Another Voice in the Wind – Thoughts on Qualities of a Virtual Leader

Photo from SL10B

Over the last few days I've been reading the responses to the departure of Rod Humble, the CEO of Linden Lab – the company that owns and operates Second Life. Here are a few sites where you can find some in-depth and thoughtful discussion.

The Oracle of Pixels on Andromeda, written by William Burns

Rod Humble Leaves Second Life on NALATES' THINGS & STUFF, written by Nalates Urriah

Three in ten: a look back over Rod Humble’s tenure at LL on Living in a Modemworld, written by Inara Pey

An Open Letter to the Lindens on Hypergrid Business, written by Maria Korolov

What struck me in a few of these articles is once again the similarities between local governments and Second Life. In at least the first two of these posts, you could replace "Second Life" with "local agency" and most of the article would still apply. There are also many interesting points and suggestions made in each article related to leadership and management of a community and specifically Second Life's community. The comments in these posts got me thinking about what qualities I believe a good leader of a virtual community should have. So I am adding my own voice to the others now discussing the future of Second Life. The points presented below are merely observations I have made from working about 30 years in and for local government, being a member of the Second Life community since late 2006, and actively reading and listening to opinions, thoughts, and ideas from other Second Life members including those from the articles listed above.


1. A community leader needs to be confident enough in their abilities and skills to listen to new or opposing views and ideas

This is one of the suggestions I got out of reading the post written by Will Burns. In it he points out that companies can end up with a leader who does not allow any voices of opposition or criticism. And as you might expect, this can lead to poor decisions, mistakes, and failed ventures. This is exactly what can happen with a city – a poor leader who is put in place through either an election or through appointment who refuses to consider any suggestions or comments that do not agree with their own will eventually prevent their city from innovating and growing at best and at worst will diminish its appeal, stability, and sustainability. In some cities, like in some companies, the population will realize something is amiss and will replace their leadership through an election. Other times, the citizenry is left unaware of the actual cause of the community's decline and the leadership remains in power. While I don't have insight into the type of leadership at Linden Lab that Burns might have, I do agree the best type of leadership for any company or agency is one in which opposing views are not blocked or dismissed with absolutely no consideration.

I've also worked at cities where people like Will Burns regularly challenged us, and he is correct to conclude having someone questioning leadership can help motivate and compel an agency/company to improve as long as the leader is willing to listen. This doesn't mean leadership ends up always doing exactly what is suggested, but more times than not, the challenge forces the agency/company to do a better job at making and thinking through decisions.

Photo from SL10B

2. Advisory committees are helpful

Burns also suggests the establishment of an advisory board. To me this seems similar to the citizen advisory committees or commissions often set up by cities. These often provide needed insight and improvement to operations and policy. But for committees to provide the most value, it is critical that they are created and supported under certain guidance with careful regard for who serves in this capacity. Fortunately it looks like Linden Lab already has the Linden Endowment for the Arts – a working committee model from which they can build. Here are some more specific issues to keep in mind:

Decision makers are not obligated to, nor should they perhaps, always follow the recommendations made by an advisory committee. Yet they need to keep in mind that constantly choosing a path in opposition to a committee's recommendations will devalue the purpose of the committee and can risk alienation of its members. If that is happening, it is many times a sign of disconnect between the leaders and the community and both need to work on finding common ground.

These positions are typically held by volunteers from the community so that the committee members bring a more community-based viewpoint to the table. But consideration needs to be given in choosing these members so they are not those who will only use their position to improve their own interests at the expense of the community.  

Usually more than one committee or board is necessary, and for Second Life with its diverse and unique community needs, this seems even more true to ensure the majority of needs and aspects of the community are addressed. 

Committees and boards are supported in their efforts by the decision makers. If necessary this would include financial support in a manner similar to what is done with the Linden Endowment for the Arts.

Bay City at SL10B

3. The leader needs to be engaged

This is one area in which government typically excels over private business – probably because the leadership in a city is usually placed there by popular vote. And you don't get elected by being a diminuitive wallflower. While many companies can still succeed by ignoring this requirement because of the type of product they sell or service they deliver, a community-based company like Second Life cannot really do so and expect to provide anything more than average service. You can better understand the importance people in Second Life place on the engagement of the leadership at Linden Lab by reading the post by Nalates and Inara. Each discusses communication issues and accomplishments – both top issues upon which a citizenry places great focus and emphasis. Mayors and Village Presidents and other elected officials who understand this end up achieving much for their communities while still maintaining an overall positive reputation within the community. Sure they have some naysayers – after all they realize you aren't going to make everyone happy all the time, but they have somehow managed to figure out the secret sauce in pleasing enough people to make them the popular choice at each election. (This could be related to No. 5 below.)

This probably sounds crazy to most business people, but the critical need for this type of leader when the product involves community services makes me wonder if Linden Lab would do best to choose their next CEO from the pool of those who have served as popular and effective mayors. After all, they understand and have experience with leading and managing a community while effectively handling finances and still delivering projects and meeting needs of citizens. Some might suggest along this line of thought a city manager is better suited. But while a chief administrator of a local government might be able to manage a company, they normally lack the community engagement skills elected officials seem to naturally possess. 

SL10B Photo

4. Leaders need to convey passion and commitment to their community

The other critical skills needed by leaders are the ability to show great passion and belief in their community which is why leaders are best chosen from within. One of the primary reasons for this requirement in a leader is that communities, including Second Life, rely on financial investment and economic stability to succeed. Using a city as an example, if I own a major corporation and am looking for a community in which to build my headquarters or base of operation, which city would I pick?

In Strong City, I meet with the mayor – an outgoing, engaged person who makes me feel welcome throughout my entire visit. As the mayor describes their city and its benefits, I sense a strong passion and love for the place from this person. The mayor shares commitments and efforts made not only by the government, but by the private sector to improve, innovate, and grow the area. There is a care and dedication to the needs, assets, and future of the community and its members. The mayor also describes the involvement and engagement of the members of the community in many different areas. I leave with the idea this is a place that is focused on constant improvement and the needs and involvement of its members.

In Weak City, I meet with the mayor – a quiet person who makes me feel as if there is barely time in their day to accommodate our meeting by avoiding eye contact and glancing at the clock. The mayor's voice lacks concern or regard or passion for the place – instead I receive a canned description of what they can do for me and the requirements I must meet to set up shop there. It is all business with little to no discussion of the sense of place or community. The mayor rarely mentions the population or does so in a dismissive and annoyed manner.

If both places are competing for my investment, I am probably more likely to choose Strong City as the site for my new headquarters. Why would I want to invest in a community where even the leader does not seem to care? A positive leadership approach can also extend to attracting people and visitors to your community – not just businesses.

SL20B Photo


5. Leaders need to understand the bell curve concept

I've been meaning to write a whole post about this since over the last year, I've come to discover how much of a key the bell curve is to most things that happen to us. But to sum it up in a short paragraph specifically as it relates to a community, good leaders realize the bell curve can be applied to members of a community – those on the left side represent the negative people in the community. You will never win them to your side so quit trying. Those on the right represent community supporters and fans. There is nothing more you can do to win them to your side – they are already there and will always be the community cheerleaders. The key is with the middle or majority of the population. They can go either way and will based on what they hear and see or sometimes who gets to them first. That is the group upon which you focus your attention and resources. I will add here that when this concept was first presented to me, I thought it at first harsh, but since that time have had it explained to me from several unrelated angles. I now believe understanding the bell curve is a crucial part of managing or running anything, but will save the entire discussion for a full post because it is a fascinating yet potentially scary concept I really want to explore.

Photo from SL10B

Moving Forward

While people have questioned if Philip Rosedale was right for the job, I have always thought he made a good leader for the community because to me he displayed all of the aspects of a good community leader based on the requirements stated above. And while this seemed to be demonstrated somewhat in his reference as "Governor Linden" I wonder if Linden Lab never truly embraced the local government similarities or approach because people in general tend to portray and think of government in a negative light. (In mentioning my respect and admiration for Rosedale, I do not mean to imply I think he should return as CEO – he seems to be pursuing new opportunities, and a good leader understands a healthy cycle of new leadership, as long as it is still of a high quality, ensures the community will benefit from new ideas and energy.)

It is too bad these misconceptions about local government exist in people's minds because if Linden Lab would really look into how much they operate as a local government, they would find numerous resources in the local government sector to help them in their management and understanding of and service to the community. They would also find organizations, associations, and millions of other government employees who do understand exactly what they have on their hands and who would freely share tips and advice on managing it all.

Photo from SL10B

A side note and update on my own meager efforts to offer local government resources

For years I've been writing posts on this site about the parallels I've noticed between Second Life and local governments. So much so that I begin to think people are probably tired of reading about it. Those who aren't in Second Life or haven't visited a virtual world probably can't relate to the comparisons nor imagine how something like a virtual world can possibly function as a true community. As for those who are members of Second Life, I don't think many are local government employees and if they are like most people, at least those in the U.S., they don't pay a lot of attention to exactly how local government works. So the end result has been that I'm not sure I've done very well in convincing people of this overwhelming similarity. But I continue posting articles about this topic because the similarity is so glaringly obvious to anyone who has worked in local government right down to the problems and issues that arise because the company has not adopted good local government management practices.


A while back, my frustration built to a point at which I moved forward on the one action I felt I as a member of the community could take which was to initiate and help prepare a comprehensive plan for the community. While this started out well, I was forced to slow down the effort last year about this time when I accepted a job offer from a different government agency. If it had been a move to a similar type position, I don't think I would have had to suspend much of what I had been working on, but my new job involved performing in an entirely different function within a whole new framework. It was and continues to be a tremendous opportunity for me so I've been focusing most of my time and attention on getting up to speed and working hard to maximize the value of my work. Over the last year, I was able to complete a few of the other commitments I had already made prior to taking that job, but they were short and didn't involve as much time and effort as a comprehensive plan for a virtual community. Now, after spending almost a year getting familiar with my new job, I finally feel more comfortable getting back involved in developing the community plan. And with the recent loss of the CEO for the company that runs Second Life, I have even more reason to dedicate the time and effort to complete this project. If you want to follow its progress, you can visit the Virtual Vision 2020 website. A draft of the introduction section of the plan is under review and will be posted there in the near future for community review and comment.

(All photos in this post are from last year's Second Life Birthday Celebration – a community run event)

Photo from SL10B

Sales Tax Exemptions for Public Projects

Normally when we bid a construction project, we don't address in the bid documents the payment of sales tax. We do, however, indicate that the contractor is required to follow all Federal, State, and Local laws. Because of this, I would assume that on most projects, a contractor would be paying any required sales tax on the materials purchased for that project. But in Illinois a local government is exempt from paying sales tax. So recently there has been some discussion in our area about allowing contractors on our projects the use of our tax exemption status to make purchases for that project without having to pay the sales tax. The idea would be that if a contractor has to pay sales tax, this cost would just be passed along to our municipality. And if we allow the use of our exemption, perhaps we could save this cost.

To accomplish this, we've been reviewing some language to put in our specifications. But a few of us have also been discussing the question of control of the use of the city's tax exempt number. If we just give out a copy of our certificate or our number, how do we know for sure how it is being used? What ramped up this concern is that a couple weeks ago, a contractor called me to request a copy of our certificate. I asked them why they needed it because I was not aware of any projects in which they were under contract with us. The person indicated it was for a project they were working on for our city. So I asked which project, and she said she would have to get back to me with that information. Of course, I never heard back from her. I started wondering, would contractors purposely try to obtain these numbers and then use them on non-exempt projects? Once a contractor has a copy of that certificate, how would a vendor know for sure if the purchase was really for a project contracted by that tax exempt entity or if perhaps the material was going elsewhere? 

I tried calling a vendor of construction materials to ask how they controlled this and how they made sure the material really was designated for a tax-exempt entity. They really did not seem to know. All they told me was they required the contractor to fill out a form with the number. So it appeared the vendor really had no control in place to ensure the number was properly used. This led me to wonder how it is done in other states. And what I found out was a great help although I did find out there is quite a variation on sales tax implementation throughout the U.S.

  • Some states do not charge sales tax at all
  • In some states, local government is not exempt from sales tax
  • And in most of the remaining states, the use of a tax exempt number for a construction project is regulated by a form that is provided to tax-exempt entities. This form allows local governments to designate their number, the contractor, the specific project for which the number will be used, and in many cases a start and end date.

I really liked the idea of a form we could issue with each project – this would avoid having to issue a copy of our certificate and would limit the use of the number to a specific time period. I called our state to make sure a form would be acceptable and was told yes, we could give out a form with our number instead of giving contractors a copy of our actual certificate.

Anyway, below is a very rough summary of my findings. You can find your state and see how it is handled there.

Disclaimer: Please note this is not a legal or official opinion or statement. You should not rely on the information I have provided, and you will need to investigate the accuracy of my research on your own. This also does not address any sales tax that must be charged by the contractor to the local government. 



Applying a Local Government Management Structure to Second Life

Today's post is a break from my usual "A Day in the Life. . ." series. This break is due to two reasons: taking time off for the holiday and working on a project I am submitting to the Federal Virtual World Challenge.

The Growing Digital Community

Lately I've been thinking a lot about communities. I guess this isn't too unusual because I tend to do this anyway as part of my job working for local government. But lately it's been different. And as crazy as it sounds, I think playing Farmville started it all. Yes, aside from inspiring me to dream up an agriculturally themed set of Transformers, playing Farmville has also driven home the point that I have truly become part of a community other than the one in which I physically live. (Which, by the way, why is Farmville selling stuffed animals when they could have been selling a whole line of these cool Transformers!?)

Sure some of the people I am neighbors with on Farmville are people I know offline – one is even a best friend from high school. But there are also many who I have only known through our mutual use of virtual worlds like Second Life. I don't know all of them as well as I knew my best friend – the majority of people I know from Second Life are more like acquaintances and most are people I have never physically met. But other than the difference of meeting digitally vs. physically, there seems to be little difference from the types of relationships I have offline. I am normally best friends with only a few and acquaintances with many. Some I may only know by name because I hear about their work or see their name in the paper. And this is also how I know of many in Second Life.

The Management of Second Life

So it was with these thoughts I read several blog posts about the resignation of Kimberly Salzer (Kim Linden), former VP of Marketing at Linden Lab – the creators and hosts of Second Life. Two posts in particular ( Communications and the Lab. Again, by Inara Pey, and A Rosedale by Any Other Name… by Aeonix Aeon.) explored Salzer's work, her influence on Second Life, and why it seems that the people running the ship seem to have forgotten they have passengers. I agree with much of what they have observed and with most of their suggestions for improvement. Yes, Linden Lab needs to come to the realization they have created an actual place that people depend on for meeting people, learning, having fun, hanging out, and for some, earning an income. Second Life is not a game any more than Chicago is a game because the Bears, Sox, Cubs, Bulls, and Blackhawks play games there.

In a way, the company reminds me of a parent who had such great hopes and dreams for their child to grow up and fit their mold of the perfect child. But the child grew up and become their own person with their own hopes and dreams that were much different than what the parent had planned. And now the parent is in denial or at least agitated. They don't seem to know or recognize this person who came home for Thanksgiving. At times, they don't know how to treat them. And the big question is will they accept the fact that the future of their child is not entirely under their control or will they, like some parents who fall into this trap, spend their time trying to convince their grown-up child that the parent will always know what is best for the child?

As caretakers of our communities, those of us who are public servants can also fall into this trap. We can think that our idea of how the community should look, operate, or function is best. But the citizens might think very differently. And this group vision can change over time. This is why we have a structure in place to manage the operation of our communities and why we regularly update strategic plans and create new comprehensive plans.

For a few years now, I've often thought the system we have in place in local government would work well for Second Life. There is such a similarity between the community that is Second Life and the community in which we physically spend time. So I have been waiting for Linden Lab to see this same comparison. And yet they have not. And I wondered why.

I started thinking after reading the posts today that most people probably aren't intimately aware of what exactly goes on in government. In fact, based on recent articles in newspapers, people probably get the impression that nothing really gets done by government – there's only a bunch of lazy, uneducated, not-good-enough-to-get-a-job-in-private-industry people sitting around doing nothing at all waiting to retire to collect a fat pension. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. There's a whole system in place for managing communities that's been developed over thousands of years. Is it perfect? No, because communities are people, and people are not easily managed, but the system works most of the time. We all are supported by our local governments, and most of us provide this support so well that people have forgotten we are even here working for them 24/7. So maybe the Lab doesn't seriously consider this as a solution because they just aren't familiar with it.

Applying a Local Government Management Structure to Second Life

So, I'm adding my voice to the others out there offering suggestions to the Lab. And I've laid out below a beginning framework of operation based on how we manage physical communities. And because the digital space has some challenges and issues unlike many we normally deal with, the framework would have to be refined over time. In the end, I figure this structure could fit within the structure of a private business like Linden Lab, and it can't do any worse than the current setup.  

Applying a Local Government Management Structure to Second Life

Here is a brief description of what I was thinking about the basic function for each.

Chief Adminstrator – this is normally the city manager who provides the overall structure and leadership for the team. This person also makes sure the team is working towards meeting goals set by the strategic plan and doing so within budgetary limits. For Second Life this would be the CEO (Rodvik).

Community – this is the most important part of the structure because without a community there is no reason for this organization. For Second Life, this would be all the users/customers.

Community Board – this is normally the elected body chosen by the community to represent their interests in management of the community. For Second Life, I would suggest that the community be divided into regions based on what would make sense to the users. Some suggestions are: mainland, private land, adult land, etc. And then allowing premium members from each region to vote for their representatives to serve on this board. Based on offline experience and current in-world active population, I would also suggest limiting this elected board to 20 members with 2 from each region and a term of 2 years for each. Of course, because Second Life is a private company, not an actual government, this board can only serve in an advisory capacity.


Legal – the function of this office is straightforward and probably already in place at Linden Lab. However, perhaps this department could be expanded to offer services to the Premium members of Second Life. There's such a large group of users who are developing new content and products, perhaps a small office to offer advice on the legal aspect of trademarks, patents, and business would be helpful.

Finance – the function of this office is also obvious and also probably already in place at Linden Lab. Based on feedback from users, I would only suggest beefing up the customer service aspect. Perhaps adding a 311 type center that would not only deal with billing but all "citizen" service communication would be helpful. I realize Linden Lab must already have something like this, but patterning it off the 311 system might help improve its operation.

Communication/Public Relations – again, the Lab must already have something like this – perhaps it is their marketing department. It just seems that they could do more not only in-world, but in the physical world.

Human Relations – another typical office that is most likely already in place at Linden Lab for personnel and other employee issues.

Community Development – in local government this office helps carry out the community plans, helps develop policies, oversees building and development within the community, enforces zoning and other policies. These functions could be applied to the world of Second Life. We've already seen that zoning was eventually needed and applied. We also already have "building" policies and requirements that need to be enforced. I think most people who have used Second Life for quite some time would easily see how the work of this office could be implemented in-world. And they'd probably have some additional suggestions for this office.

Economic Development – like in our physical world, the economic growth and success of the community is vital. In local government, this office acts a liason to business, analyzes business and tourism within the city, supports local businesses and those looking at setting up a business. And the office promotes tourism and marketing of the community. Staff can also oversee events and act as a liason and offer support for groups hosting events in the community. Again, I think most residents of Second Life could easily see how the work of htis office could be implemented in Second Life.

Public Works – of all the departments in local government, this is the one that would be the least similar in its application to the virtual environment. In the physical world, public works provides and maintains physical infrastructure like roads, water, sewers, and electricity. But there's no need of these things in a virtual environment. Instead there is hardware and software supporting the operation, access, and management of the world. And there is the in-world infrastructure already created and maintained by the existing Linden Lab Public Works department.

Education – this office is not always a function of local government. However, because of the needs of the users in Second Life, it does seem that it would be a beneficial office to maintain. It would support training for Lab employees as well as education of users. This is probably already a function in place at Linden Lab. An office for outreach to educational efforts on the grid and educational institutions operating in the physical world would also be useful.


Citizen committees provide an important function for local government. They can help focus community interest and efforts and help advise management. Committees would be helpful in Second Life, and there is already somewhat of a structure in place in Second Life to work with. I've listed a few committee suggestions, but I'm sure the users of Second Life would have other suggestions. It would also be helpful for the Lab to offer a small budget for each committee to help them carry out their goals.


Another important process used by local government is to hold public hearings to help develop strategic plans, comprehensive plans, zoning changes, fee changes, etc. Public hearing feedback is normally advisory in nature, but can help prevent development of bad policy and unsuccessful projects.

Of course, I realize Linden Lab will probably never implement this, but I figured it was worth a shot at putting it out there for discussion.






Geneva’s Great Land Adventure

Geneva Land AdventureSeveral months ago, I read some blog posts about frustration with Gov 2.0 not doing enough and a few other posts with offers from people interested in working for free for experience. The two seemingly unrelated topics got me wondering: How could our city use Gov 2.0 to offer job opportunities to people just looking for experience and also offer opportunities to citizens interested in participating in government? My thoughts drifted to the projects I’m working on at my job. And I wondered if our city could reach out to these people with the use of Gov 2.0 tools to help us complete some of our projects. One particular project rose above the others as a perfect candidate – the creation of a database documenting all properties in which the city holds some interest. It seemed possible because all the research could be done online by anyone with a connection to the Internet.

Fortunately, my supervisor and city administrator were fully supportive of implementing this idea. And even better, an intern working for us who is a public administration graduate student was able to partner with us to set it all up. While we were planning the project, I noticed a post on GovLoop written by Dave Briggs: The need for micro-participation. It seemed to discuss exactly what we were hoping to do. His post and support of the idea of micro-volunteering inspired me to finish setting up the project. After it was complete, we took some time evaluating it. After getting some great input from everyone, the project became an adventure of discovery with a Viking theme complete with a Viking figure donated by our wastewater division staff. Now anyone can join us on a discovery of property. And people can even earn titles and rewards as they successfully complete documentation of areas. You can check out the site here: The Geneva Land Adventure.

While we realize this approach has been used before to crowdsource genealogy databases, we’re not sure if other local governments have offered similar opportunities for micro-participation. We would be interested in hearing from others who might be aware of similar examples of participation or information about property management systems already in place. And we would love to hear comments or suggestions for improving the project and would love it even more if you signed up and participated in our adventure! (And because property management in local government is not a widely discussed or known topic, I offer a little background below.)



People are usually surprised to discover that local governments have a significant number of interests in real estate or property. These property rights can be held in the form of deeds, dedications, easements, rights of way, or licenses. And, depending on a government agency’s size, the number of documents conveying these rights can range from hundreds to thousands.

What also surprises people is that agencies most likely do not have a property database in place to document and manage the property rights associated with these documents. When I started working at the city of LaSalle in 1993, I figured they didn’t have this in place because they were somewhat of a small community with a population of about 9700. So I got to work building the database and putting a management system in place. By the time I left in 2009, I had discovered about 300+ properties in which the city had some ownership right. What I’ve since realized from talking to others in government is that many cities lack a property database.

Based on my experience in LaSalle, I have developed a process of building the database and putting in place a management system. One of the first steps is to discover all the documents in which an agency has property rights. But this task can take significant time. Since starting a new job with the city of Geneva two years ago, I’ve been working on setting up the system here. Fortunately we already have most of the property held by deeds in a database created by the county tax assessor. But this information needs to be verified and all the other documents covering easements, licenses, dedications, etc. need to be discovered.

Some might wonder if it’s so much work, why bother. Well, in government, ownership and property rights come up frequently throughout the day. Most activities that go on in local government, particularly in public works or property maintenance, involve the need to know what can be done where. If a database does not exist, research must be done each time a question about rights or ownership comes up. With a completed database and GIS, the answers are much more readily available. There are other benefits, but to keep it brief, the bottom line is having the database saves time and money which is always a good thing to achieve in government.







The Promise of WebsiteLast month I had the incredible opportunity to participate in several Gov 2.0 events. One of the greatest take aways for me was finding all the people who are either working directly on the project or involved in related initiatives. Data is a big deal for local government – particularly for those of us working in engineering and public works. We spend significant amounts of our time developing, finding, analyzing, juggling, and publishing data. We do just about everything to it but eat it!

And while I had been aware of the site, it wasn't until I met and talked to all these people that I realized its significance and promise. Today, the front face of the site is a publication platform, but someday it could be leveraged on the back end as a collaborative platform for sharing ideas about data development, priorities, standards, education, and guidance.

Crowdsourcing Data Models

A group of us working for local governments in our region have started trying to crowdsource and standardize our datasets so we all follow one model. But we realize it would be so much better if this could be done on a national scale. We know that ESRI has offered some guidance in this area, but as government agencies, it makes more sense for this direction to come from the federal government. We need to start realizing that data is a national asset. Data not only supports security efforts but it offers tremendous opportunity for economic development. The use of Data is already starting to build a new industry; leveraged, protected, and standardized it will move this growth along and sustain it.

We could use space on the site to crowdsource a national data model for all datasets we use. The majority of these datasets are going to be similar for all local governments. Why not get this worked out now? I realize a lot of cities already have their GIS and other data systems established – they do not have to change to a national model if it does not make sense for them at this time. But many local governments still do not have a GIS or other data system in place. Having a data model will at least encourage them to implement a system faster and more efficiently while allowing for standardization.

Prioritizing Data

GIS was recently moved back over to engineering where I work. One of my first challenges in taking on this responsibility was prioritizing development of data. While I had no problem making decisions about developing what I call "foundation data" such as centerlines, I did not want to be the one to determine what datasets were most important to our city  – this needed to be an agency decision. So I set up an Ideascale based site and invited our staff to submit and vote on ideas for our GIS. (I also tried using Bubbleideas but just could not get the invite function to work.)

This idea of prioritizing data development could be expanded to a national scale. If certain data sets are necessary for national security or encouraging economic development, we should work on developing them over sets that are interesting but not necessary. But only by asking people and crowdsourcing that information can we learn what matters most.


There is a lot of discussion online about how important it is to not just publish data but help others use and understand it. This educational component could be added to the site allowing others to learn how to develop, use, and publish data. The material can be broken down for citizens, developers, government agencies, students, and businesses.

Delivering the Promise

Over the next few months I hope to continue to be part of the data-related discussions at my local level and at the federal level. Hopefully moves to build a collaborative platform so others who are dedicated and passionate about data can join in and work together to create and deliver a national infrastructure of data. And in the meantime, I want to also give a shout out to just of the few awesome data folks I met:

Jeanne Holm ( evangelist), Ethan McMahon, Karen See, Kelly Fahey


Open Government: A New Type of Reality Show?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about open and transparent government, public data collection and distribution, and freedom of information. People are excited about online tools that allow for sharing of data. And politicians are eagerly answering the cries for open government by passing new FOIA laws and demanding data sets be released online.

But back behind the doors of city hall, those of us working in government are a little more cautious. Even though most support an open and transparent government, many are concerned over the delivery. We see the potential for all this to turn government into a new type of reality show. Mark Drapeau recently posted an exploration of always-on government that hints at this type of situation.

So how can we deliver relevant information to the public while maintaining and maybe improving the dignity of government and its people?

Establish Data as a Governmental Function
One of the first steps is to decide data collection and delivery for public use really should be a function of government. Government traditionally provides public safety and public works and does so under a set of state and federal laws. These same laws regulate what local government can and cannot do. If government is to elevate data to the same level as a utility, this needs to be a public decision supported by legislation. President Obama’s declarations and mandates coupled with a public push for open government should facilitate adoption of this first step at the state and local levels.

Choose the Data Types
Next the public and the government need to collaborate and settle on what types of data should be initially collected for public consumption. There should also be a mechanism for considering and approving the inclusion of additional datasets in the future. Right now, the public is demanding that all the data within the walls of government be released. But they might not really be aware of what is there. So lets look at some of the information held by a typical state or local government:

List of complaints, names and addresses of those complaining, issue about which they filed a complaint

Copies of building permits along with detailed plans of homes (makes it easier anonymous thiefs to case homes)

Names of those delinquent or late on paying water/electric/sewer bills.

Names of those who have submitted a check or credit card payment and had notices of insufficient funds or late payments or credit card denials.

Names of those paying property taxes and date by which their payment is made.

Driver’s license numbers and vehicle license expiration dates with names and whether they were paid on time.

Name and address of all who have permit violations

State income tax returns with names, income, etc.

Traffic accidents with driver and passenger names, insurance companies, etc. (imagine someone using these reports to create a daily accident blog for a community!)

Names on all utility bills, amount of water/sewer/electric used each month

Should government blindly release all of this data to anyone? Some states like Illinois have already decided. In typical non-Gov2.0 fashion, legislators passed a new FOIA law that goes into affect Jan. 1, 2010. It requires government to release just about everything including a lot of the information listed above -even if the request is made anonymously. One exception to note is data that would compromise someone’s safety. But should an “in-the-trenches” employee have to make the decision about which data compromises someone’s safety? Absolutely not. Instead there needs to be clear guidance on what data should be distributed. In Illinois, this guidance could have easily been developed using Gov 2.0 tools with input from the public and government. Instead the reality show for Illinois government begins Jan. 1, 2010.

Develop Data Standards and Formats
So back to our open government plan: after choosing the type of data, the next decision involves the standards by which each dataset is collected and the formats in which it is distributed. Here is an example: government already collects the number of vehicles traveling along a roadway on an average day. How often should this collection take place? Once a year, every day? Should we collect the type of vehicle? It’s color? Should this collection take place on all roads? The point is there is an endless amount of data to collect, and not all of it would be relevant or worth collecting. A standard helps find the most efficient and beneficial method. And a standard ensures someone can compare data across all agencies.

Carry These Standards Across All Agencies
A national standard would help create meaningful sharing and comparisons, and the federal government is best poised to develop this standard. There are signs that federal agencies are working in this direction and taking a more considered and thoughtful approach than what was done in Illinois. But at this time, federal agencies are more focused on delivery of their own information. There needs to be an initiative by state and local governments, with guidance by the federal government, to bring this open government plan down to our level.

Find a Way to Pay for Data Collection & Delivery!
Finally, we need to find a way to pay for all this. Because just handling one FOIA request could take several full-time staff members working for weeks depending on the amount of information involved. Unfortunately some citizens have the misconception that this cost is minimal. Here is an exchange of comments from a recent online news article reporting on Illinois’ new FOIA law:

neogenesis said: “You people have no idea of the amount of work it takes to respond to just one FOIA request…….. ”

BobJudd/Chatham said:
“We people don’t care…Just do it..
People get paid to hide the records ? Just reverse the process..”

As someone working in government I understood what neogenesis meant: filling one request can shut down your whole department taking up tax dollars that could be spent delivering other services. And this is caused by the request of one person.

Unfortunately the simple quote does not adequately convey this to someone who does not work in government. This lack of understanding of the scope is shown in the response by BobJudd/Chatham who indicates no one cares about the time involved. Then BobJudd/Chatham goes on to express a typical misconception the public has about government – that we are spending our whole day trying to hide information.

Get Involved!
These types of exchanges fit right into the reality show mentality and do nothing to ensure successful delivery of a truly open government. Over the next month or so, I believe agencies will come together in an effort to develop an open government plan that can be implemented at the local level. If you have thoughts on this issue, feel free to share in the comment section below. And I encourage anyone interested in working towards this effort to stay tuned as we try to turn this reality show into a documentary.

(The post above reflects my own personal thoughts and opinions and are not necessarily those of my employer.)