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Government 2.0 and the new sunshine kids

[Web 2.0 Expo 2009:  Web comes to its senses] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 1: Sense of self] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 2: Sense of presence] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 3: Sense of place] | [Part 4: Sense of governance] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 5: Sense of community]

Government 2.0 has been a hot topic since before Obama used it so adeptly during the last US presidential election, and the notions of open government data, crowdsourcing government, and turning government into an (actually!) innovative platform itself make it clear this is the part of the next biggest “Web 2.0 thing.” This is in fact so key to the O’Reilly folks that they dedicated a whole series of (free) sessions at the Web 2.0 Expo 2009 to Government 2.0 and have also announced a conference spinoff around the Gov 2.0 theme itself.

In fact, said conference co-chair Jen Pahlka, “Several of the top-rated sessions were in our Government 2.0 track, so increasingly it’s about applying the principles of Web 2.0 to governing.”

Let’s not forget that the Web — even the unordered folksonomous Web — is based on the (government-created) Internet, so sourcing government data should be right at home on the Web. As the Web grows up, what’s new is that we have access to more and more of it — and hence can do and are doing more and more with it, including surfacing and making sense of more data in new ways. What’s also new is the apparent disruption of the government behind that data itself.

Ellen MillerIntroducing his keynote conversation with Ellen Miller, co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation, Tim O’Reilly referred to Sunlight as “one of the biggest disruptive forces in Government.” The foundation is guided by Open Government Data Principles created by a collection of open government advocates (including Lawrence Lessig), and O’Reilly says these principles “mean to government what open source meant to software.”

It turns out that making data public is a political act in the first place. “The notion that government’s data is our data is a belief that crosses all political lines,” said Ellen Miller, and “information is not public unless it’s online.” Although, she said, “that’s common sense to everybody in this room, but it’s a radical sentiment for government.”

Now that the access to the data is improving, that means new opportunities to do something with it — to synthesize it – to build new “Government 2.0” applications.  “If you’re a vendor,” Miller encouraged the crowd, “grab our data at Sunlight Labs and do something interesting with it.” In fact, I learned via @ellnmllr while I was writing this of yet another source of open raw data at “Starting today, the Party Time website will include a new feature: this spot where you can download all the underlying, raw data that form the basis for this website.”

kiwitobes - a network graph of corporate americaSo what *can* you do with all this open government data? How does government become “an open platform that allows people to innovate”? Throughout the Web 2.0 Expo 2009, I collected lots of real examples:

From the mundane

  • Apparently the government has a hierarchical classification clip art! Metaweb’s Toby Segaran let us in on this fact during his murder-mystery-detective-story-via open government data session

To the fantastical

  • The fact that Segaran took us through a murder mystery using only public data sources was pretty fascinating (if contrived)

From the expected

  • The ubiquitous map mashup continues to demonstrate the value of government data mashed up through maps 

To the disruptive

To the cool — 

To the local

To all of the above at once …

Not only is there a virtual treasure trove of publicly accessible real-time data (Segaran also mentioned this Site dedicated to freeing Government data:, but also a wealth of possibilities to build upon them.

To more of what Ellen Miller referenced: “What about matching up when candidates report their contributions with the timing of party events? How about mooshing it with new data on the first quarter of 2009 as it soon becomes available from the Federal Election Commission? Certainly there must be many fun ways to visualize this party data that we haven’t tried yet at the Sunlight Foundation.”

Open data is not the only way the Web is opening up to “Government 2.0.” Government is also opening up to the use of the Web itself like never before. Elections were of course a huge topic in the Blue State Digital session on The Secrets of Obama’s New Media Juggernaut, during which we learned great stories on engaging community (see my forthcoming fifth and final in the series, on community).  Blue State Digital explained how they used the Internet in all the steps along the way of the campaign to “drive action, be authentic, create ownership, be relevant, create strong, open brand, and measure everything.”

In addition, Google talked in a keynote about Google Moderator being the engine behind, and released numbers on the phenomenal uptake of this tool, with many taking advantage of the opportunity to ask and rank questions for Obama that he later actually answered.

Of course, there are flipsides to watch out for while using and designing for all of this open data, including such topics as privacy, security, credibility, and not least — message control. Opening government up to that kind of direct public questioning has huge ramifications for how official communications are handled and messaging vetted. This sort of feedback loop has the potential for massive change.

Google for its part tried to downplay privacy concerns: “When you’re a market leader like Google, you have a disproportionate amount of social responsibility,” in response to which, “We limit some of our activities in China — for example, we don’t have the ability to log in on Gmail in China,” Said Vic Gundotra.

Other complications include the challenge of innovating at such massive scale of data. “We’ve always been better at managing data than innovating with data,” said Google’s Andrew McLaughlin, who is one of the large quantity of silicon-valley exports working in DC on tackling these new opportunities.

What’s clear is that these are challenges to be tackled, rather than ignored. Not only is the opportunity to build on the platform of open government data apparently here to stay, but in a symbiotic relationship, we’re also in a new age of “applying the principles of Web 2.0 to governing.” There’s clearly much more ahead. “Pay attention…” as Tim O’Reilly might say. 

PS: Check out my final installment on the Web 2.0 Expo, up next. Hint: Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 5: Sense of community.

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