Jun 07 2011
The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4 1776 by a small group of people who possessed great courage and foresight. The Constitution was framed and signed after the Revolutionary War, on September 17th of 1787 by another group of visionaries.
The United States of America was founded and has been nurtured by small groups of people working together to solve common problems and to promote the greater good. They understood and practiced the precepts of participatory government. However the idea of participatory government was not new even then. Plato said, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
I was privileged this past weekend to be involved in a 21st Century version of participatory government.
CityCamp Raleigh (http://citycampral.org/) brought together government, business, neighborhood, non-profit, and academic communities to re-imagine the ways in which open source collaboration and technology will shape the future of our city.
CityCamp is a series of events, first started in Chicago, focused on innovation for government and community organizations in our cities. Each CityCamp has four main goals:
- Bring together government officials, municipal employees, experts, programmers, designers, citizens and journalists to share perspectives and insights about the cities in which they live
- Create or maintain government transparency and effective local governance using the web as a platform
- Foster communities of practice and advocacy on the role of information and open data in cities
- Create outcomes that participants will act on during and after the event
CityCamp Raleigh was an “unconference” with little planned structure other than the first day in which we learned about unconferences, CityCamps in other cities, and problems facing citizens and the state and local governments. The organization required to identify and solve problems was created on the fly as we listened to panels and speakers. The simple low-tech expedient of a grid of masking tape on one of the walls of our venue allowed participants to post ideas and for others to self-select into groups based upon those ideas.
Each group focused on one problem in which they shared a common interest and generated a presentation to define the problem and their possible solution. Some groups even provided a simple level of implementation or a non-functional prototype to demonstrate their solutions. Sunday afternoon, June 5, each group presented its ideas to a panel of judges and the other groups.
The winning team, named “Open it Up,” proposed making public data from NC Education Report Card open and easily accessible. Although the data is currently available, it is cumbersome to obtain and difficult and expensive to manipulate.
School data can currently be obtained from a web site that does not allow any direct comparison of various measurement and tracking criteria. All of the data from the web site can be obtained directly from the Department of Public Instruction on a CD for a $10 shipping and handling fee. Once the CD is in one’s hands, however, it is still not accessible. You must spend several hundred dollars on proprietary software merely to access the database. You must learn to use the software and then figure out how to manipulate the data to meet your needs. This is not open data because it is not easily accessible.
The Open it Up team demonstrated a method to convert this data into an open data format that can be used by anyone, Comma Separated Variable (CSV). Any spreadsheet program can import and export data in this format and a large number of Open Source programs can use it as well. They made the data available on the open data web site http://ncschooldata.wordpress.com/ where it was easily transformed into graphs allowing parents to easily compare school performance. You can download the data yourself from the website and use it in any way you choose.
Ideally the data should be in an open format to begin with so that proprietary tools would not be required. The raw data should be made publicly available from the internet in this open format. This allows citizens and entrepreneurs to create inexpensive apps to access the data in any variety of ways so that parents could compare schools without having to invest a great deal money and time in proprietary software.
The $5000 prize was awarded on creativity, execution, and feasibility. Jason Hibbits a CityCamp Raleigh committee co-chair and judge said, “The Open It Up team epitomized the CityCamp Raleigh event. The issue was mentioned in the panel on Friday by Jimmy Goodmon as a parental concern, stated by a government employee in a breakout session on Saturday morning, and a team of strangers came together to propose and prototype a technology solution by the end of the following day.”
Another group suggested ways to implement Open Source Software in the City of Raleigh. They recommended supporting the resolution before the City Council this Tuesday to include Open Source Software as an option in the city purchasing process.
Open Source Software can be of higher quality and less expensive than proprietary software. In some cases it is even free of charge such as many versions of Linux, and the Firefox web browser. I use Free Open Source Software exclusively to run my business and on all of my home computers. Yes I have many computers.
One of the more interesting problems was increasing bus ridership and making it easier for those who already use public transportation. The solution was to use QR codes on stickers and the realtime GPS data that will soon be made publicly available from the CAT buses. The QR stickers would be pasted on each bus stop sign and each sign has a unique code embedded in the sticker.
A simple app would let cellphone users snap a photo of the QR sticker and that data would be used to determine which routes serve the stop and the arrival time of the next bus for each route. A similar app in use in San Francisco allows users to get to the bus stops just as buses arrive. For many people this means less wasted time waiting at bus stops.
Other groups worked on ways to support local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, provide easier citizen input to their city council members, and even use telepresence in public places to connect with people in our sister cities.
Many of the participants worked far longer than just the official CityCamp hours to hone their projects. Emails and tweets flew at all hours of night and day.
Much of the success of CityCamp was the diversity of people who attended. Citizens and government employees brought the problems that the technical people had know knowledge of. Then together with the more technical attendees they synthesized workable solutions in way that the techies alone would not have imagined. CityCamp is a perfect example of how Open Source works.
I was amazed at the creativity exhibited by these groups and the amount of energy surrounding these projects. I was exhausted by the end of the three days and yet exhilarated by the results that all of the teams achieved. I met and worked with some old friends and made many new ones.
Thanks to all who participated in planning and staffing CityCamp Raleigh. I would like to thank the sponsors and the state and local government officials who supported the first CityCamp Raleigh. Without them this event would not have been possible. I enjoyed myself so much that I have volunteered to help plan future CityCamp Raleigh events. I really hope to see you at the next CityCamp Raleigh in 2012 or at one of the meetups between now and then.
All of the groups are excited by the results of CityCamp Raleigh and will continue working to implement their projects to make Raleigh a better place to live than it already is. Look for the results of their efforts during the coming year.
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