Category Archives: open data

The Dallas Divide: A Problem Technology and FirstNet Can’t Fix

I have long been an advocate for using technology to improve government and governing, and in particular for advancing law enforcement.   I’ve been a long-time supporter of building a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network – a network for priority use by first responders for their cell phones, body-worn video, tablet computers and sensors. And we are seeing that network come to fruition in FirstNet.

But there are some problems technology and FirstNet can’t fix.   Specifically, technology can’t repair the divide between law enforcement and the black community, underscored by the events in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Minnesota.

You-Tube-Post-Hour

In fact, technology probably exacerbates those divisions, as smart phone video of officer-involved shootings and use of force goes viral on social media, which itself is another feature of modern society made possible by technologies such as the Internet and the Web.

As an “old white guy” I certainly have no special expertise on police-community relations and how to repair or improve them.   But I can cite some innovations which many communities could adopt:

  • Community-police academies. The Seattle Police Department and many other major urban departments have such training, which helps educate non-law-enforcement people as to how their police and sheriff’s departments operate.   Of course people have to actually sign up for these courses, and then attend them.   And often they are operated at night, at times when people may be busy with family or work.
  • Ride-alongs. Most departments have a ride-along program, where a citizen can ride along with a police officer and see law enforcement “in action”.   Trust me – too often it is fairly boring, but can be punctuated with moments of terror.
  • Police situation simulators. Karen Johnson of the Black Alliance of Thurston County and Austin Jenkins of National Public Radio’s KUOW (University of Washington) put themselves into such a simulator recently.   They faced real-life situations similar to those cops find themselves handling, with some surprising results.
  • Better police training. Ron Sims was the longest-serving Executive (Mayor) of King County (Seattle). He was the Deputy Director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.  He lives in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Seattle, Mount Baker.  Yet he’s been pulled over, while driving, by cops 8 times.   He’s 68.  He’s African American.  Apparently he’s “driving while black”. How many of you reading this blog posts have been pulled over 8 times?
  • dallas-police-protecting

    A Dallas Police Officer protects Protesters

    Guardian, not warrior, mentality. Sue Rahr, former King County Sheriff and now director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center, advocates for this change in culture and attitudes by police agencies and officers.  Certainly the behavior of Dallas Police Officers during the recent sniper attack, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the Black Lives matter protesters, is the highest exemplar of this change in attitude.

  • Better police training. Many departments, including Seattle Police, are training hard with de-escalation training and crisis intervention programs.   Crisis intervention is phenomenal, as it seeks to have police officers support the mentally ill, homeless and others in crisis by getting them the services they need rather than taking them to jail or a mental health ward.  Seattle Police, in fact, are working with Code for America to develop a new app to make crisis intervention data available to police officers on smart phones and tablet computers.
  • Open up the data. The Obama Administration launched a police data initiative, which 53 cities covering 41 million people have joined.   The open data portal is powered by Socrata, a Seattle technology firm.   Amazingly, the Dallas Police Department has been one of the most forthright in opening up its data, publishing datasets on use of force and officer involved shootings, something most other departments have failed to do.  Code for America publishes a report card on which police departments have released which datasets.   The Police Foundation has pushed departments to go beyond the White House initiative in being transparent in their actions and operations.
  • President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.   This Commission, headed by Charles Ramsey, former Chief of Police in Washington, D.C. and then Philadelphia, made a number of recommendations to improve police-community relations.  I was honored to present some recommendations to the task force which were adopted in its final report.
seahawks-parade-crowd

The Seattle Seahawks Superbowl Victory Parade, 2014, which cell networks where jammed – one reason we need FirstNet

Technology and FirstNet have significant roles to play as well.  Many of the innovations above rely upon technology such as open data platforms, apps, and training simulations.   Body-worn video, in-car video and similar technologies to record how police operate will build community trust.   FirstNet is extraordinarily important to providing real-time two-way wireless communications for not only police and other first responders, but anyone who responds to public safety issues – transportation, public works, utilities, non-profits like the Red Cross and even teachers who are often “first responders” to incidents in their schools.

All of these innovations are cool and important.  But, ultimately, it is not technology which will bring law enforcement and the black community back into balance.  It is cops getting out of their cars and talking to people in cafes and barber shops and on the streets.    It is one community meeting after another where police officers and commanders show up to hear the real problems facing real people and modify their tactics to help.

We cannot rely on police departments and sheriff’s department for all of our public safety needs.  Keeping the community safe from those who prey upon us is, ultimately, everyone’s responsibility.

Police officers are also citizens, and need to think like citizens, not as warriors.   But also, perhaps every member of our communities needs to become a police officer, or at least put themselves in the shoes of cops.

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Filed under Code for America, community technology, Law Enforcement, open data, Seattle Police

Every Citizen needs a Data Dossier

Schrier's Data Dossier

Schrier’s Data Dossier

Governments collect a lot of data on citizens.  Private companies like Google, Amazon and even Safeway collect even more.   In fact, a whole new thriving business of data brokers has emerged.  These are companies like Datalogix which indexes, mashes, cross-correlates, buys and sells our personal information.

On  May 27 the Federal Trade Commission released its report “Data Brokers:  a Call for Transparency and Accountability”.   The report demonstrated the pervasiveness of the data brokering business.  The brokers use billions of data points to build profiles – dossiers – on every American.   The data comes from both online and offline sources.   Online sources include searches you make using Google or Bing, as well as things you buy from Amazon and other e-retailers.  Offline sources include purchases you might make with loyalty cards from companies like the grocery chains.

The “billions of data points” include a wide variety of information such as age, religion, interest in gambling and much more.   Here is a list of 200 such fields.  From this data the brokers make inferences and classify people into affiliations such as “bible lifestyle” or “rural everlasting” (older people with low net worth).

Americans are rightly concerned with the amount of data collected on us by our governments.   Government data collection is widely reported in the press.  But private companies collect similar vast amounts of information.   That fact is not widely reported.  Examples:

  • License Plate Recognition.   Cities and other police forces collect large quantities of license plate scans which include location and time-of-day information.  For example, Seattle Police deployed 12 police units and collected about 7 million license-plate records in one year, identifying 426 stolen cars and 3,768 parking scofflaws.  But most of those records capture normal citizens parking their cars in front of their houses.  However private companies such as Digital Recognition Company collect 70 million scans a month and have a database of 1.5 billion such scans.   Such data is used to repossess vehicles when the owner defaults on a loan.  At least police departments report to elected officials who can oversee and manage how the information is used.  But who oversees the private scanners?
  • Facial images.  The National Security Agency (NSA) collects millions of images each day, including about 55,000 of high enough quality for facial recognition.   But Facebook alone has 1.23 billion active monthly users who post 300 million photos a day (2012 statistic).  Facebook users willingly “tag” the photos, adding the names to the faces.  This has created one of the largest facial databases in the world.   Such data could be used to automatically recognize people when they enter a restaurant or bar, or to display advertisements tailored to them in public or when walking down the street.
  • Drones.  There is great weeping and gnashing of teeth over the potential use of unpiloted aerial vehicles by government agencies.   The Seattle Police Department was so roundly criticized about potential drone use that the Mayor ordered the program ended.  Seattle’s drones were given (“gifted”) to the City of Los Angeles igniting a debate there.  Obviously people are concerned about the video and other data such drones might collect.   In the meantime however, commercial use and uses of such technology are exploding, ranging from real estate to news media to farming and private photography.
  • Sensors.  The Internet of Things is upon us.   Sensors are being added to almost every conceivable device.   Sensors on cars will be used to tax drivers for the number of miles they drive, partially replacing gas taxes.   Sensors on cars also are already being used to track drivers who break laws or otherwise have poor driving habits, and their insurance costs may increase.  Fitness sensors track our activity.   Refrigerators, furnaces, homes, even coffeemakers (“your coffee machine is watching you”) are getting sensors.

Who is collecting all this information?  What are they using it for?   What are we to do?

Perhaps we need to follow the example of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires the credit reporting companies to provide reports to individual citizens, but also allows those citizens to challenge information found in the reports.

Perhaps we need a “Citizen Data Dossier” law and portal – a secure online site or vault where everyone could find the information collected by each data broker and each government agency about them.    In addition, individuals could challenge the information, ask for it to be replaced or removed and allow citizens to “opt out” of how their information is collected and used by the broker.

Biker-Hells-Angel-Type

Biker-Hells-Angel-Type

Governments, of course, represent a somewhat different issue.   Clearly convicted sex predators should not be allowed to “opt out” of government collection of their conviction data or have it removed from government records.   But certainly those who have false conviction data or other data (e.g. incorrect notice of suspended driver’s license) should be allowed to correct that information.

One thing is for certain:   once such data is available, we will discover how much of our information is available, and what private companies infer about us using it (“this guy is a Biker/Hell’s Angels type“).   And I suspect we will be scared and upset.

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Filed under big data, government, open data

Government Employees: Bureaucrats or Entrepreneurs?

Bureaucrat

Bureaucrat

There is an entrepreneur in almost every government employee.  It just needs to be unleashed.

“Innovation” is an overused word, especially in government.  Chief Innovation Officers are sprouting up in state and local governments as fast as dandelions bloom in the springtime.

I’ve contributed to this trend myself, publicly advocating Seattle’s new Mayor Ed Murray to appoint a Chief Innovation Officer.  He did appoint Robert Feldstein as Chief of Policy and Innovation (although my advocacy probably had little to do with that).

But can government employees at any level – City, County, State or Federal – really innovate?  Or are they doomed to be unrepentant bureaucrats, steadily but blindly following rules and procedures?

What is “innovation”?

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison and Innovation

I like Bryan Sivak’s definition of innovation as the “freedom to experiment”.

Many organizations – not just government, but really any large organization (think Boeing, the cable company, Microsoft) is captive to its rules, regulations, processes and procedures – its “bureaucracy”.   Governments are especially captive to their processes because they are subject to public scrutiny and criticism.  Many government officials hide behind policies and procedures saying “we treat everyone uniformly and equally” even though uniform processes often produce discriminatory results due to the differing circumstances of neighborhoods and individuals.

Consider a police department, for example, which handled abandoned cars in a uniform way. Callers were directed to a voicemail where they left information about the abandoned car in their neighborhood.  The information was transcribed onto slips of paper which were then given to parking enforcement officers (PEO) for each neighborhood who, along with a host of other duties, would track the cars down and tag them – when the PEO had time.  This business process had numerous problems – on weekends the voicemail box would become filled, and callers became frustrated.  Slips of paper became lost, or the information was improperly transcribed.  In some neighborhoods PEOs were overworked with other issues, and didn’t get to tagging the abandoned cars.

Freedom to experiment takes a lot of guts on the part of government officials.   By giving their employees or teams the freedom to try new processes – new ways of handling old problems – they must understand experiments may fail, subjecting their department to criticism.   “Fail fast, fail cheap, learn from the failure.”

Innovation is not just about Technology

In this razzle-dazzle world of the 21st century, we tend to think of “innovation” as synonymous with some cool new smartphone app or a new computer system which automates a paper-based process.

But the best innovations don’t necessarily involve technology.  Indeed, they often are just changes in business process, sometimes enhanced by technology.

For example, consider Seattle’s antiquated process for approval of siting of cabinets in the roadways.  These cabinets contain telecommunications equipment which allow higher speed internet in neighborhood. Placing the cabinets allows private companies to build high-speed fiber networks deep into the city.  But, sometime in 2008 or 2009, someone complained to a deputy Mayor that one of the cabinets appeared in a neighborhood and was unsightly and intrusive.  The City’s response was to create a draconian rule forcing telecom companies to get explicit approval of all homeowners, within 100 feet of a proposed cabinet, throughout the entire City of Seattle.

Such a rule has many problems, not the least of which is stifling competition to provide high speed internet.   But the City’s proposed response is to lift the rule, but require telecom companies to pay an annual fee for each cabinet.   The fee is, supposedly, to pay inspectors to make sure the cabinets don’t become overgrown by weeks or marked by graffiti.   In an age of 311 and citizen activism, with cameras in every smart phone, this is a solution worthy of the 1930s!   Clearly the city employees involved here are still living in a risk-adverse, anti-innovation age.

We do NOT want governments innovating on some issues.

Snohomish County Mudslide

Snohomish County Mudslide

Washington State just suffered a devastating mudslide near the town of Oso on State Highway 530.   Forty-three residents of that neighborhood lost their lives.    In some places in Washington State – and elsewhere – building codes would have restricted the construction of a home in a slide-prone area.  At the very least, the potential homebuilders could have been forced to acknowledge the danger in the area before they constructed.  Yet a few homeowners in Oso actively resisted such “government intrusion”.

We also want to be careful in how we innovate in matters involving public safety.  We don’t want experimentation with different shapes or colors of stop signs, for example.    In areas subject to hurricanes, earthquakes and similar natural disasters we probably want to be careful in how we change building codes.

 “Government Entrepreneur” is Not an Oxymoron

Mitchell Weiss said it best when he wrote this article in the Harvard Business Review on March 28th.  “The idea of ‘public entrepreneurship’ may sound … like it belongs on a list of oxymorons … But it doesn’t.  Public entrepreneurs around the world are improving our lives, inventing entirely new ways to serve the public.”   He cited a list of entrepreneurship in government, and there are many additional examples ranging from open data which begets a host of private sector apps to 311 to New Urban Mechanics, which has “institutionalized innovation” (and perhaps that IS an oxymoron) by both government employees and citizens.

Some things are best left to the private sector.

How about healthcare.gov as the poster child for this one?  No matter what you think of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the online implementation sucked.  Kurt del Bene, formerly of Microsoft, led a turn-around, but President Obama deserves credit for giving him the authority to fix the site.  And damn the bureaucrats in the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS) who used “tried and true” (i.e. non-innovative) processes to create it and failed badly.  Indeed, some states did much better, e.g. Washington.  In each case, however, engaging private sector companies and individuals is key to success.

