The Four Pillars of an Open Civic System

Everyone is talking a lot about open government and transparency these days. It’s exhilarating stuff, and it’s even more exciting to see governments get behind it, creating sites like in the U.S. for the public to access government information via APIs. But every time I hear someone say something like “our organization is really into transparency” (which is often) it sounds odd to me. It’s only talking about a part of the puzzle, not the whole puzzle. What we really want (or what I really want anyway) is not simply government transparency, but an open civic system – a civic system that operates, and flourishes, as a fully open system, for whatever level we happen to be talking about – federal, state, city, neighborhood, whatever. And transparency is a big part of that open civic system, but it is still only one part.

In fact there are four parts to a functioning open civic system. These are:

Government to Citizen (G2C). This is what people speak of when they talk about transparency and open government data. It’s the idea of creating open pipelines for data directly from government and gov’t agencies to whoever is interested in receiving it. G2C gets you accountability – watchdog groups suddenly have easy access to the paper trails for everything that is going on, etc. It also gets you things like transit schedules, minutes from meetings, and zoning data – things that can be built on by third parties to make the civic system work better. G2C is critical stuff, but without the other three components in place, we can’t make the most of this open government data. What we need is not simply a pipe of open data, we need an ecosystem of open civic data, all interconnected, all flowing every which way. That’s what the other three “pillars” of an open civic system gets us.

Citizen to Government (C2G). The counterpart to G2C. This is the idea of creating open pipelines from the people directly to the government – hopefully with someone listening on the other end. Adding C2G to G2C completes the circuit and makes open government APIs and such that much stronger – it takes what was a uni-directional data flow and turns it into a feedback loop of information, input and output. At the city level, C2G is taking shape right now in the form of Open 311 – a open API that anyone can build on that allows residents to create “problem tickets” for their city to address one way or another. Washington D.C. is currently launching an open 311 API, and I expect more cities will follow suit soon. Other examples of C2G include UK’s FixMyStreet and from New Haven, Connecticut, both sites with a huge amount of potential. There are a million different, nuanced ways C2G could be played out, at the local, state and federal levels.

Citizen to Citizen (C2C). Okay so now we have both open G2C and C2G data flows going, and that’s great – huge amplification of civic activity, great realization of efficiency with regards to interaction between government and people. But there are all sorts of ways to improve civic life that don’t really need to involve the government at all – what about those things? That’s where Citizen to Citizen, or C2C, data flows come in. C2C is the citizens’ brigade of data flow – it’s the people doing it for themselves, whatever “it” happens to be. Clever Commute, in New Jersey, is one example of a great C2C data flow. Everyone who commutes by train into NYC subscribes to the Clever Commute feed, and then notifies each other of what the current delays are, and where, each morning. The system works better than anything New Jersey Transit has been able to pull together, and at a cost of essentially zero. This is the great thing about C2C – it is added value to the civic system at no additional cost to the system itself. The cost to operate C2C is passed on to those who are using it, and spread out amongst individuals, to the point where the costs become negligible. Instead of New Jersey Transit coming up with a system that knows how late each of its trains are at a cost of millions of tax dollars, the users of Clever Commute bear the cost of the system, and it costs pennies for each user to operate (the cost of sending a text message). C2C is a huge value-add on top of G2C and C2G, and as governments consider how to get increased services in these recessionary times, I expect C2C to be huge – once governments get used to the idea.

Government to Government (G2G). Lastly, the square is not complete without open Government-to-Government data flows. Entities within governments should have easy, open data exchange with each other, without having to issue a request, parse something out of a PDF, and so forth. The ability for, say, the NYC Department of Health to get data from the Los Angeles DoH in realtime, without having to talk to anyone or issue a request could be a huge asset. Or think of the efficiencies that could be gained if the NYC DOT were able to exchange realtime data with the NYPD. If these examples sound vague, it’s because G2G is the “pillar” I know the least about, having never worked in a government agency. From what I’ve learned though, it seems to me that there could be a huge increase to civic utility with a little bit of thought about an open G2G system.

And of course you can blend these data flows and come up with hybrids all you like. DIYcity’s SickCity, for example, is basically a C2C tool in its present, basic 1.0 incarnation – it detects instances of residents in your city saying they’re sick, and passes that news on to other residents. But a more sophisticated version of the tool would also pass that information on directly to the Department of Health when relevant, and would also, optimally, accept data from the DoH to pass that back to residents. Suddenly it has gone from a simple C2C tool to a tool that is C2C, C2G and G2C. Now we’re talking about interesting stuff. Each additional channel of data makes the system exponentially more valuable.

With all of these systems properly developed and engaged, our civic systems – local, regional, federal – should bloom and transform into the properly modern, Internet-age things they ought to be. This will translate to increases in efficiency, greater innovation and rate of change, better adaptability, and greater resilience, in addition to other advantages. To get there though, we’ve got to get beyond thinking simply in terms of transparency and government APIs.

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