Sasha Kamenetska | Contributor
November 15, 2012

Bringing Government into the 21st Century


Last week marked a momentous occasion in my life: the first time I voted at a polling station.  I had voted in the past, but somehow, I always ended up voting by absentee ballot.  So, I was full of excitement on my way to the polls, but that waned quickly when I saw the slow and tedious process of voter check-in, consisting of copying voter’s names out of a book and onto a sheet of paper.

I’m not complaining that I had to wait in line to vote – too few people in world have the chance to vote at all, and I did not have a long wait compared to some voters.  However, this does not mean that our voting system(s) shouldn’t be streamlined a bit.   And our president agrees

Voter registration is among many services that the government needs to bring into the digital age.  And the federal government is making progress.  In May, the Obama administration published its roadmap for digital strategy.  It included a big push for making government data and services more easily accessible to the public through APIs. 

Imagine a handy app that told you how long the wait time was to vote at your local precinct.  Or how about a tracker for when your tax refund is coming? Or an app that helps you to determine where to buy a house by overlaying education, environmental, health and crime statistics on a map to help you locate the best neighborhoods?

All of these options are possible because the government is re-thinking its IT approach and starting to treat data as an asset that it can expose in a consumable way to others.  The biggest benefit of the government’s focus on open APIs is not that it makes data available (publishing tables, charts and datasets accomplishes that also), it is that it is making data available in a format that can be manipulated, combined with other data and presented in a whole new light.  That is what makes this a great step forward.  And the best news is, that a number of departments have already opened up: just take a look at programmableweb for a full listing of government APIs that include the US Department of Labor, US Energy Information Administration, US Census Bureau and the FCC, just to name a few.

Of course, besides providing greater transparency and better service, bringing government data into the API world also provides another benefit: money-saving.  Imagine all the paper we could save if all our government services were digitized.  And infrastructure costs could be lower too, with the processing time decrease, etc.  If the government can accomplish this digital strategy, the benefits will be large and far-reaching.  Hopefully, that is something we can all be excited about for the next four years, no matter our party affiliation.