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Article of Interest from Atlantic Today

From: Novak, Kevin <KevinNovak@aia.org>
Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2009 10:36:38 -0500
Message-ID: <7D3AB086C3D86347AE8225DE8190296B02D78540@AIA-NT1.aia.org>
To: "eGov IG" <public-egov-ig@w3.org>
Technology January/February 2009 

How geeks are opening up government on the Web

by Douglas McGray 


iGov

 

Image credit: Quickhoney

 

Barack Obama has said we need a "Google for government." It's a nice
line, but what does it mean? Federal agencies have been online since the
mid-'90s. Obama's first crack at a Google-for-government law led to 
USAspending.gov <http://www.usaspending.gov/> , a budget tracker that
looked like everything else the feds had put up on the Web-until I saw
one geek-speak phrase on the home page, so small I almost missed it: API
Documentation. To understand its significance, let me tell you how I got
subway schedules on my iPhone. 

Just a few days after Apple's iPhone launched, a trip planner for the
San Francisco Bay Area's subway system, BART, appeared in the iTunes
application store, which sells iPhone and iPod software for download.
User reviews were mixed. But I was still floored. How could a local
government agency move so quickly? 

Turns out, it didn't. In 2007, Google engineers asked public-transit
agencies across the country to submit their arrival and departure data
in a simple, standard, open format-a text file, basically, with a bunch
of numbers separated by commas-so Google Maps could generate bus and
subway directions. A handful of agencies, including BART, decided to go
a step further and publish that raw data online. Once they did that, any
programmer could grab the data and write a trip planner, for any
platform. 

"It's not 1995," BART's Web-site manager, Timothy Moore, explained. "A
single Web site is not the endgame anymore. People are planning trips on
Google, they're using their iPhones. Because we opened up our schedule,
we are in those places." 

A couple weeks after that first BART application appeared, a new trip
planner went live. This one, called iBART
<http://pandav.us/Pandav/iBART.html> , was a thing of beauty. Free, too.
It was written by two former high-school buddies-Ian Leighton, a
sophomore at UC Berke-ley, and David Hodge, a sophomore at the
University of Southern California. Forty thousand people downloaded the
program in just a few weeks. 

"We've created competition among developers," Moore said, "to see who
can serve our customers best." 

I met Moore and Leighton at a gathering in Silicon Valley called
TransitCamp. Inspired by a similar event in Toronto, the idea was to
brainstorm what you might do with transit-agency data. Nearly 100 people
came. One guy was looking to build a Web site that combined an online
ride-share forum with BART arrival and departure times. A pilot who runs
an air-taxi business was hoping to mash up flight, bus, and subway
schedules. Environmental activists were seeking new ways to get cars off
the street. 

What does any of this have to do with the federal budget? Well,
USAspending.gov might look like any other government Web site, but its
API-that's Application Programming Interface-allows access to the site's
raw data in an open, standard file format, similar to a transit feed.
("Wow," Moore said. "That's really powerful.") Enterprising programmers,
researchers, bloggers, or watchdogs like the Sunlight Foundation
<http://www.sunlightfoundation.com/>  or Govtrack
<http://www.govtrack.us/>  can grab that data and slice it, dice it,
chart it, graph it, map it, or mash it up with new feeds. 

It's not just the API that's a big deal, Greg Elin, Sunlight's chief
data architect, told me. "It's the discipline an API imposes," he said.
To build one, an agency has to record and store data in a way that
anticipates public use. "Data sharing is no longer an afterthought,"
Elin explained. "You begin with the notion that you're going to share
information. And you're going to make it easy for people." (Compare that
with the approach of the Federal Communications Commission, which allows
only limited searching of filings and comments; or that of the
Department of Justice, which puts out data on foreign lobbying in
unwieldy PDF format and binders.) An API also encourages the release of
data in real time, instead of in occasional reports, like Federal
Election Commission figures, or earmark spending. 

Last September, Moore added a feed that broadcasts imminent train
arrivals in real time. He's eager to see what people will do with it.
"We can't envision every beneficial use for our data," Moore told me.
"We don't have the time, we don't have the resources, and frankly, we
don't have the vision. I'm sure there are people out there who have
better ideas than we do. That's why we've opened it up." 

We'd know a lot more about our government if Washington opened up the
same way. 

The URL for this page is 
http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200901/technology-government
<http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200901/technology-government>  

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Kevin Novak

Vice President, Integrated Web Strategy and Technology

The American Institute of Architects

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Received on Wednesday, 21 January 2009 15:37:25 GMT

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