Maggie Shiels

Gov 2.0 in action

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 29 Sep 09, 11:42 GMT

"Unleash the data." It has become a virtual mantra in Washington since President Barack Obama pledged to open up a treasure trove of information locked away in files, computer systems and cardboard boxes.

Open Government InitiativeGovernment 2.0 as a concept is not new, but the present administration has put its weight behind it like no other - and that has been getting entrepreneurs and the technology industry excited.

In an earlier post on the subject (The new tech start-up: US government), Anil Dash of Six Apart told me that the government's innovations represent the "most promising start-up of 2009 (and) one of the least likely" because it is allowing third parties to take all that information and to mash it up into useful applications and tools for the public and for agencies to use.

The effort is being largely led by the US tech gang of chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra, chief information officer Vivek Kundra, Federal Communications Commission chair Julius Genachowski and director of new media Macon Phillips.

But at ground level, it is the likes of Greg Whisenant - the founder and chief executive officer of Crime Reports - who are trying to do useful things with the data. actually started three years ago; Mr Whisenant says that the company got off the ground thanks to progressive views at a local level among law enforcement agencies.

crime reports

Washington DC and San Jose police forces were the first to sign up to let Mr Whisenant and his cohorts develop software tools to help these agencies understand crime trends and share information with the public in "an immediate or near-immediate timeframe and at a street level."

The lightbulb moment for Mr Whisenant came a few years previously when he was working on Capitol Hill as a lobbyist and accidentally let a burglar into his apartment building. He told me that the surveillance tape clearly showed him going through the door first and holding the door open for the burglar.

"This just showed me the chasm that existed between the public and law enforcement.
"It's certainly beneficial to get the public thinking about this in the context of where you live. If I don't know what is happening around me, I can't make better decisions or change my behaviour to accommodate what's going on around me."

In other words: had Mr Whisenant known there was a spate of local burglaries, he might have questioned the guy before practically ushering him through the door.

Soon after, Crime Reports was born. In simple terms, it overlays police reports onto maps so that users can type in an address and find out where arrests have been made and what kinds of cases police have been called out on. Users can also configure e-mail alerts to notify them of crimes in places they are interested in.

Mr Whisenant says his service really took off when Google Maps came along and allowed companies like his to plot crime.

This Utah-based company boasts of being "the world leader in online crime mapping". It has over 500 law enforcement partners across North America and is in the middle of signing up its first UK police force.

San Jose now claims to be the first police department in the nation to let residents find out where, when and why police were called to a particular area. Police chief Rob Davis says it helps police officers see trends in crime in particular areas instantaneously:

"It's Monday and I come in and I go, 'what's being going on in the last three days?' I can click on this link and put in the last three days' dates and see what has been going on in my beat. Before we used to get these updates on a six-month basis."

crime_reportsAnd what he hopes will happen next is local people reacting by helping officers do their job more effectively:

"If, all of a sudden, there's a bunch of icons showing drug activity, the residents are going to see that as well. What are they going to start looking for? Suspected drug activity. And where are they going to go as a result? Call us when they see a suspicious person."

Mr Whisenant says the number of agencies taking up his service is growing by about 50 a month, and in large part he credits that to President Obama and his desire to open up as much data as possible.

"We have this radical shift that is going on and that will reverberate not just at the federal level, but at state and local level as well. Government 2.0 as we see it now emerging would not be happening under another president."

Plans for Crime Reports include releasing an application programming interface (API) for developers to build on, an iPhone application and a way for local people to set up neighbourhood watch schemes.

Mr Whisenant also warns that there will be many stumbling blocks for Gov 2.0 - not least the problem of how to make much of the data relevant and useful.

"I feel the driving parameters for success are time- and location-aware based apps. Local is the piece of this puzzle that will make the big difference, giving people something that is personally relevant to their life.
"It's a case of letting a thousand flowers bloom. It will take some time and some experimentation - but in the immediate future, there will be a lot of innovation."


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    One reason this can work in America is that everything produced by the Federal Government is automatically in the public domain, so anyone can use it for whatever they want. I wish our government would realise the economic and social advantage of freeing our data.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think this will be very useful for all government institutions to be more transparency and to get more trust from citizens.

  • Comment number 4.

    Number 2: The social and economic effect in america is that anybody registered as a sex offender (often for the world's most pointless and harmless reasons) is on a list for life, which is widely viewable to the public. Don't know about you, but that seems to me like it could lead to a lot of unjustified prejudice.

  • Comment number 5.

    This would never work over here. Our politicians loathe facts.

  • Comment number 6.

    "5. At 09:56am on 30 Sep 2009, tengearbatbike wrote:

    This would never work over here. Our politicians loathe facts."

    I can see this going down well here in the UK actually.

    Our government hasn't had an original idea for decades, most of the ideas we have had come from the US or Europe. For example the min. wage which Comrade Brown put down to Mr Kinnock yesterday came from the US if I recall correctly.

  • Comment number 7.

    The Met have crime mapping of sorts down to Total Notifiable offences in my ward and all of London for August 2009. Crikey its dangerous where I live!

    IN its current format I guess it is useful if your moving to an area, or not moving to the area if you look at my stats.

    Our new alleged local drug dealer is now pregent, so her nearest neighbours are hoping for some respite. Police are trying to get evidence for conviction but recent police raids quieten things down for a while only to start again.

    Our local burgler caused a good evening of entertainment the other night. 17 police, helicopter, closed roads and fire engine ended with his surrender from the roof of a neighbours house. The 'chap' is well known, escaped arrest and ended up vaulting through our gardens, pretty impressive athlete, actually. The police know him well, lives locally when he is not inside. We are HIMBYs (He is in my back yard - at least just passing through) and aspire to be NIMBYs

    I am not sure of anybody put anything up on youtube, but enough footage from enough angles was taken to do a whole movie. Perhaps we could sell the footage to pay for the police overtine, helicopter and fire engine.

    What do we map and put online from each of these little tragedies? You could collect and publish enough to push the person elsewhere, which is how our new drug dealer arrived. We could easily create a surveillance nightmare by networking our webcams together.

    The reporting of incidents in near real time, which ability for joe public to add notes which go though a moderator might well get the message across that said behaviour is not acceptable and begin some change. It would be a good community builder if done well, and may help contain but not take the problem away.

    If done badly, images of dogs pooing on our small green will appear in google maps with requests to name and shame the owner.

    The means to do things is great, doing it well is very tricky.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    Yes it is true that everything produced by the Federal Government is automatically in the public domain, so anyone can use it for whatever they want. But Our politicians loathe facts so there is a possibility that this would never work over here.
    Jack Brosnan

  • Comment number 11.

    the more honest and open any government is, the better

  • Comment number 12.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]I totally agree with you. But it's a long way to go...



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