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?
Android….in….space! This morning, Will Marshall of NASA showed the Android Open Conference plans for a sub-$10,000 Nexus One “phonesat.” Given that the cost of satellites usually measure in the tens or hundreds of millions or so, that’s a rather spectacular cost savings.
Marshall says that this will be the fastest processor to govern a satellite. For reference, Mars Explorer used a 33MHz processor. It sends signals back via amateur radio packet system, rather than ground tracking. The launch video is embedded below:
Great anecdote: when a launch failed, the entire payload fell without parachute into desert. The data was left intact.
William launching 3 Android phonesats in December, in space for 3 weeks. As O’Reilly Media’s Gina Blaber pointed out, they’re “iterating Silicon Valley-style.”
For more, check out the short documentary below about the PhoneSat suborbital test launch in the Black Rock desert:
You can follow @NASA_Phonesat on Twitter — there’s no official website yet – and, according to Marshall, eventually check out code on Github, where NASA is open sourcing some software behind it. (And yes, that’s a big deal.)
Baltimore has embraced the open 311 standard with a new 311 API and take a major step forward towards a collaborative approach to reporting issues with the launch of new mobile applications for the iPhone and Android devices.
“The new 311 Mobile App allows citizens to have real-time collaboration with their government,” said Mayor Rawlings-Blake in a prepared statement. “If you see a pothole, graffiti, or a broken streetlight, you can see it, shoot it, and send it to us — we have an app for that!”
As Philip Ashlock highlighted at Civic Commons in a post on open 311 in Baltimore, the city has a long history with 311:
The City of Baltimore has a long history of leading the way with 311. In 1996, they were the first city to deploy the 311 short code and unified call center, and in 1999, the city launched CitiStat, pioneering the use of statistics based performance management. Now both of these innovations can be amplified by a much more open and collaborative relationship between Baltimoreans and their government through Open311.
Ashlock highlighted another key detail about the integration of the standard by Motorola, which was crucial in DC and San Francisco, the first cities in the U.S. to embrace the Open311 standard.
The launch of Baltimore’s Open311 apps and API was aided by the fact that they were able to leverage the Open311 compliant solutions provided by Motorola CSR and Connected Bits. Baltimore CIO Rico Singleton went as far as to say that their choice of software solutions was influenced by the interoperability provided by the standard.
There are a limited number of citizens who have the time, expertise, passion and education to go clean up public data. There are quite a few more who will report issues in the neighborhoods they live in or work near and share what they see. This kind of mobile networked accountability is going to be a big deal in Africa, Asia and South America very soon. We’ve been seeing early versions of it emerge already during disasters, man-made and otherwise.
With the launch of more mobile applications that connect citizens to existing systems for accountability, city governments are empowering citizens to act as sensors, connecting the real world to the Internet and creating positive feedback loops. That’s good news for Baltimore and beyond.
“This is a huge accomplishment — a nationwide UK system for individuals to document and report problems with any kind of public transportation system,” wroteCivicCommons executive director Andrew McLaughlin this morning. “MySociety has figured out how to route every kind of report to the responsible agency (or even person) — “the service works everywhere in Great Britain, our database has over 300,000 stops and routes for train, tube, tram, bus, coach and ferry.” Great design and interface. Congratulations, +Tom Steinberg and team!”
“We’ve never before launched a site that took so much work to build, or that contained so much data,” writes Steinberg at the MySociety blog, where he explained more about what it’s for. (The emphasis below is mine.)
FixMyTransport has two goals – one in your face, and the other more subtle.
The first goal, as the site’s name suggests, is to help people get common public transport problems resolved. We’re talking broken ticket machines, gates that should be open and stations without stair-free access. We’ll help by dramatically lowering the barrier to working out who’s responsible, and getting a problem report sent to them – a task that would have been impossible without the help of volunteers who gathered a huge number of operator email addresses for us. Consequently the service works everywhere in Great Britain, our database has over 300,000 stops and routes for train, tube, tram, bus, coach and ferry.
The second goal – the subtle one – is to see if it is possible to use the internet to coax non-activist, non-political people into their first taste of micro-activism. Whilst the site intentionally doesn’t contain any language about campaigning or democracy, we encourage and provide tools to facilitate the gathering of supporters, the emailing of local media, the posting of photos of problems, and the general application of pressure where it is needed. We also make problem reports and correspondence between operators and users public, which we have frequently seen create positive pressure when used on sister sites FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow.
I’m not saying it is impossible to hack brilliant things without piles of VC gold. But if you are going to hack something really, genuinely valuable in just a couple of weeks, and you want it to thrive and survive in the real Internet, you need to have an idea that is as simple as it is brilliant. Matthew Somerville’s accessible Traintimes fits into this category, as does FlyOnTime.us, E.ggtimer.com and doodle.ch. But ideas like this are super rare — they’re so simple and powerful that really polished sites can be built and sustained on volunteer-level time contributions. I salute the geniuses who gave us the four sites I just mentioned. They make me feel small and stupid.
If your civic hack idea is more complicated than this, then you should really go hunting for funding before you set about coding. Because the Internet is a savagely competitive place, and if your site isn’t pretty spanking, nobody is going to come except the robots and spammers.
To be clear — FixMyTransport is not an example of a super-simple genius idea. I wish it were. Rather it’s our response to the questions “What’s missing in the civic web?” and “What’s still too hard to get done online?”
Tens of millions of citizens in the United States are watching as Hurricane Irene churns up the East Coast. If you’re in the path of the immense storm, today is a critical day to prepare. Visit Ready.gov for relevant resources. Unfortunately for citizens in my home state, New York City is right in the path of Hurricane Irene. As many New Yorkers look for information online, however, we’re watching NYC.gov is buckling under demand. For part of Friday morning, NYC.gov would not resolve. The outage is providing a real-time experiment in how a megalopolis with millions of citizens provides information during a natural disaster.
As the Village Voice reported, NYC is evacuating the most vulnerable and putting out advisories but city websites are down. As a result, we’re watching how city government is forced to pivot to the Internet and commercial websites, including social media, to get information out.
Dropbox is hosting a Hurricane #Irene Evacuation PDF (It’s not completely clear if city government uploaded the PDF or not, when this post was published). NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne and the official NYC.gov Twitter account have acknowledged and apologized for the outage and pointed citizens to docstoc.com for the official evacuation map:
What is clear, amidst growing concerns of a multi-billion dollar disaster, is that the New York City government’s website hosting strategy needs to be revisited. According to Provide Security, NYC servers are hosted in a data center in Brooklyn. Spikes in demand are precisely what cloud computing offers to the private sector and, increasingly, to federal government. As hurricane clouds gather, it’s probably past time for New York government to get familiar into cloudbursting or move quickly implementing internal architectures that include a private cloud, through Nebula or something similar, to handle the load. In the context of disasters, surge capacity for government websites is no longer a “nice-to-have” — it’s a must-have.
UPDATE: Civic technologist Philip Ashlock is mirroring NYC Irene data & links on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Even though NYC didn’t move critical resources to the cloud itself, a member of New York City’s technology community stepped up to help the city and citizens in a crisis. That’s Gov 2.0 in action:
The federal government is providing information on Hurricane Irene at Hurricanes.gov and sharing news and advisories in real-time on the radio, television, mobile devices and online using social media channels. A curated list from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (@FEMA) is embedded below:
If you use Twitter, a key follow this weekend is FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, who tweets at @CraigAtFEMA. This morning, Fugate tweeted out a link to new digital tools, including a FEMA Android app and text shortcodes. If you’re at risk, this information is for you. Shayne Adamski, senior manager for digital engagement, blogged the details:
In the new FEMA App, you’ll be able to:
Check off the items you have in your family’s emergency kit,
Enter your family emergency meeting locations,
Review safety tips on what to do before, during and after a disaster,
View a map of shelters and disaster recovery centers across the U.S., and
Read our latest blog posts.
When we built the app, we kept the disaster survivor in mind, making sure much of the information would be available even if cell phone service isn’t, so you’ll be able to access the important information on how to safe after a disaster, as well as your family emergency meeting locations.
So as Administrator Fugate said, you can download our app today in the Android market, and look for FEMA App for Blackberry version 6 devices and iPhones in the coming weeks.
FEMA Text Messages
A new and separate service from the new app, our text message updates will allow cell phone users to receive text message updates from FEMA.
Text PREPARE to 43362 (4FEMA) to sign up to receive monthly disaster safety tips
Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345)
(For availability of shelters and services, contact your local emergency management agency.)
Text DRC + your ZIP code to 44362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest disaster recovery center in your area (for example, if you lived in Annandale, Virginia with a Zip Code of 22003, you’d text DRC 22003).
We’re excited to provide these two new ways you can access information on your mobile device, in addition to our already existing mobile site – m.fema.gov. Stay tuned to our blog, Facebook and Twitter channels as we roll out our app to the remaining smartphone operating systems and make enhancements to our text messages program.
