Government // Open Government
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11/23/2009
04:09 PM
Fritz Nelson
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Full Nelson: Video: San Francisco Goes Open, Transparent

An interview with the city’s mayor and IT principals about DataSF.org and its groundbreaking applications

Open and transparent government, when it's more than a political platitude, goes far beyond getting building permits online. The next phase of the Web could be the ultimate manifestation of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but without a messy civil war. San Francisco's DataSF.Org takes a few giant leaps, and has already turned its citizens into active city participants.

DataSF.org is San Francisco's major foray into open and transparent government; it is the city giving its vital data back to its citizens. InformationWeek talked with the city's mayor, Gavin Newsom, several members of his technology team, led by CTO Blair Adams, and some of the early developers who have already built applications around the data -- all available in the video documentary below.

The city built DataSF.org on the wings of Data.gov, the federal government's initiative. San Francisco Mayor Newsom was surprised by how quickly citizens and developers embraced it. He can only ask, he said in retrospect, what took the city so long. With any major technology initiative, business leaders must examine the payback, the return on investment. Newsom says that it is all about the reciprocal relationship with citizens, that if he is truly governing on behalf of the people, then it's their data, If his job is to be a conduit for their ideas, what better way to let those ideas flow than by empowering them with this data. Newsom was emphatic that efforts like Data.Gov and DataSF.org are part of one of the most transformational points in the history of government.

CTO Adams and the city of San Francisco are looking to share the technology, which is built on an open source platform. While neither the mayor nor Adams talked about specific cities, they have had inquiries about the project from around the country. By opening up its work to others, the city hopes that new ideas come back to San Francisco in kind.

Jay Nath, manager of innovation for San Francisco's department of technology, said that open source provided other advantages. For one, the department members have a good deal of open source background. Also, it provides agility: the team can quickly and easily modify code. And, of course, there's the elimination of procurement processes. Nath also said that the team didn't have a significant budget to work with.

One key technology Nath leaned heavily on was virtualization -- again, important for keeping costs low and for agility. Instead of going the normal hypervisor route, Nath and the team used Parallel's Virtuozzo , which is strong in the Web hosting world, he said. With that, the city has been able to host hundreds of applications on a single server.

The innovation team rolled out the first data feeds in about two months. Applications came two months later. Adams and Nath were surprised at the speed with which the application developer community embraced the system. They also focused on how to prioritize what data to make available, relying on the public to vote on data sets. Nath said the overwhelming majority of people want quality-of-life information -- where to park, bus schedules, and so on. He said street sweeping data (which tells people when and where they can park, thus saving them costly tickets) was the most recent popular request, and they were working on getting that data online (we are told that information is now available).

There are already a host of new applications taking advantage of crime data, restaurant health scores, and more. Two examples: EcoFinder helps citizens recycle or dispose of materials that cannot go curbside. This application uses your location, lets you select from categories of material you want to get rid of, and then lists businesses and services that can help (and categorizes them by free, paid, those you have to drive to, and those who will come directly to you). Vendors Haku Wale and Nextive teamed up on EcoFinder. Haku Wale designed the user interface in about six weeks; the product took about a month to develop (the engineering happened at Nextive) and was approved in a week. It launched the first week of June.

Routesy also uses your location as context, but its job is to help you find public transportation -- namely, the next BART or Muni train. It can tell you, based on where you are, when the next one is coming, and also let you view other routes, and pinpoint where the stop is based on where you are. You can also bookmark your most frequent stops and routes. Where EcoFinder is free, Routesy costs $3.99. The product's developer, Steve Peterson, says that there are about 1,000 active users. He's working on expanding to AC Transit and Caltrain data, and is considering whether to port the application to the BlackBerry and whether to build something similar for Washington, D.C.

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