Mashup Government Data!

In this report from Dr. John Ohab, we see how public participation in government activity is but a heartbeat away…in the Executive Branch, that is. Congress still lags far behind. In the coming weeks, I will have an update on the status of our efforts to create a participatory mechanism so the public can become informed–and weigh in–on, science and technology policy issues BEFORE Congress drafts legislation. Some exciting things are underway!
Here’s Dr. John with a report on how YOU can now access government data and mash it up ’till you heart’s content….

In 2008, Vivek Kundra, then-Chief Technology Officer for Washington, D.C, was looking for innovative ways to use information technology to improve the city’s government. He looked no further than its citizens.

In 2008, Vivek Kundra, then-Chief Technology Officer for Washington, D.C, was looking for innovative ways to use information technology to improve the city’s government. He looked no further than its citizens.

Kundra created a public contest called Apps for Democracy, which challenged citizens to create their own software applications using DC government data and popular products like iPhones and Google Maps. For years, the DC Data Catalogue had provided public data on crime, construction projects, and government operations. Apps for Democracy rewarded citizens that could think one step further and develop the most cost-effective, accessible ways of re-packaging this data for use by the general public and the government.

The city invested roughly $50,000 in Apps for Democracy, and in just 30 days, produced 47 software applications with an estimated savings of $2,300,000. The effort was so successful it even spawned a follow-up, Apps for Democracy: Community Edition, which asked citizens to develop applications for submitting online requests for city services.

Through Apps for Democracy, Kundra established a new model for cross-sector collaboration by engaging citizens to meet the technology challenges of tomorrow. It was participatory government in its purest form. And, apparently, President Barack Obama was paying attention – in May 2009, he named Kundra the country’s first Federal Chief Information Officer and charged him with “directing the policy and strategic planning of federal information technology investments”.

As a critical player in President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, Kundra has focused his efforts on increasing public participation in government and improving the availability of government information. One of the first initiatives is Data.gov, a website that provides free access to over 100,000 machine-readable datasets, widgets, RSS feeds, and other data tools held by the Federal government. This collection includes valuable data on an array topics that impacts our lives, from financial numbers to transportation statistics to the FBI’s Most Wanted List. And the numbers will only grow as geographical, weather, and other scientific data is opened for public consumption.

The data by itself is not particularly useful. The real value comes when citizens evaluate and repurpose this data into “mashups” — applications that combine different data sources together to create an entirely new product. To unlock some of this potential, Sunlight Labs took a page out of Vivek Kundra’s book and held their own contest, Apps for America: The Data.gov Challenge. On Tuesday, they announced three winners: DataMasher allows users to build mashups of state information and visualize them in different ways; GovPulse allows users to filter and act on information from the Federal Registry, the government’s official daily publication for rules, proposed rules, and notices; and, ThisWeKnow combines nationwide data to provide information about your favorite city or region.

The Data.gov and Apps for Democracy efforts indicate that the government is starting to think differently about how it uses the Internets to share information and provide more opportunities for citizens to participate in their democracy. Take advantage of this new approach. If you’re a software developer with an innovative idea, check out Data.gov and let the ScienceCheerleader team know if you create your own Data.gov mashup. And, if you don’t have the necessary computer programming skills (i.e., me), you can still contribute by suggesting data sets that you would like to see, rating and commenting on existing data, and suggesting improvements to the website.

Here’s one person’s view of what Gov 2.0 means to him:

Project Snapshot:
Topics: computer, web development
Location: anywhere
Duration: anytime
Cost: free or low cost
Gear: computer
Level of Difficulty: moderate-difficult