August 31, 2009 By Chandler Harris
Photo: Andrea DiMalio, vice president at Gartner.
As data is being collected and available more than ever, governments are increasingly faced with the question of what to do with it. While some government CIOs laboriously, and often expensively, consider costly contracts or applications, current budgetary shortfalls and cutbacks have put a damper on the utilization of government data.
Out of the current economic climate one solution to the data overabundance has been gaining popularity by organizations: utilizing citizen input and expertise to make use of the vast amounts of data available. By using cost-effective contests, such as Apps for Democracy and Show Us a Better Way, governments and other organizations are discovering they can tap into a tech-savvy citizenship to find innovative and cost- effective ways to create data-based applications and mash-ups.
As governments around the world continue to develop e-government portals and strategies, the need to better leverage the goldmine of information that governments maintain is increasing, said Andrea DiMalio, vice president at Gartner. It is a movement by many governments to become more citizen-centric, DiMalio said.
"My view is that many governments approach utilizing public data in terms of hitting a wall," DiMalio said. "They don't know how they can become a citizen-centric government, which is important because if you don't engage citizens there's no other way to progress."
The first step in adopting a citizen-centric government philosophy is to open vast stores of government data to the public. President Barack Obama has already taken a citizen-centric technology approach to government after he outlined a comprehensive technology plan and hired an innovator of citizen-centric applications as federal CIO, Vivek Kundra. Obama's technology plan embraces transparency and makes use of Internet technologies by ensuring government officials hold open meetings, use bloging software, wikis and open comments to communicate policies with Americans. Obama sent a memo early in his presidency to all branch employees stating the federal government should not only be more transparent, but participatory and collaborative.
As the federal CIO, Kundra has promised to transform the federal government's use of IT by adopting consumer technology and ensuring that government data is open and accessible. One of his first proposed projects is to create a "data.gov" Web site that will make the government's vast information resources accessible in open formats that can be used by public and private application developers.
"By democratizing data and information and public processes, making them open and available, you are able to engage citizens in a way you never could before," Kundra said. "I think the information revolution has enabled a lot of that."
Kundra's vision for transparency of public data and subsequent use was developed during his previous post as the chief technology officer of the District of Columbia. There he developed the Digital Public Square that opened up more than 200 data sources from the state's massive public data storage. The concept, Kundra states, is based on ancient Athen's democratic principles conducted at the agora, or public square, where citizens met to conduct business, debate civic issues and drive the decisions of government.
The DC Digital Public Square maintains an encouraging header: "(it) puts you, the citizen, in the driver's seat to discover how district agencies work, participate in the democratic process and connect with your government." Shortly after the Digital Public Square opened, the intended results manifested, with an influx of participatory applications developed by innovative and entrepreneurial citizens.
The Knight Foundation utilized D.C.'s data vault for its site, EveryBlock.com. Through the site visitors can use their ZIP code to find and exchange information on local neighborhoods including local businesses, real estate listing, crimes, road construction, city service requests and community meetings. D.C. law enforcement data is being utilized for CrimeReports.
All over the country, community leaders are looking to boost economic development through various initiatives. One key element in many of those initiatives is the use of information technology. When local governments build IT infrastructure, create e-government applications, assist high-tech startups or otherwise focus on technology, they create conditions that draw businesses to their communities and help retain skilled workers. This paper discusses and provides examples of these various ways local government can use technology to ultimately make a community more attractive to businesses, visitors and residents.