Project MyUSA

Presidential Innovation Fellows

Building MyGov as an Open Platform: Part 1

In an earlier post we provided an overview of the the different MyGov components that form a complete suite of personalized services. Now we’d like to share some perspective on the technical architecture we’ve been developing and show you how we see MyGov acting as an open platform that existing government websites (as well as outside applications) can hook into. Providing an open platform allows agencies to incorporate MyGov features in their own ways and allows us to leverage the ingenuity of civic hackers and the broader innovation of the American people.

Before diving into the technical architecture or looking at any one single component, it’s worth reviewing a few core principles that govern our approach. This will be part one of a two part post and part two will detail technical architecture piece by piece. At a fundamental level our approach has been open, open, open, open. We’re creating an open platform with a foundation built on open architecture, open source, open data, and open standards.

Open Architecture

A small-pieces-loosely-joined service-oriented architecture allows us to build many modular components separately. These components can interconnect when they need to but can also be autonomous and fully functional on their own. Not only does this give us more flexibility, it also encourages government to build internal tools the same way we would expect outside parties who want to integrate with the platform. This kind of dog-fooding and open architecture way of doing things has driven the success of many ventures from Amazon, to Twitter, to GNU/Linux, to the web itself. In fact, there may even be some parallels between the recent Digital Strategy guidelines for exposing APIs and similar enterprise-wide policies that have transformed the companies that thrive as open SOA platforms.

Open Source

There’s no reason to build everything from scratch, so we’ve been building on existing open source stacks and components wherever possible including Ruby on Rails and a common LAMP architecture on the backend as well as Foundation, JQuery, and Backbone on the frontend. Likewise, we’ve been sharing our code and we invite pull requests, bug reports, and feature requests. The value and potential of civic software is multiplied when it’s truly treated as a public good. As the original description of the project states, MyGov will be “developed not just for the people, but also by the people.” We also recognize the potential for other governments both local and international to reuse components of the MyGov platform.

Open Data

One of the most critical tenets of MyGov has been to give people more complete access and control of their own private data and this introduces an important new dimension to the traditional discourse on open data.

Arguably, we’ve been focusing on transactions and personal information more than the kinds of content where typical open data practices are applicable, but by giving people more control of their own data we’re enabling open data on an individual basis where privacy matters. In some ways, the data crunching behind MyGov is what many are starting to call “small data” which is meant to convey personalization and contextual relevance in contrast to more abstract analytics often associated with the trendy world of “big data.” There are secure authenticated APIs that allow you to share your data within the platform, but we’ve also been creating and leveraging traditional open data resources to surface contextual and personally relevant content. For example, with the context provided by a city or zipcode people can start to be more connected to their local services and representatives.

Public facing open data efforts have also been expanding more broadly across the government. In fact, MyGov’s Chief Open Data Hacker, Ben Balter, has been a critical contributor to Project Open Data and some general purpose open data tools like DataBeam have already been developed to help support some of the MyGov infrastructure.

Open Standards

No open platform can truly sustain or scale an ecosystem without a healthy relationship with open standards and MyGov is no different. Open standards help facilitate modular interchangeable parts and they encourage the development of compatible components by third parties including federal agencies, local government, and independent developers. From the beginning we looked at existing initiatives such as the federal government’s standardization effort around identity or Open311 for a custom forms API and have worked to integrate or otherwise align them with the platform. At its core MyGov will standardize the process and refine the control people have around transacting with government. In some ways this will be more of a standardization of process and user experience in terms of how people authorize government agencies and third party applications to access their information, but it also leverages technology standards like OAuth. You may be familiar with this process if you’ve ever connected a separate application to your Twitter or Facebook account. Over time, a set of standardized APIs for government interactions will lay the foundation for a whole new ecosystem of applications that can innovate government just like the iPhone App Store or the marketplace of Android apps has radically transformed the way we use our phones.

Open for Feedback

We’ve been trying to follow these principles (and many others) as best as we can while navigating the challenges of innovating within government, but we know we can always do better. Please let us know if you have any questions or feedback on our approach and please stay tuned for part two which will examine the suite of MyGov components piece by piece in more technical detail.

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We believe: the Project MyGov principles

In cleaning up our shared drive and docs, I came across the “We Believe” principles we created back on August 2nd during an early ideation session. Among other things, we talked about what we wanted to accomplish with the project. By getting aligned our first week here in DC, it helped us lay the blueprint for how to deliver on the Project MyGov charter:

To reimagine how citizens interact with government through an experience designed around their needs rather than a confusing and fragmented bureaucracy.

In re-reading them, we agreed it’s inspiring how many we stuck to.

We believe…

About the project

  1. Change the culture. Don’t just build a product — disrupt bureaucracies and challenge assumptions.
  2. Be responsive. Solve for actual needs and problems, not perceived ones.
  3. Serve the people first, and the government second. We’re here to serve the American public as a whole (and even foreign visitors), so they should always be our primary focus. We can also strive to make it easier for agencies to fulfill that mission.
  4. Create simplicity. Reduce cognitive burden. Absorb the complexity on behalf of the public to give them a delightful experience.
  5. Be smart. Informed decisions over superfluous options.
  6. Be personalized. Reach people where they are with contextually relevant experiences.
  7. Be sexy. Go beyond intuitive functional designs to deliver an aesthetically beautiful experience. Design for the ideal, not the lowest common denominator. Create loyal and passionate users, not passive ones.
  8. Be an open platform. Build for the future. Be lean, modular, and decentralized. Expose APIs. Encourage reuse and collaboration through interoperability. Eat our own dog food.
  9. Embrace unpredictability. Evolve with the experiment. Respond and pivot as needed.
  10. Share. Keep the public informed, and actively seek out feedback.

About our creative process

  1. Be badass. Apply can-do jujitsu (instead of being risk averse) when challenging unchecked assumptions within institutional culture.
  2. Treat every interaction as an opportunity to delight. From pixels to copy, code to community, each part of the process should be a positive experience to engage and defy expectations.
  3. Design with emotion. Actively engage users with a voice, tone and personality that fits the context of the interaction, and heightens and improves the experience.
  4. Always ask: Are we solving for the right thing?
  5. Mobile first. Bake responsive web design into the DNA - it’s not an afterthought, but core to the experience.
  6. Be lean and agile: Use prototypes and experiments to validate learning and make data-informed decisions. Ship unfinished code and be prepared to fail fast.
  7. Embrace ignorance. Run with our naiveté on government constraints as well as the public’s lack of familiarity with the bureaucracy.
  8. Don’t unnecessarily handicap the creative process. Say “Yes, and” instead of “no, but.”
  9. Meaningful deadlines are not arbitrary. Milestones should have a purpose.
  10. No HIPPOs (highest paid person’s opinion). Titles and hierarchy don’t impact weight of ideas.
  11. Meetings are the exception, not the rule. Have a clear understanding of who the meeting is with, who they are, the purpose of the meeting, and the intended outcomes.


The MyGov Presidential Innovation Fellows

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A Layman's Guide to MyGov


Cupcakes for everyone at the launch of MyGov beta.

November is often a time for giving thanks, eating inordinate amounts of turkey, watching football, and joining millions of people early one Friday morning to buy the same things you could get online from the comfort of your home. We’re not judging on that last one, but as a tech-focused team we’re simply reminding you that most websites offer free shipping.

For Project MyGov, we’re thankful that a mere 16 weeks after we met each other in Washington, DC, to begin our time as Presidential Innovation Fellows, we launched our first working prototype of the MyGov beta – and nearly 600 folks signed up to kick the tires.

If you’re late to the game, here’s a quick primer on the project.

MyGov - The Cliffs Notes version

  1. Tasked with reimagining the relationship between the government and the people from a technology standpoint.
  2. Creating a platform to standardize how agencies interact with the people, focused around the public’s needs, as opposed to the goverment’s fragmented beauracracy. (We’re defragging government, so to speak.)
  3. Working on sample apps for simplifying common tasks like changing your name, applying for grants, and finding benefits.
  4. Creating a service to bring government forms online.
  5. Launched working prototype the week of Thanksgiving. Taking iterative approach: invite folks in, make changes based on feedback received (using IdeaScale and other channels), invite more people in. Rinse, repeat. To participate, sign up today.

That’s all for now. Hope you’ve got lots to be thankful about as well, and that you eat, drink, be merry this December. And remember: free shipping, people.

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Designing MyGov

A project with a scope as big as MyGov requires lofty ideals. Invoking patriotism without partiasanship, pride without boasting, and classical ideals while appearing contemporary – all part our charge of reimagining the relationship between government and the people. To that end, we wanted to share the where the visual direction MyGov is heading. I’ve been working hard the past several weeks distilling our research at both the Library of Congress and National Archives into style tiles.

Style tiles are essentially design swatches used to create a quick visual guide for the design and development of MyGov. Rather than create a full visual design mockup in Photoshop or Illustrator, style tiles provide a roadmap for where the MyGov UI design direction. This can then be used to create design elements, or reusable building blocks, that comprise a page in the MyGov platform – especially useful given the mobile first, responsive design approach we’re bringing to MyGov. For more on style tiles, here’s the source.

These design swatch elements go beyond the traditional red, white, and blue to something patriotic, aspirational and accessible. The color palette, while still evolving, supports this by bringing in browns, parchment, and even green into the mix. For typefaces, we’re starting with Century Gothic and Goudy Bookletter - both distinctly American typefaces. This brings us full circle as Goudy Bookletter draws it’s inspiration from the typefaces I researched at the Library of Congress. The iconography introduces embellishments from print, such as bookmarks, typographic flourishes, and watermarks, to modern day web page interface elements. This complements the MyGov experience persona which we published earlier.

We’ve been incorporating many of these design elements into our product development. As always, we value your input and feedback. We’re also looking at some interesting ways we can involve the larger MyGov community in the development of the brand identity. Stay tuned.

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Request an Invite to MyGov Beta

We’re one step closer to debuting the MyGov beta. Starting today, you can request an invite to take part in the beta. Simply follow the link below, provide your email address, and as soon as MyGov is ready for prime time we’ll let you know.

Request an invite for MyGov Beta.


When will the beta be released?

We plan on releasing MyGov the week of November 12th.

How will I know if I’m invited?

We plan on sending out invitations in waves. So sit tight and if you don’t hear from us by the end the November, let us know in the comments and we’ll follow up.

What’s being done with my email address?

We won’t spam you, and we won’t give it to anyone else. Promise.

What am I expected to do once the beta is released?

Once we launch the beta in November, we hope you’ll jump in, kick the tires a bit, and provide comments on the blog. We want to know what’s working for you and what we can do better. For example, “I like the logo” or “I wish MyGov would tell me when the sun’s setting in my town so I can take pictures of it and post them to Instagram.”

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