Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Across the country, local and state governments are making it easier to access services and get information online. Others are opening up their data for third-party developers to build their own apps and websites. But many local technology initiatives fail to tap the potential of new platforms. We examine the good, the bad and the ugly of official websites and open government initiatives.
- Alex Howard Government 2.0 Correspondent, O’Reilly Media
- Abhi Nemani Director of Strategy and Communications at Code For America
- Tom Lee Director, Sunlight Labs
- Bryan Sivak Chief Innovation Officer, State of Maryland; former Chief Technology Officer, District of Columbia
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. They're high-tech tools that help us better understand our local communities and local politics, Smartphone apps and new websites built on government data. Cities and states are pushing out oceans of information to the public, crime stats, metro schedules, campaign finance reports, all based on a simple premise, if you post it, they will come.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey, in this case, would be civic-minded coders and programmers, people with the technical skills to build cool, new high-tech tools. You might already use some of them, apps that tell you when the next bus is coming or let you complain about broken parking meters. But you might be surprised by the tools coming down the pike. One award-winning app uses government data to help you organize, pick up basketball or softball games, giving you lists of public sport facilities and ways to join games based on your schedule and skill level.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe're exploring the good, the bad and the unexpected of websites built with government data. And joining us in studio to do that is Bryan Sivak, Maryland's chief innovation officer. Prior to his work in Annapolis, Bryan was the chief technology officer of the District of Columbia. Bryan, good to finally meet you.
MR. BRYAN SIVAKGood to meet as you well.
NNAMDIYou've been on this broadcast a couple of times before, but I happened not to be here.
SIVAKYeah. Thank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIThank you for joining us. Tom Lee is also in studio with us. Tom is director of Sunlight Labs, an open-source community seeking to increase government transparency through technology and Web-based tools. Tom, thank you for joining us.
MR. TOM LEEThanks. It's good to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Alex Howard is here. He is Government 2.0 correspondent at O'Reilly Media. Hi, Alex. How are you doing?
MR. ALEX HOWARDVery well. Nice to be here.
NNAMDIYou too can join this Tech Tuesday conversation on Government 2.0. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you logged on to your local government website? How useful did you find it? How did it compare to other sites you typically use? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there.
NNAMDIAlex, states and cities are really complex systems with lots of moving parts. Every day, millions of people move from point A to point B. In this region, we use government services, public transportation networks. We apply for permits and pay taxes. We leave all kinds of data trails in the process. Governments accumulate vast oceans of information. And at one level, the open government movement is about creating platforms for people to access that information and make sense of it, right?
NNAMDIThat's what you do.
HOWARDWell, I certainly write about it, and my publisher, Tim O'Reilly, who started O'Reilly Media, has, I think, extended the conversation around what's happening there, both at the federal, state and local level. And we're seen an interesting transition. I mean, e-government, that you referred to, our people go online to get a license or other things, so that's been around as long as we've had the Internet in some ways.
HOWARDNow, we're entering a really interesting new phase, both of the Web and, I think, of government-to-citizen interaction, and it's driven by some of the same principles that reinvigorated the World Wide Web seven or eight years ago, where it become -- it became something that everyone could publish to, and it became a place where there was a lot more data that people could use in rich applications.
HOWARDAnd to the point you made about data being released, now, we're starting to see some of that government data becoming baked in to applications, to websites that aren't necessarily the government websites themselves. They're just things that citizens naturally come and find to get things they need to get done, done. And government is working as essentially a co-creator in that context, with, well, you know, developers from the public and private sector.
NNAMDIBryan, from a developer's point of view, it's easy to get caught up in a kind of techno optimism about these projects, but I'd like to throw some cold water, if you will, on this for a second and offer a different view point. If I'm Joe Public and I log on to the Maryland website, I'm probably looking for one thing. How do I renew my driver's license? I'm not logging on to try and find out about the fate of some obscure bill in Annapolis. And from that user's perspective, many existing websites are actually pretty underwhelming, aren't they?
SIVAKIt's a fantastic point. You know, when you think about the accessibility of government to the public, you really need to think about it, I think, from a transactional perspective. Most people out on the street, as much as we in government would love for, you know, this to be a constant train of thought with them, really do see governments as a, you know, transactional medium. I need to pay a parking ticket.
SIVAKI need to renew my driver's license. I need to, you know, fill out some paperwork to pay my taxes. What have you? So I think on one hand our job in government should be to make those transactions as easy as possible for people to actually do, whether that's through the Web, whether it's through a Smartphone, whether that's actually, you know, the old-school way of walking into a office and doing something.
SIVAKWe need to really focus on those things. I do think that from the perspective of open government, if we give the developers the ability to provide new and interesting ways of actually allowing people to accomplish this, then we might actually have a good chance at levering some of the work that people want to do out there and giving regular citizens different channels of communication that we wouldn't otherwise have.
