The expression Web 2.0 connotes the internet as a platform for collaboration of all kinds. It also connotes openness. Open standards permit interoperability allowing people to build on each others’ work. This makes the net the world’s first truly serendipitous network. It regularly bombards us with wonderful surprises - like blogs, Wikipedia, Flikr and Facebook. The potential of Web 2.0 to transform the “open government” agenda - now itself identified by the term “Government 2.0” - has been evident for some time. Obama made open government a centrepiece of his administration.
Australian government agencies have produced some wonderful Government 2.0 initiatives. But in the draft report we’ve just released, the Government 2.0 Taskforce found that Australia had yet to give the Government 2.0 co-ordinated, whole of government attention as the US, UK and New Zealand governments have done. And public agencies continue to act like owners rather than custodians of public data and information. Thus, although the Australian Government went to great lengths to get the word out about it in the last Budget, inside it asserts that “no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission”.
On Web 2.0 or collaborative web, search engines ensure people collaborate - even if they don’t know it - by harvesting the knowledge embedded in internet links and the preferences embodied in users’ choices about what they link to from search results, to build ever more relevant search results. And a collaborative web is a serendipitous web, connecting people in improbable ways, enabling highly specific, local and ephemeral knowledge to be discovered and tapped.
US Federal Reserve research recently quoted “Tanta” on the sub-prime mortgage market. Who was Tanta? She was a literature lecturer who’d recently worked in the mortgage market, meticulously - and hilariously - anatomising the practices of her industry on the blog Calculated Risk. And the Fed knew of her because she’d quickly become a must read for economist bloggers - Nobel Prize winning and otherwise - trying to nut out what was happening.
Web 2.0 platforms like Google Calendar, Microsoft Earth and Swivel also provide incredible new tools for “mashups” in which data from multiple sources is combined on some “platform” for doing so - like a map. Mashups add value to data. They can make practical tasks more convenient - for instance when I mash my own online calendar up with my wife’s. Sometimes mashups seem frivolous - as the collaborative map of magpie swoop hotspots was to me - until a cyclist friend pointed out its contribution to bicycle road safety. And important policy insights are emerging from mashups mapping the co-location of social pathologies like crime and poverty.
Government 2.0 embraces all these possibilities within government. In digitising its collection of historic newspapers back to 1802 our National Library “crowdsources” the correction of errors that computer digitisation has made. Since its launch in 2007 the site has corrected million of lines of text and has worked round the clock - literally it has never been idle. Nearly a quarter of volunteers log on from offshore. Between them they’ve corrected more than seven million lines of text. Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum released historic photos on Flikr (a world first) eliciting a wealth of contextual information and complementary photos from those familiar with the relevant subject of the photos. The National Archives does likewise on its site commemorating World War I diggers.
Out Taskforce ran competitions bringing volunteers together to build mashups of data that we’d persuaded government agencies to open up. Why did the volunteers come? To build a better world; to give themselves a chance of winning (modest) prