Power to the Public [Domain]

We try to avoid political subjects as much as possible, so our headline here borrows from the familiar “Power to the People” in a (hopefully) non-threatening way.  This phrase is mostly associated with a bottom-up view to tear-down reform ineffective government.  However, there are some interesting new developments coming from the public sector, which hold promise for democratizing some government functions, while also improving services to the public.  You’ve heard of SAAS.  Do you know about GAP?

Government as Platform

Author and technologist, Tim O’Reilly is credited with coining the term “Government as Platform” to describe the ways that Web 2.0 technologies can be leveraged to improve government.  Combining social media, cloud computing and crowdsourcing, Government 2.0, as this movement is sometimes called, taps developing technologies and systems in an effort to build a core platform of data and services that the private sector and the general public can utilize to create innovations that government doesn’t have the time, resources or initiative to provide.  

 The core concept is that if government makes its information widely available, then the existence of an “Open Data” platform will spur the market to innovate and create useful applications, much like Apple’s App Store or the Android Marketplace.  At a recent Chicago technology conference, John Tolva, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Chicago, laid out some innovative ideas for harnessing the power of public resources for more efficient and effective government services.  When we use the term “public resources”, we’re not just talking about government buildings, assets or employees, we’re talking about people – the citizens. 

Tolva offered one illustrative example of why the City of Chicago is moving towards the vision of Government 2.0.  He described an incident on Chicago’s train system that caused a major outage, leading to train delays and gridlock.  Predictably, the wave of calls to local transit and police operators set off alarm bells with City agencies, but their ability to respond was in some ways hampered by the flood of communications.  A review of the incident sometime later revealed that activity trackers on the social platform Twitter would have enabled the City to recognize and address the source of the problem more quickly had the City been able to harness that (free and instant) data.  As witnesses on the scene, it seems that commuters using Twitter were able to provide more accurate information on the outage than the regular communication system, and in REAL TIME!  Let’s just say that Tolva recognized this moment of inspiration as an opportunity for Chicago to reap the benefits of Open Data, justifying initiatives like this http://www.openchicago.org/.

Through efforts like this Chicago is looking to leverage its local technology ecosystem to drive further improvements.  The results can sometimes be more efficient government services or better responsiveness, but they’re also just as likely to create opportunities for the public and private sector entrepreneurs to fill needs that were underserved or unrecognized.  For example, crime statistics published by the City rapidly found their way into popular applications and websites like Everyblock.com, which was originally a mashup combining statistical data from local government with online mapping technologies.  It’s not just established companies getting on the bandwagon.  Individual developers have created useful community resources like street-cleaning alerts and towed-vehicle sites

Many local governments and organizations are even getting citizens to take on projects that government may not be prepared to handle.  When a community mobilizes to aid in an emergency or respond to a crisis, that’s not just a way to reduce the burden and expense of government, it’s a leap towards better self-government.  Many government and community leaders hope that Open Data is the spark to ignite positive collective action.  There are certainly benefits to this phenomenon, but it might be worth proceeding with some caution.  Can you imagine the free-for-all if every bit of government data became part of the public domain?   Who wants data???

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