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San Diegans Asked To Hack The Government, And It’s A Good Thing

Aired 7/27/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

The web site, USA.gov has a treasure-trove of information -- but it can be overwhelming. We'll hear about a "hack day" event, taking place this week in San Diego, aimed at making it easier to use government information.

Additional Resources

Information about how people are using data from USA.gov here.

Resources for developers here.

RSVP for 1/USA.gov Hack Day here.

The idea of computer experts hacking a government website usually provokes fear and dread. But on Friday in San Diego, Hacking becomes a good thing. The 1/USA.gov Hack Day hopes to bring together the most tech-savvy programmers to explore the bounty of data on the USA.gov web site. And in the process, figure out how to make that data more accessible to the average citizen.

Guest

Jed Sundwall, organizer of San Diego's 1.USA.gov Hack Day, which takes place on Friday, July 29 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Ansir Innovation center in Kearny Mesa.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The idea of computer experts hacking a government website usually provokes fear and dread. But on Friday in San Diego, hacking becomes a good thing. The one USA.gov hack day hopes to bring together the most tech savvy programmers to explore the bounty of data on the USA.gov website, and in the process figure out how to make the data more accessible to the average citizen. Here to tell us more about hack day is my guest, organizer Jed Sundwall of Measured Voice Incorporated. Hi, Jed.

SUNDWALL: Hi.

CAVANAUGH: Now, this hack day is apparently based on other events where a website will open itself up to programmer, say here's the information we have, what can you do with it?

SUNDWALL: That's exactly right. Hack days are very common. They're events that are designed to create serendipity, bring smart people together, bring curious people together and have them solve problems. They're usually focused around a particular set of data or problem. There have been hack days organized by the New York Times to work with New York Times data and all the content they say on their website, for instance. Another government hack day that was pretty successful was the FCC. They organize aid hack day to invite people to explore data that they have about Internet connectivity around the country.

CAVANAUGH: In reading the information about this and speaking briefly to you, it seems that all of this really comes very easily to you. But there was a movie where Denzel Washington used to tell people, explain it to me like I'm a six-year-old. So I'm going to and you to do something like that for the rest of the interview, what is the goal of hack day?

SUNDWALL: Okay. So to put it in the simplest terms as possible, we have a huge data set that we don't know what to do with.

CAVANAUGH: At USA.gov.

SUNDWALL: So as part of our work at measured voice, helping USA.gov with their usual media strategies, one of the things we've done is create a URL shorter in. People use URL shorter ins every day to make links that they share on the Internet shorter, so they can share them in text messages or on twitter. And so we created one that would work only for .gov and .mil sites, so that is URLs that are government URLs. And we did it in cooperation with a company called Bitly, it's a very popular URL shorter in. And the results have been tremendous. The URLs that are shortened with this service are clicked on about 56,000 times a day. And what's remarkable about this is that every one of those clicks, once you take them in aggregate, you have a picture of what and across the entire government that people are talking about and sharing and clicking on each day.

CAVANAUGH: So instead of USA.gov.department.airlines, dot dot dot. You with this URL shorter in can maybe put a link in a twitter feed, a tweet, right?

SUNDWALL: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: And then people can just click on that rather than this whole acres long URL.

SUNDWALL: That's right. And what's significant about this is that I think a lot of people think of the government as this monolithic entrepreneur. But it's really made up of a lot of agencies and program, and they all have different websites, and they don't talk to each other. And there's no way for anyone to know what's most popular across the entire government. For USA.gov their mission is to make government easy for people. And this let's people tell us just by clicking, they don't really know that they're telling us something, but every time they click on a URL, they're kind of voting for it. And so the point is that we have a lot of data from this, and there's a lot of applications of it. There are a lot of interesting things that you could do with it, and our imaginations will only take us so far. So the hack day is designed to bring people together who are curious, who are smarter than us, who think about different things than we do, and share ideas with them.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I just looked, I occasionally look at USA.gov website. I don't really access it all the time. I guess I'm one of those people waiting for an easier way to do it. What kinds of information? I said it was a treasure trove. It really is, isn't it?

SUNDWALL: Yeah, yeah. USA.gov, it rests on this premise that your average citizen shouldn't have to know how to navigate government. I live in San Diego, I've lived here for seven years, but I grew up in the DC area. So the alphabet soup of all the acronyms and agencies, and government programs, I'm familiar with that. But most people aren't. So when people need to find out about food recall ares, they shouldn't have to know that they should go to either the CDC or the FDA or USDA, all these different agencies that might handle that. The idea is that they should just remember go to USA.gov, and all the information that you really need will be in front of you where it's very easy to find because people just shouldn't have to navigate the government. It's a very complicated structure.

CAVANAUGH: And you've said that already places like NASA have opened up for hack days and made streamlining their websites in a way so that it's easier for people to access information?

SUNDWALL: Yes. Yeah. Absolutely. I wish I could speak more to what NASA has done. They've done things like actually opened themselves up even more, beyond just data. Which they've opened up a lot of data and information about their missions. They've even organized challenges, which are contests basically saying we have this problem at NASA. For instance I think there was a challenge where they needed to design a space glove, so a glove that an astronaut would wear. And they said, you guys figure it out; to the whole possible. And it's remarkable. They think spaceships and suits they're made by scientists be like a different species of person. But it was people and tinkerers that work in their garages that came up with the best space glove.

CAVANAUGH: It's my understanding that one of the reasons you want to gather in all of the computer hackers, quote unquote, and entrepreneurs and so forth to take a look at this USA.gov website is because if we don't make it easier to access the information the government collects, you think some of it will be lost.

SUNDWALL: It will. Yeah. It absolutely will. And this isn't just for the GOP. This is any large organization that gathers a lot of data, a lot of -- they're always counting metrics and compiling data. There's only so much that the organizations, their staff, can do with it. And in the recent years, because of the Internet, because of broadband, the technology has become so easy to share huge sets of data that there's really no reason that the government shouldn't make data available as long as it's -- it doesn't impact national security. And the government at the federal level recognizes this, it's created, I think, data .gov to make it easier for people to find government data. In the hacker world, there's a maxim that with many eyes, all bugs are shallow. Meaning when you're making software, you want to make sure you get rid of the bugs. If you have a lot of people looking at that code, you're more likely to find them and fix them. And the same thing goes for the GOP. If people can see the data that the government's producing, it's -- it will make things better for everyone because everyone will have a chance to find inefficiencies or even find great success stories and highlight those.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know now -- do we have any kind of data about how people are using USA.gov?

SUNDWALL: USA.gov, there's the distinction between USA.gov, the portal to the government, and then there's just U.S. government data in general. So for USA.gov, we know based on site traffic and also based on the URL shorter in data that we looked at initially, is that people are interested in finding out how to pay their taxes or finding jobs, government grants and things like that. We know that because of the URL shortener data, people really like sharing and clicking on pictures from space. NASA is always very popular in there. But in terms of the broader open government data question, there are some remarkable examples. One of which is a company based here in San Diego called brightscope. I'm a huge fan of this company. They use Department of Labor data that the Department of Labor gathers on 401K plans. They're able to look at all the data publicly available from the Department of Labor, analyze it, and create a score for 401Ks. And they're able to use this data to actually power a business that employs a number of San Diegans, that helps fund advisors, find the best 401Ks for their clients. And it's a great way to use data that the government is gathering and create a business out of it.

CAVANAUGH: That's one of the ways that you're luring people into this hack day, the idea that if they come up with an idea like that, they might be able to make some sort of ap or business idea out of it and profit by it; is that right?

SUNDWALL: Absolutely. That's part of the agreement. Working with Bitly on this URL shorter in has been remarkable, because they provide this data as a service to USA.gov. And normally, when they work with clients to create these UR shorteners, their terms are the data is yours and you can't share it. And we said, we really want to make it open, we want to make it available to anyone and are the anyone do what I they want with it. And they're, like, that's fine. Go for it. It's very 16rous of them, and it's very cool of USA.gov to do that. But that is the idea. Whether the data is gathered by the government, and there's the weather channel, those are real businesses, and that adds value to society when the data's out there. And people can use it.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any controversial surrounding this in that this is indeed tax funded research that might be used by an entrepreneur if they learn how to assemble it in an accessible way and sell it back to us, in a sense?

SUNDWALL: That's a good question. I could see how that might concern people. It but it's been going on with weather data for as long as I've been Alive. I don't think people necessarily see it in those terms. The way I see it is that data should be a public good, especially government produced data. Because we're paying for it to be produced. And it's being produced in a raw form. If someone can take that data in a raw form and add value to it, create a business out of it, create efficiencies by adding value to it, I think that's a great premise for a business.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit specifically about hack day, this event in San Diego. I know it's one of a number of events held across the country; is that right?

SUNDWALL: That's right. So we partnered with Bitly, who is running the technology behind the URL shorter in, USA.gov, and another company called simplegeo. We're holding to events nationwide in the same day. So it'll be a coast to coast event bringing people together to look at this data set.

CAVANAUGH: How many people do you expect here in San Diego?

SUNDWALL: Right now, we have about 30 people RSVPed. If you search San Diego hack day on Google, it should be the first result. So we're actually pretty happy with that result, given that it's happening on a workday, on a Friday, in the summer. But we do want more people. So if anyone's curious, researchers or programmers, or -- just that you feel people, students are coming out who just have ideas they want to share. And that's really what we're looking for.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's what I was going to and you. Do you have to have any qualifications to attend this event? Do you have to be a programmer or have some sort of educational requirement?

SUNDWALL: I think just curiosity, a little bit of imagination. That's all we and. And willingness to share your ideas. No one's -- just to be clear, the government's not going to run away and steel your idea and run off with it or anything like that. But we want people to come out who are curious or interested in data, interested in learning about things. It's a great opportunity for novices to come out and be with other people who might have more experience working with data and software.

CAVANAUGH: If I were to go to this event and not necessarily, you know, try to come up with an idea, but just actually look at it, what would it look like? What would I walk into? What would the space be like?

SUNDWALL: Okay. It's at the innovation center, which is a pretty cool place on convoy, you go into a room, they have a lot of modular furniture, tables and chairs that can be moved around. There's a screen at the front of the room we'll be projecting on, and a white board. And it will be pretty loose. These kind of events are pretty fun. We have an agenda, but it's not a rigid agenda. And it resolves around us getting people to talk to one another and form ad hoc groups to talk to one another. What you would see is a bunch of people talking together. We'll be giving a small presentation at the beginning, but after that, it's sort of a free for all. We want people to get together and share their ideas and hopefully hack on things together. Hacking on things, working through things, figuring out problems and figuring out how to solve them.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds fascinating. You did a wonderful job of explain it. I want to let everyone know that San Diego's 81/USA.gov hack day is this Friday from 10 to 6 at the answer innovations center in Kearny Mesa. And I've been speaking with organizer, Jedsund wall. And thank you so much.

SUNDWALL: Thank you.

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