Innovation is really about Leadership

It takes a lot of guts to be an innovative Mayor or Governor.   You’ll be subject to critics from every angle.  Government employees don’t want change because “this is the way we’ve always done it” and they fear individual responsibility to make decisions.    Members of the public and business communities will immediately line up on one side or the other, perceiving themselves as winners or losers.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Yet examples of courageous, innovating, leaders are abundant.  In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt forced the Washington Correspondents Association to admit an African-American reporter Harry McAlpin.  In 1964 Lyndon Johnson pushed civil rights legislation despite the obvious and continuing (to this day) damage to the Democratic Party in the South.   Just this year, Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle pushed a $15 minimum wage and obtained a supermajority of 21 of 24 members of his business-labor committee on a plan.

Great leaders know when to push, when to ask, when to cajole, and, most important, how to accept risk to push forward innovation and improvement in government.

There is an entrepreneur in (almost) every government employee and every citizen.  It just needs to be unleashed.

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Filed under 311, employees, government, innovation, open data

Lessons from NG-3-1-1 for NG-9-1-1

Next Generation 911When you are in a life-threatening emergency – a serious car accident or having a heart attack or your house is on fire – what do you do? You call 9-1-1, of course. With the emphasis on CALL, because, with just a few exceptions, there’s no other way to get police or firefighter or emergency medical help except calling on the phone. You can’t text 9-1-1 or send an email to a PSAP or tweet to 9-1-1.

9-1-1 Centers, often called PSAPs or Public Safety Answering Points, have a lot of sophisticated technology beyond 1920s-era voice phone calls, but very little of it is used to communicate with the public.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the government – specifically the Federal Department of Transportation – have a plan to fix that. The plan is called “Next Generation 9-1-1” or NG-9-1-1. At some point you may be able to text 9-1-1 or send an e-mail message or upload photos and video to help first responders protect life and property.

Some cities, however, have already implemented 3-1-1 systems for non-emergency customer service. In these cities – Portland and Denver for examples – you call 9-1-1 for emergencies and 3-1-1 to get help with any other municipal government service such as building permits, streetlight repair or animal control.

I recently did a podcast with Mark Fletcher on the Avaya Podcast Network (APN) discussing 9-1-1, 3-1-1 and these next-generation contact methods for the public. Fletch (@Fletch911) and I came up with the term “Next Generation 3-1-1” to describe using a set of new technologies and social media for citizens to reach their governments for service.

What can NG-9-1-1 and PSAPS learn from “next generation 3-1-1”?

Next Generation 311 - term coined in this blogWell, for one thing, “next generation 3-1-1” has already arrived. If you are in one of the places with 3-1-1, you can obviously just call that number to initiate almost any government service or report a problem. But virtually all those 3-1-1 cities also offer a 3-1-1 web input form and give you a tracking number. Some of them now tweet and allow tweeting as an input. Others are experimenting with Facebook pages, online chat, and email. Many of these contact methods allow you to send a photo or video of the issue.

Another common contact method is texting – there’s even “an app for that” in Textizen, developed by Code for America. In truth, Textizen is as much about citizen engagement and interaction as it is 3-1-1 and requesting service. But the important point is that Philadelphia, Austin, Salt Lake City and other places have implemented it as an alternate contact method.

Seattle's Find-It Fix-ItA final, powerful, “NG3-1-1” technology is the downloadable mobile app. Some cities have developed their own app such as Boston’s Citizen Connect or Seattle’s Find It Fix It. These are sometimes built on technology developed by private companies such as Connected Bits or See-Click-Fix (Ben Berkowitz, the CEO, is a worldwide leader in this space).

A frequent criticism of NG-3-1-1 services and apps is that they only work in one city. You can download the “Chicago Works” NG-3-1-1 app, but cross into the suburbs and it is useless. But Boston and Massachusetts fixing this by extending Boston’s Citizens Connect into Massachusetts Commonwealth Connect. This allows 40 cities in Massachusetts to have their own individually branded app, but, using the GPS feature on smartphones, to report problems no matter where they are. A resident of Chelsea who is in Boston for a Red Sox game could see a problem – a smashed stop sign for example – and use the Chelsea app to report it to the Boston.

Admittedly, we have a long way to go with 3-1-1 – most places in the nation don’t have it (indeed, even in Boston and Seattle you don’t call 3-1-1, but rather a 10 digit phone number). But we can still think about some future “next generation” features for 3-1-1 which would be relatively easy to implement with today’s technology even if they are still difficult to implement in the culture of government operations:

