What Innovative Government Agencies Are Doing with Open Source
by David Aponovich
The aim of any government agency must be to serve its citizens better.
For most agencies, this comes down to making critical services and data easily accessible. For tax departments, this means making it easy to file taxes through its website. For census agencies, this means delivering deep insight into population demographics through data wrangling.
Many government agencies are already doing exemplary things with open source technologies. Some of those agencies are:
- Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART): The BART serves an estimated 117 million passengers in the San Francisco Bay Area every year. This rapid transit system, consisting of heavy rail and subway systems, runs over 104 miles of lines. With a daily ridership averaging over 422,000 passengers, it is the fifth busiest rapid rail transit system in the US.
- Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA): The MTA, New York City’s transit authority has the responsibility of serving a total of 8.65 million riders every day. With 2.6 billion annual riders, it’s the single largest transport authority in the entire western hemisphere.
- Georgia.gov: The Georgia.gov website is a prime example of a digital government platform done right. This website, which consolidates Georgia’s web presence on a single platform, makes it easy for ordinary citizens to engage with the state government. It includes a vast resource base on doing business with the government (such as filing taxes or downloading essential forms), as well as a frequently updated blog that covers news related to the state of Georgia.
With such huge numbers, the BART possesses a lot of data on rider behavior and usage patterns. By tapping into San Francisco’s resident tech talent, BART has managed to turn this data into practical insights.
If you head to the BART website right now, you can find real-time departure schedules and service advisories. The site can tell you in exactly when the next train will arrive at a station and the number of cars it has. If there is a service advisory, BART will notify you through its mobile website, RSS feed, Twitter feed, and text notifications.
For users on the go, BART has a mobile app with all these features. This app is made in HTML5, which makes it easy to access on any device. If that weren't enough, BART has open sourced its data and made it available to developers through the BART Developer Program. This has given rise to hundreds of useful third-party apps that tap into BART’s.
Additionally, BART has released another website—the BARTABLE—that collects deals and event listings in and around BART stations—an ingenious way to encourage ridership on BART.
To create solutions that can scale to serve millions of daily commuters, MTA has turned to open source technologies. It’s the scalability of open source that enabled MTA to give accurate information to riders during natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. When most of the city’s services were struggling to stay afloat, the MTA website was still operational, thanks to the scalable nature of its open source roots.
The MTA is committed to the open source cause and has made its real-time data free to use for everyone through a Drupal-powered platform. Besides using third-party apps, commuters can also use MTA’s official mobile apps to check train status, view schedules, and chart commute maps.
The Georgia.gov website is committed to transparency. Citizens can use the platform to quickly access information on publicly elected officials as well as different cities in Georgia and their dedicated websites.
Although it is not nearly as data oriented as the BART or MTA websites, Georgia.gov serves as a good example of a government engaging with its citizens. The entire platform was built on Drupal, which not only saved the state an estimated $5 million over five years, but has also helped Georgia consolidate its digital presence on a single, easy-to-use, scalable platform.
As you can see from these examples, open source technologies find plenty of use in government agencies. The scalable, flexible nature of open tech, along with widespread support, makes it a great choice for citizen-first, developer-oriented government agencies.
This is the fourth and final post in a series on Open Source Government. In previous posts, we discussed why open source is driving digital transformation in government, how open source digital platforms enable greater citizen engagement, and which open source platform is used by more .gov sites and why.