Digital Government: Out&About at the Summit

JUST before Thanksgiving I was Out&About to the Park Plaza in Boston. Ahh, who doesn't love that wonderful old hotel, especially when its curved wooden banisters and classic lobby gleam with timeless holiday decorations? Such a welcome change from the generic and sterile event venues!

But I digress. This column is about technology, isn't it?

Which is of course why I was there, on my quest to learn more about government in the digital age. And the hotel's conference rooms just happened to be hosting the Massachusetts Digital Government Summit (http://events.govtech.com/events/massachusettsdgs2010/agenda).

The event draws hundreds of participants from across the state for topics like open data, cloud computing, technology collaboration in public safety, MassNet, and Gov 2.0 social media.

Open data is a hot topic. Nudged by the federal government - governments at all levels are finding ways to make information available in standard formats to third party developers.

By the way, the Feds are actually DOING, not just nudging. My favorite example is the US Census Bureau (http://www.census.gov/), which is pretty much a huge longitudinal data collection project. It offers it own interfaces for data - I especially like its Facts for Features (http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb10-ff23.html) approach; the current rendition turns Census data into holiday factoids like these:

  • $488.5 million - amount of Christmas tree ornaments imported from China between January and August 2010.
  • 614 - number of locations in the US that produce games, toys and children's vehicles
  • 9,163 - number of worker producing games and toys in the US
  • $30 billion - retails sales online/mail order in December 2009

More importantly though, it also makes its data available in standard formats for download and use by developers. This latter move is at the heart of open data.

The theory is that government entities tend to be very good at gathering information, but that the market is better at finding ways to present and use it. In the Commonwealth, the Department of Transportation was the first to put this theory to the test.

Over the past year, the restructured DoT opened up selected MBTA data to developers and there's been a flurry of output from it, including multiple mobile applications that let people find the bus, LED signs at bus stops letting people know when the next bus will arrive, and web apps presenting truly meaningful information for transit riders.

The rise of broadband creates new opportunities as well, especially when coupled with open data. Public safety is a good case in point. In just a few short years voice networks have become part of a larger media and communications environment, with streaming video, video conferencing, database access, and a host of other services riding mobily out in the field.

Cloud computing virtually sizzles in the media these days and with good reason. It represents a shift in thinking about how to manage every-scarcer resources. With its easy-to-scale, collaborative-friendly, and bandwidth-dependent features, cloud services fit right into the trends in both public and private sector applications.

There are a host of initiatives across the Commonwealth that are also riding the trio of open data, bandwidth, and collaboration:

  • A unified network called MassNet - an initiative led by the states CTO Jason Snyder.
  • A move toward Service-oriented architecture (SOA) - a new-old idea that means thinking about building a set of interoperable services, instead of a bunch of silo standalones
  • A commitment to Shared Application Infrastructure (SAI) - enabling the Commonwealth’s applications to work together and exchange information.

The biggest challenge, though, hasn't been the technology itself. The real challenge lies in coordinating and collaboration across jurisdictions. In other word, changing standard practice.

In 2008, the state put a stake in the ground with a new IT strategy plan articulating three goals:

    "Efficient and easily access services for all constituents;Open and transparent engagement with citizens of the Commonwealth; Accurate and timely data for policy making, service delivery, and results evaluation."

All three goals require a change in business-as-usual -- far more difficult to pull off than inventing new technology!

The cool thing, though, is technology itself enables this very change. Open Data and all the other technology initiatives aren't an end unto themselves. Rather, they are tools for finding ways of working -- ways that make data more accurate and timely, ways that make it easier to serve our communities.

Reinventing government overstates it, perhaps, but there's no doubt that change is in the air ... even within the tradition-bound confines of an old Boston institution.

Uhm, I meant the venue for this event, of course.

The Statler Hotel - which was later to bought, sold, and renamed the Park Plaza - opened in 1927 ... on former waterfront turned solid buildable land thanks to the engineering technologies that filled the Back Bay. This hotel and office building (gasp, integrated multi-use!) targeted an audience created by that new marvel - the automobile.

To cater to this newly mobile middleclass businessman who expected new things from a new world order, the Statler offered the latest in technology in every room. A radio! A telephone! A "servidoor", so your valet could discretely deliver your laundry!

It delivered a change in business-as-usual. The market loved it. What better setting could there be?

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