NNAMDIDo we as citizens understand enough about government to actually make sense of all this data? Arguably, one of the most important civic lessons in pop culture is how our government works came from "Schoolhouse Rock," which famously explained how a bill became a law.
MR. JACK SHELDONI'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill, and I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well, it's a long, long journey to the capitol city. It's a long, long wait while I'm sitting in committee, but I know I'll be a law someday. At least, I hope and pray that I will, but today, I am still just a bill.
NNAMDITom Lee, do we need a "Schoolhouse Rock" for 21st century wired government? I'm just a cvs file. Anybody can open me and parse me, oh, yeah.
LEEI think we do. When it comes to actually making sense of the data, I think it has a separate conversation. The "Schoolhouse Rock" bit, I love that old video, but unfortunately, you know, it doesn't mention lobbyists at all. There's maybe a little bit that's left out. We had a contest a little while ago, in fact, at Sunlight to solicit designers to try and create a visual representation of how bills actually move through Congress, and it's just incredibly complicated compared to that little cartoon.
LEEWhen it comes to people making sense of the data, though, I think it's important to understand that it's a process that has a lot of steps to it, and that not everybody has to be on board for every single one of those. You mentioned cvs files. This is a format that, you know, us geeks at Sunlight talk about a fair amount. It's an old standard that is a pretty good way to release data and make it reusable by other people.
LEEBut, you know, we don't expect average members of the public who aren't programmers to be clamoring to their representatives for cvs data. What's important to us is that the applications that are made possible by the release of that data that programmers developed, that businesses offer to consumers and citizens that those get used, and that they make information available to people.
NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation on Government 2.0, how government websites can be used to help consumers and how they can sometimes be difficult to navigate for Joe Public. Here is Heather in Washington, D.C. Heather, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DELEGATE HEATHER MIZEURThank you for having me, Kojo. And I appreciate your topic today. I have worked in the last couple years with many of my colleagues in the General Assembly on setting Maryland up to be a leading state on (unintelligible).
NNAMDIOh, this is Heather Mizeur, the -- in the General Assembly in Maryland. Thank you, Heather. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIUh-oh. You're having telephone...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Heather. You're on the air.
MIZEURThank you, Kojo. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today. We have in Maryland set ourselves up to be leaders on transparency and open government initiatives. In the last couple years, we pushed through a Maryland open government act initiative to put all of our e-votes online, so that the small business owners, nurses, stay-at-home moms have a say in what we do.
MIZEURThey can engage and see how we vote, hold us accountable. We've had streamlining videos of our hearings and audio of the Senate hearings. We've eliminated pay walls, so that you can have up-to-the-minute access to our General Assembly's website without having to pay any $100 fee. We have a -- I've encouraged in -- have implemented broadcasting of our state's board of public works meetings online.
MIZEURThat's where the governor, the comptroller and the treasurer come together to make really important budget decisions on how revenues are spent when the General Assembly is not in session. And all of these changes have allowed us to incorporate better citizen expertise and engagement in our process. I can't speak to other states, but in Maryland, we do have a very active and engaged citizenry that cares about many of the decisions that we're making in Annapolis.
NNAMDIObviously, that can increase citizen expertise, but what is your own experience about how it has affected citizen engagement? What kind of feedback are you allowed to get through those sites, and what kind of feedback are you getting?
MIZEURWell, it increases the opportunity for our constituents to follow what we're doing from the comfort of their own homes and businesses without having to come to Annapolis to engage with us. That's definitely increased, the engagement, being able to see how we vote, create an additional line of communication that can hold us accountable on how we -- on how we make a footprint on the issues that we care about that our constituents care about in Annapolis.
MIZEURBut there's a lot more that needs to be done. We just passed last year a new joint committee on transparency and open government that is going to do a lot of additional engagement. Our state website is an eight-track tape player in an iPhone universe, and we want to incorporate podcasts and text messaging and YouTube and live streaming so that that engagement and social media that everyone has come to know and love about Facebook and Twitter, and that that two-way communication and the replication and amplification of those discussions into additional universes of friends and networks will benefit the workings of the government in Annapolis.
MIZEURAnd that's some of what we have on our to-do lists, moving forward as we try to continue to bring the Maryland General Assembly and the entire state of Maryland's government networking into the 21st century.
NNAMDIHeather Mizeur is a Democrat who represents Takoma Park in the General Assembly. I like to hear both from you, Alex Howard, Bryan Sivak, you too, Tom Lee. How do you see people responding to these attempts at a more open government?
HOWARDWell, I think the situation is pretty dire. I mean, we see the numbers. We know just happened with the supercommittee. The federal level, people's trust -- their good feelings about Congress, for instance, are not particularly strong. And, you know, the state and local level, it's a little bit different because people come into contact with these services often on a daily basis.
HOWARDSo whether they like or not, they have to work with government. And if you ask someone about their experience with the DMV, if you can take any kind of information and make it available to them about wait times or make transactions available to them online, you can make -- it makes a difference. This issue around -- on transparency and open government is really interesting, though.
