Government 2.0 in San Francisco
By Mike McGrath
I recently went to Phoenix for a meeting and I was trying to figure out how to use the light rail to get from the airport to the downtown hotel where I was staying. I found it frustrating that the transit authority website didn’t have a feature for figuring out your itinerary, or at least, I couldn’t seem to find it. Then I remembered, of course, Google Maps does that now, the transit agency doesn’t have to.
Information sharing of that sort has become routine, part of an ongoing joint project between the public, private and nonprofit sectors to use information and communications technology (ICT) in new ways to inform and empower the public. Jay Nath, director of innovation for the city and county of San Francisco writes about it in the fall issue of the National Civic Review, a special issue we published with the help of ZeroDivide, “Beyond the Digital Divide: How New Technologies Can Amplify Civic Engagement and Community Participation.”
The issue has a range of articles on the subject, everything from the use of video games to re-imagine urban neighborhoods, to the ways mobile technology is being used to mobilize voters from under-served communities.
Nath focuses on the advances in access to government information and the transition from a focus on transparency and accountability to one of citizen participation and contribution in what he calls a “new architecture of openness and collaboration.”
“The traditional focus of open government advocates has been on accountability,” he writes. “Very few would argue with this principal, but the new open government is likely to focus more on information sharing that empowers citizens to be more actively involved and creative.”
Nath traces this evolution, interestingly enough, to a tragedy that took place at the end of the Cold War, when a Korean jetliner was shot down by the Soviets after it mistakenly flew into their air space. Originally, global positioning system (GPS) data was reserved for the military, but after the KAL catastrophe, President Reagan ordered GPS data to be released to the American public.
The Obama administration has put a big emphasis on open government and information sharing, releasing a repository of information called Data.gov. San Francisco has a similar effort called DataSF.org using open source software. More than 60 local apps have been created using the data.
“One iPhone app, Routsey, helps citizens navigate Bay Area transportation providers by using real-time prediction information,” he writes. “By using a phone’s GPS location, they can identify the nearest transit stops and determine when the next bus or train is coming.”
The potential of ICTs to help the public access information is an established fact, but what may prove to be equally significant is the ability of citizens to be part of a two-way feedback mechanism with government. Nath cites the example of the Urban Forest Map, which gives citizens a view of trees in the city. The data for this site comes from the city and a non-profit group called Friends of the Urban Forest, but ordinary people can add to or update information that is fed back to the city.
San Francisco is exploiting the potential of “crowdsourcing” with its Improve SF project. Citizens are given the opportunity to generate ideas and the best will be given seed funding through micro-grants.
Where it will all end up we don’t know, but local governments are already being transformed by these new ICTs. Read more about it in the National Civic Review. Electronic files of this special issue are being made available to the public for free on the Wiley Online Library.
Also, ZeroDivide will be hosting a free webinar featuring Jay Nath Thursday, November 17 at 10 a.m. PST, and you can find out more about it here. The topic of the webinar will be using technology for civic engagement.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.