So download the app or text PREPARE to 44362, and then leave us a comment and let us know what you think. We encourage you to tell a family member, friend, or neighbor as well, so they can have disaster safety information always at their fingertips.
Citizens didn’t need much urging to turn to social networks after the quake. According to
Facebook hosts conversation with Red Cross on social media in emergencies
The day after the earthquake, in what turns out to be an unusually good scheduling choice, Facebook DC is hosting a conversation with the Red Cross on the use of social media in emergencies. As a new infographic from the Red Cross, embedded below, makes clear, the importance of emergency social data has grown over the past year.
The pitch for the hackathon includes a “green from the beginning” detail that may catch the eye of sustainable energy advocates:
The hack-a-thon will be located in the spacious new Graduate Research Center adjoining the School of International Service building, which is itself a certified LEED Gold marvel of green technology innovation. With a sustainable design and “cradle-to cradle” philosophy for recycling and reusing building materials, participants will even power their devices with solar and wind offset power so their Apps for the Environment will be green from the first idea until the last line of code.
Come one, come all
The hackathon’s organizers emphasize that this event isn’t just about the District’s local civic coders: “Whether you’re a student at any school in computer science, journalism, a professional in the field, or just have an idea to share (which you can post here http://blog.epa.gov/data/ideasforappscomments/) please join us at the hack-a-thonT”
American University journalism professor David Johnson left a comment on the event page that expands that idea:
…even if you can’t code, you can have ideas. even if you don’t have ideas, you can help spread the word. even if you can’t come to DC or AU, you can join us on twitter, ustream, IRC, GitHub, and other online hangouts… we’ll be all over it. everyone can be a part of this. spread the word to campuses and dev shops. come hack with us.
The results of a new survey from the Pew Internet and Life Project will come as no surprise to most: Internet users: search and email top the list of the things people do online. These two activities have been the most popular since Pew first started tracking online behavior over the last decade. The advent of broadband, mobile devices and social media has not changed that dynamic, though it’s a safe bet that adults under 30 are sending quite a lot of Facemail, IMs and tweets these days too.
That said, Pew did identify a difference. “The most significant change over that time is that both activities have become more habitual,” writes Kristen Purcell. “Today, roughly six in ten online adults engage in each of these activities on a typical day; in 2002, 49% of online adults used email each day, while just 29% used a search engine daily.”
Search and email demographics
According to Pew’s numbers, search is most popular among adult internet users aged age 18-29, 96% of whom use search engines to find information online.
There’s also some evidence of a continuing digital divide based upon education and race. According to Pew, online adults, college-educated, and those in the highest income categories are more likely than others to use email.
“These demographic differences are considerably more pronounced when one looks at email use on a typical day,” writes Purcell. “Moreover, while overall email use is comparable across white, African-American and Hispanic online adults, internet use on any given day is not. White online adults are significantly more likely than both African-American and Hispanic online adults to be email users on a typical day (63% v. 48% v. 53%, respectively).”
These results also suggest that as exciting as the integration of social media into government may be, officials tasked with public engagement and consultation shouldn’t neglect using email to communicate with citizens, along with Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and the other apps available to them. The difference in demographics usage of social media and email, however, does highlight that social media offers an important complementary channel to reach mobile citizens that access the Internet primarily through their mobile phones.
This Thursday at 4 PM EST, the EPA is hosting a webinar for developers to hear more from the community about what the government can do to make data more usable by developers. (Heads up, government folks: Socrata’s open data study found progress but a long road ahead, with clear need for improvement: only 30 percent of developers surveyed said that government data was available, and of that, 50 percent was unusable.)
The federal government is hosting a hackathon focused on unlocking the value from the newly opened click data from its URL shortener. Organizers hope the developer community can create apps that provide meaningful information from the online audience’s activity. Later this month, USA.gov has organized a nationwide hack day, inviting software developers, entrepreneurs, and citizens to engage with the data produced by 1.USA.gov, its URL shortener.
The USA.gov hackathon fits into a larger open government zeitgeist. Simply put, if you enjoy building applications that improve the lives of others, there may never have been a better time to be alive. Whether it’s rethinking transportation> or convening for a datacamp, every month, there are new hackathons, challenges, apps contests and code-a-thons to participate in, contributing time and effort to the benefit of others. This July is no exception. Last Saturday, Google Chicago hosted a hackathon to encourage people to work on Apps for Metro Chicago. On the Saturday after OSCON, an API Hackday in Portland, Oregon for “an all-day coding fest focused on building apps and mashups.” If you’re free and interested in participating in a new kind of public service, on July 29th, hack days will be hosted by USA.gov in Washington, D.C., Measured Voice in San Diego, bitly* in New York City, and SimpleGeo in San Francisco. If New Yorkers still have some fire in your belly to collaborate with their local government, the city of New York is hosting its first-ever hackathon to re-imagine NYC.gov on July 30-31.
