Home PublicationsCommentary What Does $3.2M Buy in Open Government?

What Does $3.2M Buy in Open Government?

by Travis Korte

Last week, the Knight Foundation awarded over $3.2 million to the eight winners of its “Knight News Challenge on Open Gov,” a competition open to non-profits, for-profits and individuals around the world that was designed to “provide new tools and approaches to improve the way people and governments interact.” Below is an overview of the winners and the problems they sought to solve.

Pictured: a still from winner GitMachines’ application video.

The Problems

One of the benefits of a public challenge is the chance to identify problems (or opportunities) in government that might be addressed with existing technology. The winning entries noted the following problems:

  • Government data portals have confusing interfaces. The complexity of government procurement policies and practices stifles competition, especially among small businesses, leading to wasted tax dollars. On top of this, many government procurement websites are difficult to use.
  • Proposed policies suffer from poor public understanding. Much of politics is about pocketbook issues, but with complex legislation it is difficult for voters to know the personal impact of different policy proposals.
  • Court records are not digitally accessible. Federal appellate court and state supreme court systems have lagged behind the U.S. Supreme Court in comprehensive digitization efforts, thereby causing unnecessarily high legal research costs in those jurisdictions. Even where records have been digitized, the results are not always machine-readable or easily indexed with metadata, which serves as a barrier for developers hoping to use court data.
  • Strict security regulations impede civic hacking projects. Federal software compliance standards present an obstacle for citizen-sourced government data initiatives. For example, outdated procurement rules often lead to the use of technologies that are outdated or have reduced functionality.
  • Government agencies do not provide timely updates to data. Many datasets must be manually updated or collected which increases the time and cost of data analysis and reduces the usability of data analytics projects.
  • Government agencies do not make data understandable to users. Providing useful visualizations of data for citizens is costly and time consuming for government officials.
  • Citizens cannot find information on municipal projects. Citizens don’t always know where to look up details or submit comment on projects planned in their communities. Updating existing municipal websites is expensive.
  • Local open government initiatives suffer from limited community engagement. Community members often under-adopt municipal data and related products, in part due to a lack of knowledge, skills and internet-connectedness.
  • Cities lack centralized, user-friendly websites to help entrepreneurs start new businesses. In particular cities do not provide plain-English overviews of the permitting process; even if they do, they may not clearly provide links to pertinent forms and other downloads. This is an obstacle to small business innovation and local economic growth.

The Solutions

The Knight Foundation received hundreds of submissions from participants in this challenge. The funded projects are as follows:

  • Procure.ioThe Oakland and Atlanta-based technologists behind this project will produce a streamlined procurement system for making government contract offerings more accessible, using a simple interface in which government officials can submit requests for proposal to a publicly accessible and easily indexed database. By simplifying the contracting process, Procure.io stands to broaden the pool of applicants and thereby encourage lower bids.
  • Outline.com: This Cambridge, MA-based “policy simulation” startup will let users input their age, income and other general details on a website and then use sophisticated economic models to output a positive or negative dollar amount that represents their expected net income change from a proposed policy. Outline will also provide a transparent version-control system to catalog changes in the policies, and platforms for communities and government officials to comment.
  • Oyez: Founded in 1997 at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, Oyez has overseen successful digitization and annotation initiatives for U.S. Supreme Court documents, and now the organizers hope to apply the same model to state supreme courts. The effort will collect, catalog, standardize, annotate and release to the public the records of the supreme courts of the five largest states (CA, FL, IL, NY, and TX). The organization will also work to annotate the records with metadata and plain-English summaries, in partnership with local “academic or other public-spirited institutions.”
  • GitMachines: The Washington, DC-based team will provide free, cloud-based virtual machines that are compliant with NIST and GSA software standards and come pre-configured with commonly used open government tools such as the Apache Tomcat web server and data workflow management tool Drake. By offering these servers from a central, virtual depot, GitMachines will also reduce costs associated with ad hoc server-side IT staffing.
  • Civic Insight: Building off their work on BlightStatus, an urban blight data visualization tool for New Orleans, the San Francisco-based Civic Insight will expand the scope of their dynamic mapping solution, working with other cities on applications related to economic development and public health.
  • Plan in a Box: A Philadelphia- and New York-based team will build a simple web publishing platform designed for municipal planning activities. Aimed at geographically-constrained projects in small and medium-sized cities, Plan in a Box will offer a centralized news and feedback repository, with mobile device and social network integration. Organizers hope to enable effective communications without any costly web design or excessive configuration on the part of city officials.
  • Smart Communities – Pushing Government Open:  The Chicago branch of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a non-profit community development financial institution, will develop a three-pronged approach to grow the community’s capacity to participate in and take advantage of future open data initiatives: 1) attract more internet users by providing classes and job training 2) promote currently available open data by introducing existing data projects on neighborhood web portals and in special meetups and 3) meet with community members in five Chicago neighborhoods to prioritize and request additional open data.
  • OpenCounter: The City of Santa Cruz, CA and Code for America will simplify the process of opening a small business by developing an application programming interface (a set of protocols for building software using the OpenCounter platform), a mechanism for non-technical users to customize the website, and tools for site selection and project comparison. These tools will be added to the existing OpenCounter website, which provides a centralized portal to the city’s business permitting process.

Concluding Thoughts

The winning entries provide a revealing glimpse into an emerging concern in open government data projects: what sorts of web infrastructure will be necessary to allow more people to actually make use of the data? Oyez represented the only (albeit ambitious) traditional digitization project among the winners; others, such as Civic Insight and OpenCounter, trained their focus on the post-digitization landscape, proposing projects to redesign or make accessible the data offerings that already exist.

Procure.io and Plan in a Box set out to address a similar challenge; government contracts and planning projects may be “open” insofar as they are publicly accessible, but centralized, user-friendly information systems can still dramatically increase their reach among an under-engaged public.

The most ambitious projects took an even further step back from data itself, and proposed to address gaps in knowledge, skills and resources related to open government that no amount of interface design is likely to fix. From GitMachines, which will attempt to help surmount security obstacles to government software adoption, to Smart Communities, which will promote data literacy as a gateway to participation in open government, a common question emerged. Data is here; now what will we have to change about ourselves and our institutions to make good use of it?

This article was originally published in abridged form in the Open Knowledge Foundation blog.

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