Slowly but surely, government IT enters the 21st century

Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica: “Government IT departments have a mostly deserved reputation for being behind the times. While private companies keep giving customers new and better ways to buy products and learn about their services, government agencies have generally made it difficult for residents to interact with them via the Internet.

But this is slowly changing, with agencies from the local level to the federal level focusing on fixing broken websites and building new tools for Americans to get what they need from the government….

“Improve Detroit,” a smartphone app launched in April this year using technology from SeeClickFix, has helped Detroiters find out how to get things done. In its first six months of availability, 10,000 complaints were resolved in an average of nine days, “a vast improvement from when problems often languished for years,” the city said in an announcement this month.

Improve Detroit was used to get “more than 3,000 illegal dumping sites cleaned up; 2,092 potholes repaired; 991 complaints resolved related to running water in an abandoned structure; 565 abandoned vehicles removed; 506 water main breaks taken care of; [and] 277 traffic signal issues fixed,” Detroit said….

At the municipal level, Oakland is also planning to pass its hard-earned wisdom on to other cities. “Our goal is to create a roadmap for cities big and small,” Oakland Communications Director Karen Boyd told Ars.

Like Detroit, Oakland partnered with SeeClickFix and Code for America after experiencing tough economic times. “Oakland was particularly hard hit by the mortgage crisis [in 2008], a lot of predatory loans were made to our low-income folks,” Boyd said.

Property tax revenue plummeted and the city lost about a quarter of its government workforce, Boyd said.

“Governments were finding themselves way behind the curve on technology. We looked up and realized this was no longer sensible to try to do more with less. We have to do things differently, and technology is an opportunity,” she said.

Working with Code for America in 2013, Oakland made RecordTrac, a website for requesting public records and tracking records requests. Obtaining government documents is often a convoluted process, but Ars Technica’s own Freedom of Information Act enthusiast Cyrus Farivar told me that RecordTrac “is the best (albeit imperfect) public records process I’ve ever used.”…

One of the best examples of a government agency using the Internet to engage residents comes from NASA. The space agency has had an online presence since the early years of the Web, said Brian Dunbar, who has been the content manager for since 1995.

The website has allowed NASA to distribute huge amounts of photos and videos from missions and broadcast an online TV service. There’s even live video feed of the Earth from the International Space Station.

NASA is all over social media, with nearly 700,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel, 13 millionTwitter followers, 13 million Facebook likes, 5.4 million Instagram followers, and a big presence on several other social networks. That’s not even including individuals like astronaut Scott Kelly, who has been tweeting from the International Space Station.

NASA has nearly 100 people editing its website, with content generally capitalizing on current events such as the recent Pluto flyby. NASA gets a lot of feedback when there are video problems, “but we’ve been lucky in that the problems have been not been overwhelming in either number or size, and we get a lot of positive feedback from the public,” Dunbar said.

This is all a natural extension of NASA’s core mission because the legislation that created the agency in 1958 charged it “with disseminating information about its programs to the widest extent practicable,” Dunbar said….(More)”