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“Something is obviously broken when the only way people know how to get their government’s attention is by camping in downtown squares, marching and protesting, screaming at those in charge,” California’s Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom writes in his new book “Citizenville.”
Newsom’s book is a manifesto on how government needs to stop fearing and resisting new technology.
“The future is about information — being able to access it, manipulate it, learn from it, improve our lives with it … this is how our 20-first-century government must operate,” he writes.
He calls on all government agencies to open up the massive hoards of data they collect, big data — as the tech industry calls it today — and let citizens build amazing new life-improving apps, particularly for smartphones/tablets.
It’s a concept called Citizenville, named after Farmville, Zynga’s successful social game where people build and care for virtual farms. He wants to use the things that people love about Farmville to inspire people to engage with their real-world communities as passionately.
Governments, which are not great at tech to begin with, he says, need to look at citizen apps as “free gifts” instead of intrusions that need to be stopped.
Newsom makes a compelling case with a long list of examples from over the last decade of how citizen apps, as well as some from the government, tap data to make our lives better.
Here are some examples:
- In Baltimore, a program called CitiStat became the model for other cities throughout the nation to release stats on crime. New York’s CompStat is another example.
- Citizens have taken such crime data from their cities and written apps, like Oakland Crimespotting, which shows all where all reported crime has occurred and was created by Mical Migurski at Stamen Design.
- Code for America is a small army of citizen programmers who volunteer for a short amount of time to code for the public good. They will operate in 10 cities in 2013, including San Francisco and New York. They take public data and write amazing apps, everything from public art walking tours to apps that make it easy to do the paperwork to start a new business.
- 311 is a technical method where citizens can report stuff, like potholes, to their local governments, or get answers to common questions. They dial “311” on their phones. Open311 is a tech that takes that concept and makes it usable via the web, Twitter, and other Internet-based communication methods.
- A non-profit called the Markle Foundation created something called the Blue Button so veterans could download their health care records by clicking on a button on the VA website. This spawned BlueButtonData.org to let all citizens download their health data.
- The Blue Button led to the Green Button, which allows consumers to download all their energy usage from their local electricity company’s web page.
- At the federal level, there’s a project called Citizen Cosponsor, where anyone can help write the bills to be presented in the House.
- Maybe one of the most intriguing apps of all time is New York City’s Condom Finder, which helps you find the closest location to get free condoms.
Critics of the Citizenville concept will argue that if the government were to release all of its data, it could be a risk to public safety. Knowing where the water lines are or where the gas lines are could, conceivably, be used by the bad guys to hurt people.
But Newsom argues back: “It makes no sense to create a climate of such abject fear that we feel compelled to hide any scrap of information that could conceivably be used to harm us.”
Ultimately, it’s the people’s government and the people’s data, and sharing is good for everyone, he believes.
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