W3C Launches eGovernment Forum, Encourages Public-Private Mashups

Citizens depend on their governments for documents and information ranging from driver’s licenses to tax forms to maps. And the more of this information is stored on the Web using open formatting standards such XML, the more people will be able to access it and re-use it for the public good. At least, that’s the argument being made by the Cambridge, MA-based World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which launched an “eGovernment Forum” today with the aim of creating new guidelines for using the Web to enable better access to government.

The forum is open to the public and is expected to meet via teleconference roughly twice a month and face-to-face once or twice a year, with the first in-person meeting slated for October. In an announcement about the new body, MIT professor and World Wide Web originator Tim Berners-Lee, who directs the W3C, urged government agencies to send representatives to these meetings.

“Open standards, and in particular semantic Web standards, can help lower the cost of government, make it easier for independent agencies to work together, and increase flexibility in the face of change,” Berners-Lee said. “Publishing linked data on the Web enables creative re-use of it—citizen mashups, and commercial mashups, which combine the data from many sources to stunning new uses.”

In some ways, government agencies are being forced into modernizing their approaches to information management. In an age when people can go online to find a job, buy a car, or even get a college degree, citizens are demanding the same kind of online, 24/7 responsiveness from government agencies that they get from most consumer-facing online businesses. “Exposure to the rapid evolution of services and functionality on the public Web has led citizens to expect and ask for improvements ranging from basic provisioning services to more advanced solutions, and cooperation between the commercial and public sectors,” the W3C announcement observed.

The W3C is an international consortium—headquartered in Cambridge, but with offices in 17 countries—where dues-paying members, full-time staff, and public representatives work together to set unofficial (yet widely accepted) formatting and technology standards for the Web. In essence, it wants more government agencies to adopt standards it’s already developed in areas such as XML, the Semantic Web, languages and internationalization, and accessibility for people with disabilities and people using mobile devices. By doing so, the consortium argues, government agencies will not only save money and collaborate more easily with other agencies, but will be able to deliver existing information to citizens in innovative new ways.

For example, using Semantic Web standards, the United Kingdom’s Office of Public Sector Information, the University of Southampton’s Electronics and Computer Science school, and the city council of Camden, a London suburb, were able to combine data from Ordnance Survey maps and local government records of restaurant hygiene inspections. The resulting mashup showed eateries on a map of Camden, color-coded according to their hygiene score. “The ability to reuse and remix enables a third party to take various set of data from the public sector, combine it with data from the private sector, and generate new value,” the W3C observed in the summary report for a 2007 workshop on transparent government.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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