Making Public Information Useful

Ever since Jon Udell blogged about Amazon and the local library back in 2002 and began to show public information could be made more useful, I've been thinking about how we enable a non-programmer to do things like this. Sites like this are amazing, but too hard to create, which is why I began to focus on mashups and what became Popfly.

As we were creating Popfly, I pushed hard to have us include various elements of government information. I talked with the folks at the Seattle Public Library, who immediately "got it," I tried to talk with the folks who run the King County Bus Tracking site (and wound up in an infinite redirect), and we spent countless hours looking at other government sites like the NOAA site and things like the Seattle 911 site. A few things emerged from this:

  • There's no way that one product team within Microsoft tackle making all the government's data accessible. There's just too much of it.
  • Most government data is still wrapped up in unusable/unprogrammable formats like PDF files and HTML pages.
  • Some government data is being actively made harder to get to due to concerns that it will be misused (e.g. the Seattle 911 information went from tabular HTML to GIFs)

Just as governments are making strides to make more information accessible on the web, they need to make that same information programmatically accessible so that people can take it and do things with it -- whether it's use a tool like Popfly to mash it with other data, or import it into Excel to analyze it. I don't think very many people in government get this scenario since it's pretty advanced, and I'm certain most government institutions aren't funded to make this happen.

So how can we get around this? Well, I think for starters an education campaign with government officials to help them understand the need for programmatic accessibility to information. For another, I think people with a passion for local information (e.g. Chicago's crime stats or Seattle's 911 calls) should look at ways to get that information into an accessible format (preferably a web service of some form).

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