How URL shorteners and 1.USA.gov work
To understand why this particular set of open data from USA.gov is interesting, however, you have to know a bit more about USA.gov and how social media has changed information sharing online. A URL is the Web address, like, say, oreilly.com, that a citizen types into a Web browser to go to a site. Many URLs are long, which makes sharing them on Twitter or other mobile platforms awkward. As a result, many people share shortened versions. (O’Reilly Media links are shortened to oreil.ly, for instance.) One of the challenges that face users is that, unless a citizen uses one of several tools to view what the actual hyperlink is below the link, he or she might be led astray or exposed to malicious code that was included in the original link. In other words, this is about being able to trust a link.
Last year, the United States General Services Administration (GSA) launched a Go.USA.gov URL shortener at the Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington, D.C. Whenever a government employee used Bit.ly (or any service that uses Bit.ly to shorten URLs, like Tweetdeck) to shorten a .gov or .mil URL, the link will be converted to a short go.USA.gov. That meant that whenever a citizen saw a go.usa.gov short URL on a social network, she knows the content came from an official government source.
For more on how Go.USA.gov URLs work, watch Michele Chronister’s presentation from the last year’s Gov 2.0 Expo, below. Chronister is a presidential management fellow and Web content manager for USA.gov in the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies at the GSA.
This March, the GSA added a 1.USA.gov URL shortener for civilian use. “The whole idea is to improve people’s experience when dealing with government information online,” explained Jed Sundwall, a contractor for USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov, via email. “We keep USA.gov in the domain for usability reasons. It’s crystal clear, worldwide, that 1.USA.gov URLs point to trustworthy government information.”
Months later, Tapper has been followed by thousands of other people that have used the 1.USA.gov URL shortener simply by using the tools there already knew.”The beauty is that Jake used it without knowing he was using it,” writes Sundwall.”We’re trying making it easy for anyone to identify .gov information as it’s being shared online.”
That easy identification is quite helpful given the increasing pace of news and information sharing on the Web. “Trust is a valuable thing online, and being able to know that the information you’re receiving is reliable and accurate is difficult yet essential — especially so for government websites, where people go for critical information, like health services and public safety,” wrote Abhi Nemani, director of strategy and communications for Code for America.
Code for America is “excited to be partnering them to help bring together passionate developers, designers, and really anyone interested to see what we can hack together with the data,” wrote Nemani. The 1.USA.gov hackathon will tap into “a huge and growing resource for new and really interesting apps,” he wrote at the Code for America blog. “See, this data gives a lens into how people are interacting with government, online; an increasingly important lens as citizen/government interaction moves from the front desk or the phone line to the web browser.”
To learn a bit(ly) more about the hackathon and its goals, I conducted an email interview with Michele Chronister and Sundwall.
What does the GSA hope to achieve with this hackathon? How can open data help the agency achieve the missions taxpayers expect their dollars to be applied towards?
Chronister: We hope to encourage software developers, entrepreneurs, and curious citizens to engage with the data produced by 1.USA.gov. 1.USA.gov data provides real-time insights into the government content people are sharing online and we know hack day participants will surprise us with creative new uses for the data. We anticipate that what’s produced will benefit the government and the public. Making this data public expands GSA’s commitment to open, participatory and transparent government.
What hacks can come of this that aren’t simply visualizing the most popular content being shared using 1.USA.gov?
Sundwall: First of all, the issue of popular content is an important one. Before this data set, no one has had such a broad view of how government information is being viewed online. Getting a view of what’s popular across government in real time is a big deal, but a big list of popular URL’s isn’t killer per se.
The data from 1.USA.gov includes a lot of data beyond just clicks, including clickers’ browser version (firefox v ie, mobile v desktop, etc) and IP-derived geo data. It’s also real time. This allows people to look at the data across a number of different dimensions to get actionable meaning out of it. A few ideas:
1. Geo data. The geo data included in the 1.USA.gov feed is derived from IP addresses, which makes it intentionally imprecise for privacy reasons (we don’t show the IP address of each click), but precise enough to spot location-based trends.
One of the reasons we brought SimpleGeo on as a collaborator for the hack day is because they’re really good at making location data easy to work with. Their Context product makes it easy to filter clicks through a number of geographic boundaries including legislative districts. They also make it easy to mash the data up with Census demographic data.
We want to let journalists, analysts, campaign strategists, and other researchers know that 1.USA.gov data is a powerful tool to spot trends in the areas where they work. I gave a demo of 1.USA.gov to Richard Boly at the State Dept soon after we launched 1.USA.gov and thought it could be a tool for country desk officers to spot trends in their countries. Hint: if you’re coming to the hack day, think about building something like this.
We hacked together a quick video showing click data mapped out across the US for most of June: red dots are non-mobile clicks and green are mobile. It’s a blunt visualization, but it’s fascinating to watch the clicks pulse across the country, from the east to west in the morning, and then from red to green when people leave their desks and get on their phones.
We could enhance visualizations like this to see if there are trends in how particular kinds of information are shared throughout cities and across the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if clicks on certain links from certain agencies turn out to be leading indicators—perhaps municipal leaders should pay attention to spikes in clicks on hud.gov links.
2. Browser data. We log, on average, about 56,000 clicks on 1.USA.gov links per day. It’s not a ton of data like Google, but the 1.USA.gov dataset provides a really nice sample of user behavior—particularly social media users because the short URLs are most frequently shared and clicked via Twitter and FB.
I’m hoping 1.USA.gov data can be useful to people tracking trends in browser adoption and trends in mobile usage. The data science team at bitly is already doing this kind of analysis with their much larger set of click data, but we’re really excited to give a slice of that data out to researchers for free.
3. Contextual data. Each link points to a file that is likely to include some amount of machine readable content such as an HTML page title, meta description, body content, etc. Many links, if not most, are shared via Twitter. Both the content of the link’s file and the content of the tweet that included the link when it was shared provide insight into not just what links people are sharing, but what topics people are talking about.
What are some of the early successes — and failures — that inform how the GSA is approaching its open data initiatives? And how will it all relate to citizen engagement?
Chonister: Data.gov has successfully built a community of people interested in government data and we hope to expand on that by making USA.gov’s data more available. One part of this is releasing the 1.USA.gov click data to the public. We also provide XML for all of our frequently asked questions on answers.usa.gov and a product recall API. These resources can be found at www.usa.gov/About/developer_resources/developers.shtml
We know that raw government data is not interesting or useful to everyone which is why we are trying to engage specific communities with the hack day. Hopefully any tools created in the hack day will help engage a larger audience and show what’s possible when government opens their data and makes it available.
What are some useful examples of “infohacks” where someone can easily find useful information already?
Sundwall: USA.gov actually used a method to finding useful government information from 1.USA.gov (and Go.USA.gov) by instructing people to search for USA.gov + tsunami on Twitter after the Japan earthquake in early March — this was the best way for people to find the best government information about the tsunami at the time. It allowed us to crowdsource the best government resources about the tsunami by relying on what everyone on Twitter was already finding and sharing. You won’t see this now, but at the time, the search results featured a few “top tweets” pointing to useful government information. 1.USA.gov let us know it was authoritative even though it was being shared from non-govt Twitter accounts like @BreakingNews.
This Twitter search trick is one of my favorite hacks. I subscribe to RSS feeds of USA.gov + awesome and USA.gov + cool and find great crowdsourced govt information every day. Just last week, this tweet inspired this blog post, which ended up being the most popular post on the USA.gov blog ever.
How else could this bit.ly data be made more useful to citizens – or government?
Sundwall: Researchers could use this Twitter search method to be notified of new information by subscribing to searches like USA.gov + cancer, USA.gov + human rights, USA.gov + Afghanistan, etc. I sometimes get a kick out of searching “USA.gov + wtf.” I’m a nerd.
What’s the incentive for developers to donate their time and skill to hacking on this data?
Sundwall: This is the best question. I hope some of the ideas I’ve presented above give an idea of how powerful this dataset is. This is the kind of information that organizations usually regard as proprietary because it gives them intelligence that they don’t want their competitors to have. I’m really really proud to work with the folks at USA.gov because opening up this dataset reveals a deep understanding of how open data can work.
USA.gov wants to help people by helping them find the government information they need. This data will allow other people to join them in this endeavor. As Tim says, “Create more value than you capture.” I hope that people will recognize the value in this data and create tools, apps, more efficient research methods, and perhaps even businesses based on it. I’m certain this data will prove to be valuable to many people who will discover applications of it that we haven’t imagined yet.
*Editor’s Note: bit.ly is funded by O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures.