Washington, DC
Subscribe to GeoRSS Subscribe to KML


Where2.0 that matters

Published in Government, Neogeography, Where2.0

Last night I spoke at Ignite Where2.0. The community and ecosystem of Where2.0 continues to utilize cutting-edge technology to provide consumer and business services and needs. You can locate activities, friends, stores, media and more and have it integrated into mobile lives and online personas.

These are all great advancements, and are blurring the lines between the online digital data and our interaction with the real world. However it’s vital that we realize the real potential application of these technologies and what our legacy is on the entire world. How can we engage with global citizens, understand their needs and desires, and collaborate on building channels of information and tools that serve our individual and collective goals.

Almost two years ago I moved from Michigan, with stints in California, to Washington, DC. I moved at an auspicious time in our nation as the highly contentious presidential election approached at the same time concerns on transparent monitoring of democratic elections and process loomed. Social media and streams such as twitter, smartphones, voice technology and visualization provided the components to demonstrate how we can enable citizens to share their experiences, their problems, and for us to openly see problems and victories as they occurred.

This same concept applies just a well around the world. Open platforms such as Ushahidi have helped bring citizen reporting in elections in India, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan – each to different outcomes – but still in a way that harbinges a more open and transparent government process.

Now through my experiences with CrisisCommons, working with multinational organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations, and the federal and local governments, it’s clear to see how the leading edge of the Where2.0 community can have an amazing and unparalleled impact in providing understanding and change in global and local issues: Environment change, food security, humanitarian development, education, and disaster response.

In looking at the various open government initiatives, the questions arise in looking past the press release to the realized value of sharing data with businesses and citizens. I was struck my the foresight of the Arkansas AGIO team in the realization of how sharing data as broad and wide as possibly helps mitigate their vulnerability to disaster by enabling responders open access to vital information that would assist in response.

This concept is apparent in how OpenStreetMap was successful in Haiti. With the lack of official, government supplied data the best solution was to crowd-source the information from varied sources and rebuild the national data infrastructure, external to the government itself. While it has been unpredictably successful, the value continues to be the open access of the data by any and all organizations, and the eventual adoption by the government itself in rebuilding its capacity. The hope is that the government continues to openly collaborate with the global community in managing and maintaining this data so that the situation doesn’t need to reoccur.

In summary, the community is making a difference. The tools we develop in WhereCamp, IRC, open-source communities, and from companies are changing the capabilities of crisis response and development. My message is to urge the larger community to continue to think how their solutions can have a more broad impact.

If your technology can help a consumer find a great $4 latte, that’s good for your business. If it can also help a child find clean water near their village, that’s good for the world.

Afghanistan Election Monitoring

Published in Government

Today the democratic elections are occurring in Afghanistan. There is a FrontLine SMS on the ground pulling in data into Alive in Afghanistan, which is running Ushahidi.

At FortiusOne, we’re pulling together demographic, violence, and polling information into a dashboard of maps.

Estimated Number of Voters by Polling Location vs Average Risk Level of Polling Centers, 2009 Afghanistan Presidential Election, Eastern Region of Afghanistan (View full atlas)

You can read more about it on USAID’s Global Development Commons, or how we’re partnering with numerous other projects to build out solutions like this for deploying to the field.

The compelling example here is the combination of demographic information with contextually relevant information (polling locations), realtime feeds of data, and user-generated, on the ground observations. Together they are helping provide a common picture into the complex relationships, consequences, and potential outcomes of the election might look like.

Open Data Standards don’t apply to the Military?

Published in Government

USAFA IncompatibleLast night I came upon a new posting at FedBizOps for the US Air Force Academy’s ESRI Software License Renewal. The solicitation is a sole-source justification for license renewal of ESRI software for $25 million USD.

While government procurement makes things like sole-sourcing common as a mechanism to just renew license – it is really the supporting justifications for this sole-sourcing that are disconcerting.

From the solicitiation: “ESRI is the only source that can satisfy the needs of the government for the following reasons.”

  1. The Geospatial Information System section within the 10th Civil Engineering squadron has been using ESRI software since their initial development eight years ago.
  2. All of the past and present mapping and client specification have been developed using ESRI software products.
  3. The Dean of Faculty’s Geography department also uses the ESRI academic site license for teaching all Geographical Information System coursework to the cadets.
  4. Software standardization between the 10th CES, DFEG, and the entire USAFA is extremely critical.
  5. Compatibility allows GIS data sharing between all agencies on the USAFA will continue to support GIS development in the future.
  6. Award of this contract to another contractor would jeopardize the performance of our mission by making all of the existing GIS data non-usable.

Which of those reasons are legitimate to the missions of the government and defense, and which are indicative of a more endemic problem of vendor lockin?

The points of the critical nature of compatibility are very important. Data and information must freely flow between sources, analysts, consumers, observers, and archiving. In addition, there are definitely costs to retraining and maintenance that affects changing or introducing new software.

However, the majority of reasons provided by the solicitation point to legacy decisions, old implementations, academic education of specific vendors (definitely not uncommon), and the bold closing statement that the data from these software packages is not usable in any other tools.

