The Idea Lobby considered a good Top 10 list to end the year. Ten academic papers that have been mangled in service of political aims on the floor of Congress this year. Ten cable news stories and Internet rumors that have made understanding health care reform that much harder. Ten policy problems government never got around to while it was dealing with health care.
It's been a good year for recapping bad news as partisanship in Washington has grown nastier, and the pace of legislative problem-solving has ground to a crawl. But in the end, we're going with something a little more uplifting, because even as politicians disappoint and politics stay the same, we can always count on progress from one front — technology. And so here it is: ten potentially cool new innovations — most of them technological — that have come from government this year or that have helped government work better for us all.
1. The Wikified Army Field Guide. Military field manuals, which set standard operating procedures for everything a soldier may encounter in the field, are constantly rewritten but rarely at the rate of change of the battlefield. Now, Army doctrine traditionally dictated top down will get some input from the ground up. Field manuals now can be updated through a controlled-access online portal by soldiers with firsthand knowledge of new tactics and conditions in the most rapidly evolving wars the U.S. has ever fought.
2. The Peer-to-Patent pilot program. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been testing a two-year pilot Web site that opens the cumbersome patent-review process to any expert with an Internet connection. Developed in partnership with the New York Law School Institute for Information Law and Policy, Peer-to-Patent allows the public to review and discuss pending applications (with the consent of the inventor). Know something about on-access antivirus mechanisms for virtual machine architecture? Follow the debate here.
3. Maplight.org. This nongovernmental Web site combines three data sets: federal and state-level bill texts and the voting records on them, identities of the interest groups supporting and opposing each bill, and campaign contribution data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Put them all together, and the public can now track if Congressman John Doe voted "yes" on a bill Evil Lobby wanted just a few weeks after it gave him $27,340. Other admirable work on the topic is being done by OpenSecrets.org, Project Vote Smart and Followthemoney.org.
4. Satellite imagery. Increasingly sophisticated satellite imagery is now helping officials anticipate and address a vast array of agricultural and public health problems. Satellites now monitor water needs and availability, potential famines and outbreaks of infectious diseases. They can measure changes in sea temperature that allow scientists to predict outbreaks of cholera. They even assist, along with Google Maps software, in solving a more mundane Washington problem, allowing us to aerially verify crowd count estimates at capital events — a major source of partisan fudging this year from the Obama inauguration to the Glenn Beck 9/12 rally.
5. Innovative jobs in innovation. The U.S. government now has a number of official positions that have never existed before: a national chief technology officer and chief information officer, a White House director of new media and a director of the Office of Social Innovation. President Obama's habit of creating "czar" jobs has received plenty of criticism, and the verdict is still out on these new roles as well. But technophiles have rejoiced at seeing some of their own in the White House, and hopes are high that they can bring a little Silicon Valley to Washington's Big Bureaucracy.
6. The Social Innovation Fund. Speaking of what these new White House innovators will be doing ... the new Office of Social Innovation is tasked with fostering collaboration between the nonprofit world and the federal government. The 2009 Serve America Act authorized a fund that will dole out up to $50 million in fiscal year 2010 to several intermediaries, which will then award smaller grants to community organizations. The goal is to "solve social challenges in the areas of economic opportunity, youth development and school support and healthy futures, and to improve our nation's problem-solving infrastructure in low-income communities."
7. Data.gov and Recovery.gov. The new administration has vowed to dump more information into the public's lap than ever before, and this is where much of it has gone so far. Recovery.gov has had some kinks (officials were berated for uploading job-creation data from recovery recipients without fact-checking it first), but it's the best government source for tracking how stimulus money is being spent. (For a nongovernmental source, try this site.) The administration is trying to be accessible to both technies who want raw data and the rest of us who would rather have our pie charts pre-assembled.
8. iPhone, Android and Facebook apps. Developers have been taking many of the raw data sets from those official sites and mashing them together to create mobile and social-networking apps that are both practical and imaginative. Contests like Apps for America and Apps for Democracy have helped spur on the creation. As a result, you can now identify all the bike lanes in Washington, D.C., on your phone or look up your local representative's Twitter feed in real time.
9. The Social Security Administration's Video Service Delivery. This program was recognized as one of the best government innovations of the year by the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Citizens in far-flung rural areas, and particularly on Indian reservations, often have a hard time applying for Social Security benefits. In some cases, they have to drive to a nearest office as many as 280 miles away or wait for an administrator from that office to come to town. In this pilot program out of the Denver regional office, the SSA set up two-way broadband video connections to allow face-to-face, long-distance appointments between SSA staff and applicants. One assessment figured the program helped 10 times more tribal members enroll in benefits, using a 21st-century communication system that could be implemented throughout government social services.
10. Carbon Capture and Storage, and Electric Vehicles. These eco-innovations don't necessarily come from government, but Washington is trying hard to push them forward. The federal government has allocated $2.4 billion in stimulus money for industry development of batteries for electric cars, and it is similarly sponsoring some of the rush to create new technology for coal plants that would allow them to store their carbon emissions underground. The investments could have multiple returns: As legislators in the coming year seek to hammer out a climate bill, innovations already underway from industry could also make that task easier (and the conversion to a low-carbon economy less painful).
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