FCW Forum — Gov 2.0

Where is Where.gov?

A basic tenet of good government is knowing where our 'stuff' is

We have seen Recovery.gov and Data.gov, but where is Where.gov? Clearly, the Obama administration understands the power of place because it has already thrown interactive maps into the first two applications. Its commitment to place has even resulted in a powerful new approach to budget planning and programming, outlined in an Aug. 11 memo titled “Developing Effective Place-Based Policies for the FY 2011 Budget.”

So why do citizens, civil servants, our uniformed service members and political decision-makers, including the president of the United States, need to go to so many mapping portals to see where things are, only to come up short?

From the lowliest citizen to the president of the United States, we should all be empowered to fire up an application I will call Where.gov. At that portal, you could draw a bounding box on a map, declare a slice of time and instantaneously discover everything our government knows about that place. And we should be able to marshal that data instantaneously to support our needs.

When bad things happen, they happen in places and at times you cannot anticipate. The ability to instantaneously achieve situational awareness is essential. Knowing what risks you face and the resources you have at your disposal at a specific location brings an immediate cost savings in less time spent, fewer errors made and opportunity costs not incurred. Even outside a crisis environment, we are discovering that the location of anything is quickly becoming everything.

Knowing the location of our “stuff” is a basic ingredient of good government. The Obama administration came to Washington with a clarion call for transparency, accountability and transformation of how government does business. Where.gov could help achieve those goals.

It would quickly and clearly demonstrate to everyone which government organizations can properly locate their people, assets, mission challenges and the services they provide — and which cannot. The portal would immediately strike a major blow to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind habits of Washington. Our successes and failures would be placed on the map and made accountable to open and democratic processes, which would inevitably empower people to demand better, more responsive government and encourage public/private partnerships that could lead to a better tomorrow. It would be the ultimate Sunlight Foundation.

Vivek Kundra and Aneesh Chopra, our new federal chief information officer and chief technology officer, respectively, are barnstorming the country advocating the rapid transformation to a government that uses open standards and cloud computing. I couldn’t agree more. Where.gov could take their impulse and transform it into concrete guidance to agencies, telling them to publish all their data to the cloud via Open Geospatial Consortium standards, with security as appropriate.

That approach would not be limited to traditional geospatial data. The Where.gov guidance would finally communicate to agency leaders and their chief financial officers that a basic tenet of good government and effective management is knowing where your stuff is and understanding the places on which your mission must be focused. President Barack Obama understands that place matters in a fundamental way. It’s time for Where.gov.

About the Author

Christopher K. Tucker (christopher.tucker@gmail.com) was founding chief strategic officer at In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital fund, and is now a private consultant and a member of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s board of directors.

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Reader comments

Tue, Sep 29, 2009 Andrew Zolnai http://blog.zolnai.ca

It's simply called www.data.gov, Mr. Tucker.

Mon, Sep 28, 2009 Marten Hogeweg

To expand on the comments from Eric Wolf. Geospatial One-Stop has been around for about 6 years. it has grown to a catalog of 270,000 spatial datasets, web services, apps, and other docs from all levels of government, education, and commercial data providers. Vivek Kundra expanded on this and created http://www.data.gov that would make Federal data, including, but not limited to geospatial data, available to the public. As opposed to building yet another catalog, the data.gov consumes a catalog service from geodata.gov. Data.gov currently focuses on downloadable data set from federal sources. This could expand to include web services and other data feeds. The discussion on metadata is valid: does one create a comprehensive description of a resource at the expense of the effort to do so, or does one create a brief description (a la YouTube: title + video seems enough for most) at the expense of not knowing what you get until you use it? Having a single place to go to (like Geospatial One-Stop at http://www.geodata.gov) is convenient for users, but data providers can simply start by making their data sources available through web services, data download, or specific applications.

Thu, Sep 24, 2009 Emile Zola DC

This is a superb letter. Very much on point with the issue at hand - where is the world is the US government? The difficulty is in the iteration, unfortunately. Because for the most part, the US government has *no idea* where its assets and interests are in geographic terms. Or even on paper, for that matter. An excellent, well reasoned, and extremely cogent discussion that will face insurmountable obstacles in its implementation. Just think, government agencies would actually be accountable. A novel concept, certain never to occur.

Thu, Sep 24, 2009 Eric Wolf

I really like the idea of Where.gov - it's sort of an expansion of the Geospatial One Stop (GOS) initiative already in place. But your thesis has two significant flaws: 1. Based on experiences from GOS and The National Map, it's easy to forget just how many datasets the Government keeps. Information overload occurs rather quickly. So providing information through separate web mapping interfaces allows for the number of datasets to be constrained. This makes the information the data contains more accessible. A basic tenet of information design. 2. Just because the data share a common index - spatial location - doesn't mean the architectures housing those data can relate them. All Government data, across all Departments and Agencies, would have to house their data in a consistent manner and expose the databases to outside interfaces. Sure, the Government has made significant strides towards data interoperability. Geospatial One Stop (or even the spatial interface to Data.gov) are a step towards "Where.gov". FGDC metadata attempts to provide means of standardizing information about the data. The SDTS file format was created to normalize data formats across architectures. But each of these efforts came with significant lessons learned. Navigating even the small fraction of government data on GOS is bewildering. Writing good metadata is costly and doesn't directly contribute to short term directives. SDTS ended up being a far from optimal solution - data file sizes are considerably larger than native formats. Overall, the cost to the government (and ultimately, the taxpayers) to link all databases in a common interface would be staggering.

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