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Open Data: Balancing Civic Responsibility with Civic Privilege

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In December 2013, Alyssa Ravasio won Ideation Nation, MindMixer and Code for America’s nation-wide call for ideas regarding how technology can improve communities. In this guest blog, Ravasio explains her new-found passion for open data and government transparency as it relates to her exuberance for the outdoors and camping and offers her thoughts on how government-citizen interactions can be a collaborative effort.

Did you know that “good enough for government” used to mean the very best? It was reference to the smartest engineers who were qualified to help the government build planes and rockets during WWII.

It is only in recent years that this saying has taken on an ironic, condescending meaning.

But with all the government opening up so much valuable data, an upcoming generation of impact-orientated social entrepreneurs, and the powerful Internet at our disposal, I have great faith that this saying will soon be restored to its original meaning.

With the rise of the Internet, we are experiencing the widespread empowerment of ordinary citizens to express ideas, connect with like-minded individuals, and learn about similar initiatives on a global scale. The only comparable leaps in communication technology are the printing press, or perhaps language itself.

Prometheus has brought us fire, what shall we do now?

I feel fortunate to be alive at a critical moment when every single one of us has the power to make a real difference, should we choose to. Both of my parents have participated in our local community for as long as I remember. Through them I learned firsthand that a small group of committed citizens can make a very important difference.

Perhaps this is why a moment of intense frustration turned into my new company, Hipcamp.

summer_solstice_oceanLast year, I decided to opt out of fancy San Francisco parties in favor of spending New Year’s Day in the Pacific Ocean. My question was simple: where could I camp by the ocean on December the 31st within a couple hours drive?

But finding my answer was painstaking. The websites were outdated and the resources I needed were fragmented across the web. After hours of tedious research, I finally chose a campground, but somehow failed to learn about its most important feature: a gorgeous point break wave. So I began 2013 on the beach but without my surfboard, gazing longingly at this beautiful wave.

On that first day of the new year, the dots connected for me.

The previous year I had been concerned by news that seventy of our California State Parks were slated for closure due to lack of funding. This news hit a very personal note as the closure list included Hendy Woods, the park I visited every summer growing up on our beloved family friends annual camping trip.

If I could make it easier to discover a campsite, then more people would go camping. This would mean more revenue for California State Parks and more people spending time in nature, enjoying its incredible health and mental benefits while also cultivating a stronger commitment to conservation and the environment.

As an entrepreneur, software developer and lifelong camper, I felt this was my problem to fix. I would pull together all the important data about parks and camping and build an intuitive discovery and booking website on top of it. This website would help get more people outside, back into nature, all while it augmented revenue for our state park system.

It is fortunate that my passion for this idea is so strong and that I am very stubborn or I would have given up a long time ago.

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President Barack Obama’s very first signed executive action was a memorandum on Open Government. Since taking office he has spearheaded the Open Government Partnership, a collaboration of over 50 governments that share knowledge and code. The recent Open Data Policy requires all government information to be open and machine-readable by default.

California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom has proven that open data can have an incredible return on investment. While serving as mayor of San Francisco, Newsom launched the open data portal DataSF with zero funding, which is why Yelp now features restaurants’ health scores, helping people avoid unsafe food. A recent McKinsey & Co report claims that far from costing money, open data is the key to unlocking up to $5 trillion annually and propelling global innovation.

With all this momentum toward openness, I was very surprised to learn that there was no open data set about California State Parks that I could use to build my idea. At first this was quite depressing. Giving up seemed like an obvious choice.

Quite fortunately, I’ve realized that while the problem is larger than I anticipated, this also means the opportunity to make a positive impact is even greater. Because there is no open data set about California parks, we have the chance to help build it. If we do a great job, perhaps we can even contribute to the global open data standard for parks and campgrounds, making it as easy to find a campsite in Lebanon as it is California.

As citizens in the year 2014, it is our responsibility and privilege to push our local, state and federal governments toward openness and apply our creativity in helping solve the real problems we face today.

What data sets would you like access to, and what would you build with this information? Call up the government agency who serves as steward for this data, and tell them your idea. In my experience, most government professionals are thrilled to hear about new ideas for their work and some have the power to be incredibly helpful in making them happen.

The government can’t do everything, nor should it. With the dawn of transparency and open data, we have an opportunity to redefine the relationship between private and public. If we all participate in this transition and take an active role in defining how we want to interact with our government, the future will look more like Tim O’Reilly’s concept of “government as a platform” than corrupt contractors winning deals in smoky penthouses.

And if you’re looking for the best camping in Northern California, check out Hipcamp!

Written by Alyssa Ravasio

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