A renaissance of government Web apps

Federal Web sites are flourishing with innovative ways to serve the public

Two developers, two days and no money. The result: a simple hack application for federal agencies. That’s how Robbie Schingler, an executive at NASA’s Office for Open Government, described how he and Jessy Cowan-Sharp created Open Gov Tracker.

Yet their Web application provided immediate value for the federal government as part of a broader effort to make agencies more transparent, collaborative and innovative. OpenGov Tracker also represents much of what has changed about the nature of federal government Web sites in just the past year.

Like many emerging applications, OpenGov Tracker began as a way to enhance existing Web data — in this case, input on steps agencies might take to meet the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive to open their doors and data to the public. The General Services Administration made the job easier by offering a community engagement application based on the IdeaScale platform. Schingler and Cowan-Sharp, using the programming language Python and some freely available software tools, created a Web site that aggregated the results from 23 agency sites.

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The fact that they were able to build the site while Washington, D.C., was effectively shut down by record snowfalls in February is a testament to the ease with which Web-enabling tools can now be used.

But the larger lesson is the kind of creativity and empowerment that is flowering across federal Web sites in the form of applications and other ideas designed to give the public an active voice on government Web sites. GCN provides a glimpse of 10 of those ideas in this issue. Although not all are necessarily ground-breaking, they nevertheless reflect the great variety of ideas flourishing online today.

Indeed, although it’s easy to snipe about how basic some of these Web 2.0 approaches might be, the important point is the renaissance that is taking place on federal Web sites. In many cases, federal Web sites are finding innovative ways to serve the public that complement, if not rival, what’s taking place in the private sector.

The administration’s push for open government has certainly been a catalyst. And GSA deserves kudos for breaking down some of the regulatory barriers hindering Web 2.0 technologies. But much of the credit also belongs to an enthusiastic community of federal Web content managers — many of whom are still fighting daily to persuade senior government officials that agency Web sites are no longer just a public relations platform but a virtual face, arms and legs that are essential to agencies in carrying out their missions.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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