Developers build useful, fun apps with fed data

Data.gov delivers, but fed to go further by hardwiring agencies for open government

The White House's data.gov effort is spurring the creation of some entertaining and informative applications from private developers.

Take for instance, DataMasher, which allows you to take two sets of data and merge them.

Popular mashups include: total political contributions to Democrats divided by total political contributions to Republicans by state, and another that maps the "most reproductive states," to highlight which state has the most babies per capita (answer: Utah).

Another application, Govpulse, reorganizes the Federal Register, a daily publication that is a thick and painful read, into something that is now sorted and searchable by department and geography.

And then there is This We Know, which enables users to create an instant snapshot of key data about a particular area, such as their hometown, to determine the number of factories, crimes, demographics, and even people diagnosed with cancer.

Those sites, all useful and fun to work with, were the top three winners this week in the Apps for America contest held by the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that urges transparency in government. About 50 applications were entered in the contest.

An intent of the contest is to draw attention to data.gov, the new effort by President Barack Obama's administration to move government data into machine readable formats that can then be repurposed by developers.

The creation of applications from government data has been compared to the model used by Apple and its iPhone, which has enabled development of thousands of applications specifically for it.

"Government truly is a platform," said Clay Johnson, the director of Sunlight Labs at a Gov 2.0 Summit , held today. The role of government is that of "a wholesaler of data," he said.

This model of interactive, data-rich information offers some interesting possibilities for both users and government.

Among the services operated in the U.K by the non-profit mySociety group is called FixMyStreet , which enables users to report on potholes, or log complaints about an overgrown pedestrian pathway, for example.

What may make FixMyStreet different and interesting is that all the information is transparent and hyperloca.

Viewers can scan the complaints, as well the status of complaint. That level of transparency may also help a government agency get the energy and money it needs to address problems, said Tom Steinberg, who heads mySociety and was at the conference.

The federal efforts to turn its vast troves of data into something that is useful will likely take years, but federal CTO Aneesh Chopra said that government IT officials are only weeks away from issuing a directive to federal agencies on an approach for improving transparency and engaging the public on policy making.

The intent is one of "hardwiring our agencies for open government," he said at the conference.

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