Better use of web should be considered by Patrick/Murray Administration

(Not to flog a dead horse, but this has become a very interesting thread. And a cordial welcome back to MavDem, who as usual has stated his point with more eloquence than I have so far mustered for basically the same position. - promoted by David)

There was an interesting op ed piece in the Globe on Saturday that talked about something relatively simple that the Patrick Adminstration can do which could have a powerful effect.  That is, make it easier for citizens to interact with the state and local government by better use of the web.  It would be a perfect follow-up to the incredible grass roots campaign that helped get Deval Patrick and Tim Murray elected.  Unfortunately, I do not have time to discuss this issue in more depth right now, but I hope to in the next few days. I think it is very important to getting even more people to check back in with their government. 

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10 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Free the data!

    This will go a long way.  It's hard for government to do, because (a) it costs money, (b) it invites closer inspection of what each agency is up to, and (c) it doesn't have immediate payback.

    But, opening up the data pays itself back.  For one thing, it's philosophically the right thing to do -- after all, it is the people's data, and we should be able to access it quickly, easily, and cheaply in useful formats.*  I want to be able to get election data, and not just the most recent election.  I want to be able to poke and prod at the budget at my leisure.  I want up to date statistics, everything from permits for road work to crime logs.  Allowing people to access this data will indeed result in the "cream" rising to the top.  It means the government will be more accountable -- but it also means that the government will be able to more quickly identify the most important issues, and fix the most important problems more quickly.

    Perhaps most importantly, it will help regular Joes like you and me be able to take a more active role in our government, and hence our community.  It will help us "check back in" as Governor-elect Patrick would say.

      * Hint: not a single document should be in .xls or .doc formats.  One should not have to pay a Microsoft tax in order to access public information.  Open formats please.

    • open doc formats

      for the ignorant among us (such as myself): what are the open format alternatives to .doc and .xls?

      • There are plenty...

        for text based (.doc) they range in complexity from .txt and .rtf to .xml based documents.  There's also .pdf, which is particularly nice and friendly and much harder to actually change the document -- a positive in many cases for gov't docs.

        For spreadsheet based files (.xls), any file can be delimited with tabs or commas, and then imported.  In fact, if you open up an .xls file, you should be able to "Save as" and change the format to CSV, which is comma delimited plain text, much like a .txt file with lots of commas.

        • You don't necessarily need Word

          I agree that .pdf is probably best.  Still, Open Office is available for free and can generally read Word documents.  Could .doc files be considered acceptable as long as Open Office can read them?

            - Dan

    • Exactly!

      Easy access to information is important at the state and local level, and the web is the perfect vehicle for making access even easier.  Just having a website is not enough; it is the content that matters too.  Some cities and towns post their public records on line, but many do not, and the quality of the state government's web presence is embarassing for a state that likes to present itself as a technological center. 

  2. bill tracking

    While I think state agency info is very important to post, it would also be helpful to have some sort of bill tracking service as well.  Right now there is a very good one provided privatly, but its also prohibitivly expensive fior many people and organizations.  Many state agencies subscribe to this service.  If the state provided their own it would be a savings of tens of thousands of dollars.

    We don't need anything fancy, but if google can alert me every time my name appears in the papers or on the web, why can't the General Court send me an email every time a bill I am interested in gets sent to a committee, or is being brought up for a vote?

    • Within the past two years, the legislature...

      threw a decent chunk of money into its budget to overhaul the online infrustructure of their legislative business with the intent of making the process more transparent and information more easily accessible.  Romney vetoed that part of the budget and there were many on the outside looking in urging them to override this.  If I'm not mistaken it was written into each chamber's operational budget I believe one chamber was interested in pursuing it but the other balked and it obviously needed both chambers to go forward.

      Anyway, there is definite interest in the building and anyone who follows this with the slightest interest knows that Massachusetts is embarassingly behind the times.

      • This is something I've been interested in

        ... and improvement in this regard would be a great way to get more citizen involvement.

        Would you care to write up something about the history -- and future of this idea as a full user post?

    • Other states do it already.

      For example, check out what the California legislature's website allows.  According to the Vennochi column in today's Globe, Deval Patrick is going to need the grass roots support he had during the campaign to help him once he is sworn in.  One way to empower the grass roots is to make sure we have access to the information we need about the legislature. 

  3. Glad to see these comments on my op-ed

    As the writer of the Globe op-ed that provoked this thread, I'm glad to see so many people are interested in the idea. Equally important, but less sexy, are the benefits of a creative Web strategy for the day-to-day operations of state government:

    • Pennsylvania's XML-based system that will eventually be used so that a single, integrated file will follow a person from arrest through parole has already dramatically streamlined the process of serving warrants on dead-beat parents
    • the universal health care law is going to be a nightmare in terms of public information. A web site that's managed 24/7 and quickly adds new answers to people's questions (and is written in plain English!) will go a long way toward eliminating confusion. We could also take a page from the Brits' book in that regard: their Home Office now posts informative videos to YouTube! -- we should have a series of videos on the enrollment process.
    • the one that excites me the most is what I call "virtual regionalism." We pay a terrible price in the Commonwealth for the home rule tradition: where most states deliver services primarly through counties, we've actually abolished half of them, so we have 351 police departments, 351 fire departments , more than 360 school systems -- you get the picture: a lot of needless overhead and duplication of effort. Forget about trying to end home rule -- it won't be done -- but we can use the Web to encourage "virtual" regions -- with no statutory authorities, simply a willingness to work collaboratively on common problems. For example, my town, Medfield, could form:
      •  a region with all contiguous towns
      • one with all towns along Rt. 27
      • another with those along 109
      • those along the Charles
      • those that are fighting the state over disposition of closed state mental hospitals, etc., etc.
    The state, by hosting a variety of collaboration tools such as wikis, shared calendars, etc., could facilitate collaboration. As long as a virtual region works for your town, that's great. But if you wake up one morning and it no longer seems relevant, just say bye-bye. Does that make sense to you?

    There are many other ways that an agressive web strategy can sustain the sense of community created by the Patrick campaign. They don't require legislation, just the will to put them into practice. -- W. David Stephenson W. David Stephenson | Principal| Stephenson Strategies 335 Main St., Medfield, MA 02052 |(508) 359-5112 Making Homeland Security Everyone's BusinessTM


  4. "A web strategy for better state government" in Massachusetts
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