Last week saw a wave of developments in the opening of government data, coinciding with the Personal Democracy Forum in New York. The new CIO of the country, Vivek Kundra, announced a site called the IT Dashboard that shows government spending on IT contracts for many federal agencies, and includes detail on the progress and performance of those contracts, as described here. This follows the launch of data.gov in May, the first step in a new direction for federal government transparency.
But just as interesting as the top-down federal data exposure is the innovation coming bottom-up from city programs that tackle practical municipal problems, and use open data, APIs, and public involvement.
Although many cities have experimented with simple mapping mashups and other forms of tech outreach, it is in Washington, D.C., where Kundra was formerly CTO, where you find the most comprehensive use of 2.0 technologies.
The initial Apps for Democracy contest last fall, a partnership of the D.C. Office of the CTO and iStrategyLabs, resulted in 47 applications that represent an estimated $2.3M worth of software development, with a cost in prizes of a modest $50K. It turns out that when you incent people to solve problems that they already exercised about - the condition of their city and surroundings - good things can result. The contest was based on a publicly available comprehensive data catalog, and featured apps for transportation, biking, crime reports, parking, and real-time alerts.
The Office of the CTO recently introduced a read/write RESTful API for its 311 system, the first such API in the country (our 311 API profile). This opens up the possibility of innovative two-way apps for reporting civic problems, some of which are finalists in the current 2009 version of the Apps for Democracy contest. The API includes libraries in PHP, Ruby, and Python, and has spurred an effort to create standards for 311 data formats.
iStrategyLabs CEO Peter Corbett credits the talent and the nimbleness of the tech people working for the D.C government, and the ease of incorporating outside tools such as wikis and voting modules. His broader vision is a Framework for participation that starts with citizens helping to crowdsource what civic problems need attention, and ends with appropriate government and private company support. See the full video of his explanation about the framework and the contest here.
During the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, mayor Mike Bloomberg announced a similar contest for hacking data sets of his city called the Big Apps contest, with cash prizes to be announced. The winner also gets dinner with the billionaire mayor, possibly at Le Cirque instead of Shake Shack.
If other cities follow suit, with modest sums of money and civic bragging rights as the spur, we may see the evolution of on-the-ground participation that improves urban life - one filled pothole and one fixed parking meter at a time.