Department of Better Technology

Making government software awesome.

Building a static, developer-friendly, open-source knowledge base

In our work with government and enterprise IT, we’ve seen how user support can go terribly wrong. Enterprise software is often so complicated and unintuitive that it requires a hefty binder bearing the words “User Manual.”

user manual

After experimenting with a few options, from in-app tooltips to comprehensive phone support, we decided that an online knowledge base would be our best way forward. None of the existing out-of-the-box solutions fit our needs exactly, so we built our own from scratch. Here’s how we did it.

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Written By
Aviv Nitsan

Making Government More Effective and Inclusive

I am delighted to join the Department of Better Technology! The vision for this company, developed while Clay and Adam served as Presidential Innovation Fellows in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is incredibly compelling:

The Department of Better Technology’s goal is to move government into the 21st century: to work in the guts of government, to fix problems via technology, and to improve the way that people interact with it. We think that no matter what size you want government to be, you want it to work well, be accountable, and spend your dollars wisely. We think modernizing technology is a way to achieve all those things.

Screendoor, DOBT’s flagship product, is a flexible tool that enables governments and non-profits to collect and manage data in a beautiful and intuitive way. USAID uses Screendoor to place hundreds of fellows in Graduate Research Innovation Fellowships, the City of Oakland uses it to run its Grants for the Arts program, and Propublica uses it to find sources for their news stories.

While I’m excited to expand our work with municipal and federal partners, I’m also excited about working with the international development community and using Screendoor to solve difficult global challenges. Over the last few years, I’ve worked in emerging and developing economies to help front-line teams use technology to more effectively deliver the services (health, water and education) that matter most to citizens. In each of these sectors, collecting accurate data at the community level – and making sense of these data at the district or national level – is a core challenge. Screendoor is the best tool for managing this process: from the creation of a form and the collection of data on a mobile device or tablet, to getting the full picture about what these data can tell us. Screendoor is backed by a robust API, which makes it easy to sync data with existing systems and interact with your data on a map.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to join Clay, Adam, and the team. DOBT is a for-profit company, but it’s backed by the Knight Foundation and we measure our success both by how well we do and by the extent to which we help make government – the only institution that serves all of us – more effective and inclusive.

Onwards!

Written By
Joshua Goldstein

Another week, another Josh

Continuing our hiring spree from last week, we’ve decided to keep hiring Joshes. This week, Josh Goldstein joins DOBT as managing director. He’ll be helping me out on the business side of things as a primary point of contact for our customers, while also assisting in day-to-day company operations.

Josh brings a new area of expertise to our firm: international development. Before working at DOBT, Josh worked with Google to bring broadband to Africa, assisted at Stanford’s d.school in Jamaica, and helped launch Code for Kenya and Apps4Africa.

Screendoor has always been about accessibility – we made Bootstrap 508 compliant even before we had our first paying customer – but our commitment to accessibility extends beyond what federal law requires. All of our forms are fully mobile-compliant, and many can be filled out solely via email. Our broad conception of accessibility applies to cost as well: Screendoor is being used to turn million-dollar projects into thousand-dollar projects.

All of this makes Screendoor a great fit for the developing world – it’s no wonder that many of our very earliest customers are from the international development community. So we’re tremendously excited to have Josh here as an asset for them, and to help us continue to grow in that sphere.

Welcome, Josh!

josh goldstein headshot

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Written By
Clay Johnson

Welcome, Josh!

One of the first things we learned when building software for government was that shininess is overrated. Sure, you can slap Bootstrap on your civic app and it’ll immediately look better than 99% of the software that governments are currently using, but when developing an app like Screendoor, everything comes down to user experience. Today, we’re excited to announce that we’ve hired Josh Rubenoff, a talented designer who will help us make our products even more intuitive and easy-to-use. (And heck, maybe a little shinier, too.)

Josh is a self-taught product designer who’s done everything from designing iPad & Web applications for the healthcare industry, to compiling a syllabus for new designers, to interviewing film directors about their work. We couldn’t be happier that he decided to bring his myriad talents to DOBT. Welcome, Josh!

josh's headshot

Follow @joshsj on Twitter →

Written By
Adam Becker

Aviv Nitsan joins DOBT Support!

Hey friends! First, we’d like to announce a recent addition to our team. Aviv Nitsan is a talented programmer, as well as a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s Comparative Literature program, so it’s only natural that he’ll be doing technical customer support here at DOBT. If you find yourself in a coffeeshop in Boulder, Colorado on a weekday, you might just spy Aviv writing code, replying to support requests, or proofreading the horrendous grammar in one of my or Clay’s blogposts.

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Written By
Adam Becker

Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience, Part 3: Many hands make awesome work

This post is the third in our “Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience” series, highlighting the features and benefits of our flagship product, Screendoor.

If you’ve been following along with this mini-series, you’ve heard our pitch over and over again: the most drastic way you can improve the citizen experience is by making the necessary interactions with government quicker and easier, and that Screendoor is designed to accomplish just that. But did you know that in addition to saving time for your citizens, Screendoor can also help you and your staff save time and money?

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Written By
Adam Becker

Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience, Part 2: Pick the best in 5 minutes or less

This post is the second in our “Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience” series, highlighting the features and benefits of our flagship product, Screendoor.

We’re on a mission to drastically improve citizen experience, but we’re taking it on from behind the scenes, not in social networks or discussion forums. You can “engage your audience” all day long, but if basic functionality is still clunky and your employees are still spending valuable time on cumbersome tasks, your citizens will remain less than impressed. So last week we talked about getting your forms online quickly and easily, and now we’ll show you how Screendoor can help you spend time wisely by smart sorting and easily evaluating your responses.

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Written By
Sid Burgess

Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience, Part 1: The 15 Minute Form

This post is the first in our “Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience” series, highlighting the features and benefits of our flagship product, Screendoor.

When agencies consider ways to improve user experience for citizens, their thoughts often turn to public engagement in the form of social media and other outreach strategies. While admirable, these communication efforts fail to address the more basic, everyday interactions that citizens have with their governments. Things like applying for licenses, permits, or positions usually involve an unavoidable form.

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Written By
Sid Burgess

OpenRFPs on National Day of Civic Hacking

National Day of Civic Hacking is this weekend, and we couldn’t be more excited to continue the great work that’s been done on OpenRFPs, our community-driven effort to write scrapers for government contracting opportunities. If you’d like to get involved, we’ve written up a current state-of-the-project here: https://gist.github.com/adamjacobbecker/005f3ed586964220c54d

Feel free to join us – either in-person in NYC, Seattle, or Los Angeles, or in our chatroom – and together, we can start to get this important data in the hands of the people.

Written By
Adam Becker

Why We Design for Bureaucrats First

What is it, exactly, that’s so frustrating about a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles? Is it the color of paint on the waiting room’s walls? Or their choice of pens for the written tests? Does your exasperation with the local DMV have anything to do with the place’s design or aesthetic?

I bet not. I bet your frustration doesn’t have to do with the quality of your experience at the DMV. Your chief complaint with the DMV is probably that you have to go there at all. The DMV could be as nice a five star hotel and we’d still find a reason to complain about it if we have to interrupt our day to go there. If people are compelled by law to take time away from their work and families, no amount of “designing a great customer experience” is going to keep frustration at bay.

The default assumption in the civic technology community is that people want to engage with government. This is an assumption that needs to be tested. I believe that most people want to engage with their government about as much as they want to engage with a hospital. Which is to say: we don’t want to be there, but when we have to go, we want everything to work efficiently and with a minimum of hassle.

At DOBT we build tools for bureaucrats, not for citizens. That’s why our first big product is Screendoor, which makes it easy for government to capture and process information. For most people, it’s not the voting booth or the town council meeting that defines their primary relationship with government; it’s the form. Screendoor makes that form, and all the processes behind it, a fantastic experience – but most importantly, a shorter and more manageable one. When the work of bureaucrats is streamlined, citizens benefit.

Now approaching its first birthday, Screendoor is being used in all kinds of ways, from revamping procurement practices to hiring innovation fellows to granting musicians permits to perform at their local farmers market. Screendoor completely eliminates cumbersome PDF forms and the complex and expensive computer systems that sit behind them.

The bulky, costly, and unreliable “enterprise” approach to so much government technology today is demonstrably failing its stakeholders, from the healthcare.gov debacle to the Pentagon’s pending $11 billion health care records catastrophe. Screendoor helps small towns and large federal agencies turn million dollar problems into thousand dollar problems. That’s the savings you get from bureaucrat-oriented technology built with modern tools and agile development.

If you’re thinking about new ways technology can help you engage with your constituents while saving money, a great starting place is your own office. How can bureaucrats work together towards the goal of providing a better service experience to citizens? Before focusing on your organization’s blog or social media presence, think about the online interaction that your citizens really want to have with your office: a clear, easy-to-complete form that gets their problem solved quickly.

With the right tools in the hands of bureaucrats, we believe that government can deliver great service – without the wait in line.

Written By
Clay Johnson

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