Government 2.0 in Oklahoma

by Michael D. Bates

03/14/2012

There’s an app for Shawnee, Oklahoma.

On Android-powered smartphones, on iPhone or iPad, or on a mobile web browser you can access maps of police incidents and listen live to police, fire, and EMS radio, pay a water bill or a parking ticket, search a clickable City Hall phone book, look at city job openings, get all the details on the upcoming sales tax and bond issue election, find the weather forecast and see the current weather radar, browse upcoming events, read the agenda for the next planning commission meeting, search for the minutes of the council meeting where they voted on the name for the dog park, and then watch that meeting (via YouTube).

The FAQ section of the app covers chloramine (they have it) and fluoride (they don’t) in the water, code enforcement, stray animals, applying for Community Development Block Grants, reporting a crime anonymously, and where to put your trash cart so the truck doesn’t accidentally take your car away instead.

This Shawnee app has maps: city limits, active and recent emergency calls, upcoming garage sales, code violations, fire hydrants, sex offenders, dilapidated structures, and abandoned refrigerators. There’s even a map for—and who would have thought we’d need this in Oklahoma—recent earthquakes.

All of this information and more is available to interested residents via a single, free app called YouTown. The cost to the City of Shawnee to provide this app: $0.

Tech-savvy Oklahomans inside and outside government are working to make piles of digital information generated by city councils, school districts, state agencies, public works departments, and transit systems easily available to the public—not merely online but in a form that can be reused and recombined by the public in useful and creative ways.

This push toward putting government data online is sometimes called Government 2.0 or Open Data. Open Data uses the Internet to fulfill the promise of decades-old Open Government efforts like Open Meetings and Open Records laws to make the inner workings of government accessible to citizen accountability. Not only do you have the right to attend the city council meeting, you can watch it online live and refer other citizens to an online recording of the meeting. Not only do you have the right to inspect the trash board’s emails and financial records, you should be able to view them on the Internet any time, day or night. And those records should be machine-readable, in a format ready for computer programs to search, sort, and analyze.

Every Friday, a dozen or so freelancers, mostly web developers, gather at the Tulsa Fab Lab for coworking day. The idea is to break out of the isolation that comes with freelancing, to have a chance to bounce ideas off of someone who gets what you do for a living (which is to say, not the cat), and to open the door for business ideas, job opportunities, and other forms of serendipity to emerge.

While much of the day is spent working on the projects that pay the bills, there’s usually some discussion and collaboration on open-data projects, finding ways to acquire, combine, analyze, and present government data in ways that have civic benefit and commercial potential.

Last October about 50 developers gathered at the Tulsa Fab Lab for the Tulsa Hackathon (tulsahackathon.com), organized by Luke Crouch (@groovecoder on Twitter). 24 hours of writing software, fueled by donated pizza and beer, resulted in five apps built to meet the needs of local non-profits and government agencies.

One of the apps, the Tulsa Road Information Feed (TRIF), developed in cooperation with the Indian Nation Council of Governments (INCOG) Transportation Planning Division, merges construction closure information from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the City of Tulsa with accident reports from the Tulsa Police Department. These multiple streams of information are merged into a single source of accident and road construction locations that could affect driving conditions in Tulsa.

You can see the result on your phone, tablet, or PC at trif.tulsawebdevs.org—a Google map of Tulsa marked with current construction projects and recent accident reports, so you can route yourself around traffic obstacles.

Not only can the resulting merged road information feed be used to overlay a Google map, but it’s also in a flexible form that another developer could easily use as the foundation for yet another app. One commercial possibility built on TRIF, called OttoZen, was demonstrated at the Tulsa Startup Weekend last November. A user would register, provide the route of his commute and a means of contact, and OttoZen would notify a registered user of traffic hazards, harvested from TRIF, along his commute.

Over time, the aggregation of TRIF data could reveal patterns of accidents that would influence road improvements or special enforcement efforts. It’s an example of the open-data life cycle—government makes the data available to the public, the public adds value to it, and the value-added data is available for government use in daily operations and planning. All for the marginal cost of putting data the government already has on a public website.

Crouch is working on another project: Extracting restaurant inspection results from the Tulsa Health Department website, so that the food safety ratings could potentially be combined with restaurant review sites and social network check-ins. Because the inspection results are presented on the THD site for human eyes, Crouch has written a “scraper”—a piece of software to extract information from a webpage into a form that can easily be reused for other purposes.

Crouch is a believer in limited government, and he sees open data as a way to reduce the size and scope of government without reducing service to the public.

“Open data enables web developers and citizens to freely solve community problems in ways that aren’t possible to government agencies, i.e., unconstrained by complicated procurement, budget deficits, or partisan politics. If the data is publicly available, we’ll solve community problems so that government doesn’t have to be all things to all people.

“The Internet has shown when we participate on a platform of open resources, we create things for ourselves and for each other.” Quoting a letter from Thomas Jefferson, Crouch says, “If government embraces that openness and participation of the web, then ‘every man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.’”

