OpenGov West Recap

Open Gov West, which took place earlier this month in Portland, Oregon, was by all accounts a success. It was full of passionate innovators, both inside and outside of government, and from all over: people who know that government can’t just be about keeping the lights on and are instead doing the hard work of changing it, both from the inside and the outside, to make it work better. There was too much awesome to condense into one blog post, so here are a few of the highlights.

The conference started off on a great foot when Markus Estes and Wally Rodgers from the state of Oregon spoke on how any government can open data if they use an iterative approach. “Start with what you have. It may not be a restful api, but it might be a spreadsheet… [but] take what you’ve got and get it online.” This makes intuitive sense; any large problem is only solvable in small chunks, and a more iterative approach is really valuable, especially when coupled with public feedback on both the quality of the current datasets as well what is missing (their site, allows this kind of interaction).

Their presentation was followed by talks by Dr. Alan Rosenblatt and Tiago Peixoto, who both discussed how the data is part of a larger open government story, about how government can’t simply broadcast data, but must use this to engage with their citizens. Rosenblatt talked about specific tactics and cases of using social media not as another information spout, but to give the citizenry “political efficacy” — that is, a sense of empowerment in their ability to influence government directly. Peixoto’s talk on participatory budgeting demonstrated the creative ways the budget process was made accessible to citizens: for example, a city in Brazil used the walls of city buildings as a publishing platform for the budget breakdown, and then then turned to SMS for receiving comments.

Such examples of engagement were a refrain throughout the conference, and taken together, they demonstrate how open data is a critical part of open, participatory government. But it’s just the start. It’s part of a fundamental shift in the relationship of the governed to the governing, a quiet transformation where engaging the populace means increasing the surfaces upon which the citizens can not only make their voices heard and priorities known, but to help themselves build the city and country they want. Mayor Sam Adams, who kicked off the conference, made this point too: engagement must go beyond the occasional poorly attended public meeting, it must go to where people are.

Another incredibly inspiring session was that led by Bob Woods and Robert Gilman on how small local city governments are innovating. Albany, Oregon (population: ~50,000) and Langley, Washington, (population: ~1,000) are using their own initiative, plus some lightweight, open source tools and a fair amount of their own elbow grease, to build some great tools for opening their city’s finances and governing process.

Of course, the biggest round of applause here is due Sarah Schact and her organization Knowledge as Power for putting this great conference together.

Check out the conference notes, as well as a recording of the keynotes.