On Friday night, a packed room of eager potential entrepreneurs, developers and curious citizens watched US CTO Todd Park and Bill Eggers kick off Startup Weekend DC in Microsoft’s offices in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Park wants to inject open data as a “fuel” into the economy. After talking about the success of the Health Data Initiative and the Health Datapalooza, he shared a series of websites were aspiring entrepreneurs could find data to use:
Park also made an “ask” of the attendees of Startup Weekend DC that I haven’t heard from many government officials: he requested that if they A) use the data and/or B) if they run into any trouble accessing it, to let him know.
“If you had a hard time or found a particular restful API moving, let me know,” he said. “It helps us improve our performance.” And then he gave out his email address at the White House Executive Office of the President, as he did at SXSW Interactive in Austin in March of this year. Asking the public for feedback on data quality — particularly entrepreneurs and developers — and providing contact information to do so is, to put it bluntly, something every city and state official that has stood up and open data platform could and should be doing. In this context, the US CTO has set a notable example for the country.
Examples of startups, gap filling and civic innovation
Following Park, author and Deloitte consultant Bill Eggers talked about innovative startups and the public sector. I’ve embedded video of his talk below:
Eggers cited three different startups in his talk: Recycle Bank, Avego and Kaggle.
1) The outcome of Recycle Bank‘s influence was a 19-fold increase in recycling in some cities from gamification, said Eggers. The startup now has 3 million members and is now setting its sights on New York City.
2) The real-time ridesharing provided by Avego holds the promise to hugely reduce traffic congestion, said Eggers. According to the stats he cited, 80% of people on the road are currently driving in cars by themselves. Avego has raised tens of millions of dollars to try to better optimize transportation.
3) Anthony Goldbloom found a hole in the big data market at Kaggle, said Eggers, where they’re matching data challenges with data scientists. There now some 19,000 registered data scientists in the Kaggle database.
Eggers cited the success of a competition to map dark matter on Kaggle, a problem that had had millions spent on it. The results of open innovation here were better than science had been able to achieve prior to the competition. Kaggle has created a market out of writing better algorithms.
After Eggers spoke, the organizers of Startup Weekend explained how the rest of the weekend would proceed and asked attendees to pitch their ideas. One particular idea, for this correspondent, stood out, primarily because of the young fellows pitching it:
…the President issues Executive Order 13563, in which he directed regulatory agencies to base regulations on an “open exchange of information and perspectives” and to promote public participation in Federal rulemaking. The President identified Regulations.gov as the centralized portal for timely public access to regulatory content online.
In response to the President’s direction, Regulations.gov has launched a major redesign, including innovative new search tools, social media connections, and better access to regulatory data. The result is a significantly improved website that will help members of the public to engage with agencies and ultimately to improve the content of rules.
The redesign of Regulations.gov also fulfills the President’s commitment in The Open Government Partnership National Action Plan to “improve public services,” including to “expand public participation in the development of regulations.” This step is just one of many, consistent with the National Action Plan, designed to make our Federal Government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.
I’ve embedded the video that Regulations.gov released about the launch below:
New Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and standard, Federal Register-specific URLs.
That last detail will be of particular interest to the open government and open data community. Sunstein explained the thinking behind the role of APIs at the WhiteHouse.gov blog:
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are technical interfaces/tools that allow people to pull regulatory content from Regulations.gov. For most of us, the addition of “APIs” on Regulations.gov doesn’t mean much, but for web managers and experts in the applications community, providing APIs will fundamentally change the way people will be able to interact with public federal regulatory data and content.
The initial APIs will enable developers to pull data out of Regulations.gov, and in future releases, the site will include APIs for receiving comment submissions from other sites. With the addition of APIs, other web sites – ranging from other Government sites to industry associations to public interest groups – will now be able to repurpose publicly-available regulatory information on Regulations.gov, and format this information in unique ways such as mobile apps, analytical tools, “widgets” and “mashups.” We don’t know exactly where this will lead us – technological advances are full of surprises – but we are likely to see major improvements in public understanding and participation in rulemaking.
