OpenGov Voices: CivOmega: Making Government Data Useful to Everyone

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Dan Schultz is a founder of CivOmega — a tool that provides answers to civic questions for average citizens. He is also a 2012 Knight-Mozilla Fellow, blogger at PBS IdeaLab and one of Dan SchultzSunlight’s OpenGov Grant winners. You can reach him at slifty@gmail.com.

We want everyone to care about government transparency, and we think the best way to do this is to make government transparency useful to everyone.

Right now open government sits on an ivory tower.  When we’re lucky, entities will provide datasets and APIs.  When we’re less lucky, they come to us with PDFs and word documents.  In either case most of the people who know how to explore these releases are developers, journalists, and political junkies.

civomega_screenshotCivOmega is an attempt to put us all on the same level. It empowers anybody to get answers from a dataset in the most natural way: by asking questions. You can see our live prototype already; just type any question about your government and wait for an answer.

If you’re like most people, you won’t get an answer yet. That’s because our prototype doesn’t know very much! This is where our OpenGov Grant from the Sunlight Foundation comes into the picture. It is allowing us to take our simple beginning and turn it into a platform.

With CivOmega 2.0, a person creating a dataset will be able to spend an extra hour to make that dataset accessible to humans. They will do this by creating and submitting a simple “CivOmega question module” which knows how to map question patterns to structured queries and API calls, gather the results, and present them in a way that has been specifically designed for that data.

Over the next month we are working to build a new version of our infrastructure to make it easier to contribute. In addition to a completely redefined core code base, this also means a few key new features:

1. Submitting new “question modules” which map user queries to datasets will be as simple as submitting a URL to your module’s GitHub repository.

2. References to data sources will be collected so that developers can leverage existing datasets and APIs.

3. Questions without answers will be publicly collected so that developers can address known needs.

In other words, you should block out an hour of November to spend contributing a module for your favorite data!

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com

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