Will ESRI allow public GIS data to be fully open government data?

As has been true for years, there’s a robust debate in municipal information technology world around the use of proprietary software or open source. An important element of that conversation centers on open data, specifically whether the formats used by companies are interoperable and “open,” in the sense of being usable by more than one kind of software. When the license required to use a given software application is expensive, that requirement can put budget-strapped cities and towns in a difficult position. Last week, former New York State Senate CIO Andrew Hoppin weighed in on the debate, writing about proprietary software lions and bears in the Civic Commons marketplace, a new online directory of civic software.

 I believe the Civic Commons Marketplace will ultimately save US taxpayers billions of dollars in government IT spending, while accelerating the propagation of technology-driven civic innovation in the bargain.  I’ve believed this for a while.   Thus, it’s a debate worth having; the Marketplace deserves attention, and critique.

In order to realize its potential, from my perspective as a recovering government CIO, I believe that the Civic Commons Marketplace must give equal billing to all software used in government, regardless of the software license associated with it.

Nick Grossman, the executive director of Civic Commons, chronicled the debate that Hoppin described in a Storify:

I talked with ESRI founder Jack Dangermond in September 2010 about how he was opening up ESRI and the role he saw for mapping in open government. My sense then, as now, is that this is an issue that’s deeply important to him.

There are clearly strong feelings in the civic development community about the company’s willingness to open up its data, along with what that means for how public data is coded and released. If you’re a GIS developer and have an opinion on this issue, please let us know in the comments.

U.S. Supreme Court decides government use of GPS for monitoring constitutes search under the 4th Amendment.

Huge electronic privacy news out of Washington. In an historic unanimous decision on United States vs. Jones, the United States Supreme Court found that “the Government’s attachment of the GPS device to the vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.” That means that the federal government will now need a probable cause warrant to affix a GPS device to a car.

Kashmir Hill, Forbes’s ace privacy writer, summarized this decision succinctly in a tweet linking to the decision: “Gov lost. Privacy won.”

“The decision, in what is arguably the biggest Fourth Amendment case in the computer age, rejected the Obama administration’s position that American’s had no privacy in their public movements,” wrote David Kravets in Wired: “Warrant required for GPS tracking, Supreme Court rules.” Kravetz observed how long it’s been since a similar case made it to the nation’s highest court:

During oral arguments in the case in November, a number of justices invoked the specter of Big Brother if the police could secretly attach GPS devices on Americans’ cars without getting a probable-cause warrant.

The last time the high court considered the Fourth Amendment, technology and privacy in a big-ticket case was a decade ago, when the justices ruled that the authorities must obtain search warrants to employ thermal-imaging devices to detect indoor marijuana-growing operations, saying the imaging devices carry the potential to “shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy.”

“While the result was unanimous, the reasoning was not,” observes Timothy Lee in ArsTechnica: “Supreme Court holds warrantless wiretapping unconstitutional

A five-judge majority led by Justice Scalia, and including most of the court’s conservatives, focused on the physical trespass involved in attaching the device to the car. Three of the court’s liberals signed a concurrence by Justice Alito, a conservative, that would have taken a stronger pro-privacy stance, holding that extended warrantless tracking itself violates the Fourth Amendment regardless of whether the government committed a trespass to accomplish it.

Justice Sotomayor straddled the line. She signed onto the majority opinion, but also filed a separate concurrence in which she endorsed both Scalia’s concerns about physical trespass and Justice Alito’s broader concerns about the dangers of warrantless GPS tracking.

“As Justice Alito incisively observes, the same technological advances that have made possible nontrespassory surveillance techniques will also affect the Katz test by shaping the evolution of societal privacy expectations,” Sotomayor wrote, referring to the famous case of Katz v. United States that established the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test for violations of the Fourth Amendment. “Under that rubric, I agree with Justice Alito that, at the very least, ‘longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy.'”

The Center for Democracy and Technology, which was an active participant in the jurisprudence surrounding the case, released the following statement on the ruling:

“The Supreme Court today made it clear that it will not allow advancing technology to erode the Constitutional right of privacy,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, Director of CDT’s Project on Freedom, Security and Technology.
The Justice Department had argued that the GPS device, because it tracked the person’s movements only on the public streets, did not raise any concern under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which generally requires a warrant for searches and seizures.  Not a single Justice agreed with the government on that issue.
Instead, all nine agreed that, under the facts of the case, the Constitution required a warrant issued by a judge.  Five Justices agreed that any use of GPS planted by the government was a search generally requiring a warrant, effectively settling that issue.
The case also has implications for tracking individuals using cell phone tower data.  Five Justices held that a warrant would have been required on the facts of this case even if the government tracking did not involve planting a GPS device.  “Cell phone triangulation can be just as precise as GPS,” Nojeim said. “Congress should build on this opinion by writing a statute that draws a bright line requiring the government, except in emergencies, to get a warrant before turning your cell phone into a tracking device.”
CDT has helped to coordinate a coalition of major Internet companies, think tanks and advocacy groups from across the political spectrum calling on Congress to require a warrant for cell phone tracking.
CDT filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case, arguing that warrant is required for GPS tracking.

“Wow,” tweeted electronic privacy and security researcher Chris Soghoian. “Justice Sotomayor in Jones concurrence (pg 5): it may be necessary to reconsider the 3rd party doctrine,” he continued, which is that there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy for data held by ISPs & telcos.”

In the decision, Sotomayor wrote that it is ‘ill suited to the digital age.’

“So 4 supreme court judges embraced the mosaic theory (but not by name),” tweeted Soghoian. “4 weeks of GPS tracking by gov not OK, but a lesser amount might be. Also interesting to see Sotomayor cite last year’s OnStar privacy firestorm as evidence that the public is not cool with covert GPS tracking. Majority opinion by Sup Ct paves way for more gov tracking of cellphones, which gov still claims it can do (w/single tower data) w/o warrant.”

Expect more tech policy and privacy writers to be all over this one, all week.

Transportation Camp DC gets geeky about the present and future of transit

Today in Washington, the “School without Walls was full of of civic energy around open data, tech, community, bikes, smart cities, systems, efficiency, sustainability, accessibility, trains, buses, hacking, social networking, research, policy, crowdsourcing and more. Transportation Camp, an “unconference” generated by its attendees, featured dozens of sessions on all of those topics and more. As I’ve reported before, transit data is open government fuel for economic growth.

A Case for Open Data in Transit from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Below, the stories told in the tweets from the people show how much more there is to the world of transit than data alone. Their enthusiasm and knowledge made the 2012 iteration of Transportation Camp in the District a success.

International Open Data Hackathon on December 3, 2011

It’s time to think different about hacking.

Building upon the success of an international civic hackathons around the world in 2010, there will be Random Hacks of Kindness and International Open Data Day hackathons on six different continents on December 3rd, 2011. If you’re interested in volunteering for a different kind of public service, check out the wiki to see if there’s an event near you.

The International Open Data Hackathon in DC will be held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The organizers encourage attendees to “bring ideas, your laptop, and help create solutions to make data more open and make better use of open data.” The list of attendees is already filling up with interesting people, including members of Washington’s open government and technology communities. The DC open data hackathon is hosted by Wikimedia DC and sponsored by civic startup PopVox.

Fauxpen data, open data and bridging the data divide

My Ignite talk from the Strata Conference in NYC is online.

Comments welcome, as ever.

Update: In the context of fauxpen data, beware “openwashing:” Simply opening up data is not a replacement for a Constitution that enforces a rule of law, free and fair elections, an effective judiciary, decent schools, basic regulatory bodies or civil society — particularly if the data does not relate to meaningful aspects of society. Adopting open data and digital government reforms is not quite the same thing as good government, although they certainly can be and are related, in some cases.

If a country launches an open data platform but deprecates freedom of the press or assembly, questions freedom of information laws or restricts the ability of government scientists to speak to the public, is it adopting “open government” — or doing something else?

This is the ambiguity of open government and open data that Harlan Yu and David Robinson wrote about in 2012. Expect it to be the subject of more “takedowns” in the 2013.

Jack Dangermond on mapping, government transparency and accountability

Writing over at the ESRI blog today, founder and president Jack Dangermond shared his thoughts on how maps and GIS information can contribute to improving government transparency and accountability:

Born out of the Gov 2.0 movement, the terms transparency and accountability have become part of the daily vernacular of governments and the citizens they serve. One might even suggest these words have become a new expectation of governing. Transparency and accountability began with a simple concept of openly communicating public policy to the taxpayer. Today, these concepts are thriving within a growing emphasis on developing an interactive dialog between governments and the people.

Maps can be a very valuable part of transparency in government. Maps give people a greater understanding of the world around them. They can help tell stories and many times be more valuable than the data itself. They provide a context for taxpayers to better understand how spending or decisions are being made in a circumstance of where they work and live. Maps help us describe conditions and situations, and help tell stories, often related to one’s own understanding of content.

I spoke with Dangermond about precisely this subject last year at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington. I believe the interview holds up and remains relevant to the conversation around open government today.

Chicagobuildings.org maps vacant and abandoned buildings using open government data

One of the minds behind the Look at Cook open government data visualization app is at it again. Derek Eder wrote in this week to share another Web app he just launched (ChicagoBuildings.org) and a reminder about what’s happening in Chicago in this space.