This move comes as part of a larger effort towards e-rulemaking by this White House that will almost certainly be carried over into future administrations, regardless of the political persuasion of the incumbent of the Oval Office. In the 21st century, the country desperately needs a smarter approach to regulations.
As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, the ongoing regulatory review by OIRA is a nod to serious, long-standing concerns in the business community about excessive regulation hampering investment and job creation as citizens struggle to recover from the effects of the Great Recession.
We’ll see if an upgraded online portal that is being touted as a means to include the public in participating in rulemaking makes any difference in regulatory outcomes. Rulemaking and regulatory review are, virtually by their nature, wonky and involve esoteric processes that rely upon knowledge of existing laws and regulations.
While the Internet could involve many more people in the process, improved outcomes will depend upon an digitally literate populace that’s willing to spend some of its civic surplus on public participation.
To put it another way, getting to “Regulations 2.0” will require “Citizen 2.0” — and we’ll need the combined efforts of all our schools, universities, libraries, non-profits and open government advocates to have a hope of successfully making that upgrade.
Dr. Peter Parycek (@parycek shared his presentation on open government data today. If you’re interested in an Austrian perspective on the growth of open government data, you’ll find it interesting. (A good bit of German required near the end.)
Parycek is affiliated with the Center for E-Government at Danube University in Germany and writes at the Digital Government blog. As he shares at the end of the presentation, there’s a Gov 2.0 Camp in Vienna on December 2nd. If you’re interested in open data and nearby, that sounds like an optimal place to connect with other people in this growing international community.
NYC Hacks and Hackers co-organizer Chrys Wu was kind enough to ask my questions, posed over Twitter. Here were the answers I pulled out from the video above:
How much data has been released? Park: “A ton.” He pointed to HealthData.gov as a scorecard and said that HHS isn’t just releasing brand new data. They’re “also making existing data truly accessible or usable,” he said. They’re taking “stuff that’s in a book or website and turning it into machine readable data or an API.”
What formats? Park: Lots and lots of different formats. “Some people put spreadsheets online, other people actually create open APIs and open services,” he said. “We’re trying to migrate people as much towards open API as possible.”
Impact to date? “The best quantification that I can articulate is the Health data-palooza,” he said. “50 companies and nonprofits updated and deployed new versions of their platforms and services. The data already helping millions of Americans in all kinds of ways.”
Park emphasized that it’s still quite early for the project, at only 18 months into this. He also emphasized that the work isn’t just about data: it’s about how and where it’s used. “Data by itself isn’t useful. You don’t go and download data and slather data on yourself and get healed,” he said. “Data is useful when it’s integrated with other stuff that does useful jobs for doctors, patients and consumers.”
In one of the first posts on NASA’s newly relaunched open government blog, open government analyst Ali Llewellyn writes more about why adopting open government is important now, with a nod to Tim O’Reilly’s essay on “government as a platform.”
…OpenGov is not just data transparency or technology use. “Open government is an innovative strategy for changing how government works,” Beth Noveck, the original director of the White House Open Government Initiative, explains. “By using network technology to connect the public to government and to one another informed by open data, an open government asks for help with solving problems. The end result is more effective institutions and more robust democracy.”
From the beginning, democracy was supposed to be participatory. Thomas Jefferson noted in a letter how he envisioned a government where “every man…feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.”
In the service of that vision, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration continues to extend its journey into the open government stratosphere with the launch of a redesigned open.nasa.gov. The new site complements nasa.gov/open – but doesn’t replace it. (The /open sites that exist on federal .gov websites are a direct result of the Open Goverment Directive issued by the White House Office of Management and Budget in 2009.)
