New York City looks to an open government hackathon to redesign

This week, Luke Fretwell suggested that “instead of building apps, civic hackathons should focus on redesigning websites, then turning them over to gov.” Today in New York City, the first day of the Revinvent hackathon started work on just that. (NYC had been working on this open government event long before Fretwell’s suggestion, but the confluence is worth noting.)

Tomorrow, the world will see what prototypes the Big Apple’s civic developers have co-created today, armed with NYC government demographic information and Web analytics.

They’re using a combination of digital and analog tools, including blackboards, projection screens, laptops and Post-Its. You can track the progress of the hackathon over at the NYC Digital Tumblr.

The formula here seems to be: Reserve space, provide coffee, bagels, electricity and Internet access and use the power of modern social networking, publishing tools and the New York City Mayor’s to convene the community.

If New Yorkers end up with a rethought, redesigned and relaunched, maybe other cities will try out that formula themselves.

For more on New York’s effort to become the nation’s premier digital city, learn more about how the Big Apple is thinking about architecting a city as a platform and citizensourcing smaller government.

[Photo credit: Colin Raney]

NASA launches new open government site with open source tools

In one of the first posts on NASA’s newly relaunched open government blog, open government analyst Ali Llewellyn writes more about why adopting open government is important now, with a nod to Tim O’Reilly’s essay on “government as a platform.”

…OpenGov is not just data transparency or technology use. “Open government is an innovative strategy for changing how government works,” Beth Noveck, the original director of the White House Open Government Initiative, explains. “By using network technology to connect the public to government and to one another informed by open data, an open government asks for help with solving problems. The end result is more effective institutions and more robust democracy.”

From the beginning, democracy was supposed to be participatory. Thomas Jefferson noted in a letter how he envisioned a government where “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.”

In the service of that vision, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration continues to extend its journey into the open government stratosphere with the launch of a redesigned The new site complements – but doesn’t replace it. (The /open sites that exist on federal .gov websites are a direct result of the Open Goverment Directive issued by the White House Office of Management and Budget in 2009.)

The new NASA open government is a beautiful departure from standard NASA websites. In fact, it’s a lovely move away from the Web design citizens encounter at most of the thousands of federal .gov sites. In part, that’s because the new NASA open government site is built upon General Service Agency-approved technologies and the same open source platforms ( like WordPress) that you’ll find at top-notch blogs like BoingBoing. (Or Govfresh). All due credit to Nick Skytland, Chris Gerty and Sean Herron for their hard work coding and designing the site as well. Skytland, who now heads up open government at NASA, wrote in to share his vision for the site and make a request:

After months of development and many discussions, we are very excited to announce the official public launch of The site is a collaborative platform for the open government community at NASA to share success stories and projects related OpenGov from around the agency. The content on this site is written by NASA employees and contractors (just the core OpenGov team right now). We will be highlighting the ways that transparency, participation, and collaboration are being embraced by NASA policy, technology, and culture, and the future that becomes possible because of that commitment. We would love your feedback on the site. Please let us know if you have any issues with the site so we can fix them. The site works on most browsers, but we are still working out issues with Internet Explorer.”

Aside from WordPress, the technology behind includes:
Techs used:

  • A WordPress theme by Landau Reece called Protean 1.0
  • MySQL
  • Apache
  • The Disqus commenting system
  • The UserVoice feedback collection tool

As I reported yesterday, NASA’s open government story now includes supplying the innovation behind OpenStack and Nebula. That said, while the technology behind the new NASA open government site and other initiatives is important to recognize, it has to be valued in terms of its ability to both host conversations and feature the people behind it. As NASA’s open government story evolves, cultural changes will be important to track, along with any technical milestones driven by open source or efficiencies driven by tightening budgets.

A note on FOIA

One of the interesting decisions that British Columbia’s government made in its adoption of open government was its decision to separate good government data, associated with transparency and accountability, from open government data, associated with innovation and co-creation.

NASA’s open government site makes no such distinction, with the link to Freedom of Information Act requests buried down at the bottom of the open data page. NASA’s open government plan includes aspirational goals of further reducing its FOIA backlog and creating a “single, Web-based system for handling all FOIA requests across the 13 NASA locations.” If the agency can do as well with that system as it has with the design, communication and coding embodied this new site, its open government team will be able to celebrate more good government achievement alongside its explorations into citizen science, random hacks of kindness, education and open data.

