The Presidential Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, issued on Jan. 21, 2009, called for a participatory and collaborative approach to government and quick disclosure of information that the public can find and use. The related directive, issued on Dec. 8, 2009, requires federal agencies to publish government information online and improve information quality.
"The memorandum, which was signed on President Obama's first day in office, reflects the idea that government does not have all the answers and will benefit from citizen participation," says Adelaide O'Brien, research director for IDC Government Insights.
"Go to 2040"
The Data.gov website was a first step to improve public access to federal data. Many states and municipalities began to follow suit, deploying websites that provide access to information such as spending, revenue and demographics at the state and local levels. In addition, many government websites have taken on a distinctly social tone. "Citizens now expect government organizations to keep them well informed, using the full range of social tools that they have become accustomed to," says O'Brien.
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is the planning agency for seven counties in the greater Chicago area. The agency carries out comprehensive planning for the region and produces an integrated plan for land use and transportation. In late 2010, CMAP released a report called "Go to 2040," a plan for the next 30 years. The goal of the long-range plan is to improve the quality of life by identifying citizen needs, prioritizing the use of resources and tracking achievements.
As part of the Go to 2040 campaign, a website called "MetroPulse" was developed in partnership with the Chicago Community Trust (cct.org) to provide citizens with a wealth of data about the community and with key performance indicators. "Whether the goal is to develop residential and commercial facilities around public transit or achieve better academic outcomes in a school district, we need solid data in order to measure our performance," says Greg Sanders, Web manager at CMAP.
An array of technology is used to make the data available and meaningful. Business intelligence (BI) tools are a mainstay of open government because they provide the analyses that enable users to interpret large amounts of raw data. CMAP chose WebFOCUS from Information Builders to generate the charts and graphs from the analyses. The charts are rendered in Adobe Flex, an open source application development framework.
Maps are used extensively to present community information on the website; they are generated by ESRI's ArcGIS Server and rendered in Adobe Flex. The data is stored in Microsoft SQL Server running on Windows servers, which are virtualized using Citrix XenServer.
The abundance of data brings a mix of opportunities and obstacles. "The amount of available information is staggering," Sanders says. "We have data on building permits, code violations and many other factors relating to property, for example. This is fantastic because we can then roll it up to higher levels and match it to census tracts, which allows for other analyses, but having so many options can also be overwhelming." Because its resources are finite, CMAP prioritizes the analyses in accordance with its most pressing issues.
CMAP is obtaining user feedback that will be helpful in planning future modifications to the site. "We are trying to balance all the suggestions, and we do see some general trends in ways we can go," Sanders explains. "For example, rather than seeing the information centered around a data set, people would like to see it organized around a particular location, so they can get a profile of an area. In addition, they would like to be able to compare that profile to the profiles for other communities. That is something we are working on."
In addition to providing information that can guide planning and inform citizens, the wide availability of data has fostered greater citizen involvement. "There is a huge movement now to motivate volunteer use of data," explains Sanders. "For example, app contests have generated many useful apps built on government data. And organizations like Code for America allow civic-minded young programmers to apply their skills at the city level, which in turn generates more open data for public use. This involvement is instilling a sense of public service among ‘data geeks.' We hope to create the passion to make things better."
A considerable change has taken place in recent years. In the past, Sanders observed a "fortress mentality" in some government agencies. "There was a hesitancy about whether the information could legitimately be shared, whether there might be legal issues and so forth, and workers were more protective," he says. "With the advent of Data.gov, these issues were largely put to rest, and government workers became more comfortable sharing data. The atmosphere regarding collaboration has undergone a major change, which is fostering both participation and improved decision making."
Government organizations have become more innovative in the past few years, according to Michael Corcoran, senior VP and CMO at Information Builders. "A decade ago, government agencies were seen as technology laggards," says Corcoran. "But especially at the state and local level, there is now a much greater understanding of what their customers want." Some of the public-facing initiatives are aimed at crime prevention, and others work on improving social programs or reducing fraud.
Metrics have played a significant role in energizing government organizations. "With greater availability of various performance metrics," Corcoran says, "they are taking a more proactive role to improve them." In addition, the user community has broadened considerably. "In the past, analytics were relegated to a few smart people in the back office who could gain an understanding of why a certain trend might be occurring," he adds. "But now that everyone can see the data and come to their own conclusions. the concept of transparency is proving to be very effective."
Open source for open government
Drupal is an open source content management platform that is being used by over 700,000 developers in more than 200 countries. As is typical of open source products, Drupal exists in a community in which developers are constantly revising and improving the software.
Government organizations are using Drupal for the same reason that those in the private sector are: The software is free, flexible and perhaps most importantly in today's market, has built-in social and community elements. Therefore, it has strengths in blogs, wikis and interactive components that were not originally part of all Web content management (WCM) systems. About 150 federal websites were using Drupal as of early 2012.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, satellite, cable and wire. It was established as an independent agency with five bipartisan, appointed commissioners. The FCC switched to Drupal last year in part to make use of the community features offered by the product.