The new NASA open government is a beautiful departure from standard NASA websites. In fact, it’s a lovely move away from the Web design citizens encounter at most of the thousands of federal .gov sites. In part, that’s because the new NASA open government site is built upon General Service Agency-approved technologies and the same open source platforms ( like WordPress) that you’ll find at top-notch blogs like BoingBoing. (Or Govfresh). All due credit to Nick Skytland, Chris Gerty and Sean Herron for their hard work coding and designing the site as well. Skytland, who now heads up open government at NASA, wrote in to share his vision for the site and make a request:
After months of development and many discussions, we are very excited to announce the official public launch of open.nasa.gov. The site is a collaborative platform for the open government community at NASA to share success stories and projects related OpenGov from around the agency. The content on this site is written by NASA employees and contractors (just the core OpenGov team right now). We will be highlighting the ways that transparency, participation, and collaboration are being embraced by NASA policy, technology, and culture, and the future that becomes possible because of that commitment. We would love your feedback on the site. Please let us know if you have any issues with the site so we can fix them. The site works on most browsers, but we are still working out issues with Internet Explorer.”
Aside from WordPress, the technology behind open.nasa.gov includes:
A WordPress theme by Landau Reece called Protean 1.0
The Disqus commenting system
The UserVoice feedback collection tool
As I reported yesterday, NASA’s open government story now includes supplying the innovation behind OpenStack and Nebula. That said, while the technology behind the new NASA open government site and other initiatives is important to recognize, it has to be valued in terms of its ability to both host conversations and feature the people behind it. As NASA’s open government story evolves, cultural changes will be important to track, along with any technical milestones driven by open source or efficiencies driven by tightening budgets.
A note on FOIA
One of the interesting decisions that British Columbia’s government made in its adoption of open government was its decision to separate good government data, associated with transparency and accountability, from open government data, associated with innovation and co-creation.
NASA’s open government site makes no such distinction, with the link to Freedom of Information Act requests buried down at the bottom of the open data page. NASA’s open government plan includes aspirational goals of further reducing its FOIA backlog and creating a “single, Web-based system for handling all FOIA requests across the 13 NASA locations.” If the agency can do as well with that system as it has with the design, communication and coding embodied this new site, its open government team will be able to celebrate more good government achievement alongside its explorations into citizen science, random hacks of kindness, education and open data.
FCC.gov reboots as an open government platform. The new FCC.gov isn’t just a site any more: it’s a Web service that taps into open source, the cloud, and collective intelligence. In the world of Gov 2.0, that’s a substantial reframing of what government can do online.
Later this week, a new version of FCC.gov will go live. It’s a complete redesign of the Federal Communications Online presence. You could even call it a reboot, in keeping with the FCC launch of reboot.gov last January.
There’s much more to report on when the new FCC.gov goes online. For now, here’s a preview of something nifty that’s already live: the new FCC custom URL shortener, FCC.us.
Check out this article about HealthData.gov including footage of Park talking about the “health data eco-system” at the code-a-thon (and actually, the video also features local health hacker Alan Viars sitting there at the right).
Here are 3 blog posts about last year’s event, including mine:
Can social media, open government and an API lead to a better pill identification system? What about a collaborative effort between Big Pharma and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that could result in pictures of medications on labels for the first time?
Every year, poison control centers get more than one million calls for pill identification. Each one of those calls costs nearly $50. Social software is helping biomedical researchers collaborate on better ways of identifying drugs. “Pillbox is a digital platform for communities to solve challenges related to pharmaceutical identification and reference,” says David Hale, the program manager. The National Library of Medicine’s mission is to gather, curate and distribute the world’s biomedical information, said Hale.
Pillbox is an open government initiative from the National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Food and Drug Administration that could transform how pharmaceuticals are labeled in the future. The interactive web application currently allows visitors to rapidly identify unknown solid medications, like tablets or capsules, based upon their shape, color and other markings. Pillbox remains a research and development project, so users should not be making clinical decisions just yet. Right now there are over 1,000 images of prescription drugs in the system, with many more to come in the next few months.
In the video below, Hale demonstrates the platform: