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A Local Gov 2.0 Primer

BY Nick Judd | Monday, November 29 2010

Fast Company's Anya Kamenetz rounds the bases on what the local Gov 2.0 crowd is doing around the country in an article for the magazine's December/January issue, which appeared online today.

Regular readers of this blog won't find Kamenetz moving the ball very far. That said, she has a smart and critical take on how geeks are moving in to city halls around the country, and what they're doing once they get there.

The biggest criticisms, of course, are that the community trying to use technology to bridge the gap between governments and constituents has been at work for such a short time that there are few cases available to use to evaluate its success, and that developers are not always conversant in the kinds of urban problems they're being asked to solve. There are a multitude of smartphone applications that can tell users when their trains will arrive, but can developers really build smart solutions to problems like public safety in cash-strapped cities?

Kamenetz puts it this way:

Logistics, combined with the reality of political stasis, can make gov 2.0 sometimes seem like a monorail of the 21st century, more hype than a real solution. And the talk of getting "smart people" involved in government can grate. Just as the infusion of thousands of bright-eyed Harvard and Brown grads into public-school classrooms for two-year stints has failed to magically transform school systems, there's an inherent arrogance detectable in the idea that folks conversant in Ruby on Rails are somehow best equipped to deal with the intractable problems faced by cities across the nation, from crack vials in playgrounds to police brutality.

That said, there is a surprisingly close connection between urbanists and technologists in this space, and people in the Gov 2.0 tribe, like IBM's John Tolva, who can eloquently describe their vision for an interface between the built environment and the virtual world. (Here's Tolva and New York City's information technology commissioner, Carole Post, discussing that very interface at an event we co-sponsored.) Next American City, a magazine for urbanists, has a columnist dedicated to writing about where open data and urban planning intersect. Code for America, a non-profit that will install technologists in cities around the country similar to how Teach for America spread college graduates as teachers in classrooms throughout America, includes some training in urban affairs as part of its curriculum for fellows.

As the theory behind local Gov 2.0 tools evolves, so does the industry — and it remains to be seen if the market and the way its understood will mature at the same rate. The Fast Company article is a good starting point for people to get up to speed on how technology is being applied in local government around the country, and worth a read.