  • Fedex-style tracking of service requests. With tracking you could snap a photo of graffiti, get a tracking number and then be notified as the service request is reviewed, triaged, sent to the police department for review by the gang unit, sent to “graffiti control central” to determine if it is on government property and which department (transportation, parks, etc.) is responsible to clean it up, see when the crew is dispatched, be notified when the work is done, and then be asked your opinion of how well the whole process worked. (Some 3-1-1 apps purport to do this now, e.g. Chicago, and the Open 3-1-1.org organization actually is evangelizing it).
  • 3-1-1 Open Data and analysis.  The details and results of 3-1-1 calls for service should be on an open dataset for anyone to review and, indeed, are in some cities such as Boston, New York City, and San Francisco. Certainly departments and Mayor’s Offices should be analyzing the tracking data to improve service management processes. But how about mashing the 3-1-1 data up against datasets such as building code violations, utility shutoff due to non-payment or crime incident reports to find “hot spots” of difficulties in the City which need to be broadly addressed by cross-functional teams from law enforcement, code enforcement, social workers and more. Boston is, indeed, doing this, but I’ve not been able to find detailed data about it.  (Note:  Socrata, headquartered in Seattle, is the software driving all the “open data” sites mentioned above as well as hundreds of others such as the Federal Governments own data.gov.
  • Facetime and Skype to 3-1-1, conveying video to the 3-1-1 operator so they can see your situation or you can show them graffiti, a problem in the street, and so forth.
  • Chat and video chat. Chat functions are fairly common on private customer service sites but extraordinarily rare in government. Indeed, I can’t cite a single example. I think government customer service departments are concerned about being overwhelmed by work if chat is opened to the public.
  • Twitter and Facebook comments/apps. Elected officials certainly realize the power of Twitter and Facebook. And I think they (or their staff) actually review and respond to comments or tweets, and even turn them into service requests for follow up. But most of the line departments in most cities (water, transportation, public works, certainly police and fire) don’t accept calls for service via these social media channels. I’d also like to see developers write Facebook apps or games which could be used inside that social media community to engage the public or manage 3-1-1/service requests.

Lessons for NG-9-1-1. I’ve laid out a long list of examples and suggestions above which, together, could be called the “landscape and roadmap” for Next Generation 3-1-1. Some of them clearly could be adopted for use in PSAPs and 9-1-1 centers. The “low hanging fruit” here, I think, for NG 9-1-1 is:

  • A smartphone app for texting 9-1-1. Although you can directly text 9-1-1 from your phone, an app would be better because it could prompt you for critical information such as your location. Textizen could be an NG-3-1-1 model for this.
  • A smartphone app for calling 9-1-1. This sort of app might not just telephone 9-1-1, but also allow you to include photos or other data from your phone, including GPS coordinates, direction and speed of travel etc.
  • Facetime or Skype to 9-1-1. Such an app (when PSAPs are able to receive the information) would allow the telecommunicator in the PSAP to see what’s happening to you or in your area.

A number of obstacles remain, however:

  • Technology is an obstacle, as most 9-1-1 centers don’t have even text messaging available, much less email, twitter or chat. A notable exception: York County, Virginia, where past APCO president Terry Hall directs the 9-1-1 center – you can text 9-1-1 in York County.
  • Culture and training are an obstacles. Telecommunicators (call takers and dispatchers) in 9-1-1 centers know their jobs extraordinarily well and execute them almost flawlessly, as you hear from tapes after any major incident. Every new technology or method of communication we add to the PSAP makes those jobs harder in terms of training and obtaining the right information to get first responders to the incident.
  • Chain of evidence. When a video or video call or image is sent from a citizen to a 9-1-1 center about a crime, can it be used as evidence? Has it been altered (even by Instagram) thereby perhaps rendering it useless in a court of law?
  • Security and cybersecurity. We’ve seen cases of “spoofing” telephone numbers and “swatting”, where 9-1-1 centers are tricked into sending officers or SWATs to unsuspecting citizens. Every new method of communicating adds new difficulties in verifying caller identities and preventing such antics.

And, most importantly, with 9-1-1 lives are often at stake, so thorough research and preparation must precede adoption of these new technologies in PSAPs.

My podcast with Mark Fletcher on the Avaya Podcast Network was a fortuitous meeting. We’ve probably coined the phrase “Next Generation 3-1-1”. But while the tools and technologies of NG-3-1-1 certainly chart a path for PSAPs and NG-9-1-1, following that path will require innovative solutions to a number of obstacles.

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Filed under 311, 911, apps, future of technology, open data, social media

Apps Contests are Stupid

Hackathons and App ContestsIt seems like apps contests and apps challenges and hackathons sponsored by governments have been all the rage over the last couple of years.

They were kinda cool when they were new, in 2008, such as Washington DC’s original “Apps for Democracy“.   Vivek Kundra, then CTO of the District, valued the apps developed there at $2.3 million, although how he arrived at that number is unknown.

But now apps contests are not just overdone – there are just so many of them – but actually are becoming counterproductive, turning off developers and governments.   In fact, they are stupid.

Why?

First, the data sources are not standardized between different cities, counties and states.   This leads to myriad problems.

One of the great breakthrough ideas in the government of the District of Columbia in 2008 was the concept of a “data catalog“.   Governments have always had masses of data which they crunched to produce reports and insights and to support policy development.  But they also kept such data under lock-and-key.   The District’s government made some of those datasets open and available for citizens, academics, researchers and app developers to use.   Kundra’s successors in D.C., Bryan Sivak and Rob Mancini, extended the District’s data catalog to 507 datasets.   Kundra ported the idea to the federal government with data.gov, and a whole industry – including Seattle startup Socrata, is now built on opening up data.

But very few “normal” citizens are interested in this stuff.  Many of them don’t have the skills or interest to spend a lot of time loading thousands of rows of data into a spreadsheet or some statistics program and crunching the data.  Most non-policy-wonk citizens, if they have an opinion on a policy issue at all, have that opinion based on a logical or emotional basis and don’t generally want it polluted or confused by facts.  As an example many people feel “crime is rampant in our city, we need more cops”, when, actually, violent crime has dropped steadily in almost every US City for the last 20 years.

Nevertheless, the open data catalog is a brilliant idea because it allows developers to build apps using that data and display it in new and interesting ways.

My favorite example of this from the Apps for Democracy days is the “stumble safely” app.

This app used the crime dataset from the DC government.  It took your location, as determined from the GPS on your smartphone, along with the time of day, day of the week and other information.    It mashed that data against the crime dataset.   And it showed the safest path for you to “stumble home” from a night of eating or drinking.

It no longer works.

Stumble SafelyA primary reason:  “stumble safely” used the DC crime dataset, but was useless outside the District of Columbia.   Few other cities – even today – have put their crime datasets in an open data catalog.  And the formats of those datasets vary widely from place to place.   So “stumble safely”, written for the District of Columbia, won’t work anyplace else unless it is modified for each individual city or government.

This is a common problem with almost all government open data on the web.

In fact, the only commonly used data which is standardized – as far as I know – is transit data with the GTFS standard promulgated by Google.  Transit data is widely standardized because transit agencies are like private companies.  They have to market and sell their services – ridership on buses and trains – or they will run budget deficits and cease to exist.

Few other government organizations are in the same situation – there is little incentive for police departments or fire departments or building inspectors or water departments or electric utilities to standardize their datasets and make them open.  Indeed, most of them fear (wrongly so), that exposing data will open them to criticism for problems with the data or bad comparisons with other agencies, e.g. being less efficient or more expensive at delivering service than the same agency in a nearby city.   And every agency will say “we don’t have the time or money to standardize our data.”   It takes strong leadership (aka “arm twisting”) by an elected official or extraordinary leadership by a CIO to push an open data initiative forward.

Yelp, Code for America and the City of San Francisco are trying to standardize restaurant inspection data with the LIVES specification, an effort I applaud.    But I predict this will be a slow slog – slow adoption – for the reasons mentioned above.

A second major reason apps contests are stupid is the lack of monetization.   Apps developers need to eat, too, and put a roof over their heads and a Porsche in their garage.  They’re all looking to create that “killer app”  which will be downloaded a million times at a $9.99 per download.

But how many apps created from hackathons or apps challenges or contests are monetized?   How many of them are still active and downloaded and used?

My answer:  few, very few.

Stumble safely, alas, is dead (just click on the link here). Most of the apps on Apps for Democracy and other apps contest sites are dead.

A few are living and continuing to develop because their creators are passionate about them (Living Voters Guide by Travis Kriplean) or they do have a monetized component (Seattle Emergency Radio by Brian Adams, monetized via advertising).

One Bus AwayAnother potential avenue for monetization is for a City/County/State government to take over the use, care and feeding of an app after an apps contest.   That sometimes happens, but often can be a dicey proposition.  Brian Ferris, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote One Bus Away, an extraordinarily innovative transit application to track, in real time bus arrival times without using GPS (since Seattle buses at that time had no on-board GPS).  It has a 100,000 users each week.  Brian now works for Google in Zurich, and the area’s four transit agencies are trying (and fighting with each other) on how to keep the app going.

Evergreen Apps CompetitionAnother possible solution to the monetization problem is offering prize money to encourage participation such as the $100,000 offered this summer by Battle Hack.  When we did the evergreen apps challenge last year in Seattle, the three governments involved were able to offer some prize money funded by federal grants and local innovation funds.  But that’s rare – taxpayers will quickly wonder why we’re offering money to hackers when potholes are still jarring their cars.

One potential exception to the hackathon/monetization problem is New York City.  New York City has its “Big Apps” competitions, 8 million people, hundreds of thousands of businesses and innovative Mayoral leadership with Michael Bloomberg.   It represents an “apps ecosystem” which might survive and thrive despite the other hurdles.

If most apps contests are stupid, where do we go from here?