“Let’s honor Alan Turing not with a code of conduct, but with our code”

This morning, John Graham-Cumming delivered a stirring keynote at the Open Source Conference (OSCON) in Portland, Oregon. He challenged the open source community to honor computing pioneer Alan Turing not simply with a code of conduct but with the software they build. The five minute video is well worth your time.

Graham-Cumming also shared the story of how he leveraged the power of social media, open source software and the Internet to honor his petition to apologize for the treatment of Turing. For those who follow the path of e-democracy, this is fascinating stuff:

In 2009, I petitioned the UK to government to apologize for the treatment of Alan Turing. To my surprise over 32,000 people in the UK signed the petition and on September 10 of that year then Prime Minister Gordon Brown called me at home to tell me that the apology text was being issued that night.

I harnessed this great crowd of ordinary people and celebrities by myself. Using a mixture of Twitter and Facebook and old fashioned press and television the word spread quickly. I have written about how I achieved this on O’Reilly Radar. The campaign grew slowly at first as only a small number of people in the computer world, who already knew about the Turing story, signed. But a big break came when The Independent newspaper wrote about the campaign and shortly after Richard Dawkins lent his name. As Twitter amplified stories in the press more and more people signed until the BBC decided to cover the story first on its web siteand then on television.

With the weighty BBC story to tweet the petition quickly grew and got the attention of Downing Street. The petition itself was all managed electronically through open source software created by the British non-profit My Society. With an open source petition platform the British government has enabled direct, electronic democracy.

Open government innovation from NASA fuels launch of OpenStack and Nebula

Earlier today, a new startup emerged from stealth at OSCON in Portland, Oregon. Nebula looks to democratize cloud computing with open source hardware.

Nebula appliance As Venturebeat reported, by combining OpenStack with Facebook’s OpenCompute project, Nebula could bring cloud computing to everyone with a cloud appliance.

It’s going to be a while before we’ll know if this bold vision comes to pass, but it’s important to be clear: this private sector innovation and startup is the outgrowth of one of NASA’s open government initiatives, where a technology developed by the government was released to the public to innovate upon.

That outcome can be at least partially attributed to Nebula CEO Chris Kemp, the former NASA CTO for IT, built a cloud “dream team” for Nebula’s launch from Kleiner Perkins’ basement. Nebula has the potential to bring cheaper private clouds to enterprises and small to medium-sized business to government, which could stand to leapfrog a generation of technology. (Putting a cloud behind an organization’s firewall could also address the security and compliance challenges that have hampered adoption of public cloud by enterprise and government users.) You can watch the announcement of Nebula at OSCON in the video below:

I talked with Kemp yesterday about OpenStack, his new startup, enterprise IT and innovation in government. “I am just unbelievably excited about all of the innovation that’s going to happen, he said. “When I left NASA, there was an open playing field. Citrix has bet their company on a tech that emerged out of NASA. Rackspace has incorporated it as well. Dell and HP are working with OpenStack too.”

Kemp, at least for now, doesn’t appear to be looking towards acquisition as his exit strategy. “We’re building a whole new company,” he said. “It’s not going to acquired by Dell or another large vendor. It’s too important to be lost in a big organization. The opportunity here is to build a lasting company that plays a key role in how computing unfolds.”

It’s the potential to change the world that seems to have brought a glint to Kemp’s eye. “This is why I left NASA,” he said. “I had this idea, this concept, I knew it had the potential to change the world, I knew it was time to build that. There are things you can only do inside of government, and there are things you can only do outside of government.”

In at least one sense, this outcome is about Gov 2.0 versus the beast of bureaucracy, once again. “The thing I learned at NASA is the biggest barrier to this stuff is the culture within the organization,” said Kemp. “It’s people. In a federal agency, people have been there forever and have spent tons of money on tools. What we’re doing with this appliance will disrupt a lot of that.”

Kemp also offered a suggestion to government agencies with innovators trying to make a difference. “The real shame is that you take the most risk-averse people in the world – government civil servants – and make them take the most dangerous leap, to end their careers, to be entrepreneurs. Imagine if government allowed people to take one year without pay, try to create something, and then return to public service.”

While that may be an unlikely dream, Kemp has left government himself, jumping to an endeavour that has the potential to disrupt the future of computing. “We want people to build on a platform that isn’t unnecessarily expensive or reliable,” he said. “We’re selling a little box that creates an infrastructure service and supporting it. You plug it in at the top of the rack where basically joins ‘the collective.’ It becomes part of a massive compute and storage cloud that’s compatible with Amazon and allows anyone to use a cloud that based on standards.
And they can do it with the cheapest hardware.”

Open source has been a key component of NASA’s open government work. Now one of its open source projects may become part of the work of many other people in industries unrelated to aerospace. With the launch of Nebula, an open government initiative looks set to create significant value — and jobs — in the private sector, along with driving open innovation in information technology.

OpenCongress 3.0 empowers citizens to contact their legislators

Over the past 48 hours, the volume of citizens trying to contact Congress regarding the debt ceiling and budget debate has overwhelmed Congressional websites and Capital Hill switchboards. Citizens that want to reach their member(s) of Congress now have a powerful upgrade to one of the best options online: an improved version of Open Congress.

The upgrade of OpenCongress follows the launch of in January, which is a free, open source online portal designed to make open state government available to citizens.

The new version of OpenCongress, which will launch this afternoon, puts new engagement features at the center of the site experience, writes in executive director David Moore via email. “It’s the culmination of more than six months of development, and the release is composed of two major new feature sets, Contact-Congress & MyOC Groups. One of the primary unique value propositions here is the ability to write all three of your members of the U.S. Congress at once, from one page, with our handy Message Builder, incorporating bill info & campaign contribution data and more, set it to public or private, and then send it *immediately* over email to official Congressional webforms. No other website offers this service in a web app that’s free, libre, open-source, and not-for-profit. As always, OCv3 is built by PPF with primary support from the Sunlight Foundation.”

Moore explained more:

“Clearly, with the debt ceiling debate and accompanying crashing and burning of Congressional communication channels, there’s a huge public demand for this service. OpenCongress is releasing it as a public service, free & open to everyone to be able to track & share their correspondence with federal legislators in a transparent public forum. MyOC Groups will complement Contact-Congress on OpenCongress by enabling greater self-organizing communities around bills and issues, as we’ve seen with unemployment extensions and other hot issues on our public comment forums and wiki.

We think it will be a popular new tool for government accountability, fighting systemic corruption, and facilitating a more deliberative democracy. And this is just the start, we hope, of a truly robust open API for constituent communication … but first, we need to give the public some user-friendly tools for sending compelling emails to their members of Congress, and then organizing their communities around them for greater effect.”

Moore told me that he expects the same features to be available on as soon as the resources are available. Both OpenCongress and OpenGovernment are built using Ruby on Rails, so each will work well with the features. That message came with a hint: Moore is hoping today’s launch wil attract additional non-profit funding and support for more open-source development time to bring the OCv3 feature to OpenGovernment.

Moore also added that the Contact-Congress feature on OpenCongress is powered by open-
source software, the Formaggedon Rails plugin, which can be remixed &
applied to other websites & entities. More information on Formaggedon at the moment is available on today’s blog post on OpenCongress 3.0.

“Formaggedon will first be integrated with OpenGovernment,” writes Moore, which would make the site the only “free and open-source site that enables direct emailing of both your
state legislators, in upper & lower chambers. And subsequently we’ll bring over MyOG Groups.”

Ariel Waldman talks about and open science [VIDEO]

If you love space, science, open source and data, you’ve probably come across Ariel Waldman online. If you’re lucky, you’ve met her or heard her speak. She’ll be talking about how people are hacking space exploration at OSCON in Portland tomorrow morning. She spoke with my colleague, Edd Dumbill, about how open science is helping us all learn more about the stars.

From O’Reilly Media’s YouTube channel:

Ariel Waldman is an open science strategist, interaction designer and the founder of, a directory of ways to participate in space exploration. She currently works at Institute For The Future, a non-profit founded by early internet pioneers and ARPANET researchers. Recently, she founded Science Hack Day SF, an event that brings together scientists, technologists, designers and people with good ideas to see what they can create in a weekend.

