It was in that context that I presented upon “Open Data Journalism” this morning, which, to paraphrase Jonathan Stray, I’d define as obtaining, reporting upon, curating and publishing open data in the public interest. My slides, which broadly describe what I’m seeing in the world of open government today, are embedded below.
Millions of people around the world are aware that the U.S. Department of State is using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Between them, the U.S. Department of State, U.S. embassies and consulates now collectively manage:
125 YouTube channels with 23,940 subscribers and 12,729,885 million video views
195 Twitter accounts with 1,403,322 followers;
288 Facebook pages with 7,530,095 fans.
The U.S. Department of State also maintains a presence on Flickr, Tumblr, and Google+, and an official blog, DipNote. Its embassies and consulates also maintain a presence on these social media platforms and produce their own blogs.
What many U.S. citizens may not realize is that U.S. foreign service officers are also practicing public diplomacy on China’s Weibo microblogging network or Russia’s vkontakte social network. The U.S. Department of State also publishes social media content in 11 languages: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu. Many embassies are also tweeting in local languages, including German, Indonesian, Korean, and Thai.
That’s a lot of talking, to be sure, but in the context of social media, a key question is whether the State Department is listening. After all, news about both human and natural crises often breaks first on Twitter, from the early rumblings of earthquakes to popular uprisings.
This morning, three representatives from the U.S. Department of State shared case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches about how does social media is changing how public diplomacy is practiced in the 21st century. In the video embedded below, you can watch an archive of the discussion from the New America Foundation on lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to share the State Department’s position, listen and, increasingly, engage with a real-time global dialogue.
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.
There are lots of views into engagement on Twitter, but we have the data to give a unique view into what it looks like from the @whitehouse perspective.
We’ve tracked their activity for the last couple years using ThinkUp to analyze and publicly release large datasets. We decided it might be nice show how the White House engaged their audience last year — without resorting to cheap gimmicks like linkbait infographics.
As Baio points out, if you want to work some mojo on this data set, you can download the .CSV file and have some fun. Kudos to the Expert Labs team for making both the open data and visualization available to all.
On Thursday, I joined Edmonton-based social media consultant and digital strategist Walter Schwabe on “Gov 2.0 TV” to talk about what’s new in open government since our last interview.
Over the course of the show, we talked about the following stories:
2011 Gov 2.0 year in review: What Gov 2.0 issue mattered most in 2011? Disruption caused by an increasingly mobile and networked society certainly ranked high. Other key developments included a new Open Government Partnership, emerging civic media, open source adoption, new civic startups, the growth of open data, and fights over intellectual property and Internet freedom.
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.
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.
In a Fast Company post earlier this week, information architect and user experience consultant Hana Schank is skeptical of whether New York City takes digital seriously. The city’s approach to digital development” focuses on plenty of sizzle, not much steak,” writes Schank. “It’s time for the city to deeply explore what New York’s citizens actually need, and the ways in which those citizens are likely to behave.”
Schank is onto an important trend, although perhaps a bit late to the party: throughout 2011, there’s been a rising tide of opinion that apps contests and hackathons should make tech citizens need. People like Clay Johnson have been suggesting that government focus on building community, not apps contests for some time.
Schank may have touched a nerve in the NYC digital tech community, given that +Dave Winer shared her piece on Twitter earlier today. As I’ve alluded to, I’ve seen skepticism about apps contests as mechanisms for solving serious urban problems become widespread, far beyond Gotham City.
“I was discussing this just the other day. From what I know I’m drawn to @HanaSchank’s argument. But NYC not alone sadly,” tweeted Dominic Campbell, in response to my question on Twitter.
Mark Drapeau, Microsoft’s Director of Innovative Engagement, a long-time observer of Gov 2.0, agreed:
Despite Drapeau’s assertions, an emerging trend this year for government app contests in cities is a shift from “what’s possible with this dataset” to focusing on the needs of citizens.
Earlier this week, Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell shared a similarly strong opinion about this issue about civic hackathons. “Too many civic hackathons focus on developer vanity projects that don’t address real technology issues governments face,” writes Fretwell. “Government must be proactive in organizing and sharing their needs and collaborate with civic-minded developers during hackathons like Education Hack Day to get these problems addressed. Developers need to focus on projects that make a difference and provide sustainable technology solutions.”
That’s a point that the open government community has coalesced around, as the speakers in the EPA open data webinar embedded below make clear:
A fair assessment of NYC Big Apps 3.0?
If apps contests are going to endure in any form, they will need to evolve. On that could, it look likes that Schank simply missed that NYC BigApps 3.0 asked citizens for ideas about apps they needed. They’re explicitly trying to tie ideas to development, as ChallengePost founder Brandon Kessler pointed out in a comment on her post.
Did it matter that the NYC BigApps organizers asked for ideas on what citizens need? “As someone who does this for a living, doesn’t generally work quite like that,” replied Campbell. “Need facilitated conversation 2 get 2 nub of probs. Complex problems need far more nuanced, in-depth, long-term, facilitated approaches. Apps contests are lightweight. They work for some of the quick wins and easy solutions or to start a process. but what of the ppl who really need help?”
Kessler also commented, however, on the fact that the winner of the first NYC BigApps contest is now a VC-funded startup, MyCityWay. While $5 million in funding after an apps contest isn’t a common outcome (in fact, it’s unique as far as I know) it shows what can happen when civic entrepreneurs decide to solve a problem for citizens that hasn’t been addressed in the market. In this case, MyCityWay offers a good digital city guide that’s populated with open government data. There are a number of other ways that NYC open data has been useful to citizens, not least during Irene, where social, mapping and crisis data played a role in informing the public about the hurricane.
“We’re using the Apps for Chicago to get a new kind of civic engagement and participation, which you can get involved in whether you write code or not,” said John Tolva, Chicago CTO, in our interview earlier this yera. “We’ve invited community leaders and groups to the table. The idea for a ‘Yelp for social services’ didn’t come from a technologist, for example. We’re curating ideas from non-technologists.”
Like Apps for Chicago, winners of Apps for Communities (from the FCC and Knight Foundation) are similarly open source and each are focused on problems that citizens actually have:
Yakb.us, (www.yakb.us) “provides bus riders with arrival times in English and Spanish when a five-digit bus stop number displayed onsite is texted to the local transit agency.”
Homeless SCC (http://homeless-scc.org) “connects homeless people and families with services according to their specific needs and eligibility.”
Txt2wrk (http://www.txt2wrk.net) “helps parolees, the homeless and other job seekers compete on a more level playing field by allowing them to apply for jobs online thorugh a text-to-speech delivery of job postings on any mobile phone.”
It’s about the open data, not the apps
In her article, Schank is bearish on New York City’s digital prospects, holding up the relative failure of Roadify to burn rubber and asserting that the widely publicized “Re-Invent NYC.gov Hackathon” held over the summer is only going to encourage more Roadify-like ideas, rather than address what people really need out of the city’s website.”
Given that I’ve reported on New York’s digital open government efforts, I followed the progress of that hackathon closely. Frankly, I’m not convinced that Schank picked up the phone and talked to any of the participants or NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne: the redesigns of NYC.gov I saw were search-centric and focused on what citizens were likely to need.
“The new pilot program allowing bus riders to text for the location of their bus offers another example of what not to do. Bus riders who text a number posted at their bus stop are rewarded with a text back from the MTA that says something like “your bus is 0.8 miles away.”
I suppose in some city, somewhere, 0.8 miles might be a meaningful designation for the distance between two points, but in Brooklyn, where the program is being piloted, it leaves riders with exactly the same knowledge about their bus’s whereabouts they would have had before texting. Is 0.8 miles very far away? Is there traffic? Why not text back the location of the bus (“Your bus is at Atlantic and Court St.”), or an estimated arrival time, both of which should be easily calculable based on the user’s location and average bus travel times?”
That’s a valid critique and Schank offers good ideas for riders. And she’s clearly right about how fractured information is over 100 websites in NYC, along with the lack of citizen-centricity that’s often on display. (We’ll see if the recommendations from the NYC.gov hackathon bear fruit.)
The thing is, if she, as user experience consultant, wanted to team up with a developer and make a better bus app, I believe that there’s a road to creating such a thing precisely because of how NYC set up its bus tracking system as a platform.
If NYC can similarly open up application programming interfaces and data for traffic violations, lunches and e-cycling, apps for school lunch calendars, speeding ticket and paint thinner disposal locations could become available to citizens. Which all goes to say, if you scratch a little deeper about some of its thinking and actions, maybe NYC gets digital a bit more than Schank’s withering critique would suggest.