Common-Nature

June 5, 2008

Government: less Web pages; more Web services

Filed under: Government, Missouri Mapping Project, social networking — kirk @ 8:40 am

Check out the recent article on ars technica. It discusses a new paper from researchers at Princeton University. David Robinson, Harlan Yu, William Zeller, and Ed Felten, all of Princeton’s Information Technology Policy Center, suggest that government officials focus less (much less) on developing usable web sites, and instead focus (much more) on providing raw public data such as regulatory decisions.

Why?

A number of reasons. The public sector has many developers and resources to develop innovative Web sites. While a government committee may spend weeks debating on what color icons to put on Web page, an individual can build a googlemap everyone can use in an evening. But individuals can only do this if they have access to the data.

We already know that good Web development means splitting out presentation, business logic and data access. We build applications that call Web services to access data. Then we post that information in xhtml pages that are styled with CSS. Why not build the Web services so they are exposed to the public? Then, anyone can access them.

‘Wait!’ You may say. ‘Our Web services are behind a firewall. We don’t want to punch a hole in our firewall.’ Fair enough..and you don’t have to. Consider this:

Many of us want to use AJAX in our Web pages. These AJAX pages must sit on a public accessible server (or else the public can’t get to them). AJAX pages require javascript to grab data for dynamic updates. Javascript cannot make calls to data services that are not on the same server as the javascript. This means that if you want AJAX in your application, you’ll need to have some sort of public Web service. In MDC development, we’re calling it a ‘proxy service’ (following the lead of Jeremy Keith of ‘Bulletproof AJAX‘ fame). This proxy service is a public accessible application that turns around and calls your real Web service that is behind the firewall. If you want to use AJAX for the public, this is how you’ll have to do it.

But if you’re doing this, anyone in the public can call that same application (because it’s on the public facing server). Poof! You’ve got a public facing Web service.

In short, building public facing Web services is something you’ll have to do to build AJAX pages. So why not develop a strategy now for figuring out how to make your data available to the public?

And why stop there? Why not have Missouri government foster an environment that encourages the public to access and mashup our data? I mean, what good is public facing data if no one knows it’s there?

In the United Kingdom, a non-profit group has joined forces with government to create the Ideal Government prize competition. To win the prize, individuals or groups in the public hacked government data with a free online map, and sent a short description and a link to Ideal Government contest. Entrants showed what’s possible in terms of locating public-sector data (schools, crimes, hazardous waste dumps, high-spending councils, whatever) on maps as easy to use as Google. All this was done by simply having government release access to its data. This group is even going further by actively engaging the public in government with ThePublicOffice.org.
Missouri could encourage such use of it’s data if it simply listed all agency data feeds. In fact, if Missouri government knew of all its existing data feeds, we could probably improve our own state and agency Web sites (by accessing feeds of other agencies). For more on this idea, see my posts on the Missouri Mapping Project.

In the next fiscal year, our development team here at MDC are going to be piloting these sorts of public Web services to expose information on our public conservation areas, job openings, area regulations, and available publications (we’re already releasing RSS feeds of our news in coordination with several other state agencies to present news on the Missouri state portal.)

For all this to work, then government needs to do the following:

  1. Build public facing Web services
  2. Make the URL to these services a permalink (i.e., a URL that will never change)
  3. Make the public aware of this service (and encourage it)

So…how can we make this happen in Missouri?
As a final note, see what Utah government is already doing in this area by checking out David Fletcher’s blog.

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