Smathermather's Weblog

Remote Sensing, GIS, Ecology, and Oddball Techniques

Government 2.0 is not the platform

Posted by smathermather on October 8, 2014

(In which Steve vehemently disagrees with a major thought leader on the nature of Civic Technology… .)

(TLDR: Open Data is the platform. Governance participates in, contributes to, and benefits from Open Data, but government is not the platform, Open Data is the platform.)

Tower of people standing on each others shoulders

I’m sorry, Tim O’Reilly. You are a brilliant man, have some truly great ideas, and some successes I hear as a publisher and VC, but on Gov 2.0, you are wrong, or at least 90 degrees away from right.

I like Open Data. I hate Government as a Platform. Why? Two reasons. First (selfish reason), being a platform as your default position does not always have the best views.

To be fair, though, it’s deeper than just the views. Public servants are, after all, like all good persons, servants, so we can’t whine too much about platform / infrastructure services. This is part of what we signed up for.

Counterpoint: historically, government is not just about infrastructure (roads, bridges, sewers, data), but also has a role to play in services. Great Open Data is served not just in raw form, but with great APIs, great interfaces, great front ends. I think this is particularly true (or should be) in the Parks and Recreation sector. Domain expertise matters, and we should be leveraging the domain expertise of our hard working public servants where we can.

But, I can’t win this on selfish arguments alone. Perhaps that is our role in the public sector. We do the pedantic, boring work, we provide the data, and clever, brilliant people who are necessarily outside in the private sector do the value added work.

Let us start with the Classic Example — Google and Portland’s Trimet put together the GTFS standard that allows for transit agencies across the US to share their transit information and thus make it available through services like Google Maps. Thus it is that the platform is governments serving GTFS feeds, private industry (Google) does their magic in creating a common mapping interface for people to easily navigate complicated transit systems, and an angel gets it’s wings.

I would not suggest that this arrangement is bad. Is it a commodification of the commons by means of Open Data? Yes? Do we all benefit from it? Ya. Mostly (although use the transit app for Seoul, Korea for truly great transit software). It’s an acceptable trade (ignoring the commodification of all of our private lives in the trade, but that’s a separate issue from Trimet and GTFS). (The trade works in part, too, because Google derives value from being it’s own privatized Commons, but that’s an analysis for another time, and perhaps a PhD or two)

But if this is the only model we put forth as our Open Data model, we are missing some really important elements. Succinctly, it is not Government that is or should be the platform, any more than OpenStreetMap’s public domain inputs are the most valuable. Open Data is the platform. Governance participates in, contributes to, and benefits from Open Data, but within the context of data, government is not the platform, Open Data is the platform.

It is easy to loose sight of this within the context of Open Data as a new Commons. We have come to some terms with Open Source Software as a Commons. We understand, sometimes with large swaths of apocryphal sociological analysis, elements of the value of Commons within the context of Open Source Software. It is now time to understand Open Data with similar breadth and depth.

When I think of Open Data, I do not want Transit! I want transitivity. Transitivity between legal structures (private and public) and between sectors (health, education, technology, human services, etc.). I want Open Data to be a new Commons that we all contribute to from multiple sectors and structures.

Tonight, as we discussed the future of Open Data in Cleveland, I was refreshed by the interest in placing Open Data as that hub, as that Commons, within the context of the verticals and plays that we seek to engage in a “loosely coupled coalition of the willing”. Bravo to Lev Gonick and others at the meeting who articulated those interlacing pieces of the coalition as follows:


And so, it bears repeating: Open Data is the platform. Governance participates in, contributes to, and benefits from Open Data, but government is not the platform, Open Data is the platform. A new Commons. These are exciting times.



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