by Nate Berg
Code for America. Sounds kind of dorky, doesn’t it? It kind of is. It’s a technology-focused version of Teach for America, the national program that recruits recent college grads to commit to a couple of years of service teaching in public schools. But while Teach for America aims at improving the nation’s public school system, Code for America is taking on a thornier, even more dysfunctional beast: government.
The project is intended to “help the brightest minds of the Web 2.0 generation transform city governments” – transformations brought about by using the Internet and other web-enabled technologies to help make governments more efficient, transparent, and participatory.
So, it is kind of dorky. But for more and more governments—from small cities to states to the Obama Whitehouse and the federal government—the future lies in that dorkiness. Data is the future of cities and governance, according to a growing collection of urban thinkers, government officials, and civic-minded web developers. And if data’s the future, the future is now.
It’s being called Government 2.0, as in the newest version of government. It’s also a nod to the idea of Web 2.0, the evolving concept of an Internet where users are as much observers as participants. And that’s exactly what advocates of Government 2.0 are envisioning for citizens—a fusion of the role of citizen and participant.
But citizen participation hasn’t always been the easiest ideal to achieve. Government—with its bylaws and policies and ordinances—can be a little off-putting, especially when getting involved means attending a four-hour-long city council meeting at 7 p.m. on a weeknight. But by improving the way people interact with government, and making the act of participating more appealing, the hope is that the government will begin to work better for the people.
The Internet has enabled intercommunication in ways that completely shake up the traditional concept of public participation. Though websites and the use of online tools, citizens can easily add their input on a proposed community plan, committee agenda item, or a street that needs some better nighttime lighting. The barrier to entry is much lower than traditional public input techniques—in terms of costs, time, and access. And as cities expand the use of these participation technologies, those traditional processes may simply fall by the wayside like so many obsolete technologies.
But merely hearing from citizens is not the end-goal of this movement. Like the two-way street of Web 2.0, governments also want to help citizens better understand what’s going on behind the doors of city hall. An informed citizenry is better equipped to contribute to local government processes and decisions. Yet even if the goal of making more informed citizens is a bit pie-in-the-sky, governments are taking baby steps toward that end. One of the increasingly popular ways cities and governments are trying to improve local understanding is simply through a policy of transparency and accountability. In two words, this is a policy of “open government.”
Open government is what it sounds like—the information and “proprietary” data that governments typically keep under lock and key is increasingly being opened to the public to peruse and use as it pleases.
As the Internet broadens the way we communicate, it's also changing the way we look at government as a clearinghouse of information. The result is a huge amount of data. From emailed complaints to city officials to requests for public documents to comments on city websites, the public’s voice can find its way into city hall much more easily and in greater quantity than ever before. Though the sheer volume is a bit overwhelming, governments are beginning to take it in stride. Some are even embracing it. Or at least they're trying to figure out how to embrace it.
Governments, for example, are making city data available for free to anyone interested. Though most of the people interested in XML feeds and APIs tend toward the wonky side of the citizen spectrum, as technology becomes even more ubiquitous in day-to-day life, what once seemed the territory of holed-up computer scientists will soon be as straightforward as checking email.
DataSF is a clearinghouse of datasets available from
the City & County of San Francisco with the primary
goals of improving access to city and county data and
helping the community create innovative apps. Click
image to visit the DataSF website.
Open data is becoming the way for many major cities and governments. From Washington, D.C. to New York to San Francisco and even the federal government, officials are making city data public. Hundreds of streams are now available, including such data as the amount of new building permits, the locations of trees, crime reports, and registered vacant properties. With these streams out and in the public realm, web developers have been able to create a raft of city data-based websites and applications.
For example, crime data has been mapped in a number of cities to show residents where crime is occurring and what types of crimes are being reported. Other applications include a locator tool to find parking in Washington D.C. and another that maps detailed bike routes and recent thefts.
Much of the data is only marginally useful in terms of getting people more actively involved in their government. Washington D.C., for example, offers a spreadsheet of Health Professional Licensing Fees. New York offers a list of laundry facilities. But regardless of this data’s apparent uselessness, advocates of open government argue that the more data, the better.
And the trend is on the rise. At the federal level, the Obama Administration has instituted the Open Government Directive, which calls on executive departments and agencies to help create a more open government by publishing government information online, improve its understandability and quality, institutionalize a “culture of open government,” and create a policy framework that encourages an open government.
At the city level, municipal governments are taking a slightly different approach. City governments in San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York are making moves toward opening government through their chief technology officers, a title that’s emerging in cities across the country. With powerful voices within local government, they’ve been forward-thinking in their approach to opening and using data.
One unique but increasingly popular approach is to present government data to the web development community almost as a challenge. The city of New York recently announced the winners of a citywide contest to create web applications using the city’s newly opened data streams. Twenty thousand dollars in prizes were offered, as well as a lunch with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The results of the contest were announced in February. The winning tools included an augmented reality application for mobile devices that helps people find the nearest public transit options to them in real-time, a rating tool for the city’s taxis, and a data-rich site to search and rate schools within the city. For cities like New York, open government has two prongs:
What results is a collaborative public service.
Wayfinder NYC, an augmented reality app, is designed
to help users locate subway, bus, or train stations from
their mobile devices. It is the winner of New York's NYC
BigApps contest. Click image to visit the Wayfinder NYC
But for all the sunshine and smiles this data-centric future of government offers, there are many challenges. Not the least of these is the Pandora’s box of legal issues that cities may be forced to face as data is abused. Another issue could be that cities aren’t able to keep up with the open data demands of the public or the legislation that requires that data to be open and accessible. Ensuring the usability of data may become an entirely new function of government, and some cities worry that the costs of offering and maintaining this data could overshadow the benefit.
For all the fears and doubts, however, the experience of those few cities excelling at opening data are positive.
For many governments, though, the process is still in the early stages. As other major cities follow the lead of San Francisco and New York, and other states join Massachusetts and Utah in enacting open data directives, the opportunities presented by this growing wealth of data are only beginning to emerge.
Programs like Code for America are driving this process forward. The agency recently announced a short list of projects proposed by cities and governments around the country that are looking for help from the code-savvy, civic-minded technologists of the future. The ideas dreamed up by those governments include a centralized virtual resource center where local businesses can track all city licensing and permitting processes in real time, advanced 311 data features that allow residents to analyze local indicators, and an interactive civic engagement portal. The selected projects will be developed by the Code for America fellows next year.
These are hardly the only projects in the works. Cities across the country and across the globe recognize that the power of the Internet can have real-world applications in our built environments. Sifting through XML data and sorting spreadsheets and developing web applications may be new ground, but it’s new ground many cities are excited to trod. The first steps are light, and yes, some of the first projects are decidedly dorky. But for cities to work better in the future, dorky may be the best way to go.
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