Collaboration in Civic Spheres

King County Ready For Government 2.0

by Administrator May 19th, 2010

By Scott Gutierrez, Seattle PI.com

Link to original

King County soon will have a “one-stop” data website where crime statistics, transit data, information on public parks, and even reports on wastewater treatment flow would be readily available to the public.

On Monday, the King County Council unanimously passed an ordinance requiring county agencies to publish “high-value” datasets to the new website. All agencies are asked to try to publish at least one database.

While partly to encourage transparency through technology, county officials hope private software developers will snatch up the data to build nifty applications or interactive maps that make information more useful or easier to understand.

An example often cited is OneBusAway, a popular application for transit riders that uses Metro Transit data to show buses’ real-time arrival information from the Web or a Smartphone. A University of Washington graduate student built the open-source application working with data provided by the transit agency. Some 20,000 riders now use the service.

The data site is supposed to be ready by Nov. 1. County Executive Dow Constantine has until Aug. 1 to submit a list of suggested datasets to make available. The data will be provided in an open format so it can be shared across platforms. It will be scrubbed of any personal or private information.

“This is a great example of how government can tap into the entrepreneurial spirit and the expertise we have in the region,” said Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who sponsored the legislation.

The ordinance doesn’t require county agencies to collect new data. “We already have plenty of existing data that we should make available,” he said.

More and more governments are pulling back the curtains on their data archives. “OpenGov” or “Government 2.0″ has become the slogan for the idea that technology can make democracy more democratic by electronically putting information right at people’s fingertips.

A number of third-party websites and Smartphone applications have emerged using government data to engage citizen involvement or provide consumer information. Some examples include Crimespotting in San Francisco, which displays crime data on an interactive map; or Everyblock.com , which sets up newsfeeds for your block by scraping government websites for information on building permits, restaurants inspections, and real-estate transactions.

Seattle, like San Francisco, New York and other cities, launched Data.Seattle.Gov this year with more than 150 data sets. The site is a work in progress, but you can thumb through for data on Fire Department 9-1-1 calls, building permits, park-and-ride lots, and the location of city traffic cameras. The site soon will become a platform for Seattle Police Department crime-maps and police reports. The site includes an e-mail contact for users to provide comments and suggestions.

At the state level, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a new law this year that encourages agencies as a best practice to post their most frequently requested records online.

With its Open Government Directive, the Obama administration launched data.gov, a site with nearly 1,000 datasets from federal agencies, including crime stats, housing data and consumer product information.

King County already makes data available online but not through a centralized location. County officials have been meeting with developers and citizens to determine what data would be most interesting and how best to make it available.

As evidenced by applications like OneBusAway, King County Metro Transit has already seen some of the fruits from opening transit data up to developers. Last fall, the agency hosted a workshop to discuss the best ways of “harnessing private-sector innovation to find new tools to provide riders with timely and accurate bus information.” More than 50 people attended.

Metro has it’s own regional Trip Planner online. But like many government agencies in tight budget times, cash-strapped Metro doesn’t have the resources to always work on new applications in-house. In April, the agency opened up more of its “behind-the-scenes” data through Metro online. It’s free as long as users agree to terms of service, which would also be the case with other county datasets.

Two months ago, Seattle’s City Hall was the site of the OpenGovWest conference, which brought government officials, software developers, private companies, civic activists and IT managers together to talk about the possibilities and challenges in opening the data closet to the masses.

Sarah Schacht, founder of Knowledge as Power, a nonprofit site that helps citizens use the Web to track issues through the legislative process, organized the conference with help from city officials. In an interview with seattlepi.com before the conference, she described OpenGov is the idea that “new technology can help our governments do the work of being accountable and accessible so that they can be more effective at meeting needs of citizens.”

“The vast majority of governments right now are facing major challenges to modernize technology and to open up processes,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a lack of will, but a lack of funding and expertise. Frankly, they have a lot of information they manage and it’s very difficult to get the gigantic ball rolling.”

Matt Rosenberg, editor of the Social Capital Review blog, features a tool he calls the Public Data Ferret. It surfaces important audit reports, financial documents and other materials available on government websites that very often are overlooked.

On his blog, Rosenberg wrote about the importance of governments providing more data under the “disclose and discuss” model.

“For example, picture easy Web access to a data package listing identified repairs needed to city streets and other city infrastructure such as curbs, sidewalks, streetlights, outdoor city stairways (there are 400-plus) and parks facilities. Picture each category listed on a spreadsheet and juxtaposed with the cost, priority level, agency responsible, anticipated completion date of each repair, and funding source,” he wrote.

“This kind of disclosure could stimulate valuable discussion about city infrastructure needs versus monetary resources, and how to close the gap,” he wrote.

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