Serving citizens through open source: one county’s story

San Mateo County provides a prime example of how government institutions are transforming their digital experiences to the public, using open data platforms.


More than ever, governments are readily sharing information through open data initiatives and doing it in more user-friendly ways, through easy-to-navigate websites, experiences optimized for mobile devices, and more. They’re even trying to brand themselves by creating a consistent user experience across all their online portals.

The reason for doing this is simple: The world has changed. In today’s on-demand society, consumers expect to be able to access information and transact business from any location on any device, including smartphones and tablets. They expect all the companies and organizations that touch their lives to readily share data and in turn receive input from them. They expect the same from their government.

State and local IT professionals realize they must meet these expectations, and many are embracing new strategies to enable better information sharing between government institutions and voters, taxpayers and constituents.


At the same time, IT leaders in the public sector often must do more with dwindling financial, technical and talent resources. The transformation of public sector information technology often means complete rethinking and then rebuilding of existing Web properties by ditching legacy content management systems in favor of solutions that are more scalable, adaptable and cost-effective.

San Mateo County provides a prime example of the trend of government institutions transforming their digital experiences. The California county publishes more than 20 websites, none of which provided an easy way for citizens to retrieve information, according to Beverly Thames, content and collaboration manager at San Mateo County.

As she told Felicia Haynes, of the Web strategy and development firm Phase2 Technology, the content was difficult to find and often outdated, frequently failing to meet the needs of the public. A tired design and lack of mobile support made things worse for the users’ experiences. The county’s content management system made it exceedingly difficult to fix these shortcomings, undermining the goal of providing up-to-date, easily accessed information.

For San Mateo, in the heart of Silicon Valley, the old approach was unsustainable, particularly given its tech-savvy citizens. The county decided to work not just to modernize its content management system and site design, but embrace open data.

The lessons of San Mateo speak to the broader opportunities that many other local, county, state and national governments are experiencing with open source software. As the move toward open sharing of information with the public continues to gain traction, many governments have become steadfast adopters and advocates of open source software and its principles.


Official agencies and counties like San Mateo that moved to open data formats have come to see themselves in a larger role, as information suppliers to services that rely on demographic and official transaction data to power innovative new digital products. Open source technology gives governments the ability to create these products and achieve better, more open sharing of information with their constituents.

Further, open source frees governments from the tyranny of proprietary closed systems; it is supported and tested by a large circle of developers and designers; and it generally works with virtually any system already in place, helping to avoid vendor lock-in.

These were factors in San Mateo County’s decision to adopt OpenPublic 1.0, a content management system that we had a role in supporting. OpenPublic 1.0 provides an easy-to-use, app-centric interface for Drupal, the popular open source content management framework tailored specifically for government websites. Using OpenPublic, the county has built and deployed a consistent experience across multiple department sites, each with their own unique content and functional needs.

Administrators can update countywide information as needed, ensuring their constituents receive updated and accurate information quickly. Redesigned user interfaces provide a much more enjoyable experience, and mobile optimization ensures users can retrieve information wherever they may be. OpenPublic 1.0 uses Acquia’s cloud platform, a platform-as-a-service that provides San Mateo County with greater scalability, uptime reliability and performance. In this case, it relieved San Mateo’s IT team from worrying about the underlying infrastructure and freeing them to focus on the user experience.

OpenPublic also met San Mateo County’s requirements for security. Government-level security requirements form the foundation of OpenPublic. Passwords comply with Level 2 of NIST’S Electronic Authentication Guidelines, https is preconfigured and CAPTCHA comes standard on forms.


This is only one county’s story, but it’s a compelling one that can inspire many state and local governments that may be preparing their own online revolutions. Together with similar initiatives underway in other cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, San Mateo’s story is additional evidence that open source has become a preferred technology choice for many governments — and possibly the only real choice for successful digital initiatives.

Tim Marsh is director of industry solutions at Acquia.

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