy stuff.

But consider another number we published: $32 million is 7.7% of the amount that the government spent processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in FY10.

A compelling story would be to find out what types of FOIA requests could be serviced via the Data.gov suite of sites. Even better, why not use these requests to prioritize the data that’s released online?

If we can use $32 million to take a bite out of that $416+ million FOIA bill*, why not pursue that investment?

Some of my colleagues would say because it’s not about the money—it’s about policy. As a developer, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around that. Policy? Why wouldn’t our elected officials just make decisions that are logical?

It seems I have much to learn.

*figure pulled from FOIA.gov/data.

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The new gig: return to data

Open Government Data Venn Diagram

diagram by Justin Grimes

I’m about two weeks into a new job with the National Priorities Project (NPP), a small, non-profit organization based in Northampton, MA.

NPP’s mission is to educate citizens about their federal budget: the budget process, the proposed numbers, and how our government ultimately spends money. All too often, it’s difficult for people to understand how the huge numbers bandied about in Washington, DC affect their states, schools, and communities.

The organization began in 1983, long before technology made it easier to analyze and share this information and long before the likes of sites like Data.gov.

NPP has formed some exciting partnerships in recent years, and I’m excited by our direction: combining the staff’s budget experts with an improved database search tool (launching soon) and an API developed in conjunction with the Sunlight Foundation. Finding additional indicators that, when combined with spending data, will tell a richer budget story. Telling those stories and giving our constituents the means to tell theirs too.

My role will be to look after and augment our database and help create visualizations and web tools for general use. Naturally, I took it upon myself to expand the job description to blogging, so look out budget analysts: I’m coming to gum up your blog with data stories.

It’s daunting, but I’m very excited to jump into the government data transparency community and learn the ropes. I’m also thrilled to return to a data-oriented job.

The ecosystem of government departments and agencies and their respective datasets is downright crazy, but I like crazy. It makes for good blog stories.

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New Opportunities

City Hall and Masonic Temple

City Hall and Masonic Temple

In less than two weeks, after years of discussion, my husband and I are moving away from Philadelphia.

Yes, it’s a terrible time to leave good jobs and find new ones, and it’s not the best time to sell a house. We have no friends or family in our new town. But the time is now.

I truly and deeply love Philly. However, for many reasons—some related to the city, and some related to us—I know it’s not our forever home.

After spending the last month of my father’s life in Lititz with my family, I witnessed the importance of community and the forever home. I saw the same thing again in Galloway, NJ after Nana died. The forever home is more than an investment, more than a five year plan. And community is so much more than acquaintances, loose connections, and professional networks.

After a lot of research (and a spreadsheet, of course),we decided to relocate to Northampton, Massachusetts. The Pioneer Valley has everything we could want from nature (rivers, lakes, trees, and mountains), and Northampton has most things we could want from a town (thriving retail, restaurants, theaters, and music venues).  My new job is local and promises to be challenging and interesting.

Taking the leap without a bridge is hard, but the house, jobs, and other details fell into place after we committed to the change. Because why wait?

Thanks to Wharton Computing for 5 ½ years of opportunity. It’s a great place to work and a tough place to leave.

And goodbye to the Philadelphia characters and friends we’ve met over the years through blogs, neighborhood dramas, work, clubs, and just wandering around this great city of ours. Walking away from you after 15 years is downright heartbreaking.

(cross-posted with some favorite Philly pics over on my personal site)

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Kindle: a fling, or a long-term relationship?

Amazon's Kindle 3

Amazon's Kindle 3

For the last four months, I’ve been having a love affair with the Kindle 3.  It’s a sleek, sexy companion, and with the push of a button it can deliver a whole universe of books and magazines.

And it’s easy.  Easy to carry, easy on the eyes, and easy to use.

But the Kindle ecosystem reminds me of another product that makes it easy to access digital content—iTunes.  When iTunes came along those many years ago, it was so fun to download one-hit wonders from the 80s and to grab albums that the much-cooler-than-me girl across the hall listened to in college.

The geeks complaining about DRM were just chatter in the background of my new-found music.

But now I regret spending money on content that’s locked to a single family of devices and can’t be shared with the rest of the household.  I’ve long since migrated to Amazon and eMusic, but I still own a large set of captive songs from the iTunes days.

Which raises the question:  a few years from now, will I have the same regrets about Kindle purchases?

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