Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Jason Geeks Out, Part 4: Transparency by the Terabyte

This is really exciting. The federal government has created, and is still adding to a new website,, which rolled out May 21. This site is a central repository for all the raw, unclassified data that the government generates or is privy to, making it available to anyone in as many useful formats as possible. It's one step in support of Obama's campaign promise for radical transparency in government. And it promises much more than that.

The president created a new position, Federal Chief Information Officer and on March 5th named Vivek Kundra, previously the Chief Technology Officer for the District of Columbia as the first person to occupy the title. Vivek started the project because he views it as essential not only as a portal, allowing the public easy access to information it is entitled to, but also as a tool for efficiency and innovation. He knows from experience that if you give the private sector access to reams and reams of raw data from diverse arenas of public life they will create all sorts of novel applications, useful to the government and public alike, that the government doesn't have the resources, or time to create itself. By fully sharing, in one place every hidden statistic, every obtuse spreadsheet, and every data stream the government's sitting on or currently sharing through a hard-to-navigate system of 24,000 separate online sites, Vivek hopes to create a platform for crowd-sourcing innovation the likes of which have never been seen.

An example of the sorts of data mashups we might see comes from Vivek's work in DC. Streams of previously unreleased data were similarly made available to the public, some of which were harnessed by an individual to create Stumble Safely. It's creator took maps, crime statistics and liquor license information and created an application that knows where you are and can show you the safest route when walking home drunk from a bar. It's an app with limited usefulness, granted, but it demonstrates how novel applications can spring from the combination of disparate and sometimes unrelated data sets.

I'm really excited to see the project completed and the resulting technologies. I think we're on the cusp of interesting times.

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