Open Government Awesomeness

It's day one of SXSW 2010, and things are just getting started.  The first panel I attended was a winner. Entitled "In Code We Trust: Open Government Awesomeness," the panel was a glimpse into the dream world that we hope can be realized for the entire nation's online government presence.

Noel Hidalgo, of the New York State Senate,  presented some of the online tools that the New York Senate is using to give citizens access to government information, and some really neat ideas for the future. The New York Senate's website, incidentally, is built by Advomatic, the same chaps who helped redesign and build CDT's current website.   Some of the nifty open government features include "open questions," where the electorate can ask questions directly of elected officials, virtual townhalls, and making legislative materials available in every format known to the modern Internet. I'm sure this was a tremendous pain for the developers, but if you make your materials available to 100 percent of the electorate, you're making sure that every person who wants to view government materials has the opportunity to do so.

One of the more intriguing technologies was an evolution of an "ask the Senator" question submission form. Often, citizens have concerns that they perhaps do not know how to voice, or their questions may not be recognized properly. Hidalgo showed a screenshot of a "question generator" – a sort of citizens' Mad Libs made up from a word bank. It's this sort of cleverness – not changing the rules, but evolving methods – that makes one hopeful for the future of citizen engagement, where anyone can get involved.

Alissa Black, of the City & County of San Francisco, shared her knowledge on how they were able to sustain an online open government model. Simply making ad-hoc demands of government agencies to provide datasets for San Francisco's open government apps was not a viable method in the long term, Black said. Therefore, the city and county of San Francisco passed the Open Data Directive, which mandated the periodic submittal of datasets, and a quarterly review of these datasets – committing strongly to the idea of transparency in government data.

These city, county, and state-based open government models are very promising. With clever ways of interacting with citizens, strong commitments to government data transparency, and compliance with a wide range of user capabilities, these are excellent models for how an open government commitment can be successful.

To see some of the technologies mentioned in this post, check out datasf.org and nysenate.gov.

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