Govt 2.0 - a policy and technology mash-up

By David Eade


September 18, 2009:Just over 20 years ago, at the home of CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, on the banks of beautiful Lake Geneva, a young man by the name of Tim Berners-Lee wrote a memo to his boss.


In it, he described the information management problems that were stifling the free ?ow of information between the 1000 scientists and engineers at CERN and impeding the accumulation of common knowledge amongst this community of physicists.


“A problem... is the high turnover of people. When two years is a typical length of stay, information is constantly being lost,”Berners -Lee argued. “... The technical details of past projects are sometimes lost forever, or only recovered after a detective investigation in an emergency,” he continued. “... Often the information has been recorded, it just cannot be found”.Sound familiar? Berners-Lee went on to describe a solution to the problem of information sharing at CERN, something he decided to call the ‘World Wide Web’.


Of course, the rest is history. The World Wide Web has evolved to become the most scalable and agile software application known to man and in doing so, has set the benchmark for collaborative information management.


Far reaching, large scale technology trends are almost always preceded by some disruptive force. Which is why it was interesting to read recently that Berners -Lee has agreed to assist the UK Government with their information management strategy, focusing specifically on making their information more open and accessible on the web. When trailblazers like Tim Berners-Lee enter the world of information management in government, it signals change is approaching.


Can we expect to see information management in government become closely aligned with the world of the web, and a shift in the way that government does business both now and into the future? Of course, that shift has already begun. It’s called ‘Government 2.0’.


US President Obama popularised this new approach in his ‘Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies’. In the memorandum, he describes three key areas for improvement: transparency of government, citizen participation and collaboration fostered within government departments, across government agencies and with the private sector.


Even before Obama’s directive, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave a commitment to promoting ‘openness, accountability and transparency’ within Federal Government, a promise that has led to the formation of the Government 2.0 Taskforce. In addition, Australian Senator Kate Lundy has shown an enormous amount of passion and commitment to making this promise a reality, focusing on her own three ‘pillars of open government’; citizen centric services; open and transparent government and innovation facilitation.


It is this last pillar, the responsibility of government to open access to information and ensure opportunities are made available for public and private innovation, which is proving interesting to government CIOs.


This is clearly a prime motivator for Tim Berners-Lee as he strives to realise his vision of the Semantic Web – a web of linked data as well as linked documents. In the landmark paper “Government Data and the Invisible Hand”, Robinson, Yu, Zeller and Felten describe the notion of ‘government as a platform’ and even encourage the closure of government Web sites.


“Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, [government] should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that “exposes” the underlying data.”


A great example of government as a platform is the US Government’s Data.gov site. Data.gov aims to “increase public access to high value, machine-readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government”.


However, the real value in government data comes when it is combined with data from other sources, often by private sector organisations or academia. It is this combined layering of data that provides insight that just would not have been possible with any single dataset alone.


A great example of this is in the work of Hans Rosling, a doctor and researcher specialising in global health who has created some remarkable “trend-revealing” software (available at Gapminder.com) that analyse datasets from both government and non-government organisations in order to increase our understanding of social and economic development. In doing so, he aims to change many of our preconceived perceptions of health trends in developing countries.


Currently, most available data is structured data, but as the concepts of the Semantic Web permeate into the enterprise and government, more and more unstructured information will become available. It is then that the floodgates for innovation will open. Of course, in order to be part of the government as a platform initiative, agencies first need to bring their information under control. Only when information is managed well, can it be leveraged internally. Only when it is uniquely reference-able using open standards-based protocols and techniques (within, for example, a Web Oriented Architecture) can it be used by the private and not-for-profit sectors for innovation.


Government as a platform is one of the three ‘hot’ technology trends we are currently seeing in information management in government. Effective and inclusive citizen engagement is another, and both are underpinned in tough economic times by the ongoing drive for more effective and efficient government at a lower cost to the community.


“Vague, but exciting” is how the boss of Tim Berners-Lee described his original vision for the World Wide Web. As the Government 2.0 storm hits, we may still be a bit vague about the direction it will take us, but hold on! It’s definitely going to be an exciting ride.


David Eade is the Product Marketing Manager for Objective Corporation. This article is an extract from his upcoming presentation: ‘Government 2.0: Information Innovation, Citizen Engagement and Effective Agency Collaboration’ at the 2009 RMAA Annual Convention.

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