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Open Government Laboratories of Democracy

Summary: 
Inspired by the President's call for more open government, states and municipalities across the country are putting more information online and fostering transparency, participation, and collaboration.

Cross-posted from the Office of Science and Technology's OSTP Blog 

"It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system," Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote in 1932, "that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."  The Obama Administration is taking unprecedented strides toward creating the most open and accountable government in history. And in so doing, we’re learning from those states and municipalities, which are undertaking exciting experiments to bring transparency, participation, and collaboration to the way they work as well.

Inspired by the President’s call for more open government, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts launched its data catalogue, following in the footsteps of Washington, DC, San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere around the country (as well as cities in Canada and the UK), to provide public access to information by and about government. What makes this exciting is not merely having transportation information available in machine-readable formats, but that professional and amateur enthusiasts can then get together, as they did last weekend, to create new software applications and data visualizations to better enable public transit riders to track arrival times for the next subway, bus, or ferry. Publishing government information online facilitates this kind of useful collaboration between government and the public that transforms dry data into the tools that improve people’s lives. (For another great example, check out what happened when we published the Federal Register for people to use.)

The National Association of State CIOs is helping to spur this movement toward greater data transparency at the state level by publishing “Guidance for Opening the Doors to State Data.”

Just as the federal government is using online brainstorming with government employees and the public to generate ideas for saving money or going green, state and local governments are also using new technology to tap people’s intelligence and expertise. The City of Manor, Texas (pop. 5800) has launched “Manor Labs,” an innovation marketplace for improving city services.  A participant can sign up to suggest “ideas and solutions” for the police department, the municipal court, and everything in between. Each participant’s suggestion is ranked and rewarded with “innobucks.” These innobucks points can be redeemed for prizes: a million innobucks points wins “mayor for the day” while 400,000 points can be traded for a ride-along with the Chief of Police.

Manor is also one of the few cities currently using bar codes (known as QR or Quick Response Codes) to label physical locations around town. These bar codes can be scanned with a mobile phone to communicate historical and touristic information, data about the cost of a municipal service, or emergency management information. Manor is experimenting with techniques for providing different information to different audiences. If a resident scans a QR code outside a home for sale, she gets the floor plan and purchase price; whereas the building inspector gets the inspection history; and the first responder gets information about the current occupant.

As more of these innovative projects that foster open government go live and achieve results, we look forward to showcasing some of them on our blog and eventually making details available on the Open Government Innovation Gallery.  Developers with new tools to offer to facilitate open government – including free social media applications -- should also check out Apps.gov and list their products (here’s how) for others to use. Openness and accountability are the responsibility of government at every level.  By getting out the word about innovations that help to realize open government in practice, we can both promote new experiments and help people find and re-use the best ones.

Visit the OSTP blog to comment on this post.

Beth Noveck is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government