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Citizen Created Applications Can Boost Service Delivery

To become a more citizen-centric government, local governments need to engage citizens to progress.

by / August 31, 2009
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Photo: Andrea DiMalio, vice president at Gartner.

 

As data is being collected and available more than ever, governments are increasingly faced with the question of what to do with it. While some government CIOs laboriously, and often expensively, consider costly contracts or applications, current budgetary shortfalls and cutbacks have put a damper on the utilization of government data.

Out of the current economic climate one solution to the data overabundance has been gaining popularity by organizations: utilizing citizen input and expertise to make use of the vast amounts of data available. By using cost-effective contests, such as Apps for Democracy and Show Us a Better Way, governments and other organizations are discovering they can tap into a tech-savvy citizenship to find innovative and cost- effective ways to create data-based applications and mash-ups.

As governments around the world continue to develop e-government portals and strategies, the need to better leverage the goldmine of information that governments maintain is increasing, said Andrea DiMalio, vice president at Gartner. It is a movement by many governments to become more citizen-centric, DiMalio said.

"My view is that many governments approach utilizing public data in terms of hitting a wall," DiMalio said. "They don't know how they can become a citizen-centric government, which is important because if you don't engage citizens there's no other way to progress."

The first step in adopting a citizen-centric government philosophy is to open vast stores of government data to the public. President Barack Obama has already taken a citizen-centric technology approach to government after he outlined a comprehensive technology plan and hired an innovator of citizen-centric applications as federal CIO, Vivek Kundra. Obama's technology plan embraces transparency and makes use of Internet technologies by ensuring government officials hold open meetings, use bloging software, wikis and open comments to communicate policies with Americans. Obama sent a memo early in his presidency to all branch employees stating the federal government should not only be more transparent, but participatory and collaborative.

As the federal CIO, Kundra has promised to transform the federal government's use of IT by adopting consumer technology and ensuring that government data is open and accessible. One of his first proposed projects is to create a "data.gov" Web site that will make the government's vast information resources accessible in open formats that can be used by public and private application developers.

"By democratizing data and information and public processes, making them open and available, you are able to engage citizens in a way you never could before," Kundra said. "I think the information revolution has enabled a lot of that."
Kundra's vision for transparency of public data and subsequent use was developed during his previous post as the chief technology officer of the District of Columbia. There he developed the Digital Public Square that opened up more than 200 data sources from the state's massive public data storage. The concept, Kundra states, is based on ancient Athen's democratic principles conducted at the agora, or public square, where citizens met to conduct business, debate civic issues and drive the decisions of government.

The DC Digital Public Square maintains an encouraging header: "(it) puts you, the citizen, in the driver's seat to discover how district agencies work, participate in the democratic process and connect with your government." Shortly after the Digital Public Square opened, the intended results manifested, with an influx of participatory applications developed by innovative and entrepreneurial citizens.

The Knight Foundation utilized D.C.'s data vault for its site, EveryBlock.com. Through the site visitors can use their ZIP code to find and exchange information on local neighborhoods including local businesses, real estate listing, crimes, road construction, city service requests and community meetings. D.C. law enforcement data is being utilized for CrimeReports.

com, where visitors can gather crime data and maps by address, ZIP, code and type of crime while signing up for personalized crime alerts.

Kundra, buoyed by the public interest in the Digital Public Square, decided to develop a contest in 2008 to further encourage citizen utilization of D.C. data, called Apps for Democracy. He spent $50,000 - with $30,000 used to run the competition and $20,000 in prizes - for a 30-day competition that challenged D.C. citizens to create applications for public use that utilized government data. The result was 47 fully functional applications, which, if developed independently, would've taken two years to develop and cost an estimated $2.6 million to create, Kundra said.
The gold medal-winning entry, iLive.at, is a Web application that provides information about locations in Washington D.C., including, shopping locations, post offices, recent crime statistics and demographic information.

An unintended benefit of Apps for Democracy has been that some contestants and developers became inspired to make use of public data outside of the contest. The group of developers that created iLive.at, created an iPhone application called "Are You Safe Washington D.C." after the contest. The 99 cent application available at the iTunes store uses actual crime statistics to create a threat meter for any given location in Washington D.C.

"The idea is that these contests can possibly stimulate not only developers to collaborate, but subsequently get excited about these applications and flesh out the ecology of a municipality," said Peter Corbin, CEO of iStrategylabs, who came up with the idea for, and helped implement the Apps for Democracy contest.

Corbin has been contacted by officials from Toronto, New York, Chicago and the U.K. with requests for more information about Apps for Democracy and how it can be conducted.

The Are You Safe D.C. application has been expanded to "Are You Safe Atlanta" by Brian Sobel, co-founder of Innovation GEO, Travis Hurant and another developer. The trio is currently looking to expand his Are You Safe applications to other cities including Sacramento, Dallas, Houston and Indianapolis. Sobel is aggressively pursuing Chicago and Milwaukee as cities to add his application. Sobel wants to engage other cities whose data doesn't comply with OMG Standards including Baltimore, Boston, Denver, Ft. Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Vancouver.

However, it has been an uphill battle for Sobel to convince municipalities to open up their vast stores of data to the public. He uses, and has been an advocate of the Open Municipal Geodata Standard (OMG Standard), an open technical standard for the structuring and sharing of public geodata. Yet governments have been resistant to opening up their data vaults, he said.

"The way it works now is that the people that have the data can create the coolest apps," Sobel said.
Yet before Apps for Democracy there was "Show Us a Better Way" in the UK, a contest held by the UK's Power of Information Taskforce last year. The contest sought public input about ideas for new products that could improve the way public information is communicated. A total of 20,000 pounds was disseminated for the winning ideas, which included search engine features to the country's recycling Web site, reporting on bicycle routes and an open source tool that tracks tax money. An additional 20,000 pounds was offered for residents who could actually create the best ideas.

To help with the contest, the UK government opened up gigabytes of nonpersonal government information from numerous sources including information from the Ordnance Survey, medical information and neighborhood statistics.

The U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for funding the development of technologies like computer networking, periodically holds contests to solicit ideas for new technologies. DARPA's last

contest was for autonomous vehicles capable of driving in traffic and performing complex driving maneuvers, like merging, passing and parking.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to improve government transparency and political influence disclosure, periodically hosts contests to make use of government information through its Sunlight Labs. Sunlight Labs is an open source development team that builds technology to make government more transparent and holds contest for citizens to do so.

The applications that come out of these contests are comparatively exponential to the cost, said Greg Ellin chief evangelist at the Sunlight Labs. The cost for finding talent and experimenting with new ideas is often too high for governments, so Ellin sees more governments looking for public help.

"I think the other major benefit is the community and the ideas that are formed around the event itself," Ellin said. "Once the community gets going the applications are indispensable. The winning ideas are viable applications that provide services, or pave the way to create other applications."

The utilization of data by citizens is just one aspect of rethinking how government operates, said DiMalio. Yet with the availability of open-source tools for mash-ups and citizen based applications, DiMalio believes citizen involvement and creation of applications that utilize government data is a step toward transforming the way government provides services.
"In reality, the idea is that (encouraging citizens to create government applications) is what government can do to become more citizen-driven," DiMalio said. "I think engagement doesn't come from genuine will to engage," he said, "but the ability to transform service, improve citizen delivery that satisfies citizens and changes the image of government."

 

Chandler Harris Contributing Writer