While the technology pundits are debating the role of an Obama administration CTO, a few programmers in Seattle yesterday decided to do something more useful. Using an application from UserVoice, they launched ObamaCTO.org, a site, unaffiliated with the Obama machine, that allow citizens to list and vote on what should be the top tech priorities for the new administration.
"User voting is an easy way for people to prioritize ideas," said Matt Lerner of Frontseat.org, which created the site. While the voting on this site is more like on Digg than a scientific sampling, and can be gamed, it is part of the Internet-fueled movement to give more of voice to the populace. The Obama campaign provided ample evidence of the benefits of using the Web for massive outreach. Now the question is how much weight the wisdom of the crowd will carry in influencing the direction of government policy.
Lerner and his co-workers are focused on making use of public data for civic good. "We have been interested in all the government data that is available," he said. "There is a treasure trove, such as data on campaign finance and voting records, but it is not standardized or structured, and doesn't have any APIs. Many innovations would be created if the data were available to programmers."
He gave a few examples of applications built around government data. Voting records are publicly available but must be accessed from each county in the U.S. and then normalized. "You could have maps of a block and see who hasn't registered to vote as a way to get out the vote," Lerner explained. Voter data is available from private firms such as Catalyst Consulting, Lerner said, but is expensive.
With census data on whether people drive, walk, or take public transportation to work, activists could encourage people to be more environmentally responsible. Frontseat.org developed Walk Score, which ranks the "walkability" of 2,508 neighborhoods in the largest 40 U.S. cities.
See also: Micah Sifry--Obama's CTO: Never Mind Who; What Should S/he Do?