February 20, 2009

Opening up government with open technologies

When most people talk about transparency in government, they often mean keeping track of how their tax dollars are spent and ensuring that they are spent responsibly. However, Washington, D.C. shows the possibilities of applying transparency to other domains.

D.C. started publishing crime reports in a format that is easily readable by computers. In short order someone created an iPhone app called "Threat Meter" that takes this data and determines exactly how safe you are in a given neighborhood.

Unfortunately, D.C. is the only place where the application works because it is the only locale that produces the data in the required format. But as portfolio.com explains, the obstacles are more cultural than technical:

The technical challenge is trivial: It simply requires already existing government data be released in machine-readable formats. The cultural challenge, however, is enormous. Bureaucrats on all levels—national, state, and municipal—must go from being archivists and data hoarders to being real-time disseminators of sharable, actionable information.

The article ends with what transparency activists hope is someday a reality:

The ultimate vision is of government that operates like a suite of iPhone apps. Pull out your handset, and not only is there a Threat Meter, warning you of crime conditions on the next corner but a full Bloomberg-like terminal of useful government information. Surfers, sailors, and fishermen will have customized tide forecasts and ocean buoy data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Farmers might have a mash-up of NASA-supplied satellite photos, National Weather Service forecasts, and Farm Bureau Reports that predict the price of corn come harvest time. Financial types will be able to know what the SEC knows, when they know it. If government data is given back to its citizens in a usable form, government services have the potential to become as good as the citizens they serve.