Joining the Open Government Bullet Train

I’d call it a train, but the Open Government initiative is moving so much faster than that that it warrants bullet train. Since President Obama came into office, his top leaders have been organizing the masses and showing promise in establishing open dialogue with citizens. How will it turn out? It’s up to us.

What’s Open Government?

Open government is many things to many people. So far, the most interesting ideas I’ve heard have been the following.

A Dialogue Between Agencies and Citizens

One definition for “open government” is establishing a two-way dialogue between agencies and citizens in hopes that the ideas and discussion will provide new insights for improving relationships and operations. It might involve social media tools that exist, like YouTube (video), Twitter (status updates / short text broadcasts), Facebook (post updates and keep in touch with friends and organizations), and others. The idea is that there are now more ways to open up the discussion lines with that faceless, nameless public than ever before, just by using some simple tools that exist.

Adopting Open Source Products

Another way to describe it, depending on your perspective, is that open government is a movement towards using open source products more widely in government with the possibility of lowering acquisition and maintenance costs (you can argue this and other points of course) and having more opportunities in tying together different products to do more interesting things. All the open source products and application programming interfaces (APIs) available now make it even easier for developers (and even non-developers!) to tap into products and Web applications and do some interesting things. For the last couple years it’s been a joke at Web 2.0 conferences as to whether you can make it through an entire presentation without hearing about Google Maps or a Google Maps mashup (overlaying some hopefully interesting data atop Google Maps). But either way, the availability of the Google Maps API and geographic data coupled with open source products have made the prospects even more interesting. The DC‘s government Office of the Chief Technology Officer raised the bar via its data catalog and the Apps for Democracy competition.

The data catalog provides XML and KML data sets that let developers and designers and whoever else might be ML-savvy a chance to do something interesting. The crowd favorite of many seems to be Stumble Safely, an app that lets you see neighborhoods in DC and whether there’ve been any safety incidents that might interfere with you safely going out on the town. Useful information even if you left the clubbing and pubbing scene long ago and just want to take a safe stroll at night.

Making Data More Visible (aka Transparency)

The old robots.txt file for WhiteHouse.gov had over 2000 lines like these, which prevented search engines from crawling it.

The old robots.txt file for WhiteHouse.gov had over 2000 lines like these, which prevented search engines from crawling it.

One of the first things the IT world saw on Day One of the Obama Administration was the major change to the WhiteHouse.gov robots.txt file. It even made international news and a BBC article, “White House plans open government.”

What was the big deal? And why’d it make international news?

For those of you who don’t know what a robots.txt file is – it’s the file you include on your Web site to permit or deny search engines (among other “crawlers”) from indexing your content. Before January 20, 2009, the old WhiteHouse.gov site run by the old administration had 2377 lines in the robots file. These lines prevented search engines from indexing and caching, which in a sense stores a snapshot of the page for later searchability. This file gave more credence to speculation that in the eight years before the Obama Administration came into office, there was a “black box” of data in the federal government and attempts to cover up data the public might want.

So on day 1, when that same file shrunk to 3 lines, there was much rejoicing and progress in the pursuit of transparency and open data seemed to grow exponentially, literally overnight.

Leading the charge are a few non-government organizations, including the Sunlight Foundation and OpentheGovernment.org. There’s even a whole week, Sunshine Week, devoted entirely to “your right to know.”

Now We Know What Open Government May Be…Now What?

Now the fun starts. Open government holds huge promise as well as many opportunities and challenges in making it happen. It won’t be an easy ride, but the momentum and the leaders at the helm, including the first federal CIO, Vivek Kundra and Technology Innovation and Government Reform team, known affectionately as the TIGR (pronounced like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh) team, increase the chances that open government will in fact happen.

There are unconferences that have popped up all over the DC metropolitan area, including Transparency Camp and Government 2.0 Camp. There’s also a W3C eGov Interest Group.

So you can watch and see in the coming months and year how the bullet train takes off and try and catch up down the road (good luck – it’s already moving out quickly!) or see how you can join now. Whether you watch or whether you jump on, it will be fun to see how things evolve!

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