Making Democratic Participation Frictionless

This week, I had the pleasure of presenting at the Emerging Communications Conference & Awards (eComm) event in San Francisco.

I gave a presentation on the convergence of two powerful trends that promise to deliver more and more choices to people in how to communicate, interact and transact with their governments. The first is the growing trend toward more transparent government. By this I mean the efforts by governments around the globe and across this country to release meaningful, high-value data sets in formats that are designed to be used by third-party developers and applications.

Photo by James Duncan Davidson

Photo by James Duncan Davidson

The second is the proliferation of more and more powerful, easy to use tools for developers to build mobile applications – applications that use telephony, SMS, IM and social networking interfaces for interacting with users. I’ve discussed both of these trends at length on this blog in the past, but it was nice to bring them together in one succinct, focused presentation. These two trends are powering disruptive changes, and will have a significant effect on how citizens communicate with their governments in the future.

By enabling the development of new, more sophisticated, more powerful applications, these two trends will enable a greater array of options for citizens in how they interact with government. This choice is central (to my way of thinking) to a vibrant democracy. Healthy democracies are those where participation becomes “frictionless.” Frictionless participation requires choices – the more options people have in how they participate in their democracy, they more likely they are to participate and more active they will become.

I think this is an important discussion, and I hope to have it with more people. You can view the presentation I gave below, or follow this link to SlideShare.

I’m looking forward to watching these two trends develop, and to seeing the good things that come out of their convergence.

OpenGov APIs: Interfacing with Open Government

There has been lots of good talk (and a good deal of action) lately around open government APIs at events like Transparency Camp, Where 2.0 and on the Twitters.

So, as a prelude to a talk I’ll be giving at eComm next month, I wanted to write a post surveying the landscape of recent government API developments, and also to describe evolving efforts to construct standards for government APIs.

A Rundown of Recent State and Local API Developments

At Transparency Camp in DC last weekend, Socrata – a firm that hosts open data sets for governments – open sourced their API for accessing and querying public data. The Socrata Open Data API (or SODA) is a specification for running queries against public data sets. Currently, Socrata hosts data sets for the City of Seattle and others – code samples for working with the SODA spec can be found on Github.

The Open311 API recently implemented by the City of San Francisco (and being implemented by others) got some well deserved attention at the recent Where 2.0 conference. Other cities are starting to take note, and some (like Edmonton and Boston) look set to be next in line.

One of the early adopters of government APIs – the NY Senate – recently announced a new release for their OpenLeg API, which includes some important new changes. Today the NY Senate remains one of the few (if not the only) state legislative body to adopt an API to open up access to legislative information and proceedings, but other will hopeful soon follow. (Certainly the work done in Albany by NY Senate CIO Andrew Hoppin and his team has opened the door for work on other government APIs.)

That’s a lot of good stuff in just the last few weeks – I’ve probably missed some stuff, but I’m sure there is more to come in the weeks and months ahead.

Towards API Standards

The work being done on the Open311 API, the OpenMuni Project, and certainly the move by Socrata to open source the SODA spec will have significant implications for the open government data movement.

Standards for open data and APIs will make it easier for developers to build things – an app that works for one municipality can work for others if both adhere to a common standard that the app can run against. But they’ll also make it easier for governments to open up their data – standards will offer governments assurance that the time and effort they expend to maintain and publish data or stand up APIs will provide the most return on investment.

The move towards open data and government API standards is an important one that may influence the long-term success of the open government movement.

What’s Next?

As these standards develop, and as more and more municipalities start to embrace open data, we’ll move closer to the idea of government as a platform.

More and more open data will be published by governments in this country and others. These newly opened data sets may be hosted on infrastructure maintained by governments, or by third parties like Socrata. Enterprising governments in different regions or states may decide to team up and jointly host data that is of interest or value to constituents served by multiple governments or jurisdictions.

The applications that allow citizens to communicate with governments and consume public services will increasingly be built outside of government. (By outside, I mean outside the control of government and the government procurement framework.) Governments will increasingly become the collectors and maintainers of data and information and will focus less on building applications that use such data (or contracting for such applications to be built).

The applications built to consume public data and communicate with government will increasingly be designed as multitenant applications, able to service constituents in multiple jurisdictions that adhere to common data or API standards. They will also be built using more open source components and Web 2.0 technologies.

And (hopefully) the ranks of civic coders will continue to swell, as technologists looking to “scratch their own itch” are empowered to make a difference far beyond their own wants or needs.

All hail the transformative power of standards!