Technology moves fast. In 1965, Gordon Moore, a co-founder of computer chip manufacturer Intel, put forth the idea that computing power roughly doubled every two years. This idea became enshrined in the technology industry as Moore’s law, and has predicted with relative accuracy the exponential pace of progress of personal computers and electronic devices.
Of course, while microprocessors may be getting more powerful all the time, people and institutions have demonstrated that their capacity for utilizing these new improvements at a similar rate is quite limited. Government as an institution is notoriously very slow to adopt new ways of doing things (i.e. not “open”). This presents a major challenge for anyone who wants to use new media tools within the government. For example, when the City of Toronto’s Public Consultation Unit wanted to begin using Facebook as a way to reach out to citizens, it had to obtain special permission to even access the Facebook website (as it had been blocked by the City’s Internet firewall).
Some cities have taken initiative to directly launch new media projects to inform citizens and improve public participation. Several cities and public agencies have begun using blogs, crowdsourcing, and even Twitter to communicate up-to-date information to citizens. And Melbourne, Australia used a wiki to develop the City’s newest master plan (more about that in a later post).
However, cities don’t have to do much of anything themselves if they don’t want to. All they really need to do is to publish their municipal data online, preferably in the form of a live feed when possible. Once that is done, a whole community of eager third-party application developers can build tools for the public to make use of the data.
This outsourcing approach has been effectively used by several cities already, including San Francisco, Vancouver, Canada, and Washington, D.C., which has partnered with interactive strategy and marketing firm iStrategyLabs to launch several competitions to inspire developers to build applications using city data while competing for prize money. The resulting applications allow D.C. residents to learn a range of things about their city – from crime incident trends in their neighborhood to where to find an open parking space. Similar competitions have launched in New York and elsewhere (a guide to hosting your city’s own competition is posted here).
Of course, cities with resources to spare can still benefit from developing new media efforts themselves. Already a host of new and established consulting and technology firms are rushing to offer their services to cities interested in using the Web more effectively. And for those cities looking to build their internal capacity, a new organization called Code for America (think Teach for America for software developers) is working to recruit talented programmers to help cities build the next generation of web tools to empower citizens and improve government.