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Crowdsourcery in Austin

The Austin Web Crowd. Photo by John Anderson, Austin Chronicle

Several local web thinkers met recently with the IT staff from the City of Austin to discuss a best approach for redeveloping the city’s web site. The Austin Chronicle has a good article about the project focusing especially on my pal whurley and his efforts to help crowdsource a more innovative approach.

To kick-start the redesign process, Hurley initiated OpenAustin, a website where users can vote ideas for the city website up or down and submit their own. They range from the pedestrian (the currently top-rated suggestion is to pay Austin Energy bills online, followed by a system to list road closures across the city) to transparency-related (being able to track applications for city contracts, putting City Council meetings and video online faster) to the more arcane techy (“machine-readable data feeds” for all city info: crime, restaurant health inspections, etc.; and similarly, publishing every piece of city data as RSS feeds).

Hurley acknowledges OpenAustin is currently in the idea-generation stage. The final form of OpenAustin’s assistance in the redesign is still very nebulous – and of course, entirely dependent on the city’s response. Still, Hurley foresees several ways it could take place. “Maybe we don’t take all the RFPs [requests for proposals] when we do it, and maybe we don’t take everything and outsource it to the community,” he says. But he thinks OpenAustin could “help coordinate the community effort” by conceiving the redesign so volunteers could create mash-ups of applications: for example, overlaying a map of all the city’s bike routes with a map of free Wi-Fi hot spots or early voting locations.

My suggestion to the city was to scale the project to manageable chunks. Have an initial RFP for a framework so that technology and presentation are relatively coherent, but build the framework with the flexibility to allow City departments to RFP and manage their own subprojects.

Everyone in the conversation seems to agree that the city should make its data as accessible as possible, so that in addition to the city’s own site, innovative external applications could be developed that find useful ways to aggregate and analyze… this is what the Obama administration’s shooting for at the Federal level.

One other note: got this from Matt Esquibel at the City of Austin:

We also wanted to invite you to a public forum on Wednesday June 17, 2009 at the Carver Museum from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. to discuss the AustinGO project moving forward. We hope to provide insight into the direction of the project and listen to the the thoughts and ideas of the community in attendance. We plan to have more public forums in the coming months and will provide more information as dates, times and formats are determined.

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