A Better Government Shadow
Government lingers in our shadow from when it issues our birth certificate until it prints our death certificate. In between, we face obligations to a department of motor vehicles and the IRS, receive benefits from social services agencies and experience numerous other ties to government. Former Minnesota CIO Gopal Khanna sees Web 3.0 as a mechanism for governments to come in and out of citizens’ lives more fluidly. He envisions governments making available on the Web all of the services and data the public wants in machine-readable formats. This would enable citizen end-user applications — likeliest developed by the private sector — to comb that data for anything useful and deliver it to citizen end-users however they prefer receiving it. Such an evolution would be in contrast to current e-government services, which require constituents to hunt down data on government portals. Khanna predicted a large-scale Web 3.0 shift would require CIOs to revise their back-office processes, many of which are still based on models from the 1950s and ’60s. In a Web 3.0 world, a larger part of a government’s IT maintenance routine would need to shift to cataloging data and services and posting them to the Web in machine-readable formats, said Khanna. Agencies would also maintain their old service methods for citizens holding on to the traditional paradigm. Khanna hopes for a day when local, state and federal agencies will post data for citizens in machine-readable formats. This would enable single applications to gather all data a citizen might need for interacting with government.
“They need a horizontal view of government,” Khanna said. “The data has to be harmonized.”
Augmented Reality, the convergence of data and real-world environments, promises to be a core element of Web 3.0. Several apps for mobile phones have already begun leveraging the technology. One such app, WayFinder NYC, was the winning entry in New York City’s 2009 BigApps contest. With the app installed on a smartphone, a user places the device into photo mode. Directions to the nearest subway and PATH stations are then overlaid on the screen image.
So what is a “machine-readable” format anyway? Critical to the Web 3.0 idea is the “Semantic Web,” a term coined by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. The Semantic Web refers to the different methods and technologies enabling Web applications to understand the meanings of the data they scan. An HTML coding technique called “microformatting” will likely be a common solution, said Hillary Hartley, director of integrated marketing for NIC. For example, Rhode Island has microformatted its employee contact and public meeting notification data since 2008. Utah also is converting various data sets to microformatting, which the state hopes to release as part of a portal redesign scheduled for May. In 2009, Utah became a leader in machine-to-machine communication by equipping its state portal with geo-IP technology, which reads an end-user’s IP address to display content relevant to that end-user’s physical location. The implementation helped the state win the top honor in the Center for Digital Government’s Best of the Web Awards program in 2009. Utah CTO Dave Fletcher hopes to add microformatting to that location-based data to enable third-party applications that might be inclined to deliver it to end-users. The state also expanded its geo-IP capabilities on some applications to identify the locations of smartphone users. For example, Utah.gov has a smartphone application for journalists that pinpoints their location in Utah and alerts them to police reports of interest in the surrounding area.
“We can present real-time information in terms of where those things are going on, along with photo imagery and videos where we have it, which gets it to the media a lot faster,” Fletcher said.
Hartley cautioned that microformatting was still far from being a mainstream agenda item in state and local government. Dan Chapman, director of creative services 2.0 for RI.gov, agrees that the interest today is among a narrow group.
“The Web standard community is very much in favor of it,” he said. “It’s sort of one of those quiet things that is happening behind the scenes.”
Chapman said machine-readable data could lead to people interacting with government exclusively through third-party applications, but that likely wouldn’t replace government portals. “I think the websites are still going to be around, but it’s certainly not the focal point,” he said. “It’s just part of a larger strategy for getting information out.”
Pahlka remarked that governments need to ensure that they post data with programmers’ common concerns in mind. For example, programmers often find errors in the data, and many governments lack a process for programmers to report errors and receive corrections, she said. Different cities use different formats for posting data, which creates an obstacle when comparing one city’s data to another, Pahlka added.