- 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.
Government 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.
CrimeReports.com 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.
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."
And 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."
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