While on the East Coast last month we visited Rhode Island for a wedding. That tiny state was a great setting for the nuptials, but I didn’t get much indication at the time that—when it comes to giving its residents access to key information—it is one of the most innovative.
Shortly after we returned, I spotted this piece on Jeff Barr’s blog which I’m only just getting to. He eulogises about the clarity with which Rhode Island’s state government have grasped the vision of the “remixable” Web 2.0 concept, and their recent efforts to embrace those technologies: providing their citizens with tools and data about government in a format they can actually use.
The state’s GovTracker services provide a RESTful API and RSS interfaces to get hold of all sorts of information from the Secretary of State’s office. Access to the state directory, board/commission membership, election details, lobbyist registrations and “rules and regulations” are all provided, with results defaulting to RSS 2.0 (shame it’s not Atom or RDF, but we can’t have everything all at once and there’s always XSLT).
Would that more governments were doing this. Most citizen-run e-government projects are mired in the hassles of writing and updating scrapers to get access to this essential data, simply because the relevant offices are not willing to post their data in a semantically-rich, reusable format. Rather than focus on interfaces and innovation we first have to work to just get at the data. Data that, as taxpayers, we are paying to have gathered in the first place.
Rhode Island have leapt out ahead of the crowd with this initiative, but there’s at least one more step that would really help their citizens leverage this information. Probably the hardest data to scrape are the records/journals of legislatures. If Rhode Island were to start providing access to these (and bill data) in a similar fashion, it would be particularly impressive.
Hopefully more and more governmental bodies will grasp this vision and follow the example of Rhode Island, though I suspect the onus is on us as developers to demonstrate just how useful it can be.