On Wednesday Gartner’s Andrea Dimaio wrote an interesting blog post entitled Open Data and Application Contests: Government 2.0 at the Peak of Inflated Expectations which Peter Smith nicely linked to the Gartner’s Hype Cycle graph from Wikipedia. I want to break his post down into three components. Two – the bad and the good, I’m going to talk about today – the third, which I’ll tackle on Monday involves some mapping and fun.
As someone whose been thinking about and working on Open Data and Gov 2.0 for several years now three things struck me as problematic about Andrea’s post. Firstly, he misunderstands the point of open data. While many people – self-included- talk about how it can empower citizens, citizens will not be its primary beneficiary. The biggest user of open data portals is going to be government employees. Indeed, Tim Wilson reminded me the other day of our conversation with Jason Birch, the thought leader who made much of Nanaimo’s geo-data public, where he talked about how he wasn’t actually tasked with sharing data publicly – he was tasked with making the data available to other Nanaimo city employees. Sharing it with citizens was a (relatively) cost free addition. These projects aren’t about serving some techo-literati, it is about getting a city to first and foremost talk to itself – having it talk to its citizens is an important (and democracy expanding) benefit.
Second, was this unfortunate anecdote:
Yesterday I was discussing with a British client over lunch and he told me how the publication of data may lead to requests for more data (through the Freedom of Information Act), in a never-ending cycle of information gathering which is likely to cost a lot to both government and taxpayers. Another client observed (as I said in a previous post) that there is no way people will be able to tell to what extent a mash up on an application actually uses official, trusted government data.
Could government become swamped with data requests? Who knows, but in theory… it shouldn’t. Making data available should reduce the amount of time public servants spend responding to requests by diverting requests to open data portals. But let’s say Andrea’s concerns are valid and that, as a result of open data, citizens become more actively concerned and interested in how government works and thus Freedom of Information Act requests increase. The horror… citizens are interested in government! Citizens want to know how decisions are made! Remind me again… why is this a problem?
The real problem here isn’t access to data, it’s that the Freedom of Information Act process is itself broken. If open data creates a further demand for more transparent government and pushes us to foster better mechanisms for sharing government information, this is a good consequence. As for concerns that people might misrepresent public data, well a) people can already do this and we haven’t had a rash of bad applications, but even if they tried… people will stop using their service pretty quick.
Finally, another nice thing about public data is that it tends to get very clean, very quickly. My concern isn’t that government data will be misrepresented… I’m concerned that government data is already wrong and isn’t being verified. Knowing that someone might actually look at a data set is one of the most powerful incentives for organization to improve its collection. (Something Clay Shirky noted in a talk he made the other day at a Bioinformatics conference I’m at).
(There is of course, one group who may not see these a good consequences as it will change how they work: British public servant like Andrea’s client’s who raised the objections… but then they pay Gartner’s bills, not you.)
The end of Andrea Dimiao’s piece is where we find common ground. I agree that the Apps for Democracy competitions run the risk of limiting the definition of “the public” to citizen coders. We want broader participation – particularly once more complex data sets like budgets, procurement and crime data are released – from academics, citizens groups and NGOs. Here in Vancouver we’ve talked about focusing any Apps competition on the themes of homelessness, housing and the environment, since these have been the dominant concerns of citizens in recent years.
More importantly, I agree (and love) Dimiao’s concept of employee-centric government. Indeed, my chapter for Tim O’Reilly’s upcoming book on Open Government makes a parallel argument, that namely we should stop trying to teach an analogue government to talk to a digital public and instead focus on making government digital (ie. getting it “open,” networked and using web 2.0 internally) first.
And perhaps most importantly, I agree that government 2.0 risks being over-hyped. I still believe in the potential, but know that getting there is going to be a painful process (mind the gap!). Government 2.0 advocates should expect lots of resistance and adoption problems ahead – but then change is painful.