Tim O’Reilly recently offered his thoughts and predictions for a variety of topics we cover regularly on Radar. I’ll be posting highlights from our conversation throughout the week. — Mac
Is open government moving from theory to practice?
The initial rush of interest in open government and transparency is wearing off and people are getting to work. Gov 2.0 startup founders are figuring out business models — such as advertising and providing back-end services for cities — and the first crop of startups are being funded. Early entrants, like SeeClickFix and CrimeReports, are growing. I think we’ll see a number of new startups in this space. [Disclosure: O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in SeeClickFix.]
Open government’s transition is also leading to practical applications. The Blue Button initiative from Veterans Affairs, which allows veterans to easily download their medical records, is an idea that’s bound to spread. Blue Button is a direct outcome of the Open Government Initiative, but that connection probably won’t be recognized. As is so often the case, the things that really make a difference get put into a different category than those that fail.
Along those lines, people might say that open government failed because many of the items on the punch list didn’t happen the way they were originally envisioned. When we look back, we’ll realize that open government is not just about transparency and participation in government decision making, but the many ways that open data can be put to practical use.
There are profound open government projects taking shape. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could transform our healthcare system through open data and medical records. HHS Connect and The Direct Project are all about creating the standards for interoperability between medical records. We’ll eventually see and benefit from larger efforts like these.
Another open data project that I’m fond of that started very early in the open government process is GTFS, the General Transit Feed Specification. That’s the data standard that lets transit districts feed their bus and train arrival times to applications like Google Transit, or any of the many smartphone apps that help you plan your trip on public transit. This standard started as a collaboration between Google and the city of Portland, but is now available from many cities. It’s a great example of how governments can think like platform providers. They have to equip their buses and trains with GPS, and report out the data. They could report it just to their own bus stops and train stations, or they could make it available to third parties to deliver in a hundred ways. Which is better for citizens? It’s pretty obvious.
And of course, this is government data following in the footsteps of great open data projects of the past, such as the satellite weather data released by NOAA to power the world’s weather forecasters, or even the GPS signals that were originally designed only for military use but then released for civilian use.
Much of what you’re describing sounds like the Web 1.0-to-2.0 trajectory. Do you see similarities?
Tim O’Reilly: At the end of the Web 1.0 era, some people claimed the web had failed because banner advertising, pop-overs, pop-unders and all the increasingly intrusive forms of advertising didn’t work. Then Google came along with a better idea. I think something similar will happen with Gov 2.0. Many of the things people label as “Gov 2.0” are really the early signals and efforts of a “Gov 1.0” period. Important shifts will eventually occur, and they won’t have anything to do with government agencies putting up wikis or using Twitter. We will see many unexpected outcomes over time.
A collection of posts that look ahead to 2011 can be found here.