The Open Gov Initiative: Enabling Techies to Solve Government Problems

While grandma flips through photo albums on her sleek iPad, government agencies (and most corporations) process mission-critical transactions on cumbersome web-based front ends that function by tricking mainframes into thinking that they are connected to CRT terminals. These systems are written in computer languages like Assembler and COBOL, and cost a fortune to maintain. I’ve written about California’s legacy systems and the billions of dollars that are wasted on maintaining these. Given the short tenure of government officials, lobbying by entrenched government contractors, and slow pace of change in the enterprise-computing world, I’m not optimistic that much will change – even in the next decade. But there is hope on another front: the Open Government Initiative. This provides entrepreneurs with the data and with the APIs they need to solve problems themselves.  They don’t need to wait for the government to modernize its legacy systems; they can simply build their own apps.

The federal government’s open data initiative,, was launched exactly one year ago with 47 datasets of government information, by Federal CIO, Vivek Kundra. This has grown to more than 250,000 datasets. Hundreds of applications have already been built to harness this information. A few states and localities have also followed the lead, the most notable of which is San Francisco City.

In June, 2009, San Francisco CIO Chris Vein launched an application that allows citizens to access the City’s 311 Call Center through Twitter. Instead of making a phone call, members of the public can send a tweet to alert the city about a pothole, or to find out about the City’s green initiatives. This led to the Open311 API, which provides access to government data by third-party applications.  Entrepreneurs have already built some useful apps with this, such as CitySourced, MyCityWay, SeeClickFix and TweetMy311. Buoyed by this success, the city is going one step further – to open up all non-private data. The City’s director of innovation, Jay Nath, is building – what he calls “the city’s one stop web site for government data”.

This has some notable San Francisco residents such as craiglist founder, Craig Newmark really excited. Craig says that San Francisco seems very serious about providing better customer service – while saving money – by giving citizens access to the data that is rightfully theirs. He lauds the city for standing up to “elite influence peddlers”.  Over breakfast, last week, he told me that he would readily spend his own money to offer prizes to entrepreneurs who create the most innovative apps that address real-life issues:  like getting a pothole fixed, asking if now is a good time to visit the DMV, or maybe to finding out one’s tax situation.

Legendary publisher and guru of Web 2.0, Tim O’Reilly, is also a big fan of open government. Known for his ability to predict the future by detecting “faint signals” from alpha geeks, O’Reilly says that a few years ago, he began to notice that developers were scraping government data (such as local crime statistics) from clunky government websites and displaying these in ways that were far more useful to citizens. He noticed “signals of an emerging open government movement”. So, in 2008, he decided to focus on encouraging the Obama administration to harness these.  Under the auspices of a new conference series called Gov 2.0 (one of which, the Gov 2.0 Expo, starts next week in Washington, D.C.), O’Reilly began meeting with key government officials; at first listening to their challenges and perspectives; and then framing the opportunity back to them.  Social media was spreading like wildfire in D.C. at the time and initially became closely associated with the term Gov 2.0.  O’Reilly’s message was that adopting social media wasn’t enough for true change; governments needed to borrow a lesson from the technology industry and start building a platform.

O’Reilly’s goal is to get regions all across the U.S. doing what San Francisco has done with Open311. But one of the challenges is to standardize APIs across localities, and to create standards. If this effort does succeed, developers will be able to write common applications that route requests to the correct department in whatever jurisdiction the citizen happens to be at the time. The application on your mobile phone shouldn’t work just within the boundaries of one city, after all.

There are other evangelists, like Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America, who is working to “help the brightest minds of the Web 2.0 generation transform city governments”. Pahlka says that cities are under greater pressure than ever, struggling with budget cuts and outdated technology. “What if, instead of cutting services or raising taxes, cities could leverage the power of the web to become more efficient, transparent, and participatory”, she asks. Code for America’s fellows program is modeled around the Teach for America program.  It works with city officials and leading web-development talent to identify and then develop web solutions that can then be shared and rolled out more broadly to cities across America.

The bottom line is that there are new opportunities for entrepreneurs to do good for their communities and for the country, and to build wealth while doing this. I’ve lamented how in Silicon Valley, instead of building businesses that do good, we have the greatest minds and the deepest pool of investment capital in the world focused on building Facebook and Twitter apps. Here is an opportunity to still build these apps and yet do good.

Editor’s note: Guest writer Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa