The Magic of Making Government Data Open Source: Alohomora

Making Government Data Open Source With Alohomora

Two things are inevitable, the old saying goes – death and taxes. While no one knows how or where their end may come, every citizen of every country with a functioning government knows the sting of the tax man. In a world where the IRS can tell your income down to the last penny, and even Goodwill keeps track of your battered paperback donations on an iPad, is it any wonder that the government is both one of the largest consumers and one of the largest suppliers of raw data in the land?

That enormous stream of data tempts government employees and private citizens alike, from all walks of life. It can seem like government databases hold the keys to the magic kingdom. Government agencies, multinational corporations, non-profits and even private citizens are all seeking information to determine policy, to get a leg up on their competitors or even just to find some salmonella-free salmon in the neighborhood, but government bureaucracy is not exactly known to be user-friendly. In fact, nearly as many tirades have been given against government’s inefficiency as against government’s expense.

Is it possible to cast a spell that can help governments, corporations and citizens work together to transform its outmoded systems from the equivalent of a dusty Ministry of Magic card catalog into a Room of Requirement, where different consumers each have access to only the most useful data at the click of a key, and in the blink of an eye?

Using the Smart Phone as a Consumer Magic Wand

It may be, if by cast a spell you mean build an app. In a white paper by the Center for Technology in Government, an examination of the different experiences of two very different cities with very different data streams shows that the key to making bureaucracy more efficient may be to take it out of the hands of the bureaucrats, or at least to provide them with the tools to make it a true asset.

The Magic of Making Government Data Open Source: Alohomora image 273788 l srgb s glThe Magic of Making Government Data Open Source: AlohomoraNew York City prides itself on its vast number of eateries, which is great if you’re craving a curry in Staten Island at three in the morning, or wondering which borough has the best bibimbap.

But it also makes for a vast amount of paperwork for city inspectors, none of which was available online at all before 1999. Diners had to rely on the Health Certificate posted on the restaurant’s wall to be their safeguard, and anyone wanting detailed information had to request a paper report via the Freedom of Information Act.

It turned out that the public’s desire for a good deli sandwich free of who-knows-what led to a crash of the city’s servers within the first 24 hours of the website’s debut, and the city spent another decade trying to find a cost-effective way to provide timely information to wary diners.

The rise of the smart phone – and the smart phone app – coincided with the city’s shift to a system of letter grades in 2010, and at last an elegant solution was devised. A developer named Mike Boski created the NYC Restaurant Scrutinizer, and changed the way the city related to its chicken cutlets. His platform transformed the way consumers used the government data – allowing it to be a factor in real-time decision making – by putting it at their fingertips. Eventually, the city government developed an app of its own, and the information in its databases is routinely used to power apps as diverse as Yelp, MenuPages and Every Block.

An Alternative to Flying Carpets

Meanwhile, in a cold Canadian provincial capital, city bureaucrats were dealing with a different, but equally vexing, problem. The citizens of Edmonton, Alberta found their commutes continually thwarted, either by their notoriously snowy winter weather or by the compressed round of roadwork necessary to repair nature’s damages every spring. The joke was that there were two seasons in Edmonton: Winter and Traffic Tie Ups.

The local government had long produced a paper map and given it to the local newspapers as a guide, but that information was often out of date before it started and difficult to update. They made a strategic decision to invest manpower and money into updating the information in a format compatible with an existing online system, allowing it to create 3D maps and real-time traffic alerts on a website. This distinct improvement was made better by the introduction of a GPS-based app in 2012 by another local developer.

In both cities, the local government agencies were willing – indeed, eager – to share their information with a willing public, to promote the general welfare and also as useful PR platforms. And in both cases, smart decisions by anonymous government officials meant that the data was not just dumped into an online system, but carefully evaluated and uploaded using value-added metadata. Those decisions made the data malleable to app developers without the high start-up costs of mining their own data streams – a situation that allowed for quick changes, quick responses and rapid innovation.

While it may be difficult to convince government agencies upfront to expand time and effort on embedding useful metadata onto an overwhelming number of records, the long-run benefits are clear: the agencies are freed from having to create elaborate interfaces for consumer interaction, while app developer and other secondary users have a platform that allows for innovation and new products that requires fewer upfront costs, and no phoenix tears at all.

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