What I learned at Transparency Camp

There are people in our government who are strongly pushing for more openness and who are very focused on delivering better, more modern, service to citizens. They operate under some severe constraints, in some cases from rules and regulations that seem to have become obsolete. Yet you can see where these rules came from and also see the difficulty in just deciding not to follow them.

This paper, “Barriers and Solutions to Implementing Social Media in Government” is lauded by many at Transparency Camp is a very important contribution. Here’s the kind of thing it covers:

“As the new Administration looks to leverage these new tools to create a more effective and transparent government, it’s an opportune time for us to share what we’ve learned and propose solutions for how to best use these new tools across government.  These recommendations are based on our first-hand experience using social media within our own agencies and from hundreds of conversations with web managers across the country.” (fromBarriers and Potential Solutions“)

Another piece which has been mentioned and greatly admired is the “Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government” issued by the White House in January 2009. It’s short, and worth reading in its entirety. But here’s the opening paragraph:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” (from Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government)

[GEEKY] Built my first gem (Ruby Gem that is)

I’ve gotten interested in what is going on in the public sector, in particular in the world of non profits. I’ve learned a lot, met many people and been trying to define a project that would at the same time do something to better the world as be an interesting and fulfilling product challenge (notice, missing from that list is “make a lot of money”)

I want to start posting some of the cool things I am figuring out but so far I haven’t because I can’t really figure out how to organize it.

One area that I have immersed myself into is the many diverse groups who are doing work promoting government openness and transparency by, among many other things, creating the technical bridges to allow information that is already being collected to be more easily accessible. There are many of them, and one of them is the Sunlight Foundation. They are doing some really cool work, both themselves, and sponsoring and granting others who share their goals.

Wow what a long wind-up.

Anyway, in digging deeply into their APIs and datasets I decided to learn by doing and created a Ruby Gem called govsdk with the following goals:

  • A simple and consistent sdk to all the various government (federal, state and local) APIs available.
  • Totally hide from the user of the SDK what those APIs are, what the networking and REST pieces are. Instead provide classes which represent the natural domain objects and behind the scenes accesses appropriate datasets and APIs.
  • Identify the ‘current’ best APIs for the various facts and figures so that the user need not do the work to learn each of the organizations and data models. When new ones come online or change, hide that as well.
  • Provide all this in an open source library, for free, with example code, documentation and test suites.

Version 0.0.1 of the GovSdk GEM (0.0.1 — get the idea?) is implemented and available at GovSdk. Check it out, but expect it to change because this is still quite embryonic.