Another Tulsa web developer, Randall Minter, turned his interest in buying homes at sheriff sales into a web site called gavelhound.com, built on top of his qrimp.com database development platform. Still under development, Gavelhound merges Tulsa County Sheriff Office foreclosure data with County Assessor data, crime data and other information that would be useful to someone considering bidding at the auction.

The next Tulsa Hackathon—two days this time—is planned for April 13–15, 2012, to be preceded on April 13 by a workshop on how to hack data—where to find it and how to turn it into useful information.

(“Hack,” in this context, doesn’t mean gaining unauthorized access to computers or breaking encryption, but rather the use of one’s programming skills to develop a quick-and-dirty solution to a problem, as opposed to an elegant but slow solution.)

One of the most obvious ways government can use public data to provide better service at lower cost is to make its transit routes and schedules available via Google Maps. Let’s say you’re in a strange city on a business trip, staying downtown with no rental car, and you want to find out if there’s some practical way to get to an enticing restaurant or live music performance during your time off. You go to maps.google.com, enter your hotel address and the address of your destination and find out how far a walk it is.

If the strange city is San Antonio, Colorado Springs, San Francisco, Orlando, Glasgow, Kansas City, Denver, or more than 400 other cities around the world, it takes just one more click on a transit icon on the Google Maps page to find out if you can get there by public transit, how long it will take, when you need to start, and, in many cities, how much it will cost.

The ease of switching between auto, pedestrian, and transit directions attracts riders who would never have bothered seeking out the transit agency’s website.

Try that in Tulsa, and you get an error message:

“Your search for transit directions … appears to be outside our current coverage area.”

To the traveler in a hurry to find directions, it looks like Tulsa doesn’t have a public transit system at all. A visitor isn’t likely to know the name of the local bus service or search for its website.

Google has developed an open standard for transit agencies to publish schedule and route information and will map, free of charge, the routes of any transit agency that provides its data in that format. There are open source tools available, again free of charge, to make it easy to convert data from the agency’s route management system to Google’s transit format.

The Tulsa Web Devs group has already created a way to turn data from Tulsa Transit’s Trapeze system into Google’s format. All that is needed now is for Tulsa Transit to sign up with Google and make the data available on tulsatransit.org.

A query to Tulsa Transit, via their website, about the timeline of the agency’s plans to provide transit data to Google has yet to receive a reply, but Luke Crouch reports that the agency has given its blessing to the Tulsa Web Devs group’s plans.

Down the turnpike, State Rep. Jason Murphey (R-Guthrie) is the leading advocate at the Oklahoma State Capitol for open records and data online. Now in his third term in the State House, Murphey is chairman of the House Government Modernization Committee.

Ideologically, Murphey is a right-wing, small-government Republican; he endorsed Ron Paul for president in 2008, and he’s one of the sponsors of a bill to allow concealed carry of firearms on public college campuses.

Murphey is also a member of the generation that grew up with personal computers and connectivity. As a teenager, he developed and ran a Bulletin Board System (BBS) in the early 1990s, an online gathering place that predates widespread public access to the Internet.

In 2000, he created a website, oklegislature.gov, to collect and provide public access to documents generated by legislators, documents that weren’t otherwise easily available online.

Elected to the Guthrie city council in 2001, he led a successful effort to put city government meetings on the Internet and television. In 2006, he was elected to the State House, and set to work to open up state government in the same way.

Murphey’s legislative handiwork is especially visible in Title 62, Section 34. Oklahoma now has a Chief Information Officer to consolidate and standardize government computing in Oklahoma, which suffered from years of every agency doing its own thing with varying degrees of quality and transparency. Instead of every agency having its own set of application developers, the Information Services Division of the Office of State Finance develops applications for use across state government.

Murphey’s laws created data.ok.gov and specified what data has to be available on the site, how often it has to be updated, and the non-proprietary formats in which the data must be provided (XML and CSV, at a minimum). If someone wants new data or a new way to get the data, there’s a page on the data portal to make a suggestion (http://data.ok.gov/nominate).

In writing about one of his open government bills (2010’s SB 1759, co-authored with State Senator Anthony Sykes), Murphey explained how open data goes beyond government accountability to improve government performance in quantifiable ways:

“Using these standards, software developers will be able to create applications which can be used to analyze the data and present it to the public in any number of ways … [T]he data and the tools which will be developed for analyzing the data will have an application which will far exceed that of basic public transparency. I believe these tools will eventually allow state officials to have a set of performance metrics by which they can begin holding various bureaucracies responsible for meeting certain expectations.”

This is already beginning to happen. Last year, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a free-market state policy think-tank, launched AccountabilityOK.com, providing interested taxpayers with an easy way to search and filter payroll, pension, revenue, and spending data that the state has published on data.ok.gov.

Beyond our state borders, there are plenty of examples inside and outside government to inspire Oklahoma’s Gov 2.0 advocates.

In 2006, Dustin Haisler was a 19-year-old IT guy working for the City of Manor, Texas, a town of a few thousand souls a dozen miles east of Austin, trying to find ways to use technology to improve city services while reducing costs. The expensive, proprietary hardware and software that big cities buy was simply out of Manor’s reach, so he began looking to open-source options and inexpensive services.

Haisler, who eventually became Manor’s assistant city manager, municipal judge, chief information officer, finance director, and city secretary, built Manor’s Government 2.0 infrastructure on a nearly-non-existent budget, while pursuing a bachelor’s degree online and being a daddy to three small children.

Manor uses an online service called SeeClickFix to allow citizens to report potholes, graffiti, water leaks, and non-emergency problems needing the attention of a city department—the sort of things that in Tulsa require a call to the Mayor’s Action Center. For a modest monthly fee, SeeClickFix not only provides citizens with a way to report problems, but it provides the city with a way to track their resolution.

Manor has an “official research and development division,” a website called ManorLabs.org where interested citizens can propose and discuss solutions to the city’s challenges. You post your ideas and everyone can vote and comment on them. Well-received ideas are rewarded by users with points that can turn into prizes.

To take a tour of Manor, you don’t pick up a brochure. Instead, you use your phone to scan the large-sized QR codes posted on signs around town; the scans take you to a webpage that tells you all about where you are.

Another online service allows Manor to send emergency alerts to residents via text message and smartphone apps.

Haisler, who describes himself on his Twitter bio as “Disruptive Innovator, Dad, Husband, Christ-follower,” was named one of 2009’s 25 Doers, Dreamers, and Drivers of Technology by Government Technology magazine. Today he works as Director of Government Innovation for Spigit, the company that makes the collaborative innovation software that powers ManorLabs.org.

The Tulsa Web Developers gathered at the Fab Lab on a recent Monday night for their monthly business meeting. The special guest speaker, appearing via Skype, was Chris Groskopf, of the website HackTyler.com.

Groskopf had been a news applications developer for the Chicago Tribune, working in the growing field of data journalism, turning public data into eye-catching visualizations and applications for use by journalists and the general public. At the Trib, he created open source software that any journalist or citizen could reuse and build upon to process and present public data.

Last summer, when Groskopf and his wife divorced, and she moved to Tyler, Texas, he decided to follow so as to be near his son, and he decided to make the most of the move. Groskopf embarked upon a personal data journalism project to “find out what I was getting into.”

He started by cataloging all the public data available from the City of Tyler and Smith County – a surprising amount of data for the city’s size (96,900 people in the city, 209,714 in the county), but no one seemed to be doing anything with it. Groskopf saw an opportunity to “use the skills [he] developed in Chicago to make another place better”:

“Tyler has information that could be freed. Tyler has government that could be opened. Tyler has news that could be hacked.”

Groskopf set up a blog at HackTyler.com to chronicle his efforts and present his results. Civic-minded, well-connected Tylerites came across the blog and reached out to him, months before his arrival, and he began to make connections to find the information he sought.

He wanted to live as car-free a life as possible in Tyler, so his first project involved turning transit system data into the format required for trip planning in Google Maps.

Tyler Transit only provided schedule and routing info as PDF files on its website. When he asked the agency for a list of bus stops, he was hoping for a spreadsheet; the transit agency sent him “a PDF of a scan of a printout of a web application,” which meant he had to key all the information in himself, cleaning up typos as he went along.

The result was the first and only digital map of Tyler bus routes. He had expected the transit agency would be the most open to making data available, in the interest of increasing ridership— “not even remotely the case.”

But most of Tyler officialdom has been happy to help Groskopf’s efforts in any way they can. To help with his map of sidewalks in Tyler, the city’s Geographical Information Systems (GIS) department made data available to him that hadn’t previously been online.

The Tyler Police Department has met with him to find out what they could do, within reason, to make their data more useful to app developers. Groskopf took the TPD’s active call feed (itself a collaboration between computer science students at University of Texas-Tyler and TPD IT staff) and turned it into Tyler Sirens, a “visual police scanner” with updates of the latest police calls every two minutes.

Sid Burgess grew up in Haskell, a town of a couple thousand people along US 64 between Bixby and Muskogee. After a tour as a combat medic with the Oklahoma National Guard in Iraq, Burgess returned to his hometown and got involved, running for and winning a seat on the Haskell city council in 2005.

One of his goals is to “[b]ridge the g ap between social media/ networking and local governments and change lives for the better in the process.” During his tenure on the Haskell council, Burgess convinced the city to sign up for SeeClickFix.

Burgess moved to Oklahoma City to begin his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, and while there became a leading advocate for the use of technology in local government. He helped to organize last May’s Gov 2.0a conference in Oklahoma City. The conference concluded with two day-long workshops: “Mash-IT-up Camp,” for developers building new applications from open data, and “City Camp,” for municipal government and community organization officials to dream up new applications.

Last fall, Burgess moved to Seattle to become Director of Government Operations for DotGov, a technology startup aimed at connecting local governments and their citizens.

DotGov has developed a mobile app called YouTown, the one employed by the city of Shawnee, who pays nothing. A “pro” account for a modest monthly fee allows the city to customize and brand the app.