Transparent Government: How Releasing Data and Web 2.0 Applications Can Improve Government Services, Build Public Support and Involvement

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"Transparent government," which combines Web 2.0 applications such as Google mashups with government data -- preferably released by agencies on a real time basis -- transforms citizens from mere recipients of government services into effective partners in their creation, improvement and evaluation. While some citizens have launched these programs on their own (without official blessing), agency participation will result in new insights, improved operations, and greater public support for government.

E-gov strategist W. David Stephenson said Thursday "Web 2.0 applications plus government data released on a real-time basis transforms citizens from mere recipients of government services into effective partners in their creation, improvement, and evaluation."

Stephenson, principal of Stephenson Strategies (Medfield, MA) spoke on what he called "transparent government" at the New, New Internet conference (2:40 PM, Thursday, Hyatt Regency, Reston, VA).

Stephenson said that individuals have seized the initiative with transparent government (also called Google Government or data liberation) by taking data that otherwise might remain "meaningless numbers locked in obscure databases within remote agencies" and making the statistics informative and interesting by interpreting them and/or creating visualizations using Web 2.0 tools such as Google mashups. He cited examples including:

  • Chicago Crime, which displays crime data from the Chicago Police on Google maps to identify crime hotspots and identify crime trends
  • Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles, which overlays city data about 7 indicators of urban decay, such as code violations and unpaid property taxes on maps to identify declining areas in time for city agencies to intervene
  •, which illustrates how someone with a passion for a single issue (in this case, illegal billboards in Toronto) can combine data, photos and Google maps to call attention to the problem and assist government agencies with enforcement.

Stephenson said government agencies can increase transparent government's benefits by releasing data on a real-time basis. He cited the District of Columbia's Citywide Data Warehouse, which uses RSS, XML, and Atom feeds to release data from 150 sources, ranging from crimes to pothole reports. Interpretations by public activists so far include a "mashup" showing where potholes have been reported (and whether they've been repaired: an example of "sousveillance," in which people hold government accountable by visibility), and a variety of features on the "Ballpark and Beyond" site covering Southeast Washington. The DC government also has benefited internally from the program, improving operating efficiency and data sharing between agencies.

Stephenson detailed steps agencies need to take to make transparent government a reality, including four that agencies haven't taken so far:

  • creating an attractive web site where people could post and share projects (sharing encourages others to add their own and to critique and improve others)
  • creating an easy-to-use tutorial that would guide the public through the "transparent government" process
  • publicizing the program to encourage participation
  • creating a built-in review process to encourage agencies to review the citizen-participation projects and insights they may provide.

Stephenson concluded that while "transparent government" may worry agencies because of the potential loss of control, citizen initiatives such as Chicago Crime show the trend will continue anyway, and that the more agencies become active participants, the more likely they will be to benefit from citizens' insights and to avoid errors caused by faulty or misunderstood data.

Stephenson Strategies (Medfield, MA) is a e-gov and homeland security consulting firm specializing in innovative strategies to involve and empower the general public through creative use of Web 2.0 applications that foster collaboration.


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