April 6, 2009 By Patrick Michels
When Alabama Gov. Bob Riley took office in 2003, one of his first priorities was making the daily operations of state government more transparent.
Riley's open government initiative took on particular significance after he won the gubernatorial election by 3,000 votes -- the narrowest in Alabama's history -- and replaced former Gov. Don Siegelman, who was convicted on corruption charges. Riley's goal was not just to satisfy legal requirements for posting information online, but also to layer the information with extra context and a useful interface so it would make a practical difference to Alabamans.
Six years later, with Riley halfway through his second term as governor, that early vision has yielded transparency in all corners of the state's government. The state built novel tools that let citizens view such things as a log of all the governor's flights and a registry of all lobbyists working in the state, and perhaps most impressively, they can see what land Alabama state government is leasing using Microsoft Virtual Earth.
According to Jim Burns, the state's CIO, all this makes Alabama one of the most upfront state governments.
"It may be the case that this is the most open of any state government in the nation," he said.
For a look at Alabama's open government initiative in practice, start with the government's physical presence. A Web-based "lease search" function on the Alabama Department of Finance's site lets the public track down information on every building and office space leased by state agencies, including who landlords are and how much the state is paying for a particular property. The lease search was the brainchild of state Finance Director Jim Main, who wanted to develop a way for taxpayers to see just how much Alabama spends on office space.
To help put the search into action, Main teamed with Burns at Alabama's Information Services Division (ISD) to create a searchable, Web-based application. A mapping mash-up was also added, handled by the Virtual Earth application programming interface. By using GIS data kept for each government property -- some of which was already gathered before the lease search was developed -- Burns and his staff at the ISD gave users a more practical way to navigate the data.
According to a statement from the Geospatial Office at Alabama's ISD, a little more than half of addresses in the lease search were located by "geocoding," determining geographic coordinates from other data, like street maps. "The remaining properties were manually located by interpreting the available information and calling the tenants to verify their coordinates," the statement said. The process required asking tenants for directions to the building, and following along on a map. The Geospatial Office is a new addition to the ISD tasked with maintaining accurate and up-to-date records of city streets.
Geocoding is taking on a more important role in Alabama's operations. The geocoding effort gives users an interface that's much friendlier than a spreadsheet of street addresses. The Virtual Earth mapping function is one large-scale example of how Alabama has added functionality, beyond the minimum requirements prescribed by law, to give users a more meaningful experience with the data. "That's sort of the banner program for this initiative," Burns said.
After talking a big game early on about open government, Riley made a point of setting an example of openness. The governor's Web site includes detailed flight logs of his travel -- where he flew, when and with whom -- and the details of his budget, right down to photocopies and the grocery bill. If you're keeping score at home,
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