Saturday, December 27, 2008

Enable Participatory Democracy by Providing 250+ Data Feeds to the Public

Building the Digital Public Square

In ancient Athens—the model for the democracy envisioned by the framers of our Constitution--citizens met, face to face, in the agora—the public square--to conduct business, debate civic issues, and drive the decisions of government. Gone are the days of daily meetings at the agora. Today, citizens know government as red tape, long lines, and cold, distant bureaucracies. The reins of government have slipped from “we the people” to inaccessible government officials.

The District of Columbia, however, is at the forefront of a new era of governance, one in which technological advances now allow people from around the world unfettered access to their government. Through these advances, constituents can hold their government accountable from the privacy of their own homes. The District of Columbia is bringing people closer to government through collaborative technologies like wikis, data feeds, videos and dashboards. We’re throwing open DC’s warehouse of public data so that everyone—constituents, policymakers, and businesses—can meet in a new digital public square.

The District maintains vast stores of data on every aspect of government operations, from government contracts to crime statistics to economic development. We have organized this data into convenient catalogs and live data feeds and made them available to the general public at Visitors to the site can find information on crime incidents by date, time of day, ward, block, or method; details on construction projects by location, type of construction, budget, completion date or status; data on registered vacant properties by ward, address, owner or tax assessment; or information on businesses, such as the locations of District establishments that hold liquor licenses. Mapping technology also allows users to view data geographically with a single click. Using an ordinary Web browser, anyone in the world can access this information.

When we first opened the doors to government data, people were quick to respond. Individuals and organizations are not only viewing our government data, but are actually improving upon our work by analyzing and repurposing the information in useful ways. One innovative DC resident took it upon herself to gather publicly-available government data on service requests, crimes, and building and public space permits to create a Web-based informational clearinghouse site that informs southeastern DC residents about local real estate development and the quality of government services. The Knight Foundation, a non-governmental organization, transformed District data into an online community news forum at Here, visitors can plug in their zip code and find and exchange information about everything of interest in their neighborhoods—local businesses and reviews, real estate listings, crimes, road construction, city service requests, community meetings, and more. A private entrepreneur has assembled law enforcement data from the District and across the country into an online database, called “CrimeReports.” Visitors can get crime data and maps by address, zip, code, and type of crime and sign up for personalized crime alerts.

These are truly grassroots ventures. The democratization of government data has revealed an enormous appetite for civic participation. We are ushering in a new age of participatory democracy, one in which citizens are in the driver’s seat when they interact with government. Accessibility has never been greater, and this is just the beginning. In the last year, we published over 200 data feeds. During the coming year, we expect to double that.

Today, building the digital public square is not just appealing, it is imperative for every government, whether municipal, state, or national. We live in the information age. Nearly 1.5 billion people have access to the Internet—and they are using it in every way. There is a worldwide digital market for goods and services. For example,, founded just over a decade ago, now handles about 56 million transactions a year, and Ebay, founded at about the same time, now has over 275 million registered users. There are a growing number of global social and artistic networks. Facebook alone, founded just four years ago, now has over 60 million active users, and YouTube, a year younger, hosted 3 billion video views in a single month this year. We responded to these new communications trends by expanding DC Government’s presence onto Facebook and posting job listings and bid solicitations on YouTube under the “DC Government” channel. Leveraging consumer technology in this way allows us to reach wider audiences at no cost to taxpayers.

Until now, government has largely been absent in the trend towards worldwide exchange of information and services. Starting here in the District, we hope to demonstrate that government, too, can and must step fully into the digital arena. That is why the digital public square is now at the heart of our efforts to make government services more effective, accessible, and transparent. By ensuring that every citizen has a front row seat in the digital public square, we’ll continue to return government into the hands of “we, the people.”

Please visit the DC digital public square at