Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Open Gov Conference Should Make Government More Of An Open Book

by March 15th, 2010

By Sarah Schacht

OPEN Government, or “Open Gov,” is the developing civic idea of the moment. The discussion is about promoting democratic applications of technology to make government accessible and accountable. Buzzwords like “Gov 2.0” or “sunlight as disinfectant” are bouncing around government circles.

There’s still a distance between the ideal and reality. From local to federal levels, some government agencies have begun opening their databases of government information via sites and “apps” competitions. But so far this is often more window dressing than useful tools for citizens who want to become informed and empowered within government. Too many of these early experiments publish already available government data, not new sets of data like legislation or tax statistics. In the rush to hop on the “open gov” bandwagon, emphasis can easily fall on providing data for data’s sake, rather than information that is accessible, easy to understand and empowering.

Given this newfound interest in sharing information, there’s an opportunity to adopt standardized, efficient technology across governments. Essentially, it’s an opportunity to get our governments to speak the same data “language.” This would enable easy information sharing across governments and with the public, saving taxpayer money and increasing efficiency.

The importance of this was exemplified by the recent tsunami warning that went out to 58 countries around the globe, each with individual formats for tidal-warning information.

On the morning the news reported that a tsunami might reach as far as the Pacific Northwest, I was concerned about my family’s home on Whidbey Island, just 5 feet from the beach. Checking the Internet and wondering if we should board up our windows and evacuate, I found different sources were giving various projections of the likelihood of tidal surges. The best information I found wasn’t from local news or NOAA, but from Canada, giving tidal surge information for Vancouver Island.

I had the knowledge and networks to find information across borders, but what if all this data from different sources had been able to “talk to each other” and extrapolate predictions? More citizens could have made critical decisions more quickly.

Whether in emergency response or day-to-day operations, we could be working more efficiently across borders, bringing down costs and engaging more citizens. Now is the time to get government and nongovernmental agencies from around our region working together, using a common data language from city to county to state to the national level.

That’s why I’m delighted that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn seems to be signaling a commitment to a new era by sponsoring a conference on making “Web 2.0” and government work together. On March 26-27, Open Gov West will host decision makers, citizen activists and government technology managers from across the greater Pacific Northwest and British Columbia to discuss strategies for regional collaboration and opening government.

Conference topics include developing common data standards, shared code via a “code bank,” and implementing “open gov” laws. Open Gov West will produce regionwide recommendations, and give attendees a larger network of colleagues to work with.

Seattle government has had some controversies over lack of transparency in the past, and needs to modernize its information and policies. Opening data through and support of Open Gov West by the mayor and city council members are important steps toward a more open style of city government.

Seattle is famous for innovations in information technology. What more appropriate place to determine the next stage of development? Not just in new applications of technology, but in new models for citizenship and civic life.

Sarah Schacht is director of Knowledge As Power, a nonprofit that provides online legislation tracking and citizen-to-legislator communications tools. KAP currently covers the Washington State Legislature and will soon launch a service for the Seattle City Council.

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