Open Data is a Civil Right

Yo Yoshida, Founder & CEO, Appallicious in GovTech: “As Americans, we expect a certain standardization of basic services, infrastructure and laws — no matter where we call home. When you live in Seattle and take a business trip to New York, the electric outlet in the hotel you’re staying in is always compatible with your computer charger. When you drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I-5 doesn’t all-of-a-sudden turn into a dirt country road because some cities won’t cover maintenance costs. If you take a 10-minute bus ride from Boston to the city of Cambridge, you know the money in your wallet is still considered legal tender.

But what if these expectations of consistency were not always a given? What if cities, counties and states had absolutely zero coordination when it came to basic services? This is what it is like for us in the open data movement. There are so many important applications and products that have been built by civic startups and concerned citizens. However, all too often these efforts are confided to city limits, and unavailable to anyone outside of them. It’s time to start reimagining the way cities function and how local governments operate. There is a wealth of information housed in local governments that should be public by default to help fuel a new wave of civic participation.
Appallicious’ Neighborhood Score provides an overall health and sustainability score, block-by-block for every neighborhood in the city of San Francisco. The first time metrics have been applied to neighborhoods so we can judge how government allocates our resources, so we can better plan how to move forward. But, if you’re thinking about moving to Oakland, just a subway stop away from San Francisco and want to see the score for a neighborhood, our app can’t help you, because that city has yet to release the data sets we need.
In Contra Costa County, there is the lifesaving PulsePoint app, which notifies smartphone users who are trained in CPR when someone nearby may be in need of help. This is an amazing app—for residents of Contra Costa County. But if someone in neighboring Alameda County needs CPR, the app, unfortunately, is completely useless.
Buildingeye visualizes planning and building permit data to allow users to see what projects are being proposed in their area or city. However, buildingeye is only available in a handful of places, simply because most cities have yet to make permits publicly available. Think about what this could do for the construction sector — an industry that has millions of jobs for Americans. Buildingeye also gives concerned citizens access to public documents like never before, so they can see what might be built in their cities or on their streets.
Along with other open data advocates, I have been going from city-to-city, county-to-county and state-to-state, trying to get governments and departments to open up their massive amounts of valuable data. Each time one city, or one county, agrees to make their data publicly accessible, I can’t help but think it’s only a drop in the bucket. We need to think bigger.
Every government, every agency and every department in the country that has already released this information to the public is a case study that points to the success of open data — and why every public entity should follow their lead. There needs to be a national referendum that instructs that all government data should be open and accessible to the public.
Last May, President Obama issued an executive order requiring that going forward, any data generated by the federal government must be made available to the public in open, machine-readable formats. In the executive order, Obama stated that, “openness in government strengthens our democracy, promotes the delivery of efficient and effective services to the public, and contributes to economic growth.”
If this is truly the case, Washington has an obligation to compel local and state governments to release their data as well. Many have tried to spur this effort. California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom created the Citizenville Challenge to speed up adoption on the local level. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has also been vocal in promoting open data efforts. But none of these initiatives could have the same effect of a federal mandate.
What I am proposing is no small feat, and it won’t happen overnight. But there should be a concerted effort by those in the technology industry, specifically civic startups, to call on Congress to draft legislation that would require every city in the country to make their data open, free and machine readable. Passing federal legislation will not be an easy task — but creating a “universal open data” law is possible. It would require little to no funding, and it is completely nonpartisan. It’s actually not a political issue at all; it is, for lack of a better word, and administrative issue.
Often good legislation is blocked because lawmakers and citizens are concerned about project funding. While there should be support to help cities and towns achieve the capability of opening their data, a lot of the time, they don’t need it. In 2009, the city and county of San Francisco opened up its data with zero dollars. Many other cities have done the same. There will be cities and municipalities that will need financial assistance to accomplish this. But it is worth it, and it will not require a significant investment for a substantial return. There are free online open data portals, like ckan, dkan and a new effort from Accela,, to centralize open data efforts.
When the UK Government recently announced a £1.5 million investment to support open data initiatives, its Cabinet Office Minister said, “We know that it creates a more accountable, efficient and effective government. Open Data is a raw material for economic growth, supporting the creation of new markets, business and jobs and helping us compete in the global race.”
We should not fall behind these efforts. There is too much at stake for our citizens, not to mention our economy. A recent McKinsey report found that making open data has the potential to create $3 trillion in value worldwide.
Former Speaker Tip O’Neil famously said, “all politics are local.” But we in the civic startup space believe all data is local. Data is reporting potholes in your neighborhood and identifying high crime areas in your communities. It’s seeing how many farmers’ markets there are in your town compared to liquor stores. Data helps predict which areas of a city are most at risk during a heat wave and other natural disasters. A federal open data law would give the raw material needed to create tools to improve the lives of all Americans, not just those who are lucky enough to live in a city that has released this information on its own.
It’s a different way of thinking about how a government operates and the relationship it has with its citizens. Open data gives the public an amazing opportunity to be more involved with governmental decisions. We can increase accountability and transparency, but most importantly we can revolutionize the way local residents communicate and work with their government.
Access to this data is a civil right. If this is truly a government by, of and for the people, then its data needs to be available to all of us. By opening up this wealth of information, we will design a better government that takes advantage of the technology and skills of civic startups and innovative citizens….”

Making digital government better

An McKinsey Insight interview with Mike Bracken (UK): “When it comes to the digital world, governments have traditionally placed political, policy, and system needs ahead of the people who require services. Mike Bracken, the executive director of the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service, is attempting to reverse that paradigm by empowering citizens—and, in the process, improve the delivery of services and save money. In this video interview, Bracken discusses the philosophy behind the digital transformation of public services in the United Kingdom, some early successes, and next steps.

Interview transcript

Putting users first

Government around the world is pretty good at thinking about its own needs. Government puts its own needs first—they often put their political needs followed by the policy needs. The actual machine of government comes second. The third need then generally becomes the system needs, so the IT or whatever system’s driving it. And then out of those four, the user comes a poor fourth, really.
And we’ve inverted that. So let me give you an example. At the moment, if you want to know about tax in the UK , you’re probably going to know that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is a part of government that deals with tax. You’re probably going to know that because you pay tax, right?
But why should you have to know that? Because, really, it’s OK to know that, for that one—but we’ve got 300 agencies, more than that; we’ve got 24 parts of government. If you want to know about, say, gangs, is that a health issue or is that a local issue? Is it a police issue? Is it a social issue, an education issue? Well, actually it’s all of those issues. But you shouldn’t have to know how government is constructed to know what each bit of government is doing about an esoteric issue like gangs.
What we’ve done with, and what we’re doing with our transactions, is to make them consistent at the point of user need. Because there’s only one real user need of government digitally, and that’s to recognize that at the point of need, users need to deal with the government. Not a department name or an agency name, they’re dealing with the government. And when they do that, they need it to be consistent, and they need it to be easy to find. Ninety-five percent of our journeys digitally start with a search.
And so our elegantly constructed and expensively constructed front doors are often completely routed around. We’ve got to recognize that and construct our digital services based on user needs….”

Social Media as Government Watchdog

Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal: “Two new data points for the debate on whether greater access to the Internet leads to more freedom and fewer authoritarian regimes:

According to reports last week, Facebook plans to buy a company that makes solar-powered drones that can hover for years at high altitudes without refueling, which it would use to bring the Internet to parts of the world not yet on the grid. In contrast to this futuristic vision, Russia evoked land grabs of the analog Soviet era by invading Crimea after Ukrainians forced out Vladimir Putin‘s ally as president.
Internet idealists can point to another triumph in helping bring down Ukraine’s authoritarian government. Ukrainian citizens ignored intimidation including officious text messages: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” Protesters made the most of social media to plan demonstrations and avoid attacks by security forces.
But Mr. Putin quickly delivered the message that social media only goes so far against a fully committed authoritarian. His claim that he had to invade to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea was especially brazen because there had been no loud outcry, on social media or otherwise, among Russian speakers in the region.
A new book reports the state of play on the Internet as a force for freedom. For a decade, Emily Parker, a former Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer and State Department staffer, has researched the role of the Internet in China, Cuba and Russia. The title of her book, “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are,” comes from a blogger in China who explained to Ms. Parker how the Internet helps people discover they are not alone in their views and aspirations for liberty.
Officials in these countries work hard to keep critics isolated and in fear. In Russia, Ms. Parker notes, there is also apathy because the Putin regime seems so entrenched. “Revolutions need a spark, often in the form of a political or economic crisis,” she observes. “Social media alone will not light that spark. What the Internet does create is a new kind of citizen: networked, unafraid, and ready for action.”
Asked about lessons from the invasion of Crimea, Ms. Parker noted that the Internet “chips away at Russia’s control over information.” She added: “Even as Russian state media tries to shape the narrative about Ukraine, ordinary Russians can go online to seek the truth.”
But this same shared awareness may also be accelerating a decline in U.S. influence. In the digital era, U.S. failure to make good on its promises reduces the stature of Washington faster than similar inaction did in the past.
Consider the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the first significant rebellion against Soviet control. The U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, said: “To all those suffering under communist slavery, let us say you can count on us.” Yet no help came as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, tens of thousands were killed, and the leader who tried to secede from the Warsaw Pact, Imre Nagy, was executed.
There were no Facebook posts or YouTube videos instantly showing the result of U.S. fecklessness. In the digital era, scenes of Russian occupation of Crimea are available 24/7. People can watch Mr. Putin’s brazen press conferences and see for themselves what he gets away with.
The U.S. stood by as Syrian civilians were massacred and gassed. There was instant global awareness when President Obama last year backed down from enforcing his “red line” when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. American inaction in Syria sent a green light for Mr. Putin and others around the world to act with impunity.
Just in recent weeks, Iran tried to ship Syrian rockets to Gaza to attack Israel; Moscow announced it would use bases in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua for its navy and bombers; and China budgeted a double-digit increase in military spending as President Obama cut back the U.S. military.
All institutions are more at risk in this era of instant communication and awareness. Reputations get lost quickly, whether it’s a misstep by a company, a gaffe by a politician, or a lack of resolve by an American president.
Over time, the power of the Internet to bring people together will help undermine authoritarian governments. But as Mr. Putin reminds us, in the short term a peaceful world depends more on a U.S. resolute in using its power and influence to deter aggression.”

Putting Crowdsourcing on the Map

MIT Technology Review: “Even in San Francisco, where Google’s roving Street View cars have mapped nearly every paved surface, there are still places that have remained untouched, such as the flights of stairs that serve as pathways between streets in some of the city’s hilliest neighborhoods.
It’s these places that a startup called Mapillary is focusing on. Cofounders Jan Erik Solem and Johan Gyllenspetz are attempting to build an open, crowdsourced, photographic map that lets smartphone users log all sorts of places, creating a richer view of the world than what is offered by Street View and other street-level mapping services. If contributors provide images often, that view could be more representative of how things look right now.
Google itself is no stranger to the benefits of crowdsourced map content: it paid $966 million last year for traffic and navigation app Waze, whose users contribute data. Google also lets people augment Street View content with their own images. But Solem and Gyllenspetz think there’s still plenty of room for Mapillary, which they say can be used for everything from tracking a nature hike to offering more up-to-date images to house hunters and Airbnb users.
Solem and Gyllenspetz have only been working on the project for four months; they released an iPhone app in November, and an Android app in January. So far, there are just a few hundred users who have shared about 100,000 photos on the service. While it’s free for anyone to use, the startup plans to eventually make money by licensing the data its users generate to companies.
With the app, a user can choose to collect images by walking, biking, or driving. Once you press a virtual shutter button within the app, it takes a photo every two seconds, until you press the button again. You can then upload the images to Mapillary’s service via Wi-Fi, where each photo’s location is noted through its GPS tag. Computer-vision software compares each photo with others that are within a radius of about 100 meters, searching for matching image features so it can find the geometric relationship between the photos. It then places those images properly on the map, and stitches them all together. When new images come in of an area that has already been mapped, Mapillary will add them to its database, too.
It can take less than 30 seconds for the images to show up on the Web-based map, but several minutes for the images to be fully processed. As with Google’s Street View photos, image-recognition software blurs out faces and license plate numbers.
Users can edit Mapillary’s map by moving around the icons that correspond to images—to fix a misplaced image, for instance. Eventually, users will also be able to add comments and tags.
So far, Mapillary’s map is quite sparse. But the few hundred users trying out Mapillary include some map providers in Europe, and the 100,000 or so images to the service ranging from a bike path on Venice Beach in California to a snow-covered ski slope in Sweden.
Street-level images can be viewed on the Web or through Mapillary’s smartphone apps (though the apps just pull up the Web page within the app). Blue lines and colored tags indicate where users have added photos to the map; you can zoom in to see them at the street level.

Navigating through photos is still quite rudimentary; you can tap or click to move from one image to the next with onscreen arrows, depending on the direction you want to explore.
Beyond technical and design challenges, the biggest issue Mapillary faces is convincing a large enough number of users to build up its store of images so that others will start using it and contributing as well, and then ensuring that these users keep coming back.”

New Research Network to Study and Design Innovative Ways of Solving Public Problems


MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance formed to gather evidence and develop new designs for governing 

NEW YORK, NY, March 4, 2014 The Governance Lab (The GovLab) at New York University today announced the formation of a Research Network on Opening Governance, which will seek to develop blueprints for more effective and legitimate democratic institutions to help improve people’s lives.
Convened and organized by the GovLab, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance is made possible by a three-year grant of $5 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as well as a gift from, which will allow the Network to tap the latest technological advances to further its work.
Combining empirical research with real-world experiments, the Research Network will study what happens when governments and institutions open themselves to diverse participation, pursue collaborative problem-solving, and seek input and expertise from a range of people. Network members include twelve experts (see below) in computer science, political science, policy informatics, social psychology and philosophy, law, and communications. This core group is supported by an advisory network of academics, technologists, and current and former government officials. Together, they will assess existing innovations in governing and experiment with new practices and how institutions make decisions at the local, national, and international levels.
Support for the Network from will be used to build technology platforms to solve problems more openly and to run agile, real-world, empirical experiments with institutional partners such as governments and NGOs to discover what can enhance collaboration and decision-making in the public interest.
The Network’s research will be complemented by theoretical writing and compelling storytelling designed to articulate and demonstrate clearly and concretely how governing agencies might work better than they do today. “We want to arm policymakers and practitioners with evidence of what works and what does not,” says Professor Beth Simone Noveck, Network Chair and author of Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger and Citi More Powerful, “which is vital to drive innovation, re-establish legitimacy and more effectively target scarce resources to solve today’s problems.”
“From prize-backed challenges to spur creative thinking to the use of expert networks to get the smartest people focused on a problem no matter where they work, this shift from top-down, closed, and professional government to decentralized, open, and smarter governance may be the major social innovation of the 21st century,” says Noveck. “The MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance is the ideal crucible for helping  transition from closed and centralized to open and collaborative institutions of governance in a way that is scientifically sound and yields new insights to inform future efforts, always with an eye toward real-world impacts.”
MacArthur Foundation President Robert Gallucci added, “Recognizing that we cannot solve today’s challenges with yesterday’s tools, this interdisciplinary group will bring fresh thinking to questions about how our governing institutions operate, and how they can develop better ways to help address seemingly intractable social problems for the common good.”
The MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance comprises:
Chair: Beth Simone Noveck
Network Coordinator: Andrew Young
Chief of Research: Stefaan Verhulst
Faculty Members:

  • Sir Tim Berners-Lee (Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)/University of Southampton, UK)
  • Deborah Estrin (Cornell Tech/Weill Cornell Medical College)
  • Erik Johnston (Arizona State University)
  • Henry Farrell (George Washington University)
  • Sheena S. Iyengar (Columbia Business School/Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business)
  • Karim Lakhani (Harvard Business School)
  • Anita McGahan (University of Toronto)
  • Cosma Shalizi (Carnegie Mellon/Santa Fe Institute)

Institutional Members:

  • Christian Bason and Jesper Christiansen (MindLab, Denmark)
  • Geoff Mulgan (National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts – NESTA, United Kingdom)
  • Lee Rainie (Pew Research Center)

The Network is eager to hear from and engage with the public as it undertakes its work. Please contact Stefaan Verhulst to share your ideas or identify opportunities to collaborate.”

Revolutionising Digital Public Service Delivery: A UK Government Perspective

Paper by Alan W. Brown, Jerry Fishenden,  and Mark Thompson: ” For public sector organizations across the world, the pressures for improved
efficiency during the past decades are now accompanied by an equally strong need to revolutionise service delivery to create solutions that better meet citizens’ needs; to develop channels that offer efficiency and increase inclusion to all citizens being served; and to re-invent supply chains to deliver services faster, cheaper, and more effectively. But how do government organisations ensure investment in digital transformation delivers the intended outcomes after earlier “online government” and “e-government” initiatives produced little in terms of significant, sustainable benefits? Here we focus on how digitisation, built on open standards, is transforming the public sector’s relationship with its citizens. This paper provides a perspective of digital change efforts across the UK government as an illustration of the improvements taking place more broadly in the public sector. It provides a vision for the future of our digital world, revealing the symbiotic relationship between organisational change and digitisation, and offering insights into public service delivery in the digital economy.”

Can A Serious Game Improve Privacy Awareness on Facebook?

Emerging Technology From the arXiv:  “Do you know who can see the items you’ve posted on Facebook? This, of course, depends on the privacy settings you’ve used for each picture, text or link that you’ve shared throughout your Facebook history.
You might be extremely careful in deciding who can see these things. But as time goes on, the number of items people share increases. And the number contacts they share them with increases too. So it’s easy to lose track of who can see what.
What’s more, an item that you may have been happy to share three years ago when you were at university, you may not be quite so happy to share now that you are looking for employment.
So how best to increase people’s awareness of their privacy settings? Today, Alexandra Cetto and pals from the University of Regensburg in Germany, say they’ve developed a serious game called Friend Inspector that allows users to increase their privacy awareness on Facebook.
And they say that within five months of its launch, the game had been requested over 100,000 times.
In recent years, serious games have become an increasingly important learning medium through digital simulations and virtual environments. So Cetto and co set about developing a game that could increase people’s awareness of privacy on Facebook.
Designing serious games is something of a black art. At the very least, there needs to be motivation to play and some kind of feedback or score to beat. And at the same time, the game has to achieve some kind of learning objective, in this case an enhanced awareness of privacy.
Aimed at 16-25 year olds, the game these guys came up with is deceptively simple. When potential players land on the home page, they’re asked a simple question: “Do you know who can see your Facebook profile?” This is followed by the teaser: “Playfully discover who can see your shared items and get advice to improve your privacy.”
When players sign up, the game retrieves his or her contacts, shared items and their privacy settings from Facebook. It then presents the player with a pair of these shared items asking which is more personal….
Finally, the game assesses the player’s score and makes a set of personalised recommendations about how to improve privacy, such as how to create friend lists, how to share personal items in a targeted manner and how the term friendship on a social network site differs from friendship in the real world…. Try it at
Ref: : Friend Inspector: A Serious Game to Enhance Privacy Awareness in Social Networks”

Open Government -Opportunities and Challenges for Public Governance

New volume of Public Administration and Information Technology series: “Given this global context, and taking into account both the need of academicians and practitioners, it is the intention of this book to shed light on the open government concept and, in particular:
• To provide comprehensive knowledge of recent major developments of open government around the world.
• To analyze the importance of open government efforts for public governance.
• To provide insightful analysis about those factors that are critical when designing, implementing and evaluating open government initiatives.
• To discuss how contextual factors affect open government initiatives’success or failure.
• To explore the existence of theoretical models of open government.
• To propose strategies to move forward and to address future challenges in an international context.”

Get Smart: Commission brings “open planning” movement to Europe to speed spread of smart cities

Press Release: “The European Commission is calling on those involved in creating smart cities to publish their efforts in order to help build an open planning movement from the ground up.
The challenge is being issued to city administrations, small and large companies and other organisations to go public with their ICT, energy and mobility plans, so that all parties can learn from each other and grow the smart city market. Through collaboration as well as traditional competition, the Europe will get smarter, more competitive and more sustainable.
The Commission is looking for both new commitments to “get smart” and for interested parties to share their current and past successes. Sharing these ideas will feed the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (see IP/13/1159 and MEMO/13/1049) and networks such as the Smart Cities Stakeholder Platform, the Green Digital Charter, the Covenant of Mayors, and CIVITAS.
What’s in it for me?
If you are working in the smart cities field, joining the open planning movement will help you find the right partners, get better access to finance and make it easier to learn from your peers. You will help grow the marketplace you work in, and create export opportunities outside of Europe.
If you live in a city, you will benefit sooner from better traffic flows, greener buildings, and cheaper or more convenient services.
European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes said, “For those of us living in cities, – we need to make sure they are smart cities. Nothing else makes sense. And nothing else is such a worldwide economic opportunity – so we need to get sharing!”.
Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said: “Cities and Communities can only get smart if mayors and governors are committed to apply innovative industrial solutions”.
In June 2014 the Commission will then seek to analyse, group and promote the best plans and initiatives.”

New study proves economic benefits of open data for Berlin

ePSI Platform: “The study “Digitales Gold: Nutzen und Wertschöpfung durch Open Data für Berlin” – or “Digital Gold: the open data benefits and its added value for Berlin” in english – released by TSB Technologiestiftung Berlin estimates that Open Data will bring around 32 million euros per year of economic benefit to the city of Berlin for the next few years. …

The estimations made for Berlin are inspired by previous reasoning included in two other studies: Pollock R. (2011), Welfare Gains from opening up public sector information in the UK; and Fuchs, S. et al. (2013), Open Government Data – Offene Daten für Österreich. Mit  Community-Strategien von heute zum Potential von morgen.
Upon presenting the study  data journalist Michael Hörz shows various examples of how to develop interesting new information and services with publicly available information. You can read more about it (in German) here.”