Highlights from the first-ever PoplusCon in Santiago

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Last week I had the privilege to travel to Santiago, Chile to attend the first-ever PoplusCon, hosted by our friends at MySociety and Ciudadano Inteligente. The event was a gathering of approximately 100 civic coders, campaigners and activists interested in furthering the cause of international collaboration around tools that NGOs from across the globe are developing in parallel.

What is Poplus?

Poplus refers to a set of software components as well as a larger community that reaches beyond those components. The Poplus components are a loosely coupled set of free software products designed to be easily reusable and deployable as part of a larger stack. The most widely used examples include the MapIt tool that provides an easy way to find out which administrative areas cover a particular point, and the PopIt tool that makes it easy for NGOs to manually maintain lists of legislators. There are also newer tools that are designed to integrate with these, such as SayIt for tracking politicians’ speeches and written statements and WriteIt for getting in touch with PopIt-tracked politicians via email.

But perhaps most important is the idea of the Poplus community, centered around collaboration and sharing solutions to common challenges. I’d encourage anyone else interested in this idea of collaboration to join the Poplus Google Group as a way to be a part of this conversation.

Conference highlights

Much like Sunlight’s own TransparencyCamp, the conference itself was structured as an unconference, with the session topics being left up to all of us who attended. The unconference style, coupled with a small, highly engaged audience, led to a tremendously productive couple of days at the Lo Contador Campus of the Pontificia Catholic University.

The first, and perhaps most productive, session I attended was on the topic of developing an international vote schema, an important first step towards more collaboration around legislative votes. Sunlight’s interest in this topic is well-defined: We’ve done this across all fifty states as part of Open States, and revisited the topic more recently as part of Open Civic Data. James McKinney of OpenNorth led the session with an eye towards integrating this into the Popolo family of specifications that many in this space (including our own Open Civic Data project) are already using for people and organizations.  If you’re interested in following along with developments toward more uniform way to represent legislative votes there are details in the session notes about next steps.

Another big highlight was seeing all of the different tools that people have been working on. A few of my personal favorites:

  • Chia-liang Kao of g0v.tw presented on Billlab, a tool for collaborative bill drafting.
  • Matthew Landauer of the OpenAustralia Foundation demoed two fascinating projects: Cuttlefish, an open source transactional email server, and Morph.io a hosted service for web scraping.
  • Chow Chee Leong of Sinar used GitHub to track campaign promises of politicians as GitHub issues.

Chia-liang Kao also gave a great lightning talk on maintaining a community that led to us jointly running a session on building developer communities around Open Government projects. This was a great session that turned into a frank conversation about the challenges our projects face in attracting and maintaining contributors. We shared a lot of expertise and produced some interesting additional notes that are available here on the PoplusCon hackpad.

session wall
Session Wall at PoplusCon (Photograph by Paul Lenz)

As is always the case with these kinds of events, there were plenty of great sessions I wasn’t able to attend. If you’re interested in seeing the full schedule with notes taken from every session, here’s a list of sessions with associated HackPads. And if you’re interested in this kind of collaboration in general, signing up for the Poplus Google Group and/or following @poplusproject is a great way to stay informed about what tools are being built and to share the tools you’re working on.

And finally, a special thanks to everyone at MySociety and Ciudadano Inteligente for all the work they put into making this a great place for collaboration.