In September I gave a talk to the Edmontonpy meetup group about Python web frameworks.
Hexigo has a lot of things figured out. It looks clean, and modern, and allows people to contribute to making a decision. However, it does fall short in many ways as well. First (and most importantly), it is closed source. This is a complete deal breaker. Watching the demo video it also sounds like the final decision is ultimately made by a "group administrator", which almost defeats the purpose of making a decision as a group. The interface itself seems to be a pretty standard forum with sequential posts, and voting amounts to a simple yes/no.
Overall this platform is far more impressive then other platforms, but doesn't push any boundaries.
D-Sight looks like it falls into a similar category (closed source). The platform sounds like it is more focused on analytics than transparency. The demo video shows a lot fewer details about the platform itself, but the screenshots are mostly focused on graphs.
Contextoo is very slick. The interface is really nice, and it actually lets you create a new "board" without an elaborate signup flow. The platform itself seems to be geared at more trivial decisions. Instead of a problem statement you add options that users can vote on. Comments can be added, but are only sequential and appear in a side panel. Despite the nice design it feels like a voting app with a twitter feed on the side. All that aside, it is closed source, so not really viable.
From the slides at the bottom of the page, Review19 sounds right on point. The idea of bringing diverse opinions onto a single platform and drive decisions from facts and analysis. The platform still looks incomplete, so it's hard to judge the interface itself. It does not appear to be open source.
Overall the closed source platforms had cleaner interfaces and better visual design. I was still surprised that no one was really pushing the boundaries on interface design. Most platforms still looked like a typical forum or message board. Opinions were expressed in a binary yes/no, instead of providing a wider array of possible options.
What are the qualities of software? When it comes to programming, there are may schools of thought.
I feel like all the qualities of software can be broken down into three categories.
This concern answers the question, "Does the code actually solve the problem it was intended to?". It also deals with the resilience of the code. Will it crash as soon as it received unexpected input, or are there flaws that could lead to security issues? Testing (from unit testing to end-to-end testing) is usually able to evaluate this quality pretty well. Code that does not have excellent test coverage (both of it's individual units, and all the components together), can't be reliably said to be correct. Beta testing, open sourcing, and exposure to more users can also help to improve the correctness of software.
Lots of code starts out (relatively) correct, but slowly over time, as features are added and bugs are fixed, becomes less correct and less maintainable. Maintainability deals with how easily code can change, and how easy it is for someone new to start being productive with the code. Code that is well structured is easier to work with, and units of code (classes, functions and modules) that have a single clear concern are easier to understand and re-use. Unit testing (especially when the tests are used to guide the code, as in TDD) is a great way to identify maintainability issues. When a unit is difficult to test, it is probably not maintainable. Documentation can be helpful, but can also be a crutch. Documentation can diverge from the actual source and become misleading, which ends up making the code less maintainable. Inline comments that don't serve as API documentation are usually a sign that code is not inherently clear. Code should be naturally readable, and only require documents as a high level guide through the different components. Code is the single source of truth (documentation is secondary), so it should be treated as such.
When code is maintainable, changes are easy to make. When code is poorly structured, it is not maintainable, and requires a lot of effort for even a minimal change.
Once correctness and maintainability have been satisfied, there is occasionally a third concern, performance. Performance deals with how well a piece of code will scale. When a piece of code is first written, it is usually only run with a minimal set of data, or a small number of users. Over time, if the code is successful, the data it operates on, and the number of users will grow. If code is performant, it will be able to handle this increase in load in a near linear increase in resource usage.
Understanding the performance characteristics of the data structures and persistence mechanisms used by the code can help guide the design of software. Doing some initial design is always a good idea, but optimization can be a never-ending process, and shouldn't start until there is a real need for it.
Load testing is a great way to understand the performance of a piece of code. By testing it with large datasets, or many automated users, you can gain a solid understanding of when a piece of code will need to be optimized or re-designed for a larger scale.
In the end, testing code is the only way to achieve high quality software; unit testing for maintainability and correctness of the unit, end-to-end testing for the correctness of the software as a whole, and load testing to verify performance. Software is always changing, and it's quality should be evaluated after every change. Automated testing is essential to that process.
Information technology is about communication, but it feels like we're missing the most important communication tool. There aren't any well established platforms for group decision making (at least none I had heard of). I started with a couple google searches.
opengovplatform was the first hit. A short investigation shows this is a drupal app. One of the two github issues correctly calls out that the project is missing a license (despite including the drupal license along with the rest of the drupal source). It's also missing documentation, and their website includes some comical diagrams. Overall embarrassingly bad.
Next up Collective Congress. This project appears to have a single contributor (a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). The organization and write-up all sound very promising. The project is still missing unit tests and documentation, and the last commit was 4 months ago (maybe on break for the summer, or local changes haven't been pushed out in a while). The project is all java and uses GWT and google app engine. Tying such an important project to a corporation's cloud offering is not a great idea, but otherwise I think the project shows some potential, but is far from a working beta solution.
Madrona calls itself out as
A software framework for effective place-based decision makingYou can tell right away this project has some money behind it. Large images, a well designed website, and a link to the developer bios. The project is built in Django, jquery, google earth, etc, so the technology selection is pretty solid (they even provide a VM image!). Documentation and support all look solid. Unfortunately it sounds like this project has to do with spacial planning more then group decision making. Might be worth further investigation to see if components could be leveraged for other purposes, but I'll move on with my search for now.
PolicyCo sounds like it is right on track. Developed by collabforce who seems to have some experience already working with governments (which is great). A set of points from that write-up sound like an echo of what I'm looking for: wiki style, version controlled, peer-to-peer, and libraries of supporting evidence! Built on drupal (ouch). The project has yet to be released, so I will reserve judgement for now. Overall the motivation and goals sound excellent.
LiquidFeedback is is an open-source software, powering internet platforms for proposition development and decision making (translated from German). There is quite a bit of write-up and it all sounds promising. The idea is to improve the democratic process through the open software platform. The project is versioned using mercurial, but it's not clear how patches would be submitted. The backend is entirely PL/pgSQL (postgress procedures), which is... not very standard. The frontend is written entirely in LUA which is also a curious choice. There is a live demo. Overall, I like the idea, but the technology choices are a real concern.
an interactive budget simulator that involves residents in the budget-making process and demonstrates a municipality's commitment to citizen engagementAn interesting idea for sure. Their website claims their projects are open source on their github, but I wasn't able to find a project with that name. I can't comment on the technical aspects, but the design of the demo looks pretty good. My main concern would be that it doesn't appear to allow for discussion. A citizen's input is restricted to a slider, or a set of options. There is no way for a citizen to leave an argument or a reaction to an item. This feels a lot like the status-quo moved to another medium. I think this project is very much under-reaching the real potential of the technology available.
A second, yet to be released project is MyCityHall.ca. Flagged as
"a government monitoring platform" Again hard to weigh in on any technical or design aspects without the source. From the description it feels a lot like an "us vs them" approach, which is really the opposite of what a good platform should provide, but still worth another look when the project is released.
BetterMeans is a democratic project management platform. It's on github and is written in ruby. The docs and installation instructions look pretty good. They also have a hosted option (which is nice). I tried to use the demo, but I was getting a 500 error, so I can't comment much on the design or how it deals with the problem of decision making. I will have to revisit this one as well, and get it running myself.
There may be other projects out there, but I think that is enough for today.
I'm glad there are people working on the problem of group decision making. It looks like most of the solutions are focused on government, which is unfortunate. Government is not the only place these types of decisions are being made. Every organization, business and even community makes these kinds of decisions and could benefit from the same software. In order for a platform like this to really make a difference in government it has to be tightly integrated with the official decision making progress. Such tight integration is going to take time, and by exposing the platform more widely in organizations it gives the developers a chance to fix bugs and make improvements, before taking the most critical step into government.
I'm going to explore some of these options further, and formulate a set of requirements that I think are essential for such a platform, in a future post.
I like the idea of collaborative consumption.
I've followed the collaborative consumption blog for a while now. More than that, my only car for the last 5 years has been one from a sharing service (communauto, zipcar, hertz on demand). I've also tried out airbnb for a vacation.
I like collaborative consumption, and I'm interested in doing more of it, but I still wonder, is it enough? CC does a great job of reducing consumer waste. It lets us share consumer products that we normally don't use very often. It allows people to create local services from their excess resources, and it can foster community and a more personal social interaction in a daily routine.
Where I think CC might fall short is when it comes to repair and maintenance. Things break, and when they do, we're rarely in a good position to fix them. Warranties often come with strict warnings against attempting to fix things yourself. Consumer products rarely come with detailed plans or instructions on how to repair or replace broken components. Waiting for a product to be serviced is annoying when only one person is using it, but when many people rely on that product, the impact is multiplied.
If consumers (and collaborative consumers) are given the tools they need to be able to fix these things, we increase the lifetime of the materials we own, and further reduce material waste. One way to accomplish this is to make the design plans for products open source. Open sourcing material goods would allow anyone with the desire and a bit of time, to repair, or even improve, on the products we use and share every day.