Sustainability

California launches innovation contests to improve government operations

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

The state of California has launched a $25K Find a New Way innovation contest that gives residents a chance “to identify areas of improvement within the state government and share their untapped expertise to create solutions.”

Participating agencies include the Departments of General Services, Transportation and Alcoholic Beverage Control, and each will award up to $25,000 in prizes.

The impetus for the initiative is Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s Assembly Bill 2138 that created three innovation contests aimed at “eliminating or reducing state expenditures or improving operations, or for making exceptional contributions to the efficiency, economy, or other improvement in the operations of state government.”

Of particular interest is the DGS Green Gov Challenge, where participants will leverage open data to help improve government sustainability practices. The contest includes a Sacramento-based hackathon October 24-25 and coincides with a pilot launch of the state’s open data portal, led by California Government Operations Agency.

Learn more about the Green Gov Challenge and pre-register for the event.

Can public data on federal energy usage make government more sustainable?

Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse in Euegene, Oregon (Photo: U.S. General Services Administration)

Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse in Euegene, Oregon (Photo: U.S. General Services Administration)

The General Services Administration recently asked for ideas from the public on how it can help make the federal government more energy efficient.

My recommendation would be to have all federal facilities publish their Green Button data to energy.data.gov so we can begin to publicly monitor this and observe what buildings are underperforming and how they can be upgraded or implement more energy-efficient practices.

I’ve looked for and asked around for federal government energy consumption data, but there appears to be none available.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission publishes this type of data in an annual benchmark report and has seen significant decreases in consumption over a two-year period.

“Getting an energy bill is one thing, but knowing how you compare to similar buildings is much more illuminating,” said SFPUC General Manager Harlan Kelly, Jr., in Sustainable Industries.

I don’t know whether this is cause or correlation, but I can only imagine this type of information would incentivize public building managers to review, compare and address areas where there is significant differentials.

Does anyone know of other governments who regularly publish this data and what type of impact it’s had on energy consumption? If so, please feel free to email me at luke@govfresh.com.

Free EcoFinder iPhone app simplifies SF recycling

EcoFinder

EcoFinder is a free iPhone app that helps San Francisco residents and businesses find recycle locations throughout the city, including electronics, appliances and mattresses. Users can filter drop-off/pick-up options by free or pay services.

EcoFinder was created using open data from SF Environment as part of San Francisco’s open data initiative and developed by Haku Wale in partnership with SF Environment, Nextive and AdMob.

Video overview:

British Columbia Climate Action Secretariat James Mack on Apps 4 Climate Action

British Columbia’s top climate protection official and Gov 2.0 Radio host Adriel Hampton discuss how hackers and open government data are helping Canada tackle global warming (British Columbia Climate Action Secretariat James Mack on “Apps for Climate Action).

Listen

[audio:http://www.blogtalkradio.com/gov20/2010/07/27/bc-apps-4-climate-change-1.mp3]

The opposite of open government

There has been some pretty good discussion lately going around the Interwebs about what Gov 2.0 and open government looks like. I can’t say that I agree with everything that has been thrown out there with a Gov 2.0 label on it, but I can say without equivocation that this is the opposite of OpenGov and Gov 2.0:

Water tests showing high levels of pollution at several industrial sites [in the State of Delaware] have been either not reported to the public or posted on obscure pages of the state’s website…

A series of articles running this week in the Delaware News Journal – the paper of record in the State of Delaware – details some shocking findings on water quality in Delaware. Turns out, the state had evidence of this poor water quality for months, but did next to nothing to share it with the public:

The News Journal learned earlier this year that in September tests of water from a well twice as deep as those sampled in 2005 found four pollutants at levels up to 800 times higher than any previously reported. Concentrations of one toxic compound, benzene, were 5,200 times higher than levels considered safe by the federal government. Neither the EPA nor DNREC [the Delaware Department of Natural Resource and Environmental Control] released the full report to the public at large, although the findings were posted six months ago by DNREC to a hard-to-find state Web page. No public hearing has been held to examine the new dangers.

