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Open Government : Words That Belong Together (Apologies to George Carlin)

On July 26, 2012, the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the University of Albany / SUNY issued a press release announcing, in cooperation with SAP, an open government thought leadership program. I recently attended CTG’s workshop on this topic, along with 25 colleagues from government and academia, and we’re excited about the upcoming White Paper CTG will publish on this compelling topic.

George Carlin had a great bit about words that don’t belong together, like “jumbo shrimp”. With respect to George, the words “open government” do belong together, and the philosophy behind those words is impacting government policy, programs and technology investments around the world.

Evidence of this abounds, such as the Open Government Initiative from the White House, supported by that provides US Federal datasets to build applications, conduct analyses, perform research and make information publicly available. Or Open Government Partnership, launched in September, 2011, which has grown from 8 founding governments, to over 55 today, focused on multilateral initiatives from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. Or the World Bank Open Data Initiative, which provides all users with access to World Bank datasets, databases and reports. Or the Open Development Technology Alliance, a knowledge platform helping give voice to citizens and improve government accountability by offerings ways to give feedback on public services. Or the City of Vienna’s Open Government Initiative, the City of Quebec’s open data directory, New Zealand’s Open Government Work Programme, Open Data Kenya, Open Government Sao Paulo, OpenGov Sweden and so on.

Search “open government” on Google and you’ll get over 2.6 billion results. For comparison, type in “Lady Gaga” and you’ll only get 460 million….(not that I follow her, but my 6-year old daughter does).

There are two common themes in these initiatives – first, making public (ie, non-personal) data available and accessible via a central repository to anybody. Second, using that information to help inform and provide services to the recipient, whether a citizen, business, or other government agency.

The benefits are multiple – improved transparency of how governments are using taxpayer money, disclosure of information to help citizens make informed decisions, increased dialogue between governments and citizens, improved public welfare and government efficiency, and giving external developer ecosystems government data to create new mash-ups and applications.

This is a non-partisan, politically agnostic topic that everyone can get behind. After all, “open” allows total participation, regardless of race, gender, political affiliation, or favorite band choice. (Mine happens to be U2, but I digress…)

The challenges with open government are many. First, the data is there. Wouldn’t you agree government has Big Data? Governments already make a lot of it available, but, not always in machine readable format, or easily digested. Who among us has read their national census lately? Second, governments and their stakeholders alike aren’t using this data to their maximum mutual advantage – i.e., it’s just data, not information. 

A key benefit of government published data is it can support citizen needs – whether purely informative, or supportive of decision making – such as “what are the health inspection ratings for a restaurant I want to visit?”. This question is actually a real example from the City of New York, documented in CTG’s upcoming White Paper. NYC created a website to provide restaurant inspection reports directly to consumers via the web and mobile devices.

Another benefit of publishing government data is it can be reviewed by stakeholders (citizens, other governments, non-profits, businesses, etc.), who can detect issues or derive findings, communicate back to government, and those issues can then be resolved or findings acted upon.

The third benefit is a direct result of the perpetual dilemma of government – doing more with less. Governments have mission critical services to perform, and limited financial and personnel resources. By looking outside their own four walls and sharing data, governments can leverage external resources to help come up with innovative practices and solutions. Crowd-sourcing, anyone?

There are of course many challenges to open government – political, operational, and financial. However, technology is not one of them. Technologies exist today to support open government. Mobile apps. Cloud services. Analytic reporting tools and dashboards. In-memory computing of Big Data. Personalized delivery of information. (Ok, full disclosure – SAP has these technologies, and we’re not afraid to use them).

The good news is there is growing consensus among governments and citizens alike of the mutual benefits of open government, and these are beginning to overshadow the challenges. Governments are operationalizing open government, and we see successful examples – like the US National Library of Medicine’s Pillbox site, for identifying tablet and capsule information, or the US National Ocean Council’s Ocean portal, with information on offshore seabirds and critical habitats for endangered species.

For illustrative purposes of the “art of the possible” for governments to emulate – take a look at Greenbutton which gives electricity customers energy usage information from their utility providers. Another is, which shows personalized crime information for users, based on their location. UK allows a map search of all available government data for a specific location, in addition to access to over 8,600 datasets.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is taking this from theory and abstraction to practice and execution. And that is precisely what CTG and SAP are working on –new conceptual and analytical tools for helping government decision makers better understand the ways opening government can improve informational relationships among government, citizens, and non-government stakeholders. It’s all about helping government understand how to free up data, and develop the technical and data resources and access methods that can improve their performance, and drive public value.

SAP is fully committed to this project with CTG, and will continue to evangelize the open government framework in the coming years. We’re not alone here – lots of really bright colleagues are talking this up. Listen to some experts discuss this further on SAP Radio’s Coffee Break with Game Changers and feel free to Tweet your comments @SAPOpenGov.

My next blog: a deeper discussion on the pro’s and con’s of open government. Or, “it’s all good” vs. “will the government put a metal plate in my head and read my thoughts?” debate.

Russ LeFevre is Vice President, Industry Marketing, Public Sector, @ SAP. He is a frequent speaker on technology and policy topics for governments worldwide.

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      Author's profile photo Peg Kates
      Peg Kates

      A great blog that sheds a tremendous amount of light on the benefits to open government -- and the importance of taking a planned, thoughtful approach in order to achieve maximum value for citizens.