Coding the middleware for government data

Max Ogden makes a pitch for more data and better open government patches.

Cities, states and agencies are publishing more government data online, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Much government data is still in paper form, locked away in file cabinets, or in closed formats on obscure servers. For instance, the data-driven story of BrightScope, which uses government data to clarify 401(k) plans, started with boxes upon boxes of printouts. The Department of Labor is just now starting to put that data online. That’s why reporting on the progress of open government data initiatives is a key pillar of Gov 2.0. For those who have been working toward more transparent government, that issue is central to their work.

“Embracing Tim O’Reilly’s concept of ‘Government as a Platform‘ is easier said than done,” wrote Max Ogden in his pitch for the first Ignite Gov at the Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) in Portland. During a five-minute presentation, Ogden offered up a refreshing personal perspective on what it takes for civic hackers to put open data to good use. Here’s his talk:

Under the Open Government Directive, a PDF qualifies as an open format. BrightScope uses government data, but it’s not “open” in the sense that technologists use the term, nor did BrightScope’s business result from the open government initiative. Put in the context of Tim Berners-Lee’s definition for open linked data or the principles at, PDFs on CD might not merit even one star, although BrightScope has been able to move forward with their business in the meantime.

IT officials from the Office of Management and Budget, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or open government technologists like Clay Johnson or Noel Hidalgo have expressed a preference for data published in structured formats. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra said at the International Open Government Data Conference that releasing open data can be seen through three lenses: accountability, citizen utility and creating economic value.

“Putting out data is not enough,” said Beth Noveck, White House deputy CTO for open government, at the Open Cities Conference earlier this month. “It’s what we do with that data to make it useful.” It’s civic hackers like Ogden who have done just that, with a little help from the government. Ogden wants local government to act as a data supplier, providing the means for civic hackers to make things that help citizens to make better decisions. Ogden was instrumental in connecting data and developers through Portland’s Civic Apps contest.

More examples of open government and civic innovation will depend on similar public-private partnerships of open data, developers and entrepreneurs. Portland, San Francisco and Boston have shown how open data can be used to spur economic activity. Real-time transit data in Boston has created a whole new ecosystem of apps. The Apps for California contest that featured mashups of government data is behind a new startup, Zonability. And the healthcare apps coming out of a community health data initiative at the Department of Health and Human Services are continuing to evolve.

If governments wish to provide citizens with better understanding of how government works and what it’s doing with taxpayer funds, that means using the most efficient, cost-effective means to provide that transparency, and the right data sets for real accountability. Consider how the British government released spending: spreadsheets. That choice enabled the Guardian to download the data and help citizens analyze it.

The story of open data and Max Ogden is evolving too: he’s one of the inaugural fellows of Code for America. As Code for America founder Jen Pahlka notes:

They will be the first participants in our experiment to help city governments better leverage the power of the web. Starting in January, it will be their challenge to not only build innovative apps for each of our cities, but also become the leaders of the ongoing movement to make government more open and efficient.

Based on Ogden’s track record, there will be more open government middleware to come.


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  • Max, it will be an honor serving as your co-fellow during the next year. Glad to know there will be someone there who knows their stuff. I really truly feel this is going to be huge; not only for us but for the country too. Way to go.

  • “It’s what we do with that data to make it useful.”

    Absolutely. But its even more than that. The data we put out is inert – we forget that process is also data. If we want to increase public participation in policy then we need to understand the processes behind the data – it’s much more important than the static data itself – its where the policy resides. For example: its great to have open census data available, but it would be even more valuable to open the process of census taking, and the process of determining that process (etc.) – this is where the real innovation and civic empowerment lies. More eloquently: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. Each year’s census data is great, but we’re just at the end of a feeding tube. The feedback loop to the underlying process is still the same one we’ve always had. It’s the main problem with Gov 2.0 traction.

    Tim O’Reilly says the internet operating system is a data operating system. Truth is all operating systems are data operating systems, and in an OS the processes are data just like everything else. We’re way to obsessed with inert data, and missing the important stuff. Cheers,