Stephenson: Transparent government

Many taxpayers are mystified by government data collection. Their taxes pay for it, but once it’s gathered, most people don’t have a clue how it’s processed or used. But that is changing. Organizations — from inside and outside government — are seeking to make data more visible and more useful. Although that movement has several names, we’ll refer to it as transparent government.

History reveals that the genesis of transparency came from Chicago Crime, a Web 2.0 mashup application. It’s a searchable database that creates a visual report of what crimes occurred and where they occurred in that city. A Web developer with a background in journalism and databases created it — not a police employee. Chicago releases crime data a week after it is collected, so Chicago Crime must do a screen scrape of data from an official site.

Citizen data visualization sites show that when people gain access to government data, the results can include ingenious new ways of combining various databases to illustrate convergence, contrasts or possible causality between various issues, new insights and more informed public discussion.

Perhaps the most robust transparent government program is an official one: Washington’s Citywide Data Warehouse. Washington provides real-time Real Simple Syndication, Extensible Markup Language and ATOM Web publishing standard feeds, dramatically increasing the data’s potential to highlight relationships, trends and other areas in time to affect service delivery.

The feeds are compiled from more than 150 datasets, ranging from crime reports to pothole complaints. Tech guru Jon Udell quickly whipped that into a surveillance mashup to monitor the status of repairs. The most prolific user of the feeds, Jacqueline Dupree, has used datasets not only for adult and juvenile crime, but also ones from home sales to alcohol permits for her “The Land of JD” site.

The benefits also extend beyond the firewall, where Washington has used the Citywide Data Warehouse to improve coordination among city agencies.

Unfortunately, Washington’s Citywide Data Warehouse site omits two critical components that would make it more valuable: an easy-to-understand guide to using the feeds, similar to the ones found on commercial data visualization sites such as Many Eyes, and a central site where citizen mashups could be displayed, categorized, discussed and compared.

The new insights citizens can stimulate when they gain access to government data are no reflection on government officials and their work. It’s simply because, as the staff of a commercial data visualization site Swivel says, “We believe data is most valuable when it’s out in the open where everyone can see it, debate it, have fun and share new insights.”

Transparent government combines Web 2.0 tools and individual interests to make the public potential partners to government. In an age of limited resources, making government data available on a real-time basis can stretch those resources and create benefits ranging from more informed debate on policy issues to improved service delivery. What’s not to like about that?

Stephenson of Stephenson Strategies in Medfield, Mass., is a homeland security, disaster management and e-government theorist and strategist. Read his blog at stephensonstrategies.com.

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