I’m not sure how to get datasets standardized across 3000 counties and 18,000 or more cities and 50 states.   Perhaps private companies such as Socrata, a premier provider of data catalog services such as data.gov, or a company which has monetized data such as CrimeReports.com can figure that out.   Or – and this is a long shot – perhaps the Mayors’ Innovation Task Force of the US Conference of Mayors would take this on, but I’m not holding my breath.

Perhaps an innovative state government will take leadership and build a data catalog with its cities and counties and standardize the data on the catalog.  This presents a great economic development opportunity – think of all the startup companies in that state which might develop statewide apps, or mash up the government open data against data from other sources such as the census or sales data from, say, Amazon.

The second problem – monetization of apps – will be hard to solve unless and until data is standardized so a single app – a crime reporting app, for example – can be downloaded and used across an entire state or the nation with the potential for millions of users.

In the meantime, we’ll have to rely on the kindness of friends to the government community like Travis Kriplean, innovative leaders like Jay Nath in San Francisco and Mark Headd in Philly, plus the ongoing attempts to standardize data like GTFS and LIVES to carry us forward.

But proliferating these stupid apps contests sure ain’t going to do it.

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– Just Another Apps Competition?

Evergreen Apps winnersThe first-ever Evergreen Apps Competition came to a close last night in Seattle as we recognized the top applications developed over the last six months with government open data. Top honors went to Living Voters Guide with other prizes for WhichBus, Trash Backwards and Food Inspector.

I was one of the judges for the event, and, I have to admit, I had a lot of fun downloading and testing the apps on Android and iPhone platforms, as well using some apps on the web itself.   Full results are posted on the Evergreen Apps website and on Geekwire.

“Apps competitions” might seem a little passé these days. It sure seems as if there have been dozens of them, starting with the original Apps for Democracy in the District of Columbia in 2008.   New York City has had at least three renditions of their Big Apps contests and San Francisco continues to innovate with a whole catalog of apps.

What makes this one different?  And where should we be going with Government data and apps contests in the future?

Evergreen Apps ChallengeEvergreen Apps is different because it was a joint effort by the City of Seattle, King County and the State of Washington. Three governments at different levels, multiple different open data sites and $75,000 in prizes. Plus, of course, it was held in Seattle, center of the technology world, with over 100,000 people employed by companies ranging from Microsoft to Cozi to Amazon to Google to Socrata to Urbanspoon.

In return for the prize money, the rules stipulate the apps must be maintained an enhanced for a year. That, hopefully, will give some longevity to these apps. Alas, many of the results of apps contests elsewhere have resulted in dead ended apps which no longer work for a whole variety of reasons ranging from changes in the underlying data structure to developers who go on to other things.

A huge issue is sustainability.   One of my very favorite apps from the original Apps for Democracy contest – “Stumble Safely” which maps crime around your present geographic location – appears to be long dead.

Developers and their startup companies can’t live on coding alone – cash really REALLY helps, but apps built on government open data are hard to monetize.

Another huge problem is non-portability. An app built in Seattle with data.seattle.gov information works in Seattle, but not in LA or Chicago or Podunk Center. We need either much better standards for the underlying datasets, along the lines of Google’s GTFS for transit data. Many transit agencies have adopted this format because increasing their ridership is core to their business, and using the standard advances that goal.

As an alternative, we could use a schema and data interchange process to mask the differences in data between different cities, counties and states.

Cities Data GovI have great hopes for Socrata, a Seattle-based technology company which hosts the federal data.gov, data.seattle.gov, and hundreds of other government open data sites. They are one of the movers behind cities.data.gov, a first attempt at combining datasets from multiple cities.

If cities.data.gov or maybe a future states.data.gov or even restaurantinspections.data.gov can be made real, then an app writing against those open data sites would work anyplace in the world which contributes data.

City, County and State Open Data SitesAnother huge problem is simply the lack of governments who participate. Sure, there are 176 federal government agencies who make data open, thanks to the commitment of the Obama Administration, the United States CTO Todd Park, his Deputy Chris Vein, U. S. CIO Steve Van Roekel and data.gov evangelists like Jeanne Holm. But only 19 cities and counties in the United States, and only 34 states have open data sites. See the list here. And many of those have incomplete or only a few datasets.

When are local and state governments going to “get it” that transparency and open data are a way to enlist a wide site of private companies and developers into helping them better serve their constituents?

Finally, there is the abysmal situation with transparency in lawmaking. Most state legislatures and city/county councils and commissions put proposed laws and ordinances on their websites, but in PDF format or non-machine readable format, making them almost impossible to consume with apps. Is this stupid, shortsighted or maybe intentional? A positive development here is the recent launch of congress.gov, which the Sunlight Foundation hails as putting much more machine-readable bulk data online.

So where do we go from here? My suggestions:

  • Initiate a nationwide or at least statewide (for individual states) effort to standardize the format of the open data, or create data interchange software to mask the differences in the underlying data, as Socrata is trying to do.  Collaboration such as that shown by a City, County and State at Evergreen Apps is a great step forward on this path.
  • Establish statewide and GSA contracts with private companies to host the data. The State of Washington has done that and it ismuch easier for cities and counties in that state to build their own open data sites. Data.seattle.gov was live two months after we started the project, by using such a contract.
  • Pass laws which mandate all data produced by a city, state or county which can be on an open data site is put there. New York City leads the way on this.
  • Also mandate city, county and state legislative processes be open with machine-readable data, as congress.gov is starting to do.

In the end, of course, it all comes down to visionary leadership.

Open governmentPresident Barak Obama was really visionary in demanding open data and transparency from the Federal Government on his first day in office, on January 21, 2009. Then federal CIO Vivek Kundra and CTO Aneesh Chopra carried that ball forward. Mayor Mike McGinn in Seattle launched data.seattle.gov shortly after taking office in 2010 and I was proud to support him in that as Seattle CTO. Other visionary leaders range from Mayor Gavin Newsom in San Francisco to U.S. Deputy CTO Chris Vein in the White House to Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City.

But, alas, you can’t legislate leadership. You can only hope voters recognize it and cast their ballots for visionary candidates, and those elected officials, in turn, choose visionary CIOs.

We’ve got a great start on the brave old world of Government Transparency, and, with initiatives like Evergreen Apps, we’ll continue to push the “open data” ball forward.

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– The Upcoming White House Datapalooza

OSTP Needs Your InputWhat’s a “Datapalooza” and Why is the White House having One?

The last four years have seen an explosion in government “open data” with thousands of datasets posted online for public use. The City of Washington DC, under the leadership of then-CTO Vivek Kundra, was the first to post such data online in a “data catalog”. The effort vastly expanded when President Obama took office and, as one of his very first acts, directed the federal government to be open and transparent. Data.gov now has 172 participating agencies tens of thousands of datasets.

Cities, counties and states have gotten into this “open data” act too – as of this writing 34 states and at least 15 cities and counties have open data sites. And the effort has gone international, with at least 30 nations and other entities posting data.

A whole new industry has spawned, with companies like Seattle’s Socrata (host of data.gov and data.seattle.gov among many others) and Microsoft now powering the open data sites.

Data which has been hard to get in the past is now freely available – government employee salaries, crimes, restaurant inspections and even White House visitor logs are now on these websites. Some datasets are updated in real time – in Seattle if you hear a fire engine screaming past your house, chances are the call is already posted to Fire 911 Calls at data.seattle.gov.

So what?

Have you ever looked at these datasets? Kinda like big spreadsheets. Sometimes with indecipherable pieces of data like “latitude” and “longitude” instead of street addresses. Useful in research, I guess, and also if you are data or tech geek and majoring in geography is helpful too.

How do most people really consume their information these days?

Apps, of course! And not just smart phone apps, but also table apps, laptop apps, web apps, and even TV apps.

The missing link between open data and usable apps is developers.  They create the apps which take the open datasets, make them into apps usable for the typical citizen, and perhaps even mash the data up with other information which might be useful such as a map (plotting those pesky latitudes and longitudes) or traffic information.

Now that data.gov and related sites are online, the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House is actively trying to encourage developing such apps by businesses, government employees and, really, anyone with a bit of skill in coding.

Enter the “datapalooza”.

The White House sponsors events they call “datapaloozas” to highlight cool apps which use open data to create information and value for citizens. The next datapalooza is scheduled for Friday September 14th at the White House. It will highlight “public safety” in the broad sense – not just law enforcement and firefighting and emergency medical – but also public health, product safety, transportation, and disaster readiness. It will include not just an “expo” of apps which have already been developed, but also an announcement of new safety data resources about natural disasters and to improve preparedness and emergency response.

A lot of these apps exist already, of course, as a result of apps contests in Washington DC (Apps for Democracy), New York City (Big Apps 3.0), and elsewhere. In fact, I’m presently judging the Evergreen Apps Challenge here in Washington State, with $75,000 in prizes offered by Seattle, King County and the State of Washington – results of that contest will be announced on October 1st.

It will be fascinating to watch results from the “datapalooza” on Friday (alas, I don’t know if it will be live-streamed or not, yet).

And I’ll be blogging more about these results, hoping to see apps not just with a major coolness factor, but also ones useful to keeping you safe every day (think restaurant inspections) as well as during disasters.

If you know of such an app, or have an idea for one looking for development, make a comment to this blog or drop me a line.

Who knows, maybe a “killer government app” is “somewhere, out there”.

Note: Deputy United States Chief Technology Officer Chris Vein spearheads the White House effort. He’s uniquely positioned for this work, as he brought the open data site for the City/County of San Franciso online in his previous position as CIO of the City by the Bay.

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