Opening Government Data – the San Francisco Way

The City of San Francisco recently unveiled a one-stop clearinghouse for all sorts of data generated and maintained by city agencies. Its an exciting first step in an effort that is high on the agenda of San Francisco CIO Chris Vein and Mayor Gavin Newsom – a tangible and visible commitment to open source technologies, open government data and citizen engagement.

San Francisco is reportedly taking a different approach to encouraging the use of this data than has been tried in other jurisdictions, notably the District of Columbia. Instead of running a contest and offering cash prizes, San Francisco will explore the idea of an “App Store,” where developers can have their work highlighted and showcased. This is an interesting idea, and the time may be right for a new approach to encouraging developers to use data from governments.

As a participant in the first Apps for Democracy contest, I feel strongly that at the time it was the best approach to engaging developers and getting them excited about building applications using civic data provided by DC. It was so successful that it spawned a second Apps for Democracy competition, two similarly focused contests sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation and the forthcoming “Big Apps” competition in New York City. But I think San Francisco might be on to something here – the “development contest” paradigm for encouraging civic coders might not be as successful going forward as it was when DC first tried it.

For the open government data initiatives of cities like San Francisco, DC and New York to flourish long-term the motivating factors for developers to build applications have to be more sustained than can reasonably be accomplished within the confines of a “contest.” Contests end – local governments need mechanisms to encourage development with their data beyond the awards ceremony.

The notion of an Apps Store is an interesting one, with longer-term potential – I think it will resonate with developers and provide more sustained motivation for developers to build applications that use data from San Francisco agencies.

Looking forward to seeing this idea develop – and to (potentially) getting an app in the App Store.

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