Gov 2.0 Summit: GIS the Big Winner in Push for Open Government (analysis)

Geospatial applications and services dominate at Gov 2.0 Summit.

by / September 11, 2009
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Photo: Jack Dangermond, president and founder, ESRI.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- For all the lofty statements made during the first day of the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C., about opening up government and its vast reservoirs of data to improve democracy and citizen engagement, it was clear there would be one major winner: GIS.

The math is simple. According to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget's Federal Enterprise Architecture framework, 74 percent of government data is location based. At the state and local level, the number is even higher: 80 percent, according to several organizations and publications.

The summit's program co-chair, Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media Inc., gives two major reasons why government must be viewed as a platform: The public sector built two of the most important digital infrastructures: the Internet and GPS. "The government built these platforms and the private sector ran with them," he concluded. Just as important is the fact that government has also become a major beneficiary of both platforms.

Dangermond: GIS Godfather

On Wednesday, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra announced that President Barack Obama's administration plans to release its long-awaited Open Government Directive, which will require federal agencies to set standards for providing data in machine-readable formats to the public.

But the effects of serving up chunks of government data, especially geospatial data, for reuse is already evident, and the results were on display in Washington yesterday.

The so-called godfather of GIS, Jack Dangermond, founder and president of mapping giant ESRI, put it best: "Geospatial information is pervasive in the public sector," he said. "It has improved planning, management, decision-making and the tracking of assets."

Dangermond tipped his hat to the feds for going further than any sector of government when it comes to sharing geospatial data. But judging by the lion's-share of presentations made on Wednesday, local uses for maps and data have grabbed the largest amount of attention.

Take for example, FixMyStreet, an application developed by the British-based open source project, FixMyStreet lets people report, view and discuss local problems based on mapping mash-ups. This organization has other applications based on civic engagement, but the mapping efforts, such as FixMyStreet, are clear winners.

Then there's, a hyperlocal news service that relies on location-based data to inform viewers about crimes, restaurant inspections and new permits, all mixed in with news and information provided by bloggers and volunteer journalists.

Dangermond delivered a compelling demonstration of how quick and easy government workers and ordinary citizens can blend geospatial data from federal, state and local government databases to create analytically powerful maps.

With the aid of an assistant, he pulled up a map of a massive fire in progress in Southern California and then proceeded to add layers of parcel data as well as information about health and emergency services to create a detailed map of potential danger zones for residents, as well as the nearest locations for disaster services. It was a powerful statement about the potential for open government geospatial information.

But Dangermond cautioned that the continued use of the legacy protocol, FTP (file transfer protocol), was hampering the creation of a national geospatial database. The Hurricane Katrina disaster serves as a fitting example of today's status quo, where it took weeks for government and emergency managers to find and integrate the disparate geospatial resources to map out the existing situation in New

Orleans and Alabama, and to plan recovery services.

"Government needs to think about geospatial in a massive way, for bringing together services, large and small, mashed up, used via applications with free and open APIs [application programming interfaces]. Let's put up content that can be integrated to create a host of new services," he said.

Maps as Government Portals

Another representative of how private companies are mashing maps and government data together and forming new applications comes from Virginia-based FortiusOne. The company's CTO Andrew Turner, put it aptly, "Geography allows citizens to have one common view of government."

Rather than look at a government Web site with menus and channels, citizens should enter the public sector through a map that visually shows everything from transit and crime information to locations for social services or election information. "People care about place," Turner observed. They don't care about agencies or programs.

While Turner's goal is far from a reality, FortiusOne has created a number of intriguing applications using open government data. One application, appropriately named "StumbleSafety" mashed together the location of crimes and alcohol, providing would-be imbibers with a map of the less crime-prone bars and liquor stores in Washington, D.C. More serious maps provided important local information for locating crime-infested neighborhoods and crisis response information.

Perhaps the most significant, geospatial solution came from Virtual Alabama, the integrated public safety, emergency management solution, born in the wake of Katrina.

Robert Greenberg, CEO of G&H International Services, called Virtual Alabama one of those breakthrough moments in government technology. Built as a reaction to failed attempts at sharing critical information during a crisis, Virtual Alabama broke through the insular culture of local government and created a massive aggregate of local geospatial data sets based on an open architecture.

So successful was Virtual Alabama, it has led to plans to create Virtual USA based on the same premise of local government buy-in to share geospatial data openly. "Virtual USA will expand how our country can respond to catastrophic events, by creating a virtual platform that makes emergency data seamless," Greenberg said.

Greenberg admits that the challenge of convincing thousands of local governments to share their data sets won't be easy. But the days when different layers of government sank billions of dollars into GIS systems that couldn't share the data with other governments is over.

Government now has the platforms to make open, geospatial data and map-based public services, a reality.

Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO
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