Tag Archives: opengov

A Lightbulb Turns on: Government as Platform

Reading O’Reilly’s chapter in Open Government, “Government as Platform,” was a turning point for me.  So far nothing else has given me a better conceptual model for understanding the role of government as information facilitator and innovation catalyst; nor illuminated more precisely what Open Government actually is and what proponents are fundamentally attempting to accomplish.

What the heck is Open Government, anyways?

From the time I started my independent study, I've been attempting to wrap my head around what exactly is Open Government, otherwise known as Government 2.0. In some contexts, people use these terms to refer to open data and information transparency to ensure government is held accountable and citizens have access to public information. Others use Open Government to refer to the innovative collaborations between government and citizens made possible by Web 2.0 digital technologies.  Some conceptualize it as eGovernment; doing the business of government — applying for various licenses, updating vehicle registration, etc — more efficiently online.  While still others envision it as eDemocracy, which "aims for broader and more active citizen participation enabled by the Internet, mobile communications, and other technologies." Kicking off his initial description of Government 2.0, I love how O'Reilly asks, "What the heck does that mean?" My sentiments exactly!  And he nails it:

Much like its predecessor, Web 2.0, “Government 2.0” is a chameleon, a white rabbit term, that seems to be used by people to mean whatever they want it to mean.  For some, it is the use of social media by government agencies. For others, it is government transparency, especially as aided by government-provided data APIs. Still others think of it as the adoption of cloud computing, wikis, crowdsourcing, mobile applications, mashups, developer contests or all of the other ephiphenomena of Web.0 as applied to the job of government.

All of these ideas seem important, but none of them seem to get to the heart of the matter.

Web 2.0 was not a new version of the World Wide Web; it was a renaissance after the dark ages of the dotcom bust, a rediscovery of the power hidden in the original design of the World Wide Web. Similarly, Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time.

And in that reimagining, this is the idea that becomes clear: government is, at bottom, a mechanism for collective action. We band together, make laws, pay taxes, and build institutions of government to manage problems that are too large for us individually and whose solution is in our common interest.

Government 2.0, then is the use of technology – especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0 – to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level.

Government as Platform

As I wrote earlier, information transparency is essential for healthy democracies and a necessary ingredient in governmental information management.  Yet it is only one facet in a much larger vision of the role government can play in the relationship between information and innovation.  We need to hold our governments accountable, yes.  But, wouldn't it be amazing if we went a step further and imagined ways for government to actually work better exponentially? Not simply ways to keep corruption in check? I'd like to play offense, not just defense in designing the world I want.  Consider O’Reilly’s profound metaphor of re-envisioning government as a platform: 

If you look at the history of the computer industry, the innovations that define each era are frameworks that enabled a whole ecosystem of participation from companies large and small. The personal computer was such a platform. So was the World Wide Web. This same platform dynamic is playing out right now in the recent success of the Apple iPhone.  Where other phones have had a limited menu of applications developed by the phone vendor and a  few carefully chosen partners, Apple built a framework that allowed virtually anyone to build application for the phone, leading to an explosion of creativity with more than 100,000 applications appearing for the phone in little more than 18 months, and more than 3,000 new ones now appearing every week.  

This is the right way to frame the question of Government 2.0. How does government become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate? How do you design a system in which all of the outcomes aren’t specified beforehand, but instead evolve through interactions?

Government as a platform’s primary role, then, is as facilitator and convener.  One of the points O’Reilly makes is that the government can’t compete with the speed and nimbleness characteristic of the private sector.  And why should it?  Government can provide the eco-system — the platform — for others to build on top of.  Remember, with the iPhone, Apple let others do what they do best: develop compelling applications. They simply provided a very well-designed platform.  

Platform Metaphors

O’Reilly brilliantly provides other metaphors in explaining his new (re)visioning of government. He contrasts government as “vending machine” to government as “bazaar:” 

This is a radical departure from the existing model of government, which Donald Kettl so aptly named “vending machine government.” We pay our taxes, we expect services, And when we don’t get what we expect, our ‘participation’ is limited to protest – essentially, shaking the vending machine. Collective action has been watered down to collective complaint. 

What if, instead of a vending machine, we thought of government as the manager of a marketplace?… A small number of vendors have the ability to get their products into the machine, the choices are limited, and the prices are high.  A bazaar, by contrast, is a place where the community itself exchanges goods and services. 

He also points to our national highway system is an example of “platform thinking:”

[T]he Federal-Aid Highway act of 1956, which committed the United States to building an interstate highway system, was a triumph of platform thinking, a key investment in facilities that had a huge economic and social multiplier effect. Though government builds the network of roads that tie our cities together, it dos not operate the factories, farms, and businesses that use the network… Government does set policies for the use of those roads, regulating interstate commerce, levying gasoline taxes and fees on heavy vehicles that damage the roads… and performing many other responsibilities appropriate to a “platform provider.”


If we are to reimagine government as a platform, we can then apply a host of design principles to help safeguard its success.  The first that O’Reilly discusses, and arguably the most important, is openness. He writes, “the platforms that are the most generative of new economic activity are those that are the most open.” Explaining how the innovations first in the PC era and then with the World Wide Web hinged on openness he asserts the “extraordinary power of open standards to foster innovation. When the barriers to entry to a market are low, entrepreneurs are free to invent to future.”

A second principle is to “build a simple system and let it evolve.”  This may be counterintuitive to some.  Why not build a wonderfully complex system that will fit the needs of many parties?  Don’t complex problems call for complex solutions?  When it comes to designing an open platform the answer is resoundingly — no.  A complex system limits the ability for others to grab hold of it, and manipulate it for their own purposes.  O’Reilly notes that “there are now thousands of Twitter applications, precisely because the core Twitter service does so little. By thinking simple, Twitter allowed its users and an ecosystem of application developers to evolve new features and functionality.  This is the essence of generativity.” To this point O’Reilly quotes John Gall who wrote Systemantics, an early and influential book on software engineering: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked.  The inverse proposition also appears to be true. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work.  You have to start over beginning with a working simple system.”

O’Reilly identifies a number of other insightful and important principles to consider in designing a viable platform.  All are worthy of discussion, perhaps when it's not so late in the evening. A principle that I’d like to leave with is one that Noveck discusses as well in Wiki Government. That is: the importance of embracing an ethos of experimentation and a willingness to fail. Over and over again, as necessary.  

Noveck proposed that there be experimentation labs (I imagine these to be similar to Google Labs) where new tools, designs and processes can be worked out before being pushed to the main government portal sites.  Putting experimentations within the context of a 
“lab” could deflect some of the stigma around failure and encourage government personal to go ahead and try out new ideas.  

The ethos of many open source software developers is “fail early and often.”  O’Reilly speaks to differences in culture between those in the tech industry and the public sector:

A cultural shift is also required. Empowering employees to “fail forward fast” accepts and acknowledges that even when an experiment fails, you will still learn something.  Software and web culture not only embraces this mindset, but revels in it – you never know which idea will be the million-dollar idea.  Once the cost of that experimentation is reduced, you can quickly scrap a product or feature that no one uses…

In my mind, this cultural shift may be both the most difficult and crucial change to implement.

We are living in what Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams describe in Wikinomics as the “age of participation."  The benefits of first envisioning and then designing government as an open platform in this era are manifold.  As an open platform, government can benefit from innovations both inside and outside government.  It can also concentrate its efforts where it will be most effective as a platform provider; in providing the underlying information infrastructure that others can build on top of.   As an open platform, government can harness the creativity and abilities of the participatory populace and put our talents to use "to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level."

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Government Data and Information Transparency

My Monday night class, "Information Services and Resources," is taught by former Washington State CIO Gary Robinson. Recently Gary gave us several questions which we could choose to respond to in a reflection paper.  One in particular got my brain churning: what should the role of government be in managing information? 

Clearly, one major role the government plays is in providing information to the public. However, simply providing information isn't enough, not nearly enough. It must also be transparent. But what exactly do we mean by transparency?  For Beth Simone Noveck it means that information must be "accessible, searchable, and usable.” Her thought-provoking and informative book, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful examines (among other things) the roles information and the design of information systems play in building healthy democracies and innovative societies.  As I've written previously, this woman knows her way around information!  While a professor at New York Law School, Noveck launched peer-to-patent, the federal government’s first open social networking project.  Currently, she leads President Obama’s Open Government Initiative as Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government. Below is a quick and dirty summary of Noveck's three facets of information transparency. 

Accessible Information

Noveck explains, “despite forty years of the Freedom of Information act, which mandates the disclosure and publication (with exceptions) of information controlled by the U.S. government, not all government information is available to the public.” Furthermore, even after over 10 years of the Paper Reduction Act, which requires “online publication of documents, data are not all online or web-accessible.” Unfortunately, this inaccessible data is not frivolous or mundane in nature. According to Noveck, “Consumer Product Safety Commission’s database of dangerous products” and “filings of ethics disclosures by members of Congress” are not yet online.

Searchable Information

Reminiscent of another philosophical riddle: if information is made available to the public and no one is able to find it, is it still information?  Information must be searchable to provide any value.  Noveck recounts the poor search capabilities of many federal websites writing, “it is all but impossible for even the avid activist to locate and comment on pending proposals on regulations.gov.” Incredulously, many government websites don’t offer full-text search and documents are often “scanned and uploaded as images and are therefore not findable.” But you may be thinking, “well, Google can come to the rescue and help people find the information that is not uploaded as image files, right?” Sadly, no.  Noveck: “major search engines like Google or Yahoo do not index much or even most government information.”

Usable Information

As Noveck aptly writes, “more data does not always mean more usable data.” Governments need to understand how others    businesses, non-profits and ordinary citizens — will take their data and use it in different and often unexpected ways.  Think mash-ups, data visualizations, and iPhone apps.  “[I]it is insufficient to share information for purely passive consumption instead of releasing data in open, structured, machine-readable formats that make it possible for third parties to reuse, manipulate, and visualize the data.” Disseminating, displaying, and storing information as PDFs and images, not only makes searching for the information within these files next to impossible, it makes it equally difficult for others to reuse the data for their own purpose.  

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Sunlight Labs’ New Open API and Why You Should Care

More news on the Open Gov API front from Sunlight Labs

The National Data Catalog went live last week. Now we would like to share a little bit about our API and how it fits into our platform. The National Data Catalog (NDC) is an open source catalog for government data sets and APIs. Our goal is to have it encompass all data released by or about governments in the United States. This includes federal, state, and local jurisdictions. The NDC will harness the community of users interested in open government data. 

Their announcement has lots of cool, geeky details for developer types. Here's the most relevant information from an end-user perspective:

The richest user experience is available with the National Data Catalog web app. It is geared towards the general public, but with a focus on researchers, reporters, investigative journalists, and lovers of data far and wide. 

Some of you may be wondering why you should care about open APIs. Read my last post for more context. Very briefly, they allow third parties to repurpose, manipulate and do all kinds of interesting — and sometimes unexpected — things with the data.  As OpenPlan explains, "Open APIs allow for software developers to create novel data-driven applications, and those in turn create more direct, responsive relationships with citizens."  

The potential is huge especially when you consider that technologists like Robert Scoble think the future of the web will be API-driven.

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IdeaScale: crowdsourcing ideas for better governance

Tonight I got to hang out with a nice bunch of Gov2.0 aficionados and activists at an Open Gov West meetup at Twist in Belltown. (As an aside, Twist has stunning views of the Sound and an all night happy hour menu).  The happy hour was organized by Sarah Schacht (@SarahSchacht), the woman behind Knowledge as Power and the Open Gov West conference.  It was a great opportunity for those of us who attended the conference to gather and continue our connections.  There was also a designated half hour to hear reports back on the ideas and projects that surfaced at OGW.  Unfortunately, I have an evening class on Mondays and missed the reports back.  But, I did have great conversations with a number of folks. One of the people I met was Rob Hoen (@rhoehn) who works at IdeaScale (@ideascale), a company I’d never heard of before.

Apparently, IdeaScale is a platform that — similar to Digg — let’s users rate ideas so that the best, or at least most popular, rise to the top.  And it’s being used in a number of Open Government initiatives. The Obama administration implemented IdeaScale when it asked the public:
How can we strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness by making government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative?
This nifty crowdsourcing tool is being used in a variety of arenas, not just for the pubic sector.  However, I was impressed with the various OpenGov projects using IdeaScale. Here is the list from their website:

Throughout Wiki GovernmentBeth Simone Noveck emphasizes the importance design of technology plays in creating opportunities for government to tap the knowledge and expertise of the public.  For the most part, there are not effective mechanisms in place for goverment to take action on the thousands of emails and letters constituents send in.  Noveck calls for the design of systems that lets users rate ideas, thus allowing the best to bubble to the top.  This is exactly what IdeaScale is designed to do and why it’s now on my radar.

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May 6th: Open APIs for Government

OpenPlan (formerly The Open Planning Project) points to an exciting event happening in San Francisco on May 6th: 

Open data and Open APIs are increasingly powerful vectors for what Tim O’Reilly has called ‘government as a platform.’ A number of open government efforts, including Open311, are opportunities to fundamentally improve the way that municipalities and citizens interact. Open APIs allow for software developers to create novel data-driven applications, and those in turn create more direct, responsive relationships with citizens.

That’s why we’re excited about the upcoming Open APIs for Government event being held at San Francisco’s City Hall on May 6 at 6:30pm. We hope to see many of you there for lively discussion of the importance of open government in the era of open data and open source. The event will explore visions for the future of this movement as well as updates on current efforts and app demos.

Wish I could be there! Craig Newmark, Tim O'Reilly, San Francisco's CIO, Tim Vein, and OpenPlan's Phil Ashlock (@philipashlock) will all be on a panel at the event.

I've been hearing a lot about the API-driven web lately. We discussed it in Samantha Starmer's class last Saturday morning. (I'm not even enrolled in her class, but I love the way she thinks about information so I got up at 7:00am on a Saturday morning to sit in and absorb her knowledge. That's how good she is!) And Robert Scoble also raved about it's potential in a recent blog post reporting Apple's acquisition of Siri, a mobile app that connects users to information via APIs. Robert thinks the API-driven web is huge.  In "Why if you miss Siri you’ll miss the future of the Web" he explains, well, why: 

Web 1994 was the “get me a domain and a page” era.
Web 2000 was the “make my page(s) interactive and put people on it” era.
Web 2010 is the “get rid of pages and glue APIs and people together” era.

Siri is the best example. First, it’s not a website. It’s an application you put on your phone (today iPhone, soon others like Android and Blackberry). Second, it isn’t a search engine, those are so 1998. It’s a system that assists you in your life.

Why is it so different?

Because on the back end they’ve stitched together a sizeable group of APIs from services like Opentable to Flightstats. With more coming soon. Before it was common only for a couple of APIs to be joined together, here they have dozens.

He goes on to explain how Siri works using voice recognition for user queries.  But the true magic of Siri is decidedly not it's voice recognition mojo:

Why is this really new and important? Don’t get confused by the awesome voice recognition engine that figures out your speech and what you want with pretty good accuracy. No, that’s not the really cool thing, although Microsoft and other companies have been working on natural language search for many years now and have been failing to come up with anything as useful as Siri.

No, the real secret sauce and huge impact on the future of the web is in the back end of this thing. A few months back the engineers at Siri gave me a secret look at how they stitch the APIs into the system. They’ve built a GUI that helps them hook up the APIs from, say, a new source like Foursquare, into the language recognition engine.

Just think about the possibilities Open APIs can unleash for Gov2.0 initiatives. Looking forward to reading the follow-ups from Open APIs for Government.  Please do get in touch if you're in San Francisco and attend.  I'd love to hear about your experience.  

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Beth Simone Noveck’s Modest Proposal

“Ordinary citizens have more to offer than voting or talking. They can contribute their expertise and, in so doing, realize the opportunity to be powerful.”  ~ Beth Simone  Noveck
Open government and Collaborative Democracy in the Network Society

As part of my independent study on open government, I’ve been devouring Beth Simone Noveck‘s new book, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More PowerfulNoveck is on leave as a professor at New York Law School and currently leads President Obama’s Open Government Initiative as deputy chief technology officer for open government. Her 2005 blog post, “Peer to Patent: A Modest Proposal” lead — only 23 months after it was first published — to the federal government’s first open social networking project, radically changing the patent review process and catalyzing the open government movement.

Open government is somewhat of an amorphous term with varied meanings, depending on who you’re talking to and in what context. In a later post, I’ll go deeper into Noveck’s discussion of three elements that, for her, characterize open government: transparency, participation, and collaboration.” But first, some thoughts on the power of ideas, blogging and the Read/Write web (also known as web 2.0).  And, then a bit of background on peer-to-patent (wikipedia entry, official website).

[Hat tip: I picked Wiki Government for my independent study because Lucy Bernholz highly recommended it to me on Twitter.  I first learned of the book in her blog post, “Open Philanthropy: A Modest Manifesto.“]

Idea Power in the Web2.0 Ecosystem after the jump
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Open Government Independent Study

Kathy Gill graciously agreed to work with me on an independent study this quarter.  The topic? Open Government, an area I've wanted to dig my teeth into for quite some time now.  We're not in the same department — Kathy teaches in the Digital Media Program and I'm at the iSchool getting a Master in Information Management — but our interests dovetail quite nicely.  I know this from following her on Twitter, reading her blog, and looking at her past syllabi.  Our stimulating, face to face meeting also confirmed this (Kathy took me on as her independent study student before we got a chance to meet in person.) 

Below are the learning objectives for the course that I sent Kathy via email.  So far, I've been devouring  Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful by Beth Simone Noveck.  It's by far the best reading I've come across in grad school thus far.  Kinda helps when you're assigning it to yourself, I suppose. 

Learning Objectives

Up until now, my understanding of the Open Government movement has been hit and miss.  A blog post here, an article there, and attendance at a day long open government unconference has been most of my exposure to this topic. I'd like more of a comprehensive view of the movement — it's history, major players (the activists who are pushing for reform and the governments that are responding), and a global perspective of its manifestations (I've been told that the UK is leading in this arena, but I don't know whether or not that's true).  I'd also like to know how different actors are defining "open government" and "Gov2.0." For instance,  is it simply governments that dump data sets out into the public?  Does it involve governments making that data understandable by ordinary citizen? Are there rating systems yet for the openness of government?  Does the term "open government" usually include ways for citizens to interact dynamically with policy makers?  Other aspects of Open Government that I'd like a better understanding of include:
  • Interoperability. From what I understand, San Francisco, Portland and Washington D.C. are developing open data standards that will make transferring and reusing government data easier and, perhaps, one day even seamless.  How are different government entities collaborating to move Open Government forward?  Where and why have their been successes and failures?  What are the major road blocks?
  • Technology. What technology is being used in Gov2.0 and Open Government initiatives? Is it always open source? I know Anil Dash and Gina Trapani at Expert Labs are working on the Think Tank app, but I'd like to learn about other initiatives.
  • Social factors.  I should have probably listed this point first since it's the most salient to Open Government adaption inside and outside government.  What are the social, political and cultural barriers in Open Government?
  • Unintentional consequences.  What are the unintentional — and potentially negative — consequences of Open Government?
  • Threats. What are the biggest threats to this movement?
  • Linked Data.  Is there a relationship between the movement for Linked Data and the semantic web, and Open Government

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