On March 23, at the first Open Government NYC Meetup at the New Work City space on Varick Street, techies got into a discussion about data. “Even if you took the firewall down around the government, they wouldn’t know where anything is either,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum and and technology advisor to online government watchdog initiative Sunlight Foundation.
He was responding to Sanford Dickert, a tech consultant and strategist who worked on projects including Twitter Vote Report, which used social media to aggregate reports on conditions and wait lines at polling stations last November. Mr. Dickert was discussing a similar project his is working on, called New York Taxi Report, and expressing his frustration with the government’s unwillingness to open up stats and numbers that other groups might find useful—like 311 reports. “There are internal constraints, both legal and political strains, to get them to do what you want them to do,” he said.
Mr. Rasiej said the group had to come to a decision: either they use their tech savvy skills and become a “guerilla organization” that creates programs and web-based applications to show government the power of existing data, “and wait for them to catch up with us.” Or they lobby the government to operate with a more open data policy. “I think the latter is a waste of time,” Mr. Rasiej said.
The goal of the Open Government NYC Meeup, according to head organizer Matt Cooperrider, was to bring together everyone working on Government 2.0 initiatives in the city and suss out who is working on what—and maybe pool their efforts. After sipping Brooklyn Brewery beers and munching on cheese and cookies, about 40 of the attendees tried to figure out how they could help—from creating Twitter feeds for each New York City subway line and setting up platforms for crowd-sourced reports to explaining to politicians exactly why open data is so important.
Many, including Austin Osmer, campaign manager for Rev. Billy Tallen, who is running for mayor against Michael Bloomberg on an open data platform, called for the city to open up data culled from 311. In early March, City Council speaker Christine Quinn and Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who chairs the Committee on Technology in Government, proposed that the administration create a mobile 311 application so citizens could get quick, basic information, like school closings, and report on local crimes and potholes from their iPhones or BlackBerry devices. But, if Ms. Quinn truly wanted to “eliminate the middleman” as she said, one Personal Democracy Forum blogger said, she’d have to give the raw data to the public so they can decide what kind of connections and displays will be useful for them. It’s not about PDFs and iPhone applications, it’s about the numbers, stats and reports behind the government-curated graphics.
Mr. Rasiej said that “it’s not her you need to get to, it’s her policy makers” like Paul Cosgrave, the city’s commissioner of the department of information technology and telecommunications, and local city council members.
“There are government people who want to do better, but they don’t know how,” added Rachael Fauss, research and policy associate at Citizens Union, an independent organization that promotes good government and political reform. Ms. Fauss previously worked as former legislative director for Assemblywoman Barbara Clark. She encouraged the high-tech coders in the room to educate their politicians. “It’s really worth it to teach them and help them understand what the problem is,” she said. “Otherwise, nothing is going to change.”
Mr. Rasiej has been consulting Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith on making Albany more open and transparent through technology. Besides introducing Andrew Hoppin as a candidate for the chief information officer position, he has been working with Andrew Stengel, senior policy advisor for government reform, on a YouTube channel, created on Feb. 20, called NYSenateRulesReform, to help foster public participation in the Temporary Senate Committee on Rules and Administration Reform’s hearings and testimonies. According to the YouTube page, the group “has been charged with undertaking a thorough review of the how the Senate conducts its business, and with making recommendations to increase openness, fairness and accountability, and a more participatory and transparent legislative process.”
Mr. Rasiej also suggested that Mr. Smith hire a new communications director who is familiar with social networking tools—like Twitter—to connect with constituents.
These changes are part of a momentum, Mr. Rasiej told the Observer in a recent interview, to change the way the state government has operated for the past three decades by making it more transparent and efficient with technology.
Louis Klepner, who works on CivicID.org and the NYC Community Fiber Project, which aims to bring stronger broadband connectivity to the city, said the tech savvy folks in the room should break out of their inner circles and become more visible to local government. He said he attended a city council meeting about open government and broadband access, and he was one of only five people there. “One thing that we have en masse is our mass,” he said. “We need to use it.”