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Open Government in Your Pocket

When I walk into the election booth this coming Fall, I’d love to take out my iPhone, open The Magic App, and click “locate me” to zero in all that data, election coverage, and endorsements for candidates and issues I see on the ballet. Maybe I could even take a short quiz to find my preferences – with questions specialized for my location, of course. There’s plenty of voter guides as always, but I haven’t found (or really looked, to be honest – maybe y’all will tell me what’s out there!) for a mobile app that’s the equivalent of Yelp for government. I mean, if it just told me my voting location, that’d be massive.

It’s harder to hate what you understand

In addition to voting, it’d be great to see the effects of government around me. “This road was funded by your country,” or, “this exit ramp was funded by your congress member.” You could call this features, “what have you done for me lately?”

Or, for the arm-chair auditors out there, when walking around all the State of Texas office buildings, I could get info on what they’re actually doing in there, how it effects me, what the total salaries and budget for those buildings are. “See that building, they account for and spend over $50 million a year.”

There’s a huge amount of data about government that’d be fascinating to have on my phone, as I saw, Yelp-style. Government, esp. local and State government is often obtuse and you get a lot of people not really appreciating the good things they do. Like those exit ramps that let us easily get off the highway to a new outlet mall. As I like saying, one citizen’s pork-barrel spending is another citizen’s delicious bacon.

The Citizen Cloud

While such an app would have excellent utility for each individual, aggregating the data about what each user does becomes even more interesting and valuable:

  • Tracking which locations people look-up voting info in would give you an idea of how many people were voting and where. I’m no demographer, so there’s all sorts of problems here I’m sure: only a specific type of moneyed person would have a smart-phone and take it to the booth and know how to use it. But, with a bit of demographic data, I’m sure it’d be interesting, novel data anyhow. Get them to give you their LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter account, and you can build up all sorts of profiles.
  • If people wanted it, they could even share their vote (or just that they’d voted) in the app, on social networks, or where-ever. I don’t know how it is in other countries, but here in America talking about how you voted is like talking about your salary: it’s a taboo that helps all but the people keeping actually quiet.
  • Tracking where people look-up “what have you done for me lately?” information might get you a sense of “hot spots” and places where voters are curious about the role of government. This could play to “both sides” of the government space: those who want to find waste and those who want to celebrates providing services. Indeed, you could see how individual elected officials would love this data: how active is my constituency, and how curious/aware are they of what I’ve done for them?
  • The Pothole Reporter – several apps in the private and public sector exist to track problems. AT&T has it’s dropped call reporter, some communities have “pot-hole reporters.” Taken individually, this kind of stuff gets ignored (I’m sure citizens don’t want to fund the salaries it’d take to look over each reported issue). But, aggregating them together gives government more data to sift through. And, it gives the anti-government folks poop to hurl at “an apathetic government.”
  • In all of these, you could take the simple “Like” concept from Facebook and allow people to Like or Dislike whatever artifact they’re looking at. Gauging sentiment about the government’s services and such.

With much of this meta-data, doing predictive analytics is the next step. What can you predict from poll turn-out? People simply telling you how they voted? A candiate can concentrate fund raising in geographic areas with a high number of “likes,” and at the same time try to bring in some pork bacon for those areas that have a negative sentiment.

Mashups and Money

And then there’s lacing in taking pictures and video, or sound recordings. Essentially the equivalent of Zillow (a mash-up prettying up piss-boring property tax records) for all that open government data and citizen created government data.

Of course, politicians, causes, comities, and anyone else accepting money could have “click here to give us some money” buttons. Tied with a person, location, and a topic, in addition to providing money, these contributions would give even more data to understand what citizens wanted: “Here’s $20 for your campaign, please fix this pothole on my street.”

A particular segment that could benefit from all of this are main-stream media organizations. Newspapers, magazines, and even TV folks have reams of current and historic reporting and data having to do with politics. For media folks looking to be relevant, this type of open government app moves them into that bi-directional relationship with their customers (“news readers”) that seems to be lacking. And, the fact that people are willing to pay for smart phone apps is encouraging: it’s better than the “nothing” of the web.

For example, in my state, the Texas Observer would be well positioned to tell the left what was going on in many state-wide and local elections – and they could figure out interesting things to do with the meta-data. I don’t know the demographics of the Observer but I’d wager a killer app would introduce a slew of new, younger readers. Of course, outfits like The Texas Tribune have an ethos that fits perfectly with open government in your pocket. They already do fascinating things with open government data, and bridging to that two-way relationship would give them even more raw material to work with.

I’m my own Big Brother

Sure, there’s all sorts of privacy issues, Big Brother spying, and no doubt regulations and laws that marble through stuff like this. Still, one of the more frequent reasons I see people getting dissatisfied with government is simply not knowing what the hell the government is doing, let along “understanding,” whatever that may mean. I think most everyone has a sort of Yes, Minister view of government, except in the US it’s crossed with sex-scandals and marginally ethical money-filching revolving door officials.

“Sunlight,” as they call making government more transparent, isn’t a cure-all. Once you know more, you have to actually do something: be that motivating the government to do what you want or, if you are the government, figuring out what to do and actually doing it.

People spend an awfully lot of time in Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, and things like Gowalla, proving that there’s plenty of raw time and will to play around with your mobile while you’re out and about (or those services at your desk). As politics comes to the forefront with the US’s mid-term election, it’d be great to get Gowalla badges and Foursquare mayorships for giving a damn getting involved in the process. Beyond those simple steps, apps that augmented citizens interaction with their government would be a welcome open government innovation.

Categories: Ideas.

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