Apps for California Winners Feature Innnovative Mashups Of Open Government Data

Today, California announced the winners of its Apps for California challenge. As the summer comes to an end, there will indeed be an open government app for that in California. As I reported earlier this year at Radar, the app contest was targeted at catalyzing innovative uses of a refreshed, which included over 400 major data sources, including XLS, CSV and XML formats, and over 100 million records. The winners will be honored and given prizes at an awards gala hosted by Government Technology’s Best of the Web Competition on September 17, 2010.

Who are the Winners?

So who won and why? According to the Apps for California rules, each entry was judged according to the following criteria:

  1. Providing value to California’s residents and businesses;
  2. Demonstrating Innovation;
  3. Promoting Collaboration and Government Efficiency; and
  4. Ensuring Accessibility and Usability.

WIthout further ado, here are the five winners:

California Cage Fight
(info page) allows residents to compare their counties with other California counties and the state as a whole, including population growth, per capita income, unemployment, new houses and more.

California Environment Report: Cleanup Sites and Permitted Facilities
(info page) provide residents with an interactive map that includes heatmaps, a mobile version with geolocation, data feeds, and detail pages for every cleanup site and permitted dacility from the CA Department of Toxic Substances Control Datasets.

California View
(info page) is a simple mapping tool that displays the locations of California state parks, fishing holes and boating facilities.

(info page) provides mobile access to San Francisco zoning ordinance information. This app includes geolocation, interactive zoning maps, resources about code and a mechanism to ask a city planner questions.

(info page) provides a browser for California education, health and current legislation. The mashup allows users to “submit ideas on how the government should spend taxpayer money. Notably, it also has a constant stream of updates from schools, first responders and local politics. The site features Facebook integration, and a “Fix” button  that should be familiar to SeeClickFix users.

People’s Choice Award

Explore California” (info page) and the California Cage Fight mashups won the People’s Choice Awards. Explore California is similar to Data California, providing users with an interactive map and visualizations population, income, unemployment, new housing units, and other trends over time. Visitors can “compare and contrast the patterns of growth and decline in various categories and the relationships between them.”

What’s do Apps for California mean for Gov 2.0?

At review time, the winners seems like it might have the most potential to enable better outcomes for citizens to engage with government, given the tool. The zoning app could potentially be quite useful to builders or homeowners. And if you’re also an angler, the easy lookup of potential hotspots could be of interest, though old salts might not want the increased competition. A complete list of Apps for California finalists is available at

The contest was conducted by the Center for Digital Government in collaboration with the state of California, the city of Los Angeles, the county of Los Angeles, the city and county of San Francisco, Google, Microsoft and That collaboration featured some of the nation’s biggest tech companies partnering with public institutions to create mashups that of open public data that would provide more value to citizens.

Overall, the state saw over a dozen applications developed over the summer that might have taken it much longer to build internally, and at substantially great cost. Beyond stimulating that activity, however, the success or failure of the contest will likely be judged not upon the prices awarded or the number of apps built but rather whether these applications make the lives of citizens easier or provide more frictionless access to information. That’s a judgement that will only be rendered with time.

Open Government in California: Connecting Citizens To eServices with Social Media

Can state governments deliver more services with constrained budgets? How can social media and collaborative software be used to engage citizens and lead to better policy decisions or investments? Can open government lead to better e-government?

Open government, e-government and We government

That’s a reciprocal relationship I wondered about earlier this year, when I visited the Social Security Administration.

My central analysis after the visit was that open government is a mindset.

Thinking about that topic brought me back to the a day earlier this year when I interviewed Carolyn Lawson about precisely these issues. Lawson is the Deputy Director, Technology Services Governance Division, Director of the eServices Office of the state of California.

Our interview is embedded below. Following is a longer discussion into the ways that California government agencies are using social media to connect citizens to e-services.

Earlier in the day, I’d reported on her talk at the Gov 2.0 Expo.

“What we have to do is open up the conversation about what it means to be a public servant,” said Lawson, kicking off the Expo’s first session. In “Navigating the Maze, Lawson offered guidance, perspective, case studies and, appropriate to the topic of social media in government, lively give and take between the audience and presenter. Lawson explored the many ways that the state of California has employed e-services and online engagement strategies, along with a simple driver: cost.

“Our workforce is furloughed three times a month,” said Lawson. “It’s really painful. Our exploding population really needs services.”

The reality of California’s budget woes come at a time when the expectation for government to be responsive online has never been higher. “Immediate access to data has become a cultural expectation,” she said.“The expectation is there now that government will be open, honest and will communicate.”

Lawson described how both the California Unemployment Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles have used social media and online platforms to deliver better services without additional cost.

“You can tweet @CA_EDD and get answers like how long until you get a check, where to go on the website or job fairs,” said Lawson. “I don’t think the creators of Twitter thought it would be a helpdesk for EDD.” That social response is paired by e-government services that enable workers to file for unemployment online. Lawson said that online applications for unemployment went up by about 1.8 million from the previous year. “What would have happened if we’d blocked that?”

California is using other online platforms and technologies to deliver services that have been affected by budget woes. California couldn’t afford to offer driver training in schools, explained Lawson. “Something had to be cut. What the DMV did, since they already had YouTube videos, is to create an entire curriculum.” The California DMV YouTube channel provides the means for every high school to watch training videos like the one below without additional cost:

“We were thinking of this a culturally relevant tool, not as a forum for expression” said Lawson. “These videos have more than nine million views. If we weren’t government, they’d be calling that viral. It’s all about being where people are.”

And, on that count, the @CA_DMV has developed an iPhone app, DMV Now.

Lawson strongly defended both the importance of the role that social media engagement plays for the California state government and its utility. “Technology is not driving Web 2.0, Twitter or Facebook.,” she said. “People are driving these services. And blocking Web 2.0 isn’t going to solve your problems.”

She made the analogy to the conversations about the telephone in the workplace in the early 20th century, or email in the 1990s. “What we do as a government when we cut off the ability to communicate through the Web 2.0 world is to remove our ability to be culturally relevant,” she said.

Adopting social software or connection technology usage that emphasize protocol over common sense can be problematic as well.

“One of the things that kills government’s ability to use social media is speaking to employees in terms of thou shalt, thou shalt not,” said Lawson. She shared a public available wiki of government social media resource that offers some best practices and frameworks for discussion or practice.

Lawson observed that California itself is still evolving in how it uses social media. “We still have many departments blocking the governor’s Twitter,” she said, alluding to Governor @Schwarzenegger’s massively popular account. The challenge, as Lawson posed it, is to show how government use of social media combines with open data initiatives. “What are we afraid of? The consequences of transparent. We were really afraid of crowdsourcing ideas to improve California IT with Ideasalce. We got beat up – but we also got ideas. We’re the government: we’re going to get beat up. You can’t take it personally.”

Lawson broadly described a cultural shift going towards open government brought about by the Obama admin, though she recognized that many efforts had gone on before. “This is being pushed through by Obama’s transparency initiatives,” she said. “It used to be revolutionary for public documents to be available in a municipal building to people walking in. No more.”

So how should an organization tackle objections that put social media age into a technology issue, rather than a management challenge? “That’s where I have my ‘activity or accomplish’ conversation,” said Lawson. “Is this that conversation about the telephone in 1920s? Or is it something that we need to do to protect our data and information? You have to get people engaged in the conversation. That took us more than a year. If you can relate behavior to behavior to technology, that’s where you have a win.”

The bottom line is that nobody has this all figured out yet, said Lawson. “You just have to work your way through it.”