Bringing Awareness to Data.Gov with Grassroots Evangelism

I just finished a four week roadshow that included three Startup Weekend EDU events -- one in Seattle, one in San Francisco and one in Washington DC -- as well as two versions of the Business of APIs conferences -- one in San Francisco and one in New York City.

It might not seem at first glance that these events had much in common. During the Startup Weekends, business people, teachers and developers rallied to build startups that focused on solving problems in education, while the Business of APIs conferences showcased businesses telling their stories about how opening up data and APIs have transformed them and made them more competitive within their respective industries.

Both events re-enforced for me the importance of both on-the-ground and online evangelism. Both are necessary for ensuring the success of open data and APIs.

At both series of events, I encountered many people who had never heard of Twilio or Amazon Web Services -- two API providers that are leaders in their industries (as well as were sponsors at the events). Both Twilio and Amazon Web Services provide essential cloud resources that can be used by any company and developer, but without the proper awareness and education, these resources go unused. Both companies are active in sponsoring start-up weekends, hackathons, codeathons, meetups and the like, but Twilio does much better at having "boots on the ground" at these events. This presence is one of the things that has made Twilio a developer favorite and, in turn, spawned thousands of apps and many start-ups. But clearly they still have work to do to get their name "out there," particularly at events outside of Silicon Valley.

But having someone on-the-ground isn't always enough. At the Startup Weekend EDU events, for example, there were several people present from the Department of Education and to their credit, they spent the entire time engaging and listening to business people, teachers and developers about what they needed. That was great to see, but at the same time, but there were no materials there about the amazing data and APIs provided by the Department of Education at data.ed.gov and no real encouragement of developers to take advantage of these things.

It seems as though we are missing the opportunity to help people become familiar with the various resources that the Department of Ed (along with its parent data.gov site) offers. As code-athons and other startup-building events continue to spread, it seems a shame to not take better advantage of these tools.

The tech companies do send out their developer advocates and evangelists to "get the word out." Facebook, Google, Twitter, Twilio and the like all have an army of these sorts of people to help others work with their data and their APIs.

Now that the government has opened its data, it seems as though the missing piece might be this evangelism element -- taking the open data on the road, from town to town, making the wealth of resources available at data.gov known and challenging some of our brightest minds to get involved to make our country a better place.