Tag Archives: data.seattle.gov

– 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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Filed under apps, egovernment, Fedgov, open data, open source, web 2.0

– Data Data Everywhere

Data.Seattle.Gov - click to see more

Data.Seattle.Gov

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.

Data.gov, Datasf.org, Data.seattle.gov.  These are only the beginning of a new and exciting era in our democracy.  Still, good leadership will never go out of fashion.

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