The Wisdom of Crowds

A CIO looks to the public to take city data and turn them into quick, nimble and useful software programs.
February 1, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

Governments can't think of everything. That's why Vivek Kundra, the chief technology officer of Washington, D.C., went to "outsiders," asking for ideas on how to enhance D.C. services through cool computer applications. He announced the "Apps for Democracy" contest in October. The general public was invited to take data -- yes, dry digital data, from D.C. files -- and turn them into useful and absorbing information for residents, visitors and government employees.

When the closing bell rang on the 30-day contest in mid-November, Kundra's office had received 47 submissions. Government's cost: $50,000 -- nearly half of it for prize money. That's cheap for dozens of new and usable applications. If the government had had to develop all of them on its own, it would have taken more than a year and, Kundra estimates, $2.6 million.

Five of the entries already are in use. "That's the power of democratizing data," Kundra says. It fosters the design of quick and nimble applications, allowing citizens to be "co-creators of government." Using the wisdom of crowds is a huge philosophical shift from how government usually runs, he adds.

The technology department awarded the top prize to, a site with handy neighborhood information. For instance, I learned there's a closed-circuit television camera at a corner near my home -- a corner where I'm often tempted to speed through a yellow light. I also learned about a nearby heliport, an embassy and the number of thefts from automobiles reported within a half-mile of where I live.

My favorite entry, for the name alone, is "Stumble Safely." No, it's not for preventing drunks from falling on their faces during a night on the town. It's a catchy name for a Web site that provides information about crime around bars and nightclubs. It can arm night owls and clubbers with safety information before they head out. But its benefits go further. It can tip off city responders to where the big parties are -- and where potential street dangers might be. For instance, during last year's presidential election, the Department of Public Safety used the site's information, collected from Facebook and other social networking sites, to make decisions about where to assign personnel.

Other new sites are: "Park It DC" for checking which streets allow two-hour resident-only parking, which streets have parking meters and what hours those meters need to be fed; "Where's My Money, DC?" for residents curious about city procurements above $2,500; and "D.C. Historic Tours," a site that lets visitors create personal walking tours of D.C., using Google Maps mashups with photos and Wikipedia information. The data came in handy for inauguration visitors.

When promoting the contest, the technology office sought creative, computer-savvy people by tapping social networking Web sites such as Ning, Facebook and Twitter. As requested, they fashioned applications either for BlackBerrys, iPhones, Web sites, Google Maps or MapQuest. As part of the contest rules, the creators turned over ownership of the source code to the city.

To help "inventors" with their task, the technology office produced an online catalog that offered recreational programmers a range of public data to choose from, including information on crime, 311 calls, permits and procurement. Did I just sense shuddering out there by CIOs worried about electronic mischief that could ensue from throwing open government file cabinets to "strangers"? Kundra's office thought about that, too. Before letting data loose, D.C.'s technology office carefully culled it to protect citizen privacy.

A contest may not be a good fit for everyone. Whether this idea will work for other governments, including those at the state level, will depend on the culture of those governments. If, for instance, a state expects protests over any changes in the regular procurement processes, it will be less likely to try such an approach.

But Kundra is moving forward. He is planning his next contest, which will aim to transform how government buys technology. After all, state and local governments spend a small amount of money on software compared with the large consulting fees wrapped around it. A contest could be an end run around those costs. It might also address other issues Kundra wonders about: why procurement takes so long and why people are so unhappy when technology is implemented.

The first procurement Kundra will tackle involves special education. Instead of the city spending $6 million for a system, Kundra is looking for the community of great thinkers to propose a model for a solution that can save development steps. Once again, the thinkers have 30 days to work out their ideas. Kundra expects these applications by the people and for the people to play an important role in D.C. government.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |