The past several years have seen a number of free, low cost and open source software tools developed to support community building, civic engagement, and activism. In addition to Azavea’s own Cicero database of elected officials and legislative district boundaries, there is a long list of related tools, including: TheyWorkForYou, Change.org, Represent.ca, NationBuilder, AskThem.io, OpenSpending.org, the OpenElections project, Open Civic Data, and the Google Civic Information API, to name just a few.
Many of these projects have overlapping functionality. For example, Represent Canada API, TheyWorkForYou, Cicero and AskThem.io all need to be able to turn a street address or intersection into a map coordinate and then determine which legislative boundaries contain the location. The ability to store and search a list of public officials is another common feature.
MySociety, a non-profit outfit based in the UK, has been behind many successful civic engagement and activism projects, but they recognized that they were often re-inventing the wheel for each project. They set out to change this. A year ago, they received a grant from the Knight Foundation, to support the development of a global network of developers and designers aimed at creating high quality, re-usable software components available under open source licenses. The result is Poplus, an open community of civic hackers and activists building common components that can be shared.
After only a year, Poplus has already released a number of useful building blocks that can be used to create new web sites and software applications. Some of the highlights include:
- PopIt – store and share lists of elected officials
- SayIt – save, search, and share meeting transcripts
- MapIt – map geographic points to administrative boundaries
- Represent Boundaries – connect user location with boundaries and content
- BillIt – record search and track bills
- WriteIt – write and send messages to public figures
- Cuttlefish – a transactional email service
Poplus is really all about sharing the great work being done around the world to improve government and civic life. These building blocks mean new web sites can be constructed more quickly, at lower cost, and with more features. For example, the Represent Boundaries component is already used by several web sites to match people to their representatives, including OpenStates, GovTrack, and ANCFinder (for DC’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions).
Open software components combined with open civic data have the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with our elected representatives.