Transparency Camp

Red Hat lead architect on open source software in government

During Transparency Camp a few weeks ago, I sat down with Red Hat Lead Architect Gunnar Hellekson and asked him the following questions around open source in government:

  • What’s the value of open source software to government?
  • What are the hurdles in implementing open source software in government?
  • What can be done to make implementing open source projects in government easier?
  • What’s the state of open source in government and its future?

OpenGov APIs: Interfacing with Open Government

There has been lots of good talk (and a good deal of action) lately around open government APIs (Application Programming Interface) at events like Transparency Camp, Where 2.0 and on the Twitters.

So, as a prelude to a talk I’ll be giving at eComm next month, I wanted to write a post surveying the landscape of recent government API developments, and also to describe evolving efforts to construct standards for government APIs.

A Rundown of Recent State and Local API Developments

At Transparency Camp in DC last weekend, Socrata – a firm that hosts open data sets for governments – open sourced their API for accessing and querying public data. The Socrata Open Data API (or SODA) is a specification for running queries against public data sets. Currently, Socrata hosts data sets for the City of Seattle and others – code samples for working with the SODA spec can be found on Github.

The Open311 API recently implemented by the City of San Francisco (and being implemented by others) got some well deserved attention at the recent Where 2.0 conference. Other cities are starting to take note, and some (like Edmonton and Boston) look set to be next in line.

One of the early adopters of government APIs – the NY Senate – recently announced a new release for their OpenLeg API, which includes some important new changes. Today the NY Senate remains one of the few (if not the only) state legislative body to adopt an API to open up access to legislative information and proceedings, but other will hopeful soon follow. (Certainly the work done in Albany by NY Senate CIO Andrew Hoppin and his team has opened the door for work on other government APIs.)

That’s a lot of good stuff in just the last few weeks – I’ve probably missed some stuff, but I’m sure there is more to come in the weeks and months ahead.

Towards API Standards

The work being done on the Open311 API, the OpenMuni Project, and certainly the move by Socrata to open source the SODA spec will have significant implications for the open government data movement.

Standards for open data and APIs will make it easier for developers to build things – an app that works for one municipality can work for others if both adhere to a common standard that the app can run against. But they’ll also make it easier for governments to open up their data – standards will offer governments assurance that the time and effort they expend to maintain and publish data or stand up APIs will provide the most return on investment.

The move towards open data and government API standards is an important one that may influence the long-term success of the open government movement.

What’s Next?

As these standards develop, and as more and more municipalitiesstart to embrace open data, we’ll move closer to the idea of government as a platform.

More and more open data will be published by governments in this country and others. These newly opened data sets may be hosted on infrastructure maintained by governments, or by third parties like Socrata. Enterprising governments in different regions or states may decide to team up and jointly host data that is of interest or value to constituents served by multiple governments or jurisdictions.

The applications that allow citizens to communicate with governments and consume public services will increasingly be built outside of government. (By outside, I mean outside the control of government and the government procurement framework.) Governments will increasingly become the collectors and maintainers of data and information and will focus less on building applications that use such data (or contracting for such applications to be built).

The applications built to consume public data and communicate with government will increasingly be designed as multitenant applications, able to service constituents in multiple jurisdictions that adhere to common data or API standards. They will also be built using more open source components and Web 2.0 technologies.

And (hopefully) the ranks of civic coders will continue to swell, as technologists looking to “scratch their own itch” are empowered to make a difference far beyond their own wants or needs.

All hail the transformative power of standards!

Transparency and the digital divide

As I start this post, I’m on the Orange line of the Metro heading home from Transparency Camp 2010. I timed my arrival almost exactly with that of the train using an iPhone app. Now I’m typing on a super-powerful laptop with a huge display. Many Metro stations have 3G access and even though I don’t tether my phone to my computer to use 3G on my laptop, I’m sure it can be done. I have nearly all of the comforts of the digital age at my disposal nearly all of the time.

I often use these tools to stay in touch with what is happening in and around my community, my local and state governments, and the federal government. I use access to Web sites, data, and social networks to stay informed and engaged. These tools offer me many choices of how much info I want to consume and how much I feel like engaging.

But what can people who don’t have these resources do to be informed and participate? What choices do they have for receiving information and offering feedback? So much of Gov 2.0 and open government relates to the Web that we must be careful not to exclude those who lack digital resources.

This topic came up in multiple sessions at Transparency Camp, and we generated some good ideas (we think) on how to address this issue responsibly. One idea in particular that resonated was placing LED message boards around town to broadcast key indicators, initiatives and citizen feedback.

The basic idea is to place LED signs at heavily trafficked locations. These signs would display information about the city in which people are most interested. Some of this content would be generated the city and some of the content would be generated by citizens. Information, especially that generated by citizens, would vary somewhat by neighborhood.

On the participation side of the conversation the minimum barrier to entry would be a mobile phone. Anyone who can send a text message can contribute. Of course, there would be other ways to contribute. On the information side of the equation would be these message boards. This would be a way for people to simultaneously tell their city what they want and to see what the city is getting by way of feedback.

There is plenty of reason to think this can be effective, too.

But before I go on, I need to add some context. This all came up during a session I facilitated called “Local Government Transparency.” In the beginning of the session I gave several examples of transparency happening at the local level. One example was Localocracy. Hart Rossman quickly pointed out that, while I’m able to easily cite these examples, most people hardly know what I’m even talking about. The point being: we need to make this relevant to the vast majority of people who aren’t aware of what’s going on in this space.

Keying on that, Bryan Sivak, CTO of Washington, D.C., shared with us his concerns about the “digital divide” in his city. In the poorest wards in D.C., broadband Internet access is about 30%. The point being: we can make all the cool open data and participation websites we want, but we won’t be serving key constituencies in his city if those people can’t access these online resources.

After some back and forth a gentlemen, whose name regrettably escapes me at the moment made a reference that reminded me very much of “The Blackboard Blogger of Monrovia,” Alfred Sirleaf. Alfred is not just dealing with a digital divide. He has customers who are not literate. Still, he manages to provide useful information about what matters around them.

At lesser extremes we see other examples of this idea already working. Metro transit signs are one great example.

What else do people want to know about their city that can be easily provided on on a billboard in the public square?

It’s worth noting that we don’t necessarily need government to provide (and maintain) the billboard. Alfred Sirleaf makes a living doing what he does. People who visit his blackboard buy goods from him. We probably need government to issue permits for signs in public spaces. Then again, What if food vendors in D.C. hung LEDs on their carts?

We do need from government data that is open and accessible so that it can be easily used by anyone at low or no cost. Given this and a touch of inspiration from Alfred Sirleaf, maybe we can succeed at engaging citizens in their own government in ways that are widely accessible.

Post Script:

Gwynne Kostin pointed out the next day, that the digital divide is as much cultural as it is economical. There are plenty of people who aren’t resource constrained who are nonetheless struggling with relevance of transparency and open government in their lives.