Why Isn’t Government Data Fun?

Have you heard of GraphJam? It’s a great site with a simple user interface that lets people make bar graphs, Venn diagrams, and more. The applications are mostly funny – making fun of song lyrics, vacation spots that you want to go to vs. those of your spouse, and so forth. Pop culture.

But what I’m wondering is: Why isn’t government data this fun to play with? Data.gov and similar local examples are terrific, to be sure – more government data available to more people creates more opportunities for more benefits to citizens. But you have to be a wizard to figure that stuff out. I’m not even sure I know exactly what XML is for pete’s sake. And I can’t mount an operation like Sunlight Labs, which does outstanding work…with their stable of a dozen computer nerds.

Governments shouldn’t always rely on well-funded non-profits, computer experts, or apps contests for getting useful things done with government data. Those things are really great, but how can the average person occassionally do something useful?

A more simple portal that draws people in and helps them participate in tiny ways could be great. Graph Jam has a brain-dead “graph builder” which aids people in making Venn diagrams – even if they don’t know who the hell Venn was, or why these graphs are useful in mathematics and statistics. And frankly, it’s easier to use than Microsoft Powerpoint, which tons of people deal with for work.

Now that data.gov and other initiatives are up and running, a really, really simple user interface for the common citizen would be terrific PR, it would make some citizens think more seriously about what the government is doing, and once in a while something useful may be done with the data. And meanwhile, can’t everybody have some fun?

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Dustin Haisler

Great post! I agree completely! The government should not just provide the data, but the interface as well. We are currently working with several cities across the country to start a local government focused Open Gov Initiative as an add-on to the federal directive. One of the major areas of focus with this group is to not just put out datasets, but focus on how to deliver easy-to-comprehend information for our constituents.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Hi Mark – great question. I participated in a NAPA-led dialogue a couple weeks ago regarding how we make citizens aware of our nation’s dismal financial situation…and I don’t just mean sound bites and sensationalized news coverage. That’s when I came across Budget Hero. Through gaming, citizens can play with the Federal budget and see how various allocation configurations have an impact on the overall picture.

Just one example of taking what could be boring data and making it fun…

Kevin Curry

+1 for the post, Mark. I’m relying on my local newspaper to help. They were already scraping regional web sites to make the data more useful in their reporting of news. I convinced them to publish that data through an API and now I can make relatively easy use of it through Google Spreadsheets. More on the backstory here. I even have a custom iGoogle tab that makes a dashhboard out if. We’re still a ways off from where we should be, but moving in the right direction for sure. I think newspapers can and should play an important role here and heaven knows that industry needs to rethink some things in order to stay relevant.