Maggie Shiels

The new tech start-up: US government

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 21 Aug 09, 08:28 GMT

Shortly after President Obama took office, he made a promise to make the default position for government open rather than secret. This is evident today in a host of websites already up and running and being dubbed as part of Government 2.0. Yes, think Web 2.0 but without the overarching social media obsession evident during the campaign.

White provides access to government data and allows the public to create new web applications, carry out analysis and perform research. is "where Americans can see where their money goes." shows where stimulus money is being spent and how. the one-stop shop for government regulations. which is of course where citizens can find out what the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania are up to.

All these websites contain a treasure trove of information, statistics and raw data, but what good is it all and what does all this mean?

Anil Dash from Six Apart, which is one of the most significant players in blogging, said what the government is doing represents the "most promising new start-up of 2009 (and) one of the least likely."

"I am not a Polyanna about this, " Mr Dash told me.

"I don't think necessarily everything that comes out of this will be immediately great. It will take people some time to understand the potential there is for something great to happen.

"In the past, when this information was printed on paper and stuffed into a box and filed in a building no-one had access to, there wasn't any potential for anything great to happen," explained Mr Dash.

Mike Masnick at backs that sentiment.

"With a focus on openness and data sharing... I have to agree with Anil Dash that one of the most interesting tech "start-ups" to watch this year is the federal government of the US. The tech projects they are already coming out with are compelling and well done," said Mr Masnick.

And cities throughout the United States are following suit.

Here in Silicon Valley, San Jose has just just approved what it calls some "sunshine" reforms to ease public access to some city records. The move however was seen by critics as too timid and not going far enough.

San Francisco launched in the hope, said mayor Gavin Newsom, it will "create a torrent of innovation similar to when the developer was given access to the platforms behind popular technologies and devices like Facebook and Apple's iPhone."

Mr Newsom gives as an example the use of data on recycling that was released by the Department of Environment and used by a third party to develop EcoFinder, an iPhone app that helps residents recycle based on their location.

And for Mr Dash and many others who have weighed in on this topic, the crucial factor
is allowing the public to take all this open and easily accessible information and use it in new and exciting ways.

"That is when innovation happens. You build a system for one thing and someone uses it for something different. In the technology world that is very common and these government efforts allow that to happen.

"With the closed system we had in the past, only what government staffers anticipated was what was created," explained Mr Dash.

As part of a project called Apps for Democracy, developers have set up a website to show people "interesting ways to mash up data for the betterment of all."

These include an app called StumbleSafely that uses crime data to help people get home safely after a night on the tiles and Carpool Mashup Matchmaker to help people find carpools.

Others agree that the focus on openness and data sharing is key to changing government and how citizens relate to it.

Tim O'Reilly, the internet guru and the man who popularised the phrase Web.20 puts it best.

"Rather than licencing government data to a few select "value added" providers, who then license the data downstream, the federal government (and many state and local governments) are beginning to provide an open platform that enables anyone with a good idea to build innovative services that connect government to citizens, give citizens visibility into the actions of government and even allow citizens to participate directly in policy-making.
"That's Government 2.0: technology helping build the kind of government the nation's founders intended: of, for and by the people."


  • Comment number 1.

    Oh if only the British government would do something like this, instead of spending thousands on a Second Life site or making a fool of yourself on YouTube.

  • Comment number 2.

    Oh dear, misusing the word 'default' again...

  • Comment number 3.

    "This is evident today in a host of websites already up and running and being dubbed as part of Government 2.0. "

    What, they are having music added ? I do wish you would try and write in English and conform to some 'BBC House Style Guide'. I can't be bothered wading through the rest of this article.

  • Comment number 4.

    lordBeddGelert, according to my dictionary one meaning of ‘dub’ is “to call by a distinctive title, epithet, or nickname” or “to honour with a new title or description”. Hence when someone is knighted the Queen says “I dub thee Sir . . .”

    So usage of the word ‘dubbed’ above is reasonable use of English.
    In films it is speech that is dubbed in order to replace a foreign language; music is simply added.

    In computing ‘default’ simply means a standard setting; again I don’t see anything inherently wrong with Maggie’s usage of the term.

  • Comment number 5.

    I agree with #1, where are the open and accountable websites?!

    Anyway, about the use of the word "mashups", hmm, it makes me shiver, thinking of the old and wrinkly men of the government using "hip" terms again to try to sound cool. I wish they'd just concentrate on running the country. Haha, reminds me of "if something works, you don't even know it's there". perhaps this is why we are hearing so much coming from UK Gov ...

    Anyway, I digress, sure, these websites are marked as "open" but how ACCURATE are they? "Lies, damned lies and statistics" or actual, real data? I doubt it would be real data because surely it would be in bold and red with a big "-" minus sign in front of it which would cause public and economic panic!

    Have they published how much it's costing each American citizen for the US invasion of Afghanistan?

    Still, it's a start I suppose.

  • Comment number 6.

    5. At 4:47pm on 21 Aug 2009, badger_fruit wrote:

    I agree with #1, where are the open and accountable websites?!


    Never mind open and accountable websites where's the open and accountable government in the UK.

    Personally I don't see such sites as anything but propaganda tools, how much of the information on those sites is "selected"?

    Besides isn't it all a bit of a waste of money, the average "citizen" doesn't want to look up what the residents of 1600 Penn. are doing. Well I would assume so unless their incredibly dull and have nothing better to do.

  • Comment number 7.

    As stated by 1:

    "Oh if only the British government would do something like this, instead of spending thousands on a Second Life site or making a fool of yourself on YouTube."

    We don't NEED a youtube channel OR a second life area for government information and resources when there is a perfectly good website for th-...oh wait...

    How about informing people through basic, sensible mediums first rather than "reaching out" to the younger generation by way of totally obsure means to post data.
    Be honest, who logs on to second life when trying to find something before they search for a website?

  • Comment number 8.

    "I agree with #1, where are the open and accountable websites?!"

    Have you tried, you know, looking?


    Ours still need some work, but all the info is pretty much there (maybe even MPs expenses now!).

  • Comment number 9.

    Lots of UK stats at and there is an whole archive of stats from all sorts of surveys at However it's never simple. Ask how many A level CANDIDATES get 3 'a''s or more in 2008 over even this year and you won't find an answer. My best estimate is 37,000 out of 350,000 I am serving a FOI to see if this can be improved on.

    Or have a wet towel and when you read ONS on unemployment!

    Please don't comment. The number of people of working age who are not working in the UK is approx 10 million! Based on a rolling survey it is estimated that approx 2.6 million say they are looking for a job when they were asked, and were available to take up offers immediately (that's the published figure.) Other commentators use the difference between the number not working and the number of unemployed to prove all sorts of political points You won't be surprised to cannot find any good number for the number of "not employed" who got a job last week which is actually the best current measure of a green shoot.

  • Comment number 10.

    Actually, the real "new" tech start-ups for open government in the US are citizen blogs such as the Tech Policy Review ( launched by social entreprenuer, Angela Chock, in July 2009. This person's blog is an excellent example of how the average person can have a say in the public policy debates. You may start to see similiar blogs popping up everywhere.

  • Comment number 11.

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


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