When it comes to environmental data, and data on contaminated groundwater, open government is not about citizen convenience or improved government efficiency. It is about giving people the information they need so that they can make informed decisions about their own lives and the lives of their families and children.

There is simply no excuse for this lack of initiative in sharing critical environmental information with the public. This is an important series of articles (more stories will be running all week at delawareonline.com) that underscores in my mind the important role played in our democracy by a strong independent media.

And yet, this particular story is one that should never have been written. To understand why, one must look back in time.

First, one needs to look back almost 2 years – to January 2009 – at the inauguration of the state’s current Governor, Jack Markell. In his inaugural address, Governor Markell stated proudly:

I pledge that my administration will be more transparent and accountable than any that have come before.

You need to look back almost 10 years, to when Mr. Markell was serving as the state’s Treasurer. He helped to launch the state’s nascent e-government initiative and led the drive to put government information and services on the web.

You need to look back to the early to mid 1990’s, when Mr. Markell served as an executive in technology and communication companies like Comcast and Nextel.

So how is it that the administration of a Governor who has proven technology chops, a history with the e-government movement and who has publicly committed to making state government more transparent can fail so spectacularly at opening government data to citizens?

In the answer to this question lie the hard lessons for those who would work to make government more transparent and open.

Lesson 1: The idea of open government has political resonance and broad support. The actual work to make government open, less so.

Any doubts about the political appeal of open government has been dispelled by the sheer number of high-level elected officials talking about it, and professing to support it. The idea of opening up government data for use by the public is one that has an almost visceral appeal. Who could be against such an idea?

But government officials that embark on initiatives to open government data typically run smack into the entrenched bureaucracy. Change comes very, very slowly to government and it is probably the hardest reality to face for those that enter government for the first time with hopes of changing things. Certainly Delaware is not the only government in the country where there is an obvious imbalance between the rhetoric about open government and the reality. Delaware officials are no doubt running into challenges in making good on Governor Markell’s promise of a more transparent government.

And this is exactly why open government advocates need to hold elected officials to their words. It is simply not good enough talk about open government. Actions speak louder than words.

Governments are only as open as the amount of data they release to the public. The proof is in the data. Period.

Lesson 2: Governments are (and probably always will be) reluctant to release data that casts a negative light on their performance.

There is a definite theme running through this series of articles on Delaware’s water quality problems that suggests the state’s environmental agency (DNREC) could have done a better job. And this underscores another important lesson for open government advocates – governments have a built in disincentive to release data that might cast them in a negative light.

The best example of this is probably making crime data (particularity the location of crimes) available to the public, an idea which still faces resistance in some places. The potential for such data to highlight shortcomings in policing and public safety are pretty clear, and yet such data can also be highly valuable to citizens.

Who doesn’t want to know how many crimes have been committed in their neighborhood, or what kind of crimes they were? Who doesn’t want to know if their drinking water is contaminated with potentially harmful chemicals?

Lesson 3: Negative publicity can be an open government advocates’ best friend.

As a result of the newspaper articles that have run, and will continue to run for the rest of the week, Governor Markell has now ordered agencies to do a better job at releasing information on water quality to the public:

Gov. Jack Markell ordered state agencies to improve their efforts, spokesman Brian Selander said. “Delawareans should have easier access to test results concerning the quality of our groundwater,” Selander said.

It’s too bad that it took a series of newspaper articles to provide the impetus for this order, but I think the public (and open government advocates) will take what they can get.

This experience reminds me a bit of the negative press the MTA used to get for keeping their data closed, and even threatening to sue developers for using it. Since then, the MTA has done a complete turnaround on open data – not only is its data now open, but the MTA actively engages outside parties to use its data to improve transit service.

Negative publicity is an effective (albeit a rather blunt) tool that every open government advocate should keep in their toolkit.

I mean this post as no personal criticism of Governor Markell. Certainly he has the ability to lead his administration to meet the standard he laid out in his inaugural address. I and many others hope that Delaware state government can emulate the experience of the MTA, and go from 0 to 100 on the open government speedometer. And soon!

Until then, though, I think I’ll go with bottled water.