HOWARDAnd if you look at the numbers from the Pew Internet and Life project, who looked at this issue around open government, when citizens feel like they know more about what's happening when that information is online, when they can reach their legislators, when they can have more of a voice in government, their level of satisfaction and their level of trust does appear to go up.
HOWARDThe question is how much of it is true transparency versus politics? Right? This idea that just sharing information that the elected government, the officials, whoever it is, wants to share versus what's actually happening and the full scope of it. And there's a lot that needs to happen there for people to feel like they have a voice.
HOWARDOne of the, I think, big challenges is government is often used to talking but not listening. So to the extent that people are talking back to government using new social tools, using Facebook and Twitter and whatever the next thing is, that they have better tools to be able to hear. And some of them are coming online. There's something called of ThinkUp app, which Expert Labs has developed, which helps government, you know, grow bigger ears. The White House is experimenting with that, and others are as well.
NNAMDII know, Bryan Sivak, you actually worked with Delegate Mizeur in the past, and I'm really interested in what kind of feedback you're getting. Are -- is this really causing elected officials to listen? Are they really hearing from the public? And are they listening?
SIVAKSo first of all, I just want to say that I do very much appreciate the work that Delegate Mizeur has done and is planning on doing in the state. I think that transparency, open government, as a goal, is great goal to have. But something that I've said in the past, and I stand by, is that in order for the government to actually get behind it and for elected officials to really feel the power, I think there has to be some element of selfishness to releasing that data.
SIVAKWhat I mean is that we need to figure out ways of actually using that data to help our internal operations actually work better. Now, one of the things that Gov. O'Malley is very well known for -- he started this when he was mayor of Baltimore -- was the city step program of Baltimore, which has become state step program in Maryland. And that program is pretty amazing in terms of the way that it actually holds agencies accountable to very specific goals and deliverables. And we really leverage data very, very highly by -- through that process.
SIVAKNow, one of the things that we are working on is taking that data that we use and making that data public. We want people to not only see the data that we're using to actually do the management of these agencies, but also be able to understand the analysis that we're performing, maybe even suggest some more analysis of their own. So we're actually working right now and standing up a data warehouse that we can start to publish all of this information out into the public.
SIVAKAnother thing that I just want to mention is that we have been dipping our toes into the water of crowdsourcing all of it. And there have been two examples recently that we're sort of trying this on. The first one was during Hurricane Irene, and we, you know, this was really a true experiment. We wanted to see if we could use applications, Web-based applications, to get people's direct, real-time feedback on, you know, things, like trees being down, power lines being down.
SIVAKAnd, you know, some -- we didn't market it very heavily. We just put it out there to see what we could get. We got a few responses. What it showed was that that there is an appetite for citizen reporting out there. And I think the Emergency Management Agency in Maryland realized that, that was actually a potential interesting communications channel to receive information through.
SIVAKThe second thing, and this is something what we just launched about a month ago. The governor announced that we are going to doing regulatory reform before the legislative session starts in January. The idea is that all of the state agencies should go through their regulations and look and see which ones can be taken away, could be modified to make the process as easier. That kind of thing.
SIVAKAnd so we ask for citizen feedback on that. And we, so far, I think have, you know, three or 400 different comments that people have put in. I think you can -- if I'm correct, the URL for that is easy.maryland.gov, and I believe it's still open for people to comment on.
NNAMDIYou just answered my next question to you on that. As you recently took this new position in the state of Maryland, as chief innovation officer after serving as the top technologist here in Washington, D.C. My next question was gonna be, Bryan, what are you up to these days? You just answer that question. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation we're calling Government 2.0, how you and your local government can interact through the use of technology.
NNAMDIInviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Do you feel like government Web portals actually empower you and explain how power is wielded? Have you been using these websites to interact with your government in that way? 800-433-8850. Heather Mizeur, thank you very much for you call.
MIZEURThank you so much for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to this Tech Tuesday conversation about how you and your local governments can interact using technology. We're talking with Alex Howard. He is Government 2.0 correspondent at O'Reilly Media. Bryan Sivak is Maryland's chief innovation officer. Prior to his work in Annapolis, he was the chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, and Tom Lee is director of Sunlight Labs, an open source community seeking to increase government transparency through technology and Web-based tools.
NNAMDITom, in recent years, many newspapers and media outlets have cut their budgets for covering local and state politics. And as a result, we don't have as many traditional watch dogs keeping an eye on Richmond or Annapolis. You were particularly alarmed by a story you heard on NPR last year that involved the group called the American Legislative Exchange Council. Tell us about that story.
LEESo, well, it was one of those, you know, classic driveway moments, I guess, you'd call them. I think ALEC is a name that's probably pretty well known in this town but maybe not beyond it, and it's an organization that does work in a mode similar to others where they're really trying to introduce particular legislative initiatives in state houses around the country. And, you know, there's nothing illegal about this. There are other organizations who'd do it from different perspectives.
LEEThis particular story was about how the Arizona Immigration law came to be passed. And ALEC is an organization that brings together private interests -- in this case, it was the private prison industry in Arizona -- and state legislators -- and has, you know, information seminars, essentially, whether it's, you know, maybe play some golf, maybe get taken out to dinner and maybe you get sent some with a model bill in your pocket, which you can then introduce.
LEEAnd, again, you know, not everything that this group does is a problem. And there are other organizations, you know, the Uniform Law Commission, for instance, introduces model legislations that just aimed at making it possible to do business in lots of states. But the fact that this influence in the process and the involvement of this private industry that obviously had a strong interest in locking up more prisoners wasn't really revealed until after the bill had become law.
LEEThat seems like a problem, and it's very much, you know, aligned with someone's mission to make sure that that kind of thing is brought to the public's attention and able to be talked about in the press and just in daylight before decisions are made. So we have a project called the Open States Project, and this is an effort to collect information from every state legislature. We're up to 41 plus D.C. and Puerto Rico right now. We put it into a unified format.
LEESo right now, state websites are, you know, I don't want to speak ill of Maryland. Actually, Maryland is great by comparison, but by and large, state websites for providing legal -- legislative information are awful. We've encountered some, I won't name specific names, but one had been hacked by Russian pornographers, infecting users of the state website with malware. Another one was overwriting its own historical legislation.
LEEAnyway, we tried cleaning all that up, collect it and put everything together in a unified place where people can use it for free to build apps and analysis. And, you know, a nice side effect of this is that we've got all of the bills that are introduced around the country in one place. So we're able -- and are just now beginning to setup the system for doing automatic comparisons between the model bills1 the different interest groups introduce and what shows up in state houses. And we're optimistic that this is gonna be a really useful tool for journalists and the public to see when influence is made.
NNAMDISpeaking of tools, one of the tools that intrigue you was an import from Britain. It's a website called churnalism.com. What is churnalism?
LEESo this is a project by a group called the Media Standards Trust. And I loved it when I came across it. It's -- the whole point of the project is to find instances where journalists have copied and pasted from press releases into published stories. And although that seems like, you know, maybe more fun than serious, the technology behind it is very serious. It basically provides a kind of plagiarism detection engine and a piece of open source software that really wasn't available anywhere else.
LEESo we've provided some support to build this out, and it's the engine underneath this analysis, this comparison between model legislation and bills actually introduced in state houses.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number if you're interested in joining the conversation. Joining us now by phone from St. Louis is Abhi Nemani, director of strategy and communications at Code for America. Abhi Nemani, thank you for joining us.
MR. ABHI NEMANIThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAbhi, a lot of local governments would like to explore the new possibilities that are opened up by Web platforms, but this is a time of shrinking budgets, a time of austerity. Tell us about Code for America.
NEMANIYeah, Code for America is a -- it's like a new -- it's a Peace Corps for geeks. When I think about it, like doctors have Doctors Without Borders, teachers have Teach For America, but for developers, designers, entrepreneurs, the people who have made the Web, what we experience in our day-to-day lives, they didn't really have a great way to give back to use their skills to do good, and Code for America is giving them that avenue.
NEMANIWe partnered directly with city governments and bring them a team of developers who are gonna build technology that makes the city more open and more efficient to help them do more with less.
NNAMDIOne of the ideas that underpins Code for America is sharing innovation and keeping down cost through open source software. Please explain.
NEMANIYeah. Actually, Bryan was involved in having us launch this initiative. We have this program called Civic Commons, and the notion is that, you know, cities no longer have to work in isolation. They have common challenges. Problems in D.C. aren't altogether that different from a technology perspective, at least, from, say, Chicago or San Francisco or even St. Louis where I am. So let's find ways to help them work together.
NEMANIAnd open source platforms and what open source means, it means code that can be reused, that you don't have to pay for it to get it again, and it's available online for free. What that allows them to do is build it in one place and then reuse it elsewhere. So something built in San Francisco can be reused in D.C. Or San Francisco and D.C. can work together. So what our organization, Civic Commons, is trying do is help government to make those connections and reuse technology that they built in one location elsewhere.
NNAMDICan you tell us about some of the specific projects that you guys have designed?
NEMANIActually, there's one launched yesterday, which is pretty great. There's an application called Change by Us. And this application -- and you mentioned austerity and how cities have to change the way doing things, and this is relevant because it's empowering citizens to solve local problems themselves. So instead of a citizen saying, hey, government, help me with this problem, it's given them a tool to say OK, you have a problem. Now coordinate with your neighbor to solve that problem together.
NEMANIAnd so this platform was launched in New York, and we worked to open source that platform and then redeploy it just yesterday, actually, in Philadelphia.
NNAMDIYou mentioned that Bryan -- that you've worked with Bryan on this before. Bryan, these are tough times in almost every sector of the economy except that you have these specific skill sets. On this show, we've heard time and time again that the demand for people who can do this kind of coding and design user interfaces is higher than ever, which means that the salaries that these people can commend are higher than ever. Is it even possible for governments to attract the kind of people who can do this?
SIVAKThat's a great question.
NNAMDIAre you it?
SIVAKMy wife likes to tell me that I'm doing charity work for the government, but, you know, I -- I'm doing it for a very specific reason. You know, I -- I'm motivated by, personally, by trying to change, you know, effect change in a massive system that is sort of aligned with my areas of expertise. Plus, you know, there is -- there's just so much potential that, you know, we really can do good, meaningful, and important things. Your question is a very valid one though.
SIVAKI can tell you right now, off the top of my head, I can name 50 jobs available in Baltimore City for people with coding skills. And they've been looking for these people for a few months. This is both in Baltimore City government and private sector companies, both big and small start-ups. So if these guys are, you know, having trouble finding people, then I think it goes double for government.
SIVAKWe have a number of vacancies across the state government that we're having trouble filling for a few reasons -- some because we can't pay as much as we need to in order to really attract the right talent. Two, you know, maybe we're looking for specific skills sets that just don't exist. You know, and this is a problem with the educational system here that we need to really think about how we fix. But it's a great point and it's something we need to really think hard about.
NNAMDIAlex Howard, I'd like to get back to Code for America for a second. Where does that fit into the broader picture we're painting here?
HOWARDWell, I think...
HOWARDI'm sorry. Do you want Abhi or me?
NNAMDIAlex first and then you, Abhi.
HOWARDOkay. I think Code for America has really shown what's possible. There's something a developer, Mark Headd, has talked about. He's been really involved in the open data community in Delaware and in Baltimore and in the Delmarva Peninsula. And I think -- it's that when you see that people are involved in trying to make government better using these new tools, it inspires the sense of the -- well, we could do that too. It's the sense of the possible.
HOWARDAnd the important thing that they've done, I think, is showing that if governments do release open data, if they do try to build open standards, then you can actually create civic applications in a day and then build upon them over time. And they've done what's called data camps. There have been other city camps that are also extensions of those. And those are essentially self-aggregating days when people come together and build things together, talk about what needs to be done, scope out some ideas and create them.
HOWARDAnd I think that Code for America has shown how you can do that in a very agile way using new tools. You know, they showed USDA how to roll an API using new Web-based technologies in the course of an afternoon. There's a lot that's possible that people don't realize that I think that they've opened eyes too. And they had a successful first year. Now they've got a second class of fellows. I was really proud to see their first summit, recounting what they've done. And I encourage anyone listening to go to codeforamerica.org and see some of the projects that they've created.
NNAMDIWell, Abhi, a lot of people familiar -- are familiar with the Teach For American Program, which follows a similar template, a program that takes promising young people, places them in schools around the country. But some critics have questioned how sustainable this model is.
NNAMDIOne of the criticisms is that you just can't change the way a school system works by parachuting into a classroom and spending a couple of years there to bring about a systemic change. You have to have more than enthusiasm and good ideas. You have to have a long-term commitment. Is that also a concern with Code for America?
NEMANIYeah, Kojo. I mean, that's a great point. That's something we grapple with every day. But we're fortunate that we've seen that model and we can learn from it. And one thing we emphasize really hard and we focus on so -- I actually -- I've mentioned this, but the city program is actually competitive. Cities apply to work with us, and this year we have 22 cities apply for the eight spot.
NEMANIAnd one filter that we use -- the word students are the actually the biggest filter -- is whether or not that city has the leadership and the passion to actually work with us 'cause we realized that like what we do in one year is really just beginning. And as I said we just show it's possible. It's up to those city stakeholders to take that example we set and drive it forward and institutionalize it. And so we rely strongly in our city partners to work on the sustainability piece and make sure that their city adapts.
NNAMDIHere is John in Fairfax, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHello. I just wanted to -- you're talking about the services that certain governments provide, and I've been kind of impressed with what Fairfax County has done over the past few years. They make huge amounts of information available, including the citizens emergency alert network, for example, which allows you to basically say what kinds of information you want, like, for example, traffic congestion, and things like that can be delivered to you by phone, cell phones, emails, we know, and whatever -- what it is you want, at whatever time you want. Turn them off at night kind of thing.
JOHNIt's all -- you just sign up for it and it's free. You also have direct access to a lot of the indexes and the libraries both of the community colleges and the public libraries. There's just this humungous amount of information. Also, another program called My Neighborhood. I'm not sure if it's only Fairfax County.
JOHNBut you look up your house and you can -- it gives you up handful information about, like what -- I happen to be in, I think, almost 13 different districts. That is a District that has to do with voting, fire district, police district, self-conservation district, school districts. It just goes on and on.
NNAMDIThat's the good sight of the call, Bryan Sivak, but here's the other side of the call. "Like, you know, when I got to a website like maryland.gov or virginia.gov, I know that I'm on a government website and that's not always a positive thing. There's something about the aesthetics of government website that perhaps makes them more usable for certain things, but doesn't really encourage you to stick around and linger and perhaps learn a thing or two. To what extent are aesthetics and obstacles to better government website?"
SIVAKI mean, in general it's a huge obstacle. You know, the -- especially when times are tight. It's a challenge to convince people that anything beyond what might be considered the absolute necessity is required in terms of funding. And so, when you talk about design, you know, you really want to -- you need to think about design holistically. You need people who think about that from a user-experience perspective, from a citizen-experience perspective. And these are very specialized skill sets.
SIVAKWe, you know, we have some people like that on staff in various agencies. We need to think about ways across the board that we can really start to improve this. Now, some states have, I think, taken the lead. If you go to Arkansas, arkansas.gov, it's -- personally, I think it's a very beautifully designed website. And I'm happy to say we actually have the team in Maryland now who built that site. So hopefully we will get some of that love on our site.
LEEYeah. And I'll be delighted to see improvements to the aesthetics of these sites. But it's worth pointing out that, you know, government is in a different business from the private websites that we see. It's not selling advertising. It's facing a lot of constraints around making sure that these sites are accessible to people with disabilities that it has to satisfy. And, you know, our goal here, I think, in this movement shouldn't be to get people to replace espn.com as their homepage with the state of Maryland.
LEEThe goal is really just to make sure that the state is available to the people who need it, whether that's a journalist, a member of the public or whoever else.
HOWARDI think Tom just mentioned something really important there. One of the principles when you think about this open-data movement which is now worldwide is to help the data find the people who need it. And that often won't mean going to a government website. This is one of the essential principles, I think, around where the Web has changed. In the '90s, we talked about websites. Last decade, we started talking about Web services. So it's not about going to a portal anymore.
HOWARDIt's about going to an application that might pull in data feeds from dozens of different places. And the thing that government can do in releasing public sector data is then see that data be baked into applications that are useful and find citizens where they are actually using it. So mobile application which uses local health data, a transit application that uses transit data to help people to, you know, find where they need to go. The idea around Web 2.0 is that companies build platforms that other companies can build upon.
HOWARDYou can see that example to, say, Twitter or Facebook. The iPhone is a great, you know, example of that. With -- when government acts like that, then it enables developers to build on top of that. Most can be developers from nonprofits, from the public sector and the private sector, from media, open-government advocates like Tom. It enables the citizens to get things done using much better interfaces to learn through data visualizations to get applications. Well, they'll never actually bother go into a dot gov.
HOWARDAnd I think that's a -- it's really essential to see that, that when you release raw data, it allows other people to make it into information. That information can lead to knowledge and then lead to wisdom. And that's the progression. Most citizens don't want to see raw data, but they do want to know how to do things. And that's where the Gov 2.0 movement can make a difference.
NNAMDIAbhi, what's your take on this?
NEMANIWell, I think, first, that's a really great point in terms of how government can get more done with less. But if they don't have the best designers on staff and they don't have the experts in the Web industry, they can open up the data and then go out there and encourage developers and designers to work with that data to do something that's beautiful.
NEMANIYou know, one of our fellows -- when the development started this year, we asked them all to say why they wanted to do Code for America, and one stood up and he said, because I think the interfaces to government should be simple, beautiful and easy to use. And that's what they're motivated by doing, and they think it matters. Well, one actually great example of this, and I think this underscores the opportunity here, is this application one of fellows designed called Discover BPS.
NEMANISo in Boston, for a parent to choose a school for a kid, they would have to read through this 37-page PDF or this booklet that got mailed to their house. It was like this long, sort of, table you couldn't understand. And that's the process they have to go through to choose -- make a really important decision, right, what school their kids are gonna go to. So we took that data, and we put it online. And then one other fellow built this beautiful application, which all a parent has to do is enter their address.
NEMANIAnd it's like here are the schools that are in your area. Here's the academic standards. Here's how far it is. Here's the probability that you'll get in. And they can use that to make (unintelligible) preferences. So we've made this process that used to be painful and difficult very simple and attractive for parents. And I think that's the opportunity for Web development for governments to make the interfaces that are so important easier and more friendly.
NNAMDIYou want to make a point, Bryan Sivak, then I got to go to a break
SIVAKYeah. Just really quickly. I think, you know, that makes me wonder. If interfaces to governments were more user-friendly, if the whole experience was better, would people out there be more involved as opposed to being more transactionally inclined?
HOWARDThere's a great example of that we just saw last week.
NNAMDIYes, by the way.
HOWARDThe Tumblr, the blogging platform created a really easy interface for people to call Congress, and tens of thousands of the people did that. And it was around an issue that Tumblr is concerned about, this bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House. And they set up an easy click-to-call interface. And it was very straightforward. You go to the page. You enter in your name, your zip code and your cell phone number and click. And it'll literally connect your cell phone to your legislator.
NNAMDIThat break I talked about, we have to take it now. 800-433-8850. If you have already called to join this Government 2.0 conversation, stay on the line. We will get to your call. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Government 2.0 conversation with Bryan Sivak, Maryland's chief innovation officer. Prior to his work in Annapolis, he was the chief technology officer of the District of Columbia. Tom Lee is director of Sunlight Labs, an open-source community seeking to increase government transparency through technology and Web-based tools. And Alex Howard is Government 2.0 correspondent at O'Reilly Media. We'll go to the phones and talk with Mitsy (sp?) in Silver Spring, Md. Mitsy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MITSYHi. Thanks for taking my call. I am with the Department of Technology Services in Montgomery County. We've actually been rated NACO, by the National Association of Counties as having one of the best digital government websites first and third in the last two years. And so what I've got is -- one is on the state issue. Just one note, that it would be very helpful if states overall would try to partner with some of the more active local governments.
MITSYAt our level, for example, we created a snowplow map, but we cannot get real-time data from the state regarding what they plowed. So that means that you create a map, but in this area you couldn't put things like there's no Connecticut Georgia Avenue on this. So just -- one is having states to work with particularly their very complex local government. But for your callers overall, what I'm wondering is do you have any information, have you compiled any information, or what are -- when you put these open-government apps out there, where's the consumer demand?
MITSYWhich applications do consumers want the most because what we got is limited resources? We've shrunk our department by 25 percent over the last three years. And when we go to launch these things, it would be very useful if we knew these are gonna be the kinds of things, at least initially, that the public is gonna -- gonna catch fire with the public.
NNAMDIAbhi, do you have an app for that?
NEMANIYeah. What I would say first is the focus should always be, I think, on platform, so not just specific applications, but standards and platforms that engage more people. So, you know, there's been this rise of open data platforms throughout lots of cities and throughout the country. OpenDataPhilly.org is a great example of that. And that's one where it's not just the city, but the community partnering directly with the city to make it, which proves that there's community interest in it.
NEMANISo that's one approach as well, is work with the community to decide what they want, and then develop it. So you're putting the -- you're not putting the cart in front of the horse. Aside from that, there's a lot of interest in civic engagement applications. I mean, Change by Us in New York and Philadelphia has gotten a lot of pickup, and I think it's because it's something that's easy for people to understand.
NEMANIIt's like, all right, I'm gonna go clean up my street. I'm gonna go have a -- work as a block watch. Things that people can get their head around, I think, have gotten a good response.
NNAMDII want to go around the table -- and, Mitsy, thank you very much for your call -- to talk about some of the things that are now out there. Tom, I'll start with you. You know, suppose I have a problem with crime or a pothole that isn't being fixed on my block. I've always been able to write a letter to my councilmember, knock on my neighbor's door to organize some sort of protest. But technology has gradually given me all sorts of tools to organize and force my government to be accountable. Talk about some of the other things that we may not have discussed that are out there, so to speak.
LEEYeah. Well, it's those kinds of use cases that I think really bring this technology home to people and make it relevant. Your last caller spoke about what do people want out of these kind of data offerings, and you mentioned, Kojo, a moment ago crime data. That's always kind of at the top of people's lists. Transit data is also really big. People, you know, can relate in a very direct way to that in their lives.
LEEIn live in the District. And so if I need a new recycling bin, I'm now using the District's centralized tracking system. It's the same system that would be used to fix potholes, and that has other benefits too. You can actually look ward by ward and see how long it takes for service requests to be filled, and we can make sure the government is doing a good job.
LEEI would say, though, that the orientation around just raw usage levels is probably the wrong way to think about this. For one thing, it's always gonna be hard for government to measure all of the benefits of -- the open data provides.
NNAMDIThat's what I was gonna get to Bryan on, but go ahead.
LEEWell, I probably wouldn't be sitting here if the Census Department didn't collect map data that made Google Maps available on my phone that I could show to my cab driver, who's very, very lost. In the same way, you know, weather data, I'm not gonna be getting directly from the federal government, but it's available because of government and filters down to me. And even beyond that, these things which are hugely used, you know, it may not be that every citizen wants to read every bill that goes in front of the City Council or Congress, but that's -- having that online and available is just non-negotiable.
LEEI mean, that's an essential part of our democracy. So I don't think it can just be a kind of usage-level members' game. There are other considerations here too.
NNAMDIBryan, it's your job, in a way, to think about what it is we, the citizens, want. How do you prioritize?
SIVAKWell, you know, I think, first, you know, one of the things I look at is what's gonna help -- what data is gonna help our government operation to actually be more effective. So, you know, sort of taking it from the internal perspective first, because once we start using data on a regular basis, as we've done with states that, then we can start thinking about what pieces of those data -- or all of it -- is useful to citizens out there, and we're used to collecting it and putting it out there.
SIVAKYou know, I mean, before open government became a term, I think there was a lot of hesitation to put information online and out there. You know, people are afraid of the negative consequences of doing so. So that's one thing. I think another thing from a city perspective, transportation data is a big deal. You know, that's usually the first dataset, along with crime, that gets released because those are the two things that people care about most from a local perspective.
SIVAKAnd then from a state level, you know, we obviously have a motor vehicles administration or DMV. That's probably the most heavily trafficked website and also one of the most frequently requested dataset. So we kind of look at it from that perspective when we think about prioritizing.
NNAMDIAlex, there are two I have for you. One is a lot of the new apps and websites being designed are a bit, I guess, duplicative. But I noticed that the recent New York app competition had a really interesting and perhaps unexpected idea. The second place app helped people organize a game of basketball or baseball?
HOWARDYeah, I think that's Sportaneous, which comes from a San Diego software company. Just one point on duplicative apps. You know, if you look in the iPhone apps store or if you look at the Android apps store and look for a given category, I think you'll often find there's quite a few apps there. And what's happening is that entrepreneurs are competing to build the best thing for a category.
HOWARDOne of the best things that can happen at this space is actually that lots of different people get in and compete for a given category to make the best civic application to get somewhere. So, for instance, if you go up to Boston and look at what they have there, you know...
NNAMDII was about to talk about that, an app that lets your phone report potholes without you actually doing anything?
HOWARDThat is especially cool. That's called the Bump app, and that's been written up in Technology Review and by Popular Science and lots of other places. That's actually...
NNAMDIHow does it work?
HOWARDWell, it uses your phone's accelerometer to help map out where there are potholes. So it's essentially using people as sensors. Once you give people a Smartphone that's connected to the Internet and write an application which takes advantage of some of the things it has inside of it -- in this case a sensor that detects when it gets jogged -- then it can send back that data to a central repository, and the city can basically map out where it has problems in its infrastructure...
NNAMDIEither that or Kojo just driven over another curb, but go ahead.
HOWARDWell, that's true. The idea here, of course, is not there won't be dirty or bad data, but the collective body of it will show you where some of the problems are. And I think that, by and large, that's one of the most important things we're seeing right now, this idea of citizens as sensors. We can all act as collective intelligence when something happens. Every time there's an earthquake, you can see the networks get filled up.
HOWARDDuring Hurricane Irene, you could literally follow it up the coast through people's updates. And government can really, I think, use that to accomplish some of what it needs to do. The administrator of FEMA, Craig Fugate, has actually been really progressive in his use of social media and in thinking through how to use mobile applications to enable citizens to tell government what's going on with them because they've seen that, often, the public itself is a better resource than the intelligence they themselves have.
LEEYeah, it's a fascinating idea. You know, Google traffic information partly collects feedback from just having the app open, sitting there in gridlock and a sense of how fast you're moving from your GPS. And then the other example people point to is the CDC collaborating with Google to try and track the spread of illness just as people Google terms related to having a cold.
NNAMDIMitsy, thank you very much for your call. Kimberly in Bethesda, Md. Kimberly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KIMBERLYThanks for taking my call. I have a comment on accessibility. I think it was mentioned earlier that accessibility and Section 508 compliance is kind of a hurt for developing websites for the government. But...
NNAMDIWe're only talking in terms of aesthetics at that point, but go ahead.
KIMBERLYOkay. I work with Section 508 compliance on my job. I don't think it really adds to the cost of development to make sites accessible to people with disabilities, and it can help benefit a wider audience beyond just what you might typically think as...
NNAMDIAnd, of course -- we're running out of time, Kimberly, but Section 508, of course, are laws that require accessibility for the disabled online.
LEEYeah. Speaking as someone who's worked in 508 compliance, I can say that the idea that it's free is not accurate, unfortunately, but it is something that we absolutely have to do. And the caller is absolutely right that there are best practices you can follow as a software developer that help ensure your site will be accessible to people with disabilities, even if you don't pass through an actual compliance process.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're just about out of time. I haven't got the chance to ask Bryan Sivak if Washington, D.C., is still at the head of state and local governments in terms of innovating government websites that -- we'll have to wait for another time, or do you have a 10-word answer?
SIVAKLast year I would have said yes. Now I might say Maryland.
NNAMDINow he's saying not D.C., it's Maryland. Bryan Sivak -- of course, he's Maryland's chief innovation officer. Prior to that, he was the chief technology officer of the District of Columbia. Bryan, thank you for joining us. Tom Lee is director of Sunlight Labs, an open source community seeking to increase government transparency through technology and Web-based tools. Tom, thank you for joining us.
LEEIt's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIAlex Howard is government 2.0 correspondent at O'Reilly Media. Alex, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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