This Web app takes 311 reports about vacant and abandoned buildings from the Chicago and visualizes them onto a searchable map. “It’s specifically set up to pull data from Chicago’s data portal,” said Eder, linking to the 311 service requests of vacant and abandoned buildings dataset.

Eder shared more about how mapping Chicago’s vacant buildings in a blog post earlier this week. The results are unsurprising: there are many more vacant buildings in areas with high poverty rates.

Eder said that the app could be used by other cities, depending on how they store or format their data. The code for
Chicago Buildings is on Github. On that front, he says that Chicago “isn’t using Open 311 yet, so this site isn’t either. That being said, it wouldn’t be too hard to hook up the same interface to a different data source.” Code for America will help Chicago to implement Open311 in 2012. Eder shared that he wrote a script that converts Socrata to Google Fusion Tables that could be modified for this purpose.

ChicagoBuildings.org is one of a growing number of civic applications that have come out of Chicago’s open government initiative. As Eder made sure to point out, his app is a finalist in the Apps for Metro Chicago contest, along with 9 other apps, including iFindItChicago and Techno Finder.

In the video below, Elizabeth Park, the creator of IFindit Chicago, talks about how she was inspired to build the team that created an Android app to help homeless and lower income citizens find resources like as shelters, medical clinics,and food pantries.

Voting for the winners ends this Friday, October 14th, so check out the community round entries and weigh in.

As a reminder: If you have open government news to share, you can always find me at @digiphile on Twitter, where I share my email address, alex@oreilly.com.

USAID goes FWD with open data and open government

Today at the Social Good Summit, Dr. Raj Shah, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will launch a new public engagement effort to raise awareness about the devastating famine in the Horn of Africa. USAID is calling it the “FWD campaign” and it includes some interesting uses of open data, mapping and citizen engagement. USAID launched USAID.gov/FWD today and a text to donate initiative up and running in time to be amplified by the reach of Mashable’s Social Good Summit. You can txt “GIVE’ to 777444 to donate $10.

FWD stands for “Famine, War, Drought,” the unfortunate combination that lies behind the crisis in the Horn of Africa. “It also stands for our call to action,” writes in Haley Van Dyck, director of digital strategy at USAID, with an eye to getting people involved in raising awareness and “forwarding” the campaign on to friends, family and colleagues. Each of the components of the page includes the options to share on Twitter, Facebook or “FWD” on to people using email.

“Frankly, it’s the first foray the agency is taking into open government, open data, and citizen engagement online,” said Van Dyck. “We recognize there is a lot more to do on this front, but are happy to start moving the ball forward. This campaign is different than anything USAID has done in the past. It is based on informing, engaging, and connecting with the American people to partner with us on these dire but solvable problems. We want to change not only the way USAID communicates with the American public, but also the way we share information.”

Van Dyck was particularly excited about the interactive maps that USAID has built and embedded on the FWD site. The agency built the maps with open source mapping tools and published the data sets they used to make these maps on data.gov.

The combination of publishing maps and the open data that drives them simultaneously online is significantly evolved for any government agency and will serve as a worthy bar for other efforts in the future to meet. They’ve done that by migrating their data to an open, machine-readable format. In the past, we released our data in inaccessible formats – mostly PDFs — that are often unable to be used effectively, wrote Van Dyck.

“USAID is one of the premiere data collectors in the international development space,” wrote Van Dyck. “We want to start making that data open, making that data sharable, and using that data to tell stories about the crisis and the work we are doing on the ground in an interactive way.”

Open data and maps tell the local story of unemployment and recovery spending

Washington-based DevelopmentSeed continues to tell dazzling data stories with open source mapping tools. This week, they’ve posted a map of the local impact of unemployment and recovery spending. The map visualizes unemployment rate changes at a county level and folds in total economic recovery spending by the government under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In the map embedded below, red corresponds to an increased unemployment rate and green corresponds to a lower unemployment rate or job growth. Counties that received less than $10 million dollars in recovery spending have a white pattern.

David Cole explains more in a post at DevelopmentSeed.org:

Over the last year, we see that unemployment dropped in 58% of counties by an average of 0.25 percentage points. On average the Recovery Act funded 31 projects at a total of $24,131,582.47 per county. Nationally this works out to about $282.66 in recovery spending per person.

Overall, it’s impossible to tell for sure how much recovery spending improved the economic situation, because we just don’t know how bad things could have been. It may be the case that without spending, this map would have a lot more red. Or maybe not. What’s interesting here is the local impact and information we are able to see from processing a few sets of open data. Check out how your county is doing compared to its surroundings. How about compared to a more or less urban county nearby?


Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science — from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively. Save 20% on registration with the code STN11RAD