Gov 2.0 practitioners on display during online conference

O’Reilly Media’s first Government 2.0 Online conference was held Thursday, where five case studies were put on display to show how transparency, participation, and collaboration can make government better. Studies ranged from the municipal (City of Santa Cruz) to the state (Utah Department of Public Safety) and multi-governmental (Bay Area Regional Transit Authority) to the multinational (UNICEF’s txts 4 Africa).

Thursday’s Gov 2.0 Online Conference organizers asked some presenters from their summer Gov 2.0 conference in Washington D.C. to speak again, while providing updates on how they’re using collaborative and social tools to achieve their missions. While most presenters had some updates, all cases showed the power open-source and open data could have on the relationship between government and their constituents.

Budget crowdsourceing
First to speak at Gov 2.0 Online was Peter Koht, Economic Development Coordinator for the City of Santa Cruz. Last spring, the city was facing a $9.2 million budget deficit and they needed to come up with budget solutions that would not incite riots nor render the government incapable of delivering its obligated services. By using an online collaboration tool, city officials decided to tap their electorate to help resolve the budget crises and set an economic development strategy that would preserve the city’s unique cultural and environmental hallmarks, Mr. Koht said.

With the help of UserVoice, a San Francisco-based company who helps structure and manage online feedback, the city set up the website within eight days, spearheaded by volunteers and with no budget. The UserVoice forum collected ideas, reduced redundancy and structured a ranking system so the best ideas on how to fix the budget bubbled to the top. This was important in getting more participants involved and keeping the outliers from controlling the debate, Koht said.

Another important aspect to the way Santa Cruz approached this project was releasing data on the city budget dating back ten years, along with comments from the independent city manager. Koht suggested this helped raise the dialogue to those who had a reason to be there.

As for lessons learned, Koht said it’s important to, “Show [the public] what you do, let the public interact with it, and let the debate go from there.”

Innovation from constraints
The second presentation came from Merrick Schaefer, director of the UNICEF Innovations Unit. Mr. Schaefer spoke about a project his team developed called RapidSMS – an open source, SMS-based communications system, originally intended for use by UNICEF to alert workers in the field of emergencies. RapidSMS was then adopted to tackle another problem UNICEF aid workers faced in fighting malnutrition.

According to Mr. Schaefer, UNICEF needed a way to get information back from healthcare workers on the ground in Malawi to headquarters in New York City. UNICEF uses basic measurements, such as height, weight and upper arm circumference to track malnutrition and until the development of RapidSMS, aid workers had to write the measurements on paper and mail them back New York City.

So instead of using SMS as a simple out-bound communications tool, Mr. Schaefer and his team built a system that allowed workers to communicate those measurements, while pairing that information with back-end, open-source software. The result was that UNICEF aid workers were able to deliver measurements in real-time to allow graphing analysis and mapping capability.

Additionally, coordinators in New York were able to show the big-picture of how those measurements were being used to those in the field, which helped them understand the value of their work. Now the same SMS-delivered, open-source supported technology is helping UNICEF with supply chain management and other food distribution programs.

“It really empowered them – it turned a data collection tool into a tool that directly benefitted children,” Schaefer said.

All aboard
Recently, the Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) system relaunched their website and began tapping social media channels to communicate with riders and manage their public image. Melissa Jordan, a senior marketing representative with BART, told the online crowd Thursday that getting involved with social media was a no-brainer.

Two big areas of importance for BART, where social media is concerned, is to make sure they are providing timely and relevant information using the technology their riders use.

“We have 340,000 riders per day – they are using the Web and mobile devices while in transit and they need us to be there,” she said. “But we had to be there in real-time, not just government time.”

By being an early advocate for open data, BART has really pushed to integrate citizen developers to crowdsource station and schedule applications. But the transportation authority also wants to make sure riders don’t just see them as just another bureaucracy.

Some projects to look forward to from BART include the release of their full public API, which will “open up more data than ever before,” Jordan said. They also recently launched a partnership with Foursquare. So far, more than 5000 riders have “checked in,” and 110 riders have unlocked BART badges, according to Jordan.

To see more, visit the BART website.

Shoveling media requests in Utah
Utah’s Public Safety Department encompasses 11 different agencies, so their public information office is never wont for something to do. In fact, according to Sergeant Jeff Nigbur, lead Public Information Officer, they were doing all they could to stay on top of reporter requests. “We needed a better way to communicate with media and public,” Sergeant Nigbur said. So DPS developed a Public Safety Media Portal, which allows authorized media to access a real-time stream of events and multimedia files for communicating public safety-related information. Last week, DPS launched a new mobile Web application for their Public Safety Media Portal.

The media is now able to access real-time information from the Public Safety Media Portal directly to their mobile phone regardless of venue or environment, Sgt. Nigbur said. Sgt. Nigbur is also able to push RSS and SMS text out via Twitter under the new system, he said.

As important is the system is in terms of communicating active incidents in real-time to media, the real value is in the time it saves the DPS public information office, Sgt. Nigbur said.

“Our call volume is down 40%,” Sgt. Nigbur said, “it helps us stay sane and on task.”

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