I had the pleasure of spending last Friday and Saturday with a great group of doers and thought leaders at Open Gov West. I’m going to try to sum up some of my major take-aways from the Open Gov Regional Standards and Seamless Data panels and facilitated discussion. Let me just note that this panel series was one of many so this post is not a complete summary of the energy or conversations at Open Gov West, just my single experience. Definitely check out the Open Gov West wiki to find out more .
Bibiana McHugh from Tri-Met Portland was the leader in getting the GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification) created. Her advice on developing a standard was: narrow scope, get something out there, and accept that standards are not static.
From my own experience working on the Open311 API I can fully appreciate her advice and would also add that external support is critical to the sustainability of the standard. When I first started thinking about a 311 API I sought out others that were working on the same concept. I spoke first with SeeClickFix and looked at their initial design spec, and then I stumbled upon The Open Planning Project which had been working on the concept and architecture of Open311 at the same time. There was obviously movement in the space, DC OCTO Labs published their first version of a 311 API one year prior. It was critical that I partner with TOPP to take the momentum and add collaboration and support to ensure that an Open311 API could be sustainable and widely adopted.
This brings me to another critical factor in standards; they are only standards if they are widely adopted. The role San Francisco played in Open311 API was simply collaboratively designing an API spec with other cities, non-profits and developers that could be widely adopted. Our next effort in making the Open311 API spec a real standard is ensuring adoption through outreach and consultation on how to implement it in various cities and various technical environments. Again, a standard is not static and I image as we see other cities adopt Open311 API we will need to make adjustments and evolve the standard along the way.
Open government always leads into a discussion on open data. What data sets are public? Which ones should be public? How are they meaningful? How does government choose which ones to make public? What are the limiting factors in making all government data available? These questions are always asked at open government conferences and the answers are almost always the same, the easiest datasets to make public are the ones that are made public. Whether “easy” means purely a legal standpoint or “easy” means already available, it seems that the low hanging fruit is what the public gets in version one of data catalogues.
The more interesting question that people at Open Gov West seemed to be asking was which sets of data can make the most impact on our collective lives? David Hume, Citizen Engagement Director, British Columbia announced the Apps for Climate Change challenge, which speaks to the concept of groups of datasets being meaningful when looked at together, and possibly the impact of the total group being published is much more beneficial then individual sets of data without context.
British Columbia’s Climate Change challenge also presents an opportunity for regional groups to create data standards around specific datasets that could have a greater impact if implemented regionally, rather then in individual municipalities. Global issues like climate change, that are not defined by geography, are ideal for regional collaboration that could address the problem collectively and with a possible exponential benefit.
Open Government is a Social Movement
Open government is a social movement was repeated many times throughout the conference and I have to agree that open government isn’t a cookie-cutter policy in each city, department, or municipality, rather it is a manner of conducting government and public engagement that will take time and require trust and reliability to sustain.
Thinking about open government as a movement actually challenged my own way of thinking because I had largely thought of this as a government responsibility that needed to be fulfilled by government, but now I see it as a public responsibility too. We need the public to demand openness, interact with government, and support the effort outside of government walls, just as much as we need that to happen within the walls of government.
I look forward to continuing conversations that started at Open Gov West and believe that the foundation of ideas and motivation we developed will lead to great work by the participants.