A Tale of Two Cities: How DC and San Francisco Are Handling Citywide 311

Without a doubt, I am a data whore. I love raw data. I love APIs. I love finding interesting ways to mashup data. With the new found craze in government for openness, led in no small part from the Federal level and work endorsed by the Obama Administration to work pushed forward by Sunlight Labs, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and others, I’d expect the openness to trickle down to state and local levels. And it is.

On one level, you have Washington, DC (where I live) who has been making impressive strides through OCTO (Office of the Chief Technology Officer) with the assistance of iStrategyLabs and the Apps for Democracy competition.

Washington, DC is in production of it’s Open 311 API, a RESTful data API that they are careful to note is in development. (We will be building a PHP library around this API shortly, so keep an eye for that announcement over at Emmense.com).

In using a REST API, DC is opening up the service sector of the DC City government for developers of all sorts to tap into and build applications around. All to meet the needs of city residents.

San Francisco, on the other hand, just announced that they are utilizing Twitter to allow residents to submit issues directly from their favorite web application. Simply by following @sf311 (and being refollowed), citizens are able to DM requests.

Personally, I am partial to DC’s approach but I applaud both cities for pushing the boundaries to bring city government closer to the people. Frankly, I’m a little concerned about San Francisco utilizing Twitter for this purpose, for the same reason that I am hesitant about any business making their business model about Twitter. Twitter has not proved, at least in my mind, that they have the business savvy to keep their service from going out of business. Likewise, they have not proved their technical ability to make a fail-less system. It’s a game of Russian roulette to base a business (or government service) around this application. San Francisco probably has failover plans and this is just another approach though, so arguably it’s not a significant risk.

However, the solution to the 311 problem becomes infinitely more scalable when utilizing a pure API and allowing the pure submission and retrieval of data. And the use of an API keeps responsibility in-house. Twitter is not paid for by taxpayer money, so there is no expectation of quality control. A government owned and maintained API, on the other hand, provides safeguards that make sense.

All that aside, it is clear that both DC and San Francisco recognize that the accessibility of governments to their citizens is an utmost important goal in 2009. They are taking laudable steps to break down the barriers and solve real problems with modern technologies. For that, I can find no fault.

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Purple Gates, Cellular Networks and the 44th President of the United States

Today was a legendary day in Washington, D.C. as President Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. The ceremony itself was largely successful with only a hiccup in the delivery of the 35 word Oath of Office – a snafu that was as much President Barack Obamas fault as it was Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

The inaugural speech was well postured and delivered, worded well in fine Obama fashion, but was not reminiscent, as some expected, of John F. Kennedy who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; Ask what you can do for your country” or FDRs famous words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” as he took office in 1933 amidst strong economic concerns in the midst of the Great Depression.

The execution of security and official communications outside the perimeter was abysmal though, ranking extremely low on the Aaron Brazell assessment evaluation of official communications. As West Capitol Lawn ticket holders designated to the “purple area”, we eventually abandoned hope of actually gaining entrance and walked nearly a mile to get obstructed view spots near the Washington Monument shortly before the ceremony began. We were not the only ones affected by the “purple bug” yet we managed to jump ship early enough. Others were not so lucky.

On another inaugural technology note, it seems that AT&T and T-Mobile were mostly down in and around the mall. Sprint customers on the mall complained of spotty issues. As a Verizon Wireless customer, I never had a problem with coverage. Clearly, there is something to be said for a non-GSM network.

Other than that, the experience was a blast, if slightly maddening. History was made. People were mostly friendly and in a good mood which made the experience fun. And of course, I spent the time with my favorite mouthy blogger of all time, Erin Kotecki Vest.

For now, enjoy some pictures I took over the past two days of Inaugural activities.

In and Around the Capitol, Jan 19 2009

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day

In and Around the Capitol, Jan 19 2009

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Coworking Columbia

Sometime last year, I discovered Independent’s Hall in Philadelphia. Indy Hall is a coworking organization that was started by the entrepreneurial community, and largely spearheaded by Alex Hillman who saw the community developing and the need for folks to get together and work.

In such environments, the ability to share ideas and collaborate, is of such value that the first steps had to be taken to organize. It’s all about providing a venue and the tools for collaboration and then getting out of the way to allow the entrepreneurial and creative juices to flow. This is the success of Indy Hall and since I’ve discovered them, I’ve kept a close eye on what is going on there.

I’ve seen Alex a handful of times since, most recently at SXSW, where I whined more about the fact that the Baltimore/Washington area needs coworking but that space was so expensive, the community might not latch on, that I was too busy to make things happen. Blah blah blah.

And that’s about what Alex said. Blah blah blah. In fact, he hears these sorts of broken record excuses regularly as he outlines in an amazing post titled, Your Problems Aren’t What Make You Special, Your Solutions Are.

Here in the Baltimore/Washington area, we have a small group that has been working out of Starbucks for well over a year. It’s loose. It’s unorganized. But it’s grown and on any given day, there are three to nine of us working and taking up the space. Starbucks love us because we keep buying coffee. We love each other because we can share our ideas and bounce thoughts around, share a YouTube video, talk about something that some blogger wrote, etc.

One of our number is the CEO of an Air Taxi company. Another is a financial investor. Another is a freelance photographer. And the list goes on. We’re tied together by a common bond of wanting to share our ideas because iron sharpens iron. We want to see the local entrepreneurial movement grow because we all also agree that working in an office sucks.

Last week, we decided to formalize some things. Little steps at first, but we want to lay the groundwork and see how the community reacts. Every Friday, we’re meeting here (for now) at the Starbucks at 6490 Dobbin Center Way, Columbia MD 21046. For the sake of structure, we’re saying 9am-5pm however people are free to come and go as they wish.

If you’re keeping track at home, we are meeting tomorrow, so join us. Join us once or join us weekly. We are community and we welcome you.

And if you want to get on the mailing list (it’s low traffic), join us at columbia-coworking@googlegroups.com. Hope to see you here!

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