Seattle just became the latest City to start posting its government data on the Internet in an open format. Open Data publishing may very well transform not just government, but Democracy, as well.
Data.seattle.gov has been live for a couple of months but was just officially announced this past Thursday, February 25th.
An interesting initiative, but what implication does it have for governing and government?
Making government transparent is not new – it has actually been going on since the first government websites went live in the mid-1990s. Most governments have a wide variety of data posted online. But in many cases it is hard to find or get in bulk. Constituents can search for individual building permits or maps or police reports. But only in the past 18 months have they been able to download whole datasets of such information in a usable format from online sites.
By “whole datasets” I mean, for example, perhaps almsot every 911 call which occurred in San Francisco during the month of December, 2009, or every restaurant inspection in the entire City of Chicago, or all the building permits issued anywhere in the District of Columbia.
Government openness and transparency really found its legs with President Obama’s declaration, on his first day as President, that he would run an open and transparent government. Many large cities now have open data websites. San Francisco’s datasf.org is one of the most comprehensive and best, but Chicago, New York and Washington DC have similar sites in operation. Cook County Illinois and the State of Utah among many others put their “checkbooks” online.
The open data trend hasn’t really reached a lot of smaller counties, cities and states just yet, but it will. For one thing, commercial services such as Socrata ( www.socrata.com) which powers the City of Seattle’s data.seattle.gov and many federal websites, make it relatively cheap and easy for governments to post their data. (Socrata famously hosts the White House visitor log, which has received 400,000 views.)
But is putting data in bulk, online, anything more than a fad?
I believe it is the tip of a very serious explosion of a new version of democracy. Until now, governments use of the Internet has paralleled use in the private sector, although generally lagging two to three years. The private sector is driven by competition and is less risk adverse than those of us who work with taxpayer dollars.
Perhaps the first iteration of government presence on the Internet/web was simply putting information on line. For example, how to apply for a building permit, or explanations of how to report problems with streets.
The second version of online government is transactions, that is, actually doing some business online such as paying a utility bill or parking ticket.
Then the third wave of online work is expanding information to include this bulk download or easy, machine-readable, querying of data, such as data.seattle.gov and similar sites listed above. This makes fascinating applications available such as stumble safely or Cleanscores, listing the health inspection results for restaurants in San Francisco. An explosion of privately developed applications is starting to occur based on this open data. And also, in this wave of innovation, government diverges significantly from the private sector. Few private businesses will want to place large amounts of data collected at their own expense in the public domain for anyone to see and use.
A fourth wave of online interaction is now starting to appear, typified by the site “ see click fix” where constituents can not only report issues online (using a map-based interface in the case of see-click-fix) but also see what others have reported and even rank the importance of the issues which have been reporrted.
A fifth wave is bound to occur, as governments expose their internal processes to public scrutiny, in the same fashion Fedex has done for package shipments or banks have done for loan processing. In this iteration, governments will not only accept a report of a problem or a need, but will actually allow citizens to track the problem resolution online. The citizen can report a broken streetlight, see when it is acknowledged or logged, see when it is scheduled for work, know when the crew is dispatched, see when the problem is fixed, and then provide feedback on the timeliness and quality of work. This will really make government accountable, as we’ll have to streamline our business processes and expose them to scrutiny, along with the data about how government operates.
But yet another wave of citizen-to-government interaction is occurring as well. In this iteration, data will be posted online, and people will write applications and analyze it, and then use it to create and inform public policy options for elected officials to consider.
For example, a City might acquire a building such as a school which is no longer needed. How should the government use it? Should it be torn down and sold to commercial developers? Should it be torn down and used for a park (and what kind of park – swimming pool, grassy knoll, childrens’ playground)? Should it be converted into a community center or housing or offices for non-profit organizations?
Answering these questions requires a lot of data and analysis. How many kids live nearby and what is the neighborhood crime rate? Are there already lots of parks and playgrounds and pools nearby? Are there a lot of seniors or immigrants or people with special needs? In the past, government employees would collect the data and crunch it and present the analyses and drive the solution. And then the government would have a public meeting to discuss and debate the options.
But eventually, community activists and the neighborhood can do a lot of that, especially if they have access to all the same data and statistics as the government.
Furthermore, they can collect a LOT more and varied inputs. They can poll the neighborhood and canvas door-to-door and collect information from the “man on the street”. They can take photos of neighborhood conditions and gather unique statistics about the health and quality of life in that community. They can then combine these sorts of input with census data to produce an entirely new look at the options. And public meetings about potential uses of this school building can be much more informed, with mashups and maps and interactivity using tools like twitter and blogs. Online polls using tools such as Ideasforseattle or Ideascale can allow the neighborhood to debate and rank choices, and be engaged in deeper and more meaningful ways than ever before.
Ultimately, such interactive government should result in better decisions, informed by the communities affected.
Does this mean the end of representative democracy as we know it? Could we do away with elected officials entirely and have true governing by the people?
Hardly. There will continue to be very hard decisions which individual neighborhoods and communities will fight tooth-and-nail, but decisions that have to be made for the good of society as a whole. No one wants a jail or a garbage transfer station or housing for sex offenders or a nuclear waste dump in their neighborhood. But we need all those things for society to function, and elected leaders will need to make those hard decisions.