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July 28, 2009

Today I had the opportunity to attend the kick-off of Portland mayor Sam Adams Open Data Initiative.  Modeled on a similar project initiated in Washington, DC in 2008 by the city’s then-chief technology officer Vivek Kundra–who is now the nation’s first White House chief information officer–the program seeks to develop and deploy applications for making government data more accessible and useful to citizens.  Rather than contracting these projects out, the initiative makes the data freely available to open source developers and challenges them to make the most of it for fun, fame, and modest prizes.

Government holds vast stores of information, much of it in departmental or agency silos that only the database owners can access.  Opening these silos to the public makes it possible to mix data from one silo with that from another.  In the process, people are encouraged to produce hybrids or look for meaningful relationships among the elements that might otherwise escape the attention of the people who originally collected or produced the information.

Such a project presents many challenges.  Not the least of these is the concern many people have with the government using information gathered for one purpose in a way not originally intended or disclosed when they consented to its collection.  Information with that seems innocuous or of little meaning when held or presented in one way, can take on very new or different meanings when projected against or contrasted with other information.  This fact alone makes the part of the project that is most interesting and potentially valuable the most challenging as well.

Advocates of open data and government transparency reckon that the more information government makes available about its operations and its data holdings, the more careful and accountable officials will be in its collection, analysis, and use.  This may be true, but only if people are willing to support greater collaboration not only among government agencies and officials, but also with private sector developers and institutions.

For every person who has concerns about the way in which the government might use data about them, one or more individuals has already begun freely sharing information about themselves with the world in real-time through social media.  The openness of the internet has made it clear that big institutions, like government, have no monopoly on useful information.

Social media have the potential to provide politicians and policy-makers with the context they need to discern the impacts of their decisions and actions on the public.  Finding efficient and effective ways to aggregate, organize, and analyze this information, espcially in times of crisis, may prove at least as useful as any effort to make the information held by government widely available to the public.

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