Live-tweeting from a conference several weeks ago, we realized first hand that this wasn’t just an exercise in opening up a dialogue to all who weren’t in the room with the help of the internet, but it was a useful way to get more input and great ideas. We are currently following up on a specific idea to address low capacities to monitor illegal waste dumps, deforestation and excess noise in national parks – through designing a crowdsourcing platform that will allow every citizen, park ranger and tourist to report incidents they encounter in the park.
So this got us thinking. How can governments leverage proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and growing connected societies for real social change?
Would opening up its data, promoting collaborative decision making and turning its development and planning processes more participatory help governments become more effective and efficient in providing services?
Governments are the single largest data producers and collectors – citizens give them the rights and resources to collect and produce this data, so they are entitled to access this data. (There are exceptions, but it is important for citizens to be aware of what data exist that is not released into public domain and why).
Can opening up pave the way for new businesses and more efficient decision making?
We believe so for the following reasons:
- It is more efficient.
Global economic crises, rising resource prices and income inequality continue to challenge governments’ ability to provide basic services to their citizens. In an effort to promote engagement and efficiency in service delivery, increasingly, we are seeing a proliferation of bottom up solutions to traditionally government-led services ranging from noise management and waste collection to disaster needs assessment, a variety of urban infrastructure and service management.
There will never be enough park rangers or inspectors to cover every square inch of our country – nor would that be the smartest use of your taxes. But providing citizens with tools to report problems in real time, the non governmental (NGO) sector with the mandate to verify and monitor them, and individual public agencies with resources and the mandate to address them is a far more efficient use of public funding.
- It is more inclusive.
In addition to creating a host of new and previously unheard of business opportunities, new technologies and social media can play a role in empowering and engaging those who are on the margins of the society.
For example, in many countries, retirement generally means a slow descent into poverty. But with a bit of creativity and a wif-fi connection, one can have a “granny army” in the United Kingdom remotely sharing culture and encouragement with kids from India.
On the other hand, non-profits increasingly use new technologies to create meaningful employment and social interaction with, and among, people with disabilities. Cities are using open platforms to enable communities to get involved in public planning and budgeting, or to engage citizens in collaborative brainstorming and rethinking the vision of entire districts within cities (a very dear example to our heart, as one of us is a University of Alabama graduate).
New technologies can help people engage more meaningfully with official publications and laws that are heavy with administrative lingo, dense and long with complex structures and references that generally tend to be a major turn off. When was the last time you read through the municipal annual budget? We bet that you would be more interested in a sneak peek if revenues to the budget were portrayed like this, or if a programme that dealt with impacts of economic crisis looked like this. This is also true when it comes to official statements and speeches of your elected officials, and they know it. This is why they are increasingly turning to ICTs for engaging the public in providing comments and suggestions to their statements and speeches as well as creating opportunities for citizens to comment on laws.
- It is smarter.
We came across the best explanation of user-led innovation in a BBC interview with the mayor of Calgary, who said that the world’s best expert on transport is the person who uses the bus every day and that technology allows decision makers to access her directly.
Apparently, someone from the Chicago Transit Authority thinks along the same lines, and the company opened up all its data on prices, schedules, and packages in a user-friendly way, inviting all those who are interested to develop apps that will increase the quality of using public transportation.
Want to improve user-experience? Empower users to do it themselves with easy-to-use, accessible data about things they care about the most. In providing downloadable personal health-related data, the Blue Button initiative supports veterans and federal employees to use the data to stay healthy, manage their care, and save on their health care expenses.
The Green Button initiative enables some 15 million households to access data about their energy use in the hope of increasing innovation and savings, and empowering citizens to manage their energy consumption more efficiently.
We also need to acknowledge some commonly cited concerns about opening up. Some note privacy issues in relation to releasing personal data. We came across a compelling argument that the internet doesn’t make us care about politics and that no “democracy in history has ever sustained high levels of engagement on the hope that citizens are willing to sacrifice their free time to make a marginal difference.”
Others warn that the open data movement is likely to increase social inequality since the poorer you are, the less likely you are to use new technologies (we have a serious issue with this argument, consider the following – 80 percent of people living in Nairobi’s slums prefer to skip lunch so they can afford a mobile phone).
Finally, even though over 80 countries have begun opening up their official data to citizens and businesses, we are still on a learning curve and there remain many new and still untapped potential questions and concerns.
Just a matter of time
We don’t think that ICTs are a substitute for the maturing process that a society goes through as a democracy. But as we see growing advancements with ICTs, we don’t think that opening up is a choice, but a question of time.
We believe that new technologies provide unprecedented opportunities for empowering and engaging communities in decision making, for tapping into innovation and creativity, and for leveling the playing field. Opening up its data is a government’s first step toward realizing this potential.