Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Open Municipal Geodata Standard Organization Website

I'd like to announce a new website that I'm starting up called The Open Municipal Geodata Standard Organization Website, or OMG Standard for short, at www.omgstandard.com. The idea behind it is to have an open forum to discuss and collaborate on how to involve governments to effectively release their public data to communities.

The goals at the moment are to:
1 create an open standard for the structuring of municipal data
2 convince governments it's in their best interest to make the data easily available
3 provide tools to let this happen efficiently

I've been thinking about this for a while but was spurred into action by the discovery of a few similar pushes on the internet, the participation in the NetSquared contest, and by Ben Peskoe, a fellow entrepreneur who coined the name "Open Municipal Geodata Standard." Metro Mapper is based on the idea of collecting public data, turning it into a map, publishing the map online, and allowing citizens to view, interact with, and share the data in an appealing way. One major difficulty is in the manner in which the data is obtained.

Some municipal datasets are available online, but this is pretty rare. Even if they available online, the format is difficult to deal with, the data is incomplete, or it's hard to make sense of the data once you have it. Most of the time though, the data is locked up in an old internal database that only one expert person can get to, and finding that person can be difficult. Usually that involves mailing some sort of non-electronic information request, which may or may not be granted, and even it if it is granted, it could take a long time due to limited resource and other priorities. Then you have the issue of getting updates later.

It's not that municipal governments don't want to get the data out to the public, it's more a matter of time, limited staff, budget cuts, and larger priorities. Most people working in the public sector are acutely aware of the problems with their system, but don't know how or can't change it even though they would like to.

So what's the ideal solution? I think it's to help out governments by telling them what would be the biggest benefit to their citizens, giving them a road map for execution, helping them execute, and showing how it can reduce costs in the long run and benefit the community. The result would be digital data feeds on government websites that would contain downloadable information for free.

Luckily some smart people have already started working on this problem. Illinois has an organization called Illinois Data Exchange Affiliates (IDEA) that has similar goals and has had some success. The Sunlight Foundation works to create government transparency and recently had a very successful 'Open Government Working Group' with Google and Yahoo where they produced 8 Principles of Open Data. Sunlight also created PublicMarkup.org to create the Transparency in Government Act of 2008 which aims to bring more national government information online. Every Block (a journalistic project like Metro Mapper) is also a part of this movement and has an interesting blog post about the topic. There is also an active Open Government Google Group which discusses some of these issues. And OpenTheGovernment.org seeks to advance the public's right to know and to reduce secrecy in government.

Where does the OMG Standard fit in? I think it could work in conjunction with some of the above organizations, but with a more specific national goal of helping state and municipal governments publish their public data in a certain format on their websites. Obviously this would benefit Metro Mapper, which in turn would benefit the community. But I also think it is a benefit to the local governments.

For now, think about these issues and start a discussion in the comments below. Soon I'll be putting up a starting point on the OMG Standard website, where we can collaborate on these issues, and you can become a member.


a said...

I can't tell you how much I love this idea. The students in my Administrative Law class think I'm nuts because of how excited I get when I talk about the Freedom of Information Act.

When I was practicing law, we spent a ridiculous amount of time and effort trying to access government records. As one example, we wanted to get Discharge Monitoring Reports
(DMRs) from the Kentucky Division of Water; these are reports every entity with a permit to discharge water into a stream has to produce showing exactly what is coming out of their discharge pipe. There are way too many DMRs for the limited government staff to monitor and enforce, so we wanted to see the DMRs basically to HELP the government do its job. But it was such a bureaucratic time drain to request and get the DMRs every few months. How terrific it would be if these were easily accessible to the public online! It would be extra cool if they were synched up with a map feature so people could see what's going into the streams around them.

I'm eager to see how this idea progresses! Nice work.

-Amanda M.

Michael Schnuerle said...

Thanks for the feedback Amanda, and a great example of its use. I'd love to see a built in map feature on the sites too, but I think that might have to wait for version 2 of the OMG Standard.

With Your Mapper though, you would get the data, load it onto our site, and turn it into a map easily. Then everyone can see it visually and put the map on their own site.

Gabriela Schneider said...

Hi Michael,
What a great initiative! You should get in touch (if you haven't already) with Steven Clift, who should be a great ally, especially for delving into the issue of municipal data standardization. I'm glad you're finding Sunlight's work and our PublicMarkup.org site useful. Thanks for the mention/link!
Gabriela (Sunlight's Communications Dir.)