Gov 2.0 evangelists might have been the only ones to notice this summer when Obama ordered federal agencies to start using APIs. At least the information surprised a room of journalists, developers and designers gathered last Tuesday night at Trulia’s San Francisco office for a sold-out data visualization workshop co-hosted by Hacks and Hackers.
Obama had already issued Executive Order 13571 in April, requiring executive departments and agencies to, among other things, identify ways to use innovative technologies to streamline their delivery of services to lower costs, decrease service delivery times, and improve the customer experience.
Washington was going to become a “Digital Government.”
Federal agencies received a 12-month roadmap to use for building “a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People.”
The Department of Transportation developed the Safety Data Initiative and invited developers to use the data, which runs the gamut from transportation to crime to consumer products. If it’s about safety it’s on the website.
There is more buy-in than you might expect, Jo Strang, Co-lead of the Safety Data Initiative, said Tuesday. The agencies involved care about safety, she said. Oh, and, if the order comes from the president they might drag their feet but, “It’s not like they are going to say no.”
Either way, federal data can be a mixed bag especially if it’s old. That’s the case with the National Jail Census. The most recent comes from 2006.
But after a few demos by Sha Hwang, Design Technologist at Trulia, the audience was ready to pitch ideas for telling stories visually using the data sets. Lunar cycles and emergency room visits. Visualizing the most tolerant district in San Francisco using Census data. Transportation safety data sets could show how vehicular fatalities plunge during noon and shoot up on weekends. Crime and law enforcement in the Bay Area is always popular, especially during staff cuts and especially for anyone who covers Oakland. One group suggested comparing law enforcement fatalities to officer-involved shootings. With numerous CalTrain suicides in mind, grad students from Stanford suggested using data about suicides to design preventive safety measures on California’s high-speed rail system (if the system is ever built).
Strang happened to be in California for a meeting to discuss the high-speed rail project. The D.C.-California jet lag was setting in and she had been up since 4 a.m. “It’s midnight my time,” Strang said. “I’m tired.” (Hwang said Strang’s colleague couldn’t get clearance to attend the concurrent New York data vis workshop even though it’s a short train ride from D.C.) Strang’s parting words before heading back to her hotel room in Sacramento: “If you open up data and set it free, fabulous things will happen and we believe that.”