Mass. Gov't and Citizens Connect to Innovate

Posted by Gena Folts on Fri, Mar 26, 2010

Innovation came from some surprising sources this week, which we saw first-hand at MITX's ‘Where's My Bus? Govt 2.0 in Massachusetts & Public Data Strategies for Mobile and Social Media Professionals' event. We met a government agency using new media to engage the public with amazing results, developers creating remarkable applications with something as lackluster as masses of data, and a man with the know-how to build a transit tracking clock with a 4 year-old cell phone.The crowd at MITX's event. As mentioned, even MacGyver showed up to take notes!

MacGyver was in the back of the room taking notes.

The event highlighted the amazing results Massachusetts has had since coupling social media with the unlikely bedfellow of government policy; using MassDOT and the MBTA as an example with their initiative to open transit data to the public and encouraging the creation of meaningful mobile applications and physical installations for customers.

Knowing the players involved makes the success of these efforts more conceivable, but no less remarkable. At the top was (Most Tweeting Governor) Deval Patrick and (Most Tweeting Secretary of Transportation) Jeffrey Mullan whose leadership and commitment to civic engagement lay the foundation and motivation for the initiative.

Anne Margulies CIO of Massachusetts, brought her insight and experience to the initiative. She addressed the importance of going beyond merely sharing data with the public but also thinking about what data people want and need so that inspired applications grow from it. Further, she discussed how initiatives such as this with open data and the use of social media are creating an open environment for engagement between the citizens and government - and how Massachusetts is leading the way.

As Anne said, "we want Massachusetts to be the leader in Open Government."

Brad Blake, Director of New Media & Online Strategy for the Office of the Governor has made Massachusetts a truly interactive environment for communication between its citizens and officials through the active use of social media (a directory of their online presence is available at  We have insights from Brad about the use of social media by the Governor's Office and how they would like citizens to engage with them.

Chris Dempsey and Josh Robin of MassDOT both took advantage of this initiative by putting the power in the people's hands, and at the event they gave the background on the MassDot/MBTA Real-Time Challenge, which started last November and asked participants to take the feeds of five bus routes and make them accessible to the public via a mobile application or physical installation. This contest again shows the innovation behind this initiative, it spanned only eight weeks and had virtually no cost to the MBTA, yet yielded an amazing response from citizens. We have Chris's highlight of the night and Josh's take-aways. The MassDOT example is powerful, not only for the results but also for their use of social media to engage the community to participate.

The winners of the challenge truly illustrate the wealth of talent in our community, and we even had Governor Patrick announce the winners via video: Jared Egan, Chris Bernardi and Jing-ta Chow won the Best Application award for their iPhone application, Catch The Bus, and Allen Smith won for Best Installation for his MBTA Bus Clock, which receives information from a recycled cell phone, and costs a total of $30 to make. Both winners received an autographed bus sign and a $500 prize, funded by San Francisco's NextBus.

Rich Davey, Administrator of Rail and Transit for MassDOT, is eager to explore the possibilities now imaginable, which include opening all bus route data by the end of the summer as well as train and commuter rail data sometime soon. The successes seen on this smaller scale were also encouraging for Tim Vaverchak, Director of Open Source Strategy for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who called attention to the "target rich environment" that exists around us. This event showcased just one example of the potential that comes from opening up data to the public - and how it fosters Open Government (which, according to Tim, is: participation, collaboration & transparency).

Here at MITX, we already knew how special Massachusetts is in the world of innovation and technology.  We're honored to have worked with all these amazing people and agencies for this event.  All their work has increased customer satisfaction, inspired innovation, rallied support, and made data exciting, all by simply leveraging the effectiveness of social media and tapping into the creativity and abilities of Massachusetts citizens.

These were our take-aways, and you can hear from Chris Dempsey, Josh Robin and Brad Blake about the highlights in their eyes. So what do you think? Comment below, especially if you made it to the event!