What’s Awesome about OpenGov

I am a huge fan of the OpenGov initiative. In brief, this is an effort mandated by executive order to increase transparency in government. One of the major benefits to people like me with equal parts curiosity, cynicism and gigabytes of RAM is that anyone can access just mountains of government data by going to data.gov and downloading what’s there.

For example, I was interested in mass media in America – who owns it, whether there is equal diversity across the country, and a whole lot of other issues. I just went to the data.gov site, selected “Raw Data Catalog” and went to the government agency I was interested in. (Even though the heading at the top says ALL AGENCIES, there is a menu that allows you to select a lot more than just the agencies in the Cabinet.)

I was interested in the Federal Communications Commission, clicked the box next to it and it gave me a eight choices. Now, eight doesn’t sound like a lot but each of these options includes a LOT of stuff. For example, the FCC Geographic Information System includes a *FREE* copy of ArcExplorer2 which, believe me, is way, way better than the prize you get in a Cracker Jack box.

ArcExplorer2 was super-easy to use. It took just a few minutes to install it, open the FCCgeo project that came with it and start making graphs, like this one, that surprisingly shows much sparser distribution of AM radio stations in the west than on the east coast.

Of course you can see that AM radio distribution pretty much follows the population, being much sparser in the western states. Although there are a lot of stations in California, like the population, the AM stations are clustered along the coast.

However, the relationship with population can’t be that high. Look how densely those dots cover the east coast compared to the west. Really, is North Carolina that much more densely populated than California? That wasn’t a rhetorical question. I’m not a geographer. Does anyone know? Does anyone know if geographer is a real job? Does anyone know any geographers? I don’t.

This example does demonstrate some of what is great about OpenGov.

  1. FREE cool software. Top that!
  2. Data available to answer questions you might have, such as the distribution of AM radio stations.
  3. Data.gov provides just an enormous amount of data available and very easy to find. Tops out manyeyes by about a factor of 1,000 on both the volume of data and usable search dimensions. People who question the ability of the government to do things efficiently and well should check out the data.gov site.
  4. You can do a lot more with the data you get than just what is obvious. For example, of course the map that was produced has data behind it. If you look in the folder that includes the fccgeo project you’ll also find some folders of raw data. You can open those with OpenOffice, Excel, SPSS, SAS or just about anything else that reads csv files. You can merge them together to answer far more questions than were probably considered when these data were made available. And that’s a good thing.

So, that is what  I am doing now, merging datasets, aggregating data, and just looking at it from eleven different directions. Husband says,

“You know, hacking is not generally considered to be a good thing.”

Just because he was right about the hash tables now he’s the programming God of the house. Hmmmph. I plan to ignore him and go right back to happily  hacking at the opengov resources that I downloaded.

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