Thursday, February 25, 2010

Where does my money go? A begining for an open government in US, UK and rest of the world

Once James Madison, the political philospher and the fourth president of America, said "If men were angels then no government would be necessary." Though, there are no clear historical records available about the first official government, democracy or parliament, despite various claims by few old civilizations, but I guess that men figured out much before James Madison that they can never be angels and they will always need a goverment to live happily and prosper. I am sure people just didn't want any government but also hoped and craved for a smarter, open and transparent government. But it seems nobody could define it clearly in last so many generations what openness and transparency really means for a government. The good news is that all of it is changing! Surprisingly, for the first time "data" is taking the lead in defining an open government - maybe because it is measurable and never lies.

The two big initiatives, and (still in Beta), were launched by US and UK government respectively in May 2009 and January 2010. Infact, Prime minister Gordon Brown of UK asked Berners-Lee to look at access to government data in June, after Barack Obama's administration launched an open source data site. Well, UK already ranks number three in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) study behind Austria and Portugal in the sophistication of its e-services so making it data available was the next logical step. At high level, the goals of both the initiatives are same as they want to make the government data available online to general public for improved access; creative use of that data outside the walls of the government; public participation, collaboration and feedback; identify unexpected and insightful data relationships - insights that would normally take several decades and hundreds or thousands of brilliant socialist scientists, statisticians, psychologists, focus groups and public policy experts to simply suspect. Both these initiatives are great because of the intention behind them but lets take a closer look at the state of the initiatives.

The started with forty seven data sets but already has thousands of datasets from eighty-one US agencies. It links directly to data files in various formats including CSV, XML, Excel, and KML. A lot seems to be lacking though:
  • It makes little effort to highlight or promote any projects that uses the data from the site
  • The focus is more on a repository
  • What you do with the data is not very clear
  • The website needs lot of work in terms of clarity and user experience
  • It is still not developer friendly and needs to develop an ecosystem
  • There's no basic demographic data like population from the Census Bureau
  • Browse and search functionality seems to be missing
The Sunlight labs, a DC based non-profit organization, is working on some projects to take advantage of this data but it seems you need to have larger developer community doing the same. I have also seen some good applications from the team of  James Hendler of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA. His team is converting the data sets into RDF and  taking advantage of semantic technolgies to build few applications. For e.g:
  • One of the application is about the amount of money received by the government for corporate and personal income taxes projecte through 2014 - click on the link to access it. 
  •  If you want to know how knowledgeable is your state - click on the link to access it.

I am still not sure why Linked data (Semantic Technology) approach was not taken from the begining. Overall, in US has still a long way to go before its goals are met. Ideally, it will be great to see more impressive applications which uses data from different sources and gives you an insight about a specific problem. Nevertheless, it is moving forward - it is also understandable that managing and simplifying the process of publishing humungous data from so many agencies is a herculean task.

Now, when I look at then I have to say that I am just simply impressed considering the progress they have made in six-seven months. Kudos to the team, along with Sir Tim Berners Lee, who has been working on it. They just used the semantic technology, basically linked data, approach from the begining. It also has a modern design with a very developer friendly approach. Combining data and creating mashups from different sources in this context is not an easy task but semantic technologies have made it possible. Overall,'s approach is simple and clear - they have used open standards, open source and open data. The website has quality and elegance written all over it even though it is in beta. They also need to figure out many things like modelling various datasets behind the scenes, encourage more participation and many other things you can think of in a project of this complexity. But the results are showing! The top ten application as rated in this telegraph article are impressive. You can see the screen shot of  one of the application called "Where does my money go." Or click here to access the prototype.

 If you are really keen to go deeper in the approach of UK govenment in this implementation then I will encourage you to read this document - Putting the frontline first:Smarter Government. UK might have followed US, Australia, New Zealand in implementing open and smarter government but it seems at least now that their template will be followed by rest of the world. It will be interesting to see if/when countries like India, China and Russia will follow this trend!

"This is very much the beginning. Hopefully, this is the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole lot more to do." But what a beginning! These were the words of Sir Tim Berners Lee when he launched the beta site for

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