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With Open 311, the White House is Like That Friendly Guy at the Code Jam

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, March 4 2010

Credit: Gavin Newsom's Office

We mentioned yesterday that White House CIO Vivek Kundra winged his way out to San Francisco to stand beside that city's mayor Gavin Newsom and discuss an Open 311 API, but it's well worth going into more detail on what yesterday's event signified.

For starters, the "Open 311" drive is a push to develop a standardized, interoperable platform for municipal 311 services through the creation of a common API. 311, if you're not familiar, are non-emergency numbers where citizens might report a pothole on their commute or dead street light near their house. (You can't, at least not successfully, use 311 in New York City to ask just which fast food chain offers the Fishamajig sandwich, as a friend found out. But that's a different story.) According to the Washington Post, 311 began in Baltimore in the mid-'90s, with its genesis as an idea out of the Clinton Administration.

Now the Obama Administration is seeking to upgrade 311 for the 21st century.

But it's worth noting what the White House's role is here. Some reporting to the contrary (for example), yesterday's event was not some sort of official launch of a White House Open 311 National Initiative™. But that may well be a great thing.

[Video of yesterday's event with Gavin Newsom and Vivek Kundra:]

The Open 311 project has evolved, across the country, in the way that these tech projects tend to go -- loosely organized, and somewhat ad hoc. The Open Planning Project, a New York City-based group, has taken a lead in working out a common standard, so that "pot hole" in Portland isn't "pothole" in Washington DC. By standardizing the data, it opens up the possibility that a developer who builds a citizen services app for Boise can very easily make one for Buffalo; it's rather similar to how the Twitter API led to the blossoming of everything from the Tweetie app to Twitter Vote Report. Newsom has embraced the idea of Open 311, and a collaborative mission has emerged to allow municipalities to work with one another so that each doesn't have to re-invent the wheel as they seek to open up their 311 systems.

Which brings us back to Obama, and his tech team in the form of Kundra. One of the possibilities promised by the election of Obama was that we'd finally see a breaking down of some of the silos of government that can make it nearly impossible to get anything done. The goal of the Open 311 push is, in part, to make it so that everything from the small town of Takoma Park through the state of Maryland through the federal government through, potentially, international allies (Edmonton's techs are supports of the Open 311 standard, and that's in Canada) can meaningful benefit from each others assets and experiences.

You might have notice that the Obama White House has been somewhat stymied in its efforts to completely overhaul the way that government work, but something like the Open 311 push is something of an end run, or at least another way to get the job done.

Kundra's appearance next to Newsom yesterday gave Open 311 the imprimatur of the Obama White House. As anyone who has attempted to run a DevCamp or unconference or coding jam knows, sometimes all success takes is having a few well-known and/or well-respected people step up and become identified with the project -- and with the decisions it has made about how to get the job done. San Francisco and South Bend might have little functioning relationship, but the White House's signing off on an Open 311 plan, or any other related push, helps to drive development forward without necessarily asking all that much from the White House.

And really, the development of Open 311 seems to be going along well enough without it being co-opted as an Official Federal Government Program; officials within Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Portland, among other folks, have signaled that they back the development of a common platform, and San Francisco's rolling out of their Open 311 implementation is said to be imminent. It seems entirely possible that Open 311's eventual success is more benefited by a thumbs up by Obama -- with the White House acting as convener and cheerleader on occasion -- than it would be by getting stuck inside the bureaucracy somewhere.

Related from techPresident: President Obama, Tear Down These Silos