Headd’s presentation focused on a growing movement to make all sorts of data available online. Many people interested in open government and citizen participation, including myself, applaud these data releases, but worry about how to make the information easily digestible and useful to the average citizen.
Headd has a completely different take. He wants to see government release the data in the most complete and raw form possible, and then let Open Source programmers take care of the rest. He calls it, “the Democratization of Code,” and it is essentially a way for the marketplace to make the most of government data by finding innovative ways to make it useful to citizens.
Cities like San Francisco already have their own “App Showcases” that let users download applications that interact with city data. Programmers, meanwhile, are scrambling to produce the apps people want to use. The result is a slew of slick programs that bring the city’s data sets to life. Often presented as maps, citizens can now get the lowdown on everything from crime patterns, to restaurant inspections, to rail and bus schedules — all in real time, all on a smartphone or over the Internet.
These tools and the mindset that goes along with them are also giving second life to a relatively old technology — the 311 call. Less familiar than 411 or 911, the idea is the same, except 311 calls are dedicated to municipalities for non-emergency issues. They are most often used to register a complaint, ask for service or ask a question.
The Web in general, and 2.0 tools like Twitter in particular, are supercharging the 311 effort and giving it a new urgency. Check out New York and San Francisco‘s 311 homepages, along with their Twitter sites @sf311 and @311NYC.
Both allow you to report problems ranging from graffeti to potholes using a cellphone. @sf311 is particularly impressive as its operators interact in real-time with people on Twitter. The fear and uncertainty that have prevented many governments from embracing this technology has clearly been overcome in San Francisco, to great effect.
By the way, Headd is also on Twitter. Twitter is a tool that, somewhat surprisingly, intimidates a lot of people. Even though I am only fledgling user of it myself (mostly @cnyspeaks), I can say that the most remarkable thing about Twitter is how many uses people find for it given its utter simplicity. Government 311 efforts are the perfect example .