E-GOVERNMENT AND THE DAILY LIFE OF THE CITIZEN
Online interactions between citizens and government—local, state, and federal—are becoming increasingly common as more people and government organizations connect to the Internet and the World Wide Web. Individuals are already doing many different things via the Internet, such as renewing vehicle registrations, filing tax returns and paying taxes, exchanging messages with their children’s teachers, sending e-mail to their congressional representatives and to the president, getting information on their social security benefits, and even paying for pet licenses. Some of these activities, such as vehicle registration, have simply become more convenient with the advent of online transactions; others, such as accessing government information, have been so greatly facilitated that they have changed from being very unusual to being commonplace. Such availability of government information, transactions, and people has just begun, however. For a glimpse of the potential impact of a truly digital government on the everyday life of an average citizen, consider the following hypothetical case.
Margaret Jackson had been quite satisfied with the local public schools for her two children, but one morning at breakfast as she was scanning her personalized summary of the news, she noticed that the school super-intendent had announced that French classes were going to be eliminated at the high school because of budgetary pressures. Both of her children were currently taking French and were enjoying it, and she had been
pleased to see them beginning to develop some fluency in another language. She was sufficiently upset by this announcement that she decided to look into it further.
The first thing that Margaret did was to learn the actual cost of the French classes by looking up the budget on the school’s Web site; this type of statistical information was available for all aspects of local, state, and federal government, and could be retrieved using queries expressed in simple English (and several other languages). She then quickly worked out how much this represented in terms of dollars per year for every local taxpayer with children. Next, for comparison, she found out how much was spent on foreign-language instruction in similar school districts throughout the country.
Margaret then submitted a general query to all government and news sources for recent stories or reports on the state of foreign-language education in the United States. Included in the search’s results were a couple of news stories in which the secretary of commerce had cited a report indicating that the lack of fluency in foreign languages was making it harder for American companies to compete with those in the European Union. The search also returned the original report that contained this information. Armed with the dollar figures and the report, Margaret consulted state and federal portals to determine which people in government have an interest in this issue. Her query returned the names of three individuals: one in the state government who was responsible for promoting exports, one in the U.S. Department of Education, and a prominent U.S. senator who had taken the issue on as a personal concern. She immediately sent mail about her local school’s decision to all of these people, copying the school superintendent, the high school principal, and the state and federal representatives of her district.
That evening, Margaret received replies from the staff of the state official and the senator. They directed her to some new state and federal programs that were designed to support education initiatives and that also, in some cases, included foreign-language education. The senator’s staff also mentioned that a pending bill being reviewed by a House committee would focus on providing support for foreign-language education. She reviewed this material and found that one of the state programs might apply to her local school district. She also read a summary of the pending federal legislation and sent a message to the chair of the House committee indicating her strong support and giving some of the details of what was happening in her school district. She sent messages as well to the superintendent and principal, pointing out the existence of the state program. She then went to bed, pleased that her actions that day might have made a difference in her children’s education.
Scientists have predicted that there is roughly a 70 percent likelihood that a major earthquake will occur in the San Francisco Bay area before 2030.1 Further compounding the situation, many residents of the Bay area have no direct experience with major earthquakes, since more than 1 million people have moved to the region since the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. What might be possible with aggressive harnessing of information technology capabilities for responding to such a crisis?
At 5:45 p.m. on December 14, 2010, an earthquake occurs without warning. The severe event, measuring over 7 on the Richter scale, causes 30 seconds of intense shaking and extensive damage to the built environment. A poll of sensors located in homes throughout the region obtains information on the intensity and distribution of the quake and indicates where the communications infrastructure has been disrupted. Highway camera and sensor data show that dense rush-hour traffic is severely snarled and indicate that 900 roads and many off-ramps and overpasses are impassable. The retrofitted and recently opened eastern span of the Bay Bridge does not collapse, but the eastern approach is impassable. Numerous landslides in the hills severely damage buildings; neighborhood roads; and water, gas, and electric lines along the Hayward fault. Hundreds of people die immediately. Several thousand must be rescued, and thousands are seriously injured. The Oakland airport is closed. The San Francisco and San Jose airports are open, but there is no way to travel to them. Railroads are also severely damaged.
Sarah Janello is trapped in a Berkeley parking structure, but she has a wireless mobile communications device with her. Though the voice circuits are jammed with calls, she is able to send a text message informing the emergency dispatch center of her location, that her leg is pinned down by a supporting beam, and that other people appear to be trapped under the concrete. A system linking all the information from local governments, state agencies, and businesses tracks the numerous damage and emergency reports, including Sarah’s, and matches response capabilities with these needs. The priority list is fluid, updated automatically as new data arrive. Several other people in the Berkeley structure also report that they are trapped, so this location receives a high priority and a rescue team is quickly dispatched. To minimize the risk to the human rescuers,
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). 1999. “Major Quake Likely to Strike Between 2000 and 2030.” USGS Fact Sheet-152-99. USGS, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C. Available online at <http://quake.wr.usgs.gov/study/wg99/index.html>.
robots are used to locate the buried people and to bring them water and other needed supplies.
While Sarah Janello awaits rescue, she is able to locate other family members. She finds that her husband and children are stuck on the Bay Bridge but unharmed, and they learn in turn that she is being rescued. Sarah feels a sense of relief in the darkness as she waits to be rescued. Afterward, she is located by her family at a nearby hospital.
Using sensors and atmospheric models, the Emergency Operations Center tracks the dispersal of toxic fumes from the numerous fires that are burning. When a hazardous situation is identified, the populations at risk are notified of individually tailored evacuation and shelter options through a “reverse 911” system that employs both wired and wireless communications.
These sorts of scenarios play themselves out thousands of times throughout the Bay Area that day and in the disaster’s aftermath.
CITIZEN ACCESS TO FEDERAL STATISTICS
Individuals want access to federal statistical data. They wish to learn, for example, about where and who people are, the demographics of different areas (e.g., information about schools, cost of living, recreation), what is going on in business and agriculture, what is driving prices in a particular area, or what to expect with regard to inflation and interest rates.
How far have we come today toward realizing this vision? FedStats provides a single portal for federally collected data sets and for documents based on them. Data sources and documents are organized topically and geographically across all the federal statistics agencies. In many cases, the available data are constrained, owing to confidentiality protection, but summary information and reports may be available. Still, one cannot make such queries as, How many people will be displaced if an evacuation at the 100-year flood line for Manhattan, Kansas, is required? Or, what would be the economic impact of locating a particular new business in my town?
Imagine asking FedStats 2020 the latter question. This might trigger a series of questions back to the user not only to acquire more details about that business but to learn more about that user: his or her quantitative/ scientific literacy and visual/verbal/textual/cognitive abilities. Then, the relevant data, complemented by additional data sources where needed, would be “crunched” with the aid of models and simulations. A response containing the requested information both fully and in user-friendly form would quickly be returned to the individual making the query.
To realize this vision requires IT innovation on several fronts, such as
representation of information, archiving and searching, modeling and simulation, and information integration. Subtle but important issues, such as the underlying integrity of responses, will also become key. For example, when the same basic question is asked by people of varying degrees of quantitative sophistication, answers must be consistent.
Taking the scenario one step further: imagine being able to get a second opinion. The local chamber of commerce has contracted with a small economic modeling company to give you access to a model that uses a different set of assumptions. Running this model using a portal to the company offered by the chamber, the model accesses the same underlying census and economic data that were used in the government’s model. The modeling company’s software is able to access the underlying government databases directly, using an application programming interface offered by the government to allow nongovernment computer programs to analyze the data in new or different ways.
The decennial census is carried out, pursuant to constitutional mandate (Article 1, Section 2), to conduct a precise snapshot of the national population every 10 years. This information is required for apportioning congressional seats and establishing the boundaries of political jurisdictions. Many other government programs depend on census data. For example, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires data on race and ethnic origin at a very fine level of geographic detail. Although one could contemplate obtaining such information from other sources, no comparable or practical alternative now exists. How might the census be conducted in 2020?
Postal address might no longer be a reliable source in 2020 for locating and contacting the population because other means of communication and identifiers (wireless telephone numbers and e-mail and other Internet addresses) predominate. New geocodes would be used to replace the Master Address List used today to find the population. Satellite imagery, coupled with ground-based reporting using global-positioning-system data, could be used to locate, geocode, and define every structure in the United States and its territories. That is, a determination of buildings inhabited by humans, along with a distinction between business and living quarters, could be made.
Once the geocodes were available, the age, sex, race, and ethnic composition of each geocoded household would need to be determined. Assuming that geocodes could be used to link to government administrative records—for example, records on federal taxes, welfare, property taxes, or social security—one could retrieve information from these government
records and follow up with more traditional enumeration for households without complete information. Also, the linking of this information would immediately identify the government services used by these individuals. An unresolved challenge is what methods might be used to obtain information on homeless and other groups that could not be readily identified or located by any of the methods described above.