A Newcomer’s View of Open Data and Open Government

I wanted to share this post with GovLoop because I think it offers a fresh perspective on many of the things we work on every day in government, civic hacking, and beyond. I’d love to get your thoughts on this. ~ Jason

Written by Michael Harrison

It’s 2004. You show up at your neighborhood polling station and… it’s empty. No cars in the lot, no placards advertising the local candidates, and no volunteers clutching literature as you make your approach. Did you show up at the wrong place? Did they move your polling station? What do you do now?

It’s hard to remember what things were like before the ubiquity of Internet connectivity. Now, it’s easy: just pull out your smartphone and search for your new polling station. You check an app to make sure you’re at the right place, tweet a complaint to the election board, and maybe throw a photo of the empty lot up on Instagram. You have plenty of immediate options, thanks to the power of mobile technology.

Opportunities for tech

As a newcomer to the worlds of open data and open government, these sorts of scenarios have been going through my mind a lot over the past couple of weeks. Participating in the Opensource.com Open Government Week opened my eyes to the influence of technology on civic issues. In his book Citizenville, Gavin Newsom writes about how technology puts power into the hands of citizens, and in our coverage, I’ve seen amazing opportunities for improving and shedding light on government.

Newsom maintains that the world is changing so fast that our governments can’t keep up, and that we need to “radically rethink the relationship between citizens and government.” Each of us has the chance to do great things for our communities.

Social civic hacking

But sometimes it takes a village, right? There are meetups and virtual hackathons dedicated to assembling the right people and getting them involved with open government and open data. Transparency Camp 2014 meets later this month and provides a venue for hundreds of people to discuss and share their thoughts on making government more open, transparent, and accountable. Later that week is the National Day of Civic Hacking. Thousands of people—technologists, civil servants, designers, entrepreneurs, engineers—will unite virtually and collaborate on brightening their corners of the world.

This sort of DIY spirit is what excites me the most about the open government movement. It’s easy to get pessimistic about government when you feel like there’s nothing that you can personally contribute. When you realize that bridging the gap between citizens and their government isn’t impossible, there’s a lot to be hopeful for. Participants from the 2013 Code for America Summit touched on the big surge of interest in civic hacking and government participation, which should inspire even the most cynical to get involved with one of these awesome projects.

Projects for change

One of those projects is a social platform called Pleio, which allows civil servants and citizens to work on projects together online and improve their communities. The site was built by four Dutch programmers, gets over 84,000 unique visitors per month, and was built with open source software, so the overhead is extremely low.

Not too far away in Germany, the Munich city council switched 15,000 PCs from Windows to Linux. The story of how Peter Hoffman worked to make the city’s tech infrastructure open—and save money in the process—goes back to 2001, and has an appearance from Microsoft’s “infamously loud” CEO Steve Ballmer.

Everyday people are getting involved with civic projects, but government agencies are also stepping into the arena of open government. As part of our coverage, Jason Hibbets interviewed Leigh Heyman, the Director of New Media Technologies at the White House, about contributing to the Drupal project, holding hackathons at the White House, and the infamous Death Star Petition.

The future of open government

Opening up government is a process. There are still plenty of obstacles. Tamara Manik-Perlman explores public record requests through the Freedom of Information Act and RecordTrac, an easier-to-use web-based repository for public records in the city of Oakland (and other cities soon, we hope).

Waldo Jaquith wants us to get past defining open government and open data and start taking on two big hurdles: software packages that make it difficult to share data and the tone of rhetoric in support of open government. If a government agency’s tools don’t publish to XML, they can’t very well be expected to provide it. Moving to new software platforms isn’t easy, so that’s a big step. And being rude to civil servants about the amount of time it takes to get data isn’t the answer. We need to show support and help them understand that better platforms will make the process easier for everyone.

Hack the machine

If anything, it was Tim O’Reilly’s explanation of “government as a platform” that resonated the most with me over the past two weeks of open government coverage on Opensource.com:

“Too often, we think of government as a kind of vending machine. We put in our taxes, and get out service: roads, bridges, hospitals, fire brigades, police protection… and when the vending machine doesn’t give us what we want, we protest. Our idea of citizen engagement has somehow been reduced to shaking the vending machine.”

Let’s participate in and hack that vending machine instead of shaking it. Maybe we don’t have the key to getting it open, but we’re smart. We have the technology. We can get in there and put in what we want, and give everyone a choice about what comes out.

Go to Opensource.com for the complete list of articles from Open Government Week and to access our new resource that answers: What is open government?

This article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA and is attributed to Michael Harrison.

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