Obama: “I am absolutely convinced that your generation will help us solve these problems”

Last Friday, President Obama hosted a townhall at the University of Maryland in College Park. At the end of his time on stage, he offered words addressed to the young students gathered in Ritchie Coliseum and those listening around the country:

…we’ve got a lot of young people here, I know that sometimes things feel discouraging. We’ve gone through two wars. We’ve gone through the worst financial crisis in any of our memories. We’ve got challenges environmentally. We’ve got conflicts around the world that seem intractable. We’ve got politicians who only seem to argue. And so I know that there must be times where you kind of say to yourself, golly, can’t anybody get their act together around here? And what’s the world that I’m starting off in, and how do I get my career on a sound foundation? And you got debts you’ve got to worry about.

I just want all of you to remember, America has gone through tougher times before, and we have always come through. We’ve always emerged on the other side stronger, more unified. The trajectory of America has been to become more inclusive, more generous, more tolerant.

And so I want all of you to recognize that when I look out at each and every one of you, this diverse crowd that we have, you give me incredible hope. You inspire me. I am absolutely convinced that your generation will help us solve these problems.

Unfortunately, one of my tweets on Friday reporting out the president’s words was missing two important words: “help us.” And, as it happened, that was the one that the White House chose to retweet to its more than two million followers. I corrected the quote and deeply regret the error, given the amplification and entrance into the public record. The omission changed the message in the president’s words from one of collective responsibility to shifted responsibility.

During the 2008 election, then Senator Barack Obama said that “the challenges we face today — from saving our planet to ending poverty — are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.”

As president, finding solutions to grand challenges means that Obama is looking again to the larger community for answers. Whether he finds them will be a defining element in judging whether a young Senator from Illinois that leveraged Web 2.0 to become president can tap into that collective intelligence to govern in the Oval Office.

In 2011, there are more ways for the citizens of the United States to provide feedback to their federal government than perhaps there ever have been in its history. The open question is whether “We the people” will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better.

The evolution of these kinds of platforms isn’t U.S.-centric, either, nor limited to tech-savvy college students. Citizen engagement matters more now in every sense: crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, crowdmapping, collective intelligence, group translation, and human sensor networks. There’s a growth in “do it ourselves (DIO) government,” or as the folks at techPresident like to say, “We government.”

As institutions shift from eGov to WeGov, their leaders — including the incumbent of the White House — will be looking to students and all of us to help them in the transition.

Designing better government with open government at the CFPB

Today, the local .gov startup goes live. While went online back in February, today, on the anniversary of H.R.4173, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Consumer Financial Protection Board officially launches today, with Richard Cordray nominated to lead it. The Sunlight Foundation is liveblogging the Senate hearings this morning, for those interested.

Many questions about the future of the agency remain (Wall Street and Republicans have not been sparing offering criticism over the past year) but credit where credit is due: the new consumer bureau has been open to ideas about how it can do its work better. This approach is what led New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber to muse last week that “its openness thus far suggests the tantalizing possibility that it could be the nation’s first open-source regulator.”

When a regulator asks for help redesigning a mortgage disclosure form, something interesting is afoot.

It’s extremely rare that an agency gets built from scratch, particularly in this economic and political context. It’s notable, in that context, that the 21st century regulator has embraced many of the principles of open government in leveraging technology to stand up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the agency, spoke to how open government, citizens and technology factor into the bureau’s work earlier this year:

Better government by design

Open government isn’t just about first principles for accountability, open data, social media, transparency, cultural change, citizen participation, innovation or feedback loops, however, though all of those factors matter. As the work of Code For America has shown this year, design matters in open government. Better citizen experience, communication and customer service depends on better design.

Lois Beckett aptly connected how the dots about why design matters to the CFPB’s work this week at ProPublica, where she wrote about the challenges the innovative financial regulator faces as it starts up.

…as the political battle rages on and media scrutiny focuses on Elizabeth Warren’s political future, little attention has been given to what the bureau has actually done. And its initial efforts are interesting, especially because they show a commitment to open government and real public engagement. (Ron Lieber noted that its blog actually accepts comments—”unlike, say, the White House’s.”)

The bureau’s mission is to create transparency in an industry dominated by confusing claims and mouse print. Good design isn’t just a perk here—it’s fundamental to the bureau’s regulatory efforts.

Case in point: One of the CFPB’s top priorities has been streamlining the federally required mortgage disclosure documents. If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s worse on paper: two separate, complicated forms that are confusing for customers and, the bureau contends, also burdensome for many mortgage servicers to fill out.

The goal is to replace them with a single, two-page document that clearly answers the questions: “Can I afford this mortgage?” and “Can I get a better deal somewhere else?”

Two of the potential designs for the new form each have a note at the top, in bold print: “You have no obligation to choose this loan. Shop around to find the best loan for you.”

The bureau’s other projects include improving transparency about credit card prices and fees, the exchange rates used for remittance transfers of money to other countries and the credit scores sold to consumers and creditors.

Using heatmaps and 13,000 clicks to understand pain points for mortgage disclosure? Data-driven government may have legs.

It’s not just the heatmaps: the CFPB reports that they read and analyzed the comments themselves. “There is symmetry here,” write the Web staff. “Heatmaps make it easier to understand and compare data. We want to improve disclosure so it is easier for consumers and lenders to understand and compare when they evaluate mortgage loans.”

As the newest .gov startup continues to scale, we’ll see if more experiments in open government design are given “freedom to fail,” a latitude that the father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, has hailed as an essential ingredient for government innovation. Stay tuned, and keep at eye on the CFPB.

GSA’s McClure: Cloud computing and open data in federal government aren’t going away

To those in media, government or commentariot who think that cloud computing or open data might be going away in federal government after the departure of federal CIO Vivek Kundra next month, Dave McClure offered a simple message today: these trends are “inevitable.”

Cloud computing, for instance, will “survive if we change federal CIOs,” he said. “It’s here, and it’s not going away. McClure describes cloud computing as a worldwide global development in both business and government, where the economics and efficiencies created are “compelling.” The move to the cloud, for instance, is behind US plans to close or consolidate some 800 data centers,, including hundreds by the end of 2011.

Cloud computing was just one of five macro trends that McClure “listed at this year’s FOSE Conference in Washington, D.C. FOSE is one of the biggest annual government IT conferences.
inevitable. Here’s the breakdown:

1) Cloud computing

The GSA is the “engine behind the administration’s ‘cloud-first’ strategy,” said McClure, lining up the procurement details for government to adopt it. He said that he’s seen “maturity” in this area in the past 18-24 months. Two years ago, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was spending time at conferences and panels defining it. Now we have cloud deployments that are robust and scalable, said McClure, including infrastructure as a service and email-as-a-service.

Government cloud deployments now includes public facing websites, storage, disaster recovery andare beginning to move into financial apps.

2) Collaboration and engagement

The cloud is teaching us that once we free data, make it accessible, and make it usable, it’s
creating opportunities for effective collaboration with citizens, said McClure, noting that this trend is in its “early stages.”

3) Open data and big data has “treasure troves” of data that entrepreneurs and citizens are turning into hundreds of applications and innovations, said McClure. Inside of government, he said that access to data is creating a “thirst” for data mining and business intelligence that help public servants work more efficient.

4) Mobile

Mobile computing will be the next wave of innovation, said McClure, delivering value to ourselves and delivering value to citizens. Government is “entrenched in thinking about creation of data on websites or desktop PCs,” he said. That perspective is, in this context, dated. Most of the audience here has a smartphone, he pointed out, with most interactions occurring on the hip device. “That’s going to be the new platform,” a transition that’s “absolutely inevitable,” he said, “despite arguments about digital divide and broadband access.”

5) Security

As McClure noted, you have to include security at a government IT conference. The need for improved security on the Web, for critical infrastructure, on email and where ever else government has exposed attack surface is clear to all observers. hosts nationwide hackathon on open data from URL shortener

The federal government is hosting a hackathon focused on unlocking the value from the newly opened click data from its URL shortener. Organizers hope the developer community can create apps that provide meaningful information from the online audience’s activity. Later this month, has organized a nationwide hack day, inviting software developers, entrepreneurs, and citizens to engage with the data produced by, its URL shortener.

UPDATE: Check out the projects created at the Hack Day, including the animation below:

The hackathon fits into a larger open government zeitgeist. Simply put, if you enjoy building applications that improve the lives of others, there may never have been a better time to be alive. Whether it’s rethinking transportation or convening for a datacamp, every month, there are new hackathons, challenges, apps contests and code-a-thons to participate in, contributing time and effort to the benefit of others. This July is no exception. Last Saturday, Google Chicago hosted a hackathon to encourage people to work on Apps for Metro Chicago. On the Saturday after OSCON, an API Hackday in Portland, Oregon for “an all-day coding fest focused on building apps and mashups.” If you’re free and interested in participating in a new kind of public service, on July 29th, hack days will be hosted by in Washington, D.C., Measured Voice in San Diego, bitly* in New York City, and SimpleGeo in San Francisco. If New Yorkers still have some fire in your belly to collaborate with their local government, the city of New York is hosting its first-ever hackathon to re-imagine on July 30-31.

How URL shorteners and work

To understand why this particular set of open data from is interesting, however, you have to know a bit more about and how social media has changed information sharing online. A URL is the Web address, like, say,, that a citizen types into a Web browser to go to a site. Many URLs are long, which makes sharing them on Twitter or other mobile platforms awkward. As a result, many people share shortened versions. (O’Reilly Media links are shortened to, for instance.) One of the challenges that face users is that, unless a citizen uses one of several tools to view what the actual hyperlink is below the link, he or she might be led astray or exposed to malicious code that was included in the original link. In other words, this is about being able to trust a link.

Last year, the United States General Services Administration (GSA) launched a URL shortener at the Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington, D.C. Whenever a government employee used (or any service that uses to shorten URLs, like Tweetdeck) to shorten a .gov or .mil URL, the link will be converted to a short That meant that whenever a citizen saw a short URL on a social network, she knows the content came from an official government source.

For more on how URLs work, watch Michele Chronister’s presentation from the last year’s Gov 2.0 Expo, below. Chronister is a presidential management fellow and Web content manager for in the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies at the GSA.

This March, the GSA added a URL shortener for civilian use. “The whole idea is to improve people’s experience when dealing with government information online,” explained Jed Sundwall, a contractor for and, via email. “We keep in the domain for usability reasons. It’s crystal clear, worldwide, that URLs point to trustworthy government information.”

According to Sundwall, ABC senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper was the first to use it when he tweeted out a link to a PDF containing new unemployment information at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics: “For those asking follow-ups on unemployment, here’s the BLS link

Months later, Tapper has been followed by thousands of other people that have used the URL shortener simply by using the tools there already knew.”The beauty is that Jake used it without knowing he was using it,” writes Sundwall.”We’re trying making it easy for anyone to identify .gov information as it’s being shared online.”

That easy identification is quite helpful given the increasing pace of news and information sharing on the Web. “Trust is a valuable thing online, and being able to know that the information you’re receiving is reliable and accurate is difficult yet essential — especially so for government websites, where people go for critical information, like health services and public safety,” wrote Abhi Nemani, director of strategy and communications for Code for America.

Code for America is “excited to be partnering them to help bring together passionate developers, designers, and really anyone interested to see what we can hack together with the data,” wrote Nemani. The hackathon will tap into “a huge and growing resource for new and really interesting apps,” he wrote at the Code for America blog. “See, this data gives a lens into how people are interacting with government, online; an increasingly important lens as citizen/government interaction moves from the front desk or the phone line to the web browser.”

To learn a bit(ly) more about the hackathon and its goals, I conducted an email interview with Michele Chronister and Sundwall.

What does the GSA hope to achieve with this hackathon? How can open data help the agency achieve the missions taxpayers expect their dollars to be applied towards?

Chronister: We hope to encourage software developers, entrepreneurs, and curious citizens to engage with the data produced by data provides real-time insights into the government content people are sharing online and we know hack day participants will surprise us with creative new uses for the data. We anticipate that what’s produced will benefit the government and the public. Making this data public expands GSA’s commitment to open, participatory and transparent government.

What hacks can come of this that aren’t simply visualizing the most popular content being shared using

Sundwall: First of all, the issue of popular content is an important one. Before this data set, no one has had such a broad view of how government information is being viewed online. Getting a view of what’s popular across government in real time is a big deal, but a big list of popular URL’s isn’t killer per se.

The data from includes a lot of data beyond just clicks, including clickers’ browser version (firefox v ie, mobile v desktop, etc) and IP-derived geo data. It’s also real time. This allows people to look at the data across a number of different dimensions to get actionable meaning out of it. A few ideas:

1. Geo data. The geo data included in the feed is derived from IP addresses, which makes it intentionally imprecise for privacy reasons (we don’t show the IP address of each click), but precise enough to spot location-based trends.

One of the reasons we brought SimpleGeo on as a collaborator for the hack day is because they’re really good at making location data easy to work with. Their Context product makes it easy to filter clicks through a number of geographic boundaries including legislative districts. They also make it easy to mash the data up with Census demographic data.

We want to let journalists, analysts, campaign strategists, and other researchers know that data is a powerful tool to spot trends in the areas where they work. I gave a demo of to Richard Boly at the State Dept soon after we launched and thought it could be a tool for country desk officers to spot trends in their countries. Hint: if you’re coming to the hack day, think about building something like this.

We hacked together a quick video showing click data mapped out across the US for most of June: red dots are non-mobile clicks and green are mobile. It’s a blunt visualization, but it’s fascinating to watch the clicks pulse across the country, from the east to west in the morning, and then from red to green when people leave their desks and get on their phones.

We could enhance visualizations like this to see if there are trends in how particular kinds of information are shared throughout cities and across the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if clicks on certain links from certain agencies turn out to be leading indicators—perhaps municipal leaders should pay attention to spikes in clicks on links.

2. Browser data. We log, on average, about 56,000 clicks on links per day. It’s not a ton of data like Google, but the dataset provides a really nice sample of user behavior—particularly social media users because the short URLs are most frequently shared and clicked via Twitter and FB.

I’m hoping data can be useful to people tracking trends in browser adoption and trends in mobile usage. The data science team at bitly is already doing this kind of analysis with their much larger set of click data, but we’re really excited to give a slice of that data out to researchers for free.

3. Contextual data. Each link points to a file that is likely to include some amount of machine readable content such as an HTML page title, meta description, body content, etc. Many links, if not most, are shared via Twitter. Both the content of the link’s file and the content of the tweet that included the link when it was shared provide insight into not just what links people are sharing, but what topics people are talking about.

What are some of the early successes — and failures — that inform how the GSA is approaching its open data initiatives? And how will it all relate to citizen engagement?

Chonister: has successfully built a community of people interested in government data and we hope to expand on that by making’s data more available. One part of this is releasing the click data to the public. We also provide XML for all of our frequently asked questions on and a product recall API. These resources can be found at

We know that raw government data is not interesting or useful to everyone which is why we are trying to engage specific communities with the hack day. Hopefully any tools created in the hack day will help engage a larger audience and show what’s possible when government opens their data and makes it available.

What are some useful examples of “infohacks” where someone can easily find useful information already?

Sundwall: actually used a method to finding useful government information from (and by instructing people to search for + tsunami on Twitter after the Japan earthquake in early March — this was the best way for people to find the best government information about the tsunami at the time. It allowed us to crowdsource the best government resources about the tsunami by relying on what everyone on Twitter was already finding and sharing. You won’t see this now, but at the time, the search results featured a few “top tweets” pointing to useful government information. let us know it was authoritative even though it was being shared from non-govt Twitter accounts like @BreakingNews.

This Twitter search trick is one of my favorite hacks. I subscribe to RSS feeds of + awesome and + cool and find great crowdsourced govt information every day. Just last week, this tweet inspired this blog post, which ended up being the most popular post on the blog ever.

How else could this data be made more useful to citizens – or government?

Sundwall: Researchers could use this Twitter search method to be notified of new information by subscribing to searches like + cancer, + human rights, + Afghanistan, etc. I sometimes get a kick out of searching “ + wtf.” I’m a nerd.

What’s the incentive for developers to donate their time and skill to hacking on this data?

Sundwall: This is the best question. I hope some of the ideas I’ve presented above give an idea of how powerful this dataset is. This is the kind of information that organizations usually regard as proprietary because it gives them intelligence that they don’t want their competitors to have. I’m really really proud to work with the folks at because opening up this dataset reveals a deep understanding of how open data can work. wants to help people by helping them find the government information they need. This data will allow other people to join them in this endeavor. As Tim says, “Create more value than you capture.” I hope that people will recognize the value in this data and create tools, apps, more efficient research methods, and perhaps even businesses based on it. I’m certain this data will prove to be valuable to many people who will discover applications of it that we haven’t imagined yet.

*Editor’s Note: is funded by O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures.