Data to the People - A Tour of DC

The District of Columbia's Apps for Democracy initiative is turning government inside out and upside down. As a long-time resident of the DC area, I...
by | August 7, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

The District of Columbia's Apps for Democracy initiative is turning government inside out and upside down. As a long-time resident of the DC area, I decided to log on and give some of these applications a try.

Opening up public data feeds is the ultimate in transparency. Apps for Democracy, and the data feeds that fuel it, invites the world to view data about the District of Columbia (see article here). Thanks to the D.C.'s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) and its contest to encourage open source development, the best applications can now be found on their web site.

The program is breaking new ground in American government. Here's what I found.

Achieve, DC - A Virtual Tour of the DC School System

I was struck by the first app on the list at DC's Digital Public Square. [] "Achieve, D.C." [] which shows the location and test scores of the District's elementary, middle, and high schools. The scores pop up when you click on the "pins" located on a map of DC showing all the school locations. For those looking to see where the best (and worst) performing schools in the district are located, this site does the trick.

Conveniently, what's also displayed is the poverty rates of the neighborhoods where the schools are located. Not surprising, the poverty rates tend to correlate with the test scores.

For fun, I logged onto "Achieve, D.C." and turned off the elementary and middle school "pins" so that I could look only at the high schools. I saw immediately that there are no public high schools in upper Northwest, home to Washington's wealthier residents. The high schools there are all private, with names like Sidwell Friends, St. Albans, National Cathedral, and Maret. (That's not to mention Georgetown Prep in Bethesda and Madeira in Great Falls, Virginia.) Transparency like this may be the first step in generating the political will to make needed changes.

"Are You Safe?"

One of the neat features of the Apps for Democracy programs is that many of them are compatible with the iPhone, taking advantage of the GPS "location aware" function. I have an iPhone 3G that's loaded with 50 apps, so I knew I had to try the DC apps that have made it through Apple's approval process.

Although the DC site list includes fourteen apps by PointAbout that indicate they can use the iPhone's "location aware" function to find banks, gas stations, embassies, and even marinas, I found that only two are available at the iPhone's store. One, "Park It DC" is supposed to find nearby parking spaces, but I could never get it to work for me.

The other one, "Are You Safe?", is simply fascinating! The phone detects your location, and then tells you the number of homicides, assaults, robberies, and car thefts that happened "nearby" in 2008. Using an algorithm, it gives the location you are in a crime rating from Low to High, shown on a gauge like a speedometer, and it also provides a rating number from zero to eight. The rating system is helpful but a little confusing. A neighborhood can merit a "Low" rating even if a few crimes are listed, and the app never explains the algorithm and doesn't define "nearby."

That said, I found "Are You Safe" to be a valuable application, especially for out-of-towners. It updates its results every minute, or whenever you've driven about two or three blocks. It is very fast. And its results seem intuitively correct to me, and I've lived in or near DC since 1963. This app's real usefulness would be to a visitor.

A few weeks ago, I drove down Wisconsin Avenue from the District line to Massachusetts Avenue, and then to Union Station, and down East Capitol Street out across the Anacostia River and up Kenilworth Avenue. Here are the ratings:

Nieman Marcus at the District line: Low

Sidwell Friends School: Low

The Vice President's Residence: Low! (No violations listed. Duh!)

Dupont Circle: Still Low, but now scoring a "Two".

Crossing 16th Street (fewer than 10 blocks up from White House): One

Crossing 4th Street NW: Moderate "Four".

Near Union Station: Low, back down to "One."

Lincoln Park (East Capitol at 12th): Low, still "One."

East Capitol at 17th: "Two"

Crossing the Anacostia River: Low (No violations.)

Upper Kenilworth Avenue NE: Moderately High. This seemed like a good place to turn around.

More Apps - and an Appetite for More

Most of the new apps have their own websites. I found several that display D.C. government data (permits, alerts, etc.) on maps of neighborhoods or blocks in the District. The "Webocratize" application [] seems to be the best of these. I spent some time gazing at traffic via the "Traffic Cameras" application. [] The DC traffic updates are too slow to be interesting unless you know the intersections. (And they're nowhere near as much fun as the webcams that show surf conditions in California! [])

There are several apps from DC government itself that continue the migration from standing "in line" while dealing with government to sitting "online" from home--or from the comfort of your very own mobile device. Paying parking tickets is one example, and such cost-saving enhancements to public service are always welcome.

The most extensive use of the data feeds may be in "JDLand" [], which tells you more than you want to know about DC's Capitol Riverfront area, now under massive redevelopment.

A complete listing of the new apps are shown in living color at the Apps for Democracy catalog []. For those who prefer their data raw, the Citywide Data Warehouse [] can also be accessed, and it contains the Data Catalog [] with all the nuts and bolts.

Almost 40 years ago, as a young newbie at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, I once led something called the USAC program, an R&D effort to develop "integrated municipal information systems." That effort was, to put it mildly, a little bit ahead of its time. Our six test cities were using mainframe computers!

Nonetheless, it is gratifying to see DC government going beyond USAC in both theory and practice. Talk about government "of the people, by the people, and for the people!" Thanks to modern technology, citizens can now have government literally in the palm of their hand.

Robert Knisely was a Senior Executive at the departments of Commerce, Energy, Transportation, and Education, among others. He was also a Deputy Director of Vice President Al Gore's Reinventing Government project. He blogs on the design of government at