Melody Kramer

Open Data Day Notes

05 Mar 2016

Hello Triangle Open Data Day! Here are my slides.

I’m Mel. I recently moved from DC to Carrboro. I’m new here and would like to meet more people in the civic tech community.

I spent most of my career in public media working at Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and NPR. I worked at the intersection of product and editorial and I loved it. (I also love thinking about how civic tech and public media can work together….)

I left public media last year to serve a two-year term appointment at 18F.

You might be asking yourself: What’s 18F?

18F is a civic consultancy for the government inside the federal government that helps make government services simpler and easier to use. Housed within the General Services Administration, we focus on helping other federal agencies build and buy digital services that result in government-wise reuse and savings, allowing agencies to reinvest in their core missions.

Our Principles

We ascribe to three principles in all of our work:

Human-centered design: Our projects are by the people, for the people. Everything is designed with the end user in mind.

Agile: We’re iterative, experimental, and failure tolerant. We don’t plan two years of development before we start. As we work, we pay careful attention to what succeeds — and what doesn’t. We quantify our work with metrics and feedback, which, in turn, informs our thinking and our next round of building.

Open: Our projects are designed and built in public. That means open source, open data, and open APIs. Working transparently helps us develop faster, make better decisions, gather meaningful feedback, provide code for many others to reuse, and keep costs low.

We work openly. All of our work is on GitHub. We have an open source policy that we adhere to. We also have an open source style guide which helps guide how we write issues and documentation.


I thought I would show you four of our projects that help connect people with data really well.

The first is College Scorecard which was a joint project with the Department of Education. We received direct input from students, families, and their advisers to provide the clearest, most accessible, and reliable national data on college cost, graduation, debt, and post-college earnings. This new College Scorecard allows people to: rate colleges based on what matters most to them, highlight colleges that are serving students of all backgrounds well, and to focus on making a quality, affordable education within reach.

The second is We’re helping the Federal Election Commission with a massive project to make campaign finance data more accessible and easy to use for the public. The FEC actually doesn’t regulate Elections; they regulate how money can be raised and spent in federal elections. All that info is reported to the FEC, which then makes the data publicly available. They’ve been doing open data since before it was cool, but we helped them build an API, so not only can 18F do cool things with the data, so can you.

When not partnering directly with agencies, we’re building tools that support them. We helped build a public analytics dashboard for US government web traffic, and for the first time, you can see how many people are using a government website, which pages are most popular, and which devices, browsers, and operating systems people are using. Since it’s tax season, it’s no surprise those pages have the most traffic. and NASA also frequent the Top 10.

And what’s awesome is that all of this code is open. So the city of Philly forked the code and made their own analytics dashboard! So did the city of Boulder and parts of Tennesssee’s state government. Any city or state can do this. (You can read about it here.)

And we’re experimenting with paying people who bid to contribute to our open source projects.

Working openly

A lot of people come to me and say that they have difficulty explaining why it’s important to be open in their work. This is what I generally say:

  • It builds trust in the commuinty. It’s always useful to reveal what you’re doing midstream because it increases community investment in a project.

  • It allows other groups to get started without having to start from scratch.

  • It makes things more secure. You have a wide variety of folks looking at code which improves security - and having code public doesn’t mean the data behind it has to be made public. (For example, sensitive data.)

  • It also makes projects more discoverable.

Where can you start? We’re thinking about this a lot - you can read what we’re planning to do this year.

  • Decouple things that can be reused.

  • Show why it’s working.

  • Consider whoever is providing the data a partner. They have knowledge you might not have. There’s a culture shift on both sides.

  • And write about what you’re doing - use social media. Don’t wait for the end to tout what you’re doing. Be open in everything you do.

How to be open?

Not just code.

Ask for specific help.

Tag your issues well.

Thank your helpers.

Improve documentation.

Join 18F

As of this month we are 170 people, with just over half of the team living and working in a place that’s not Washington D.C. We span four U.S. timezones. We have offices in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and D.C., and everyone else works from wherever they live.

We’ve worked hard to provide the infrastructure and support for our team to live and work anywhere in the U.S.

Ask me more about

  • making your projects more open
  • inviting the public in
  • how you can join 18F
  • building an inclusive workplace
  • onboarding and creating cultural change with people
  • the best food in Philadelphia (native)
  • public media + civic tech stuff

I love thinking about ways that civic tech can partner with public media stations and libraries. I wrote an entire research report about this on a fellowship at Harvard last spring.

To see open positions, visit

To read about the work we do, read our blog:

To contribute an idea or code:

Twitter: @18F

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