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.