It’s that last particular point that should be the most disturbing to the administration. Apparently all geospatial data being developed and utilized by the USAFA would be unusable without a sole software vendor. This causes concern over broader interoperability with other agencies and organizations, access to important national information, and archivability and retrievability.

The fault here isn’t on ESRI. They offer an interoperability suite that supports OGC, ISO, and other standards that agencies could utilize. The fault lies with the government contracting that justifies this type of reasoning of renewal and continuation because of single-vendor lockin. There is little excuse that open, compatible interfaces should be part of such a large contract.

I wonder when software licenses and interoperability spending will show up in the USASpending IT Dashboard?

US Government and Open-Mapping

Published in Government, Neogeography, Open-Source, OpenStreetMap

Delivering on Change - OSM in the WhiteHouseThis weekend, Tim Waters (chippy) noticed that the WhiteHouse is using OpenLayers mapping library and OpenStreetMap basemap tiles in their new Delivering on Change page.

Whether you were already serving your country, or are responding to the President’s call, share how you are delivering on change in your community.Whether it is an hour per month helping those struggling in the current economy, tutoring kids in your neighborhood every day, or anything else, we want to highlight what Americans are doing to strengthen our country.

This is very interesting on several levels. Foremost is the use of government provided (TIGER/Line) and crowd-sourced data (OpenStreetMap) in an official US Government Site. This is definitely an indicator that what were cutting edge tools have reached a critical mass to provide broad usability and appeal. Open Source? check

Looking underneath the hood, the data is provided via a KML feed (), so you can pull the data out and upload or map it however you want. Open Data? check

The site itself, Delivering on Change, is asking citizens to contribute stories and media about their personal engagement with change. This is an incredibly exciting step to ask for people to contribute to national storytelling and character. Citizen-sourced data? check

The new US administration is continually doing amazing, and open, initiatives. There is incredible excitement around as a testbed for the next generation of transparency and embrace of technology and open data feeds.

Small next steps

My thoughts on interesting applications wouldn’t be complete without pointing out a couple of suggestions. While many defend the default OpenLayers controls – I personally think that implementors should take that next step and apply minor customization to better integrate the look and feel of the map controls into their site. I’ve talked before about how easy it is to change some CSS to replace the controls. Perhaps even just a darker blue background to match the White House blue in the logo. Customized?

Another, less highlighted but very important for Government sites is the integration of accessibility controls. OpenLayers supports map navigation using keyboard inputs – which provides for alternative interfaces to navigate the map. It’s not clear if this is official “508 compliant”, but at least demonstrates the potential. Accessible?

How you can help

So do you want to help make Change, especially with mapping data and technology? Come join us at the Washington, DC mapping party – currently planned for June 20 + 21, 2009 somewhere in DC (details coming soon). Or join a mapping party near you.

GeoCommons News Dashboards: Obamameter

Published in GeoCommons, Government

GeoCommons NewsWith GeoCommons, we want to make it incredibly easy to not only share geospatial data and build maps, but to actually do something with these maps. Visualizations have a context, and have many different facets at which to look at a datasets, or any number of combinations of data, characteristics, and displays.

We’ve been experimenting with a number of different ways to do this, and all the time building it on top of our own API so that we know other will be able to create their own sites and visualizations just as easily. After all, why would we want to make our job harder or easier than we would expect of any user or developer?

Our first iteration of this was just launched and focuses on investigating the economy, stimulus plans, and housing issues as the Obama Administration works through it’s first hundred days. The Obamameter pulls from a collection of GeoCommons Maker! maps around each of these topics and automatically builds the site.

News moves fast – both emerging stories as well as evolving sagas. We wanted to make it fast and seamless to build an initial news dashboard for breaking events and for our team to add or modify maps as the news unfolds. That way viewers can easily stay up to date. Sean shares some more details on the facets of the dashboard as well as the easy to use administrative interface.

Peeking at the wiring

Cost of the Economic Stimulus What you (if you tend to read my blog) may find more interesting are some of the details on how our API is working to enable this kind of quick site generation (yes, you can use the word mashup). We’re definitely not ready to fully push out our API – there is still a lot of tape, hot solder, and bits that we don’t feel comfortable making other developers endure – and more importantly rewrite their code – until it’s solid.

As Sean showed in the admin interface, the site builder just identifies tags, and optionally a user, to pull maps from. This queries our OpenSearch enabled search and asks for GeoJSON response. Matt then wrote some slick and unobtrusive JavaScript to dynamically build these into menus and include the controls for loading new maps. Our data team can continue to maintain their maps and data in GeoCommons and the Dashboard will dynamically update with this new information.

All the underlying data and maps are freely available via GeoCommons Finder! so please download your own copies and investigate the data. We hope this behavior is a model for how the government itself can benefit citizens through open, and easy, sharing of data.

Overall, it’s quite a simple solution to what is typically seen as a very complex, or opaque problem. We’ll be documenting more soon on the various tools and how other can do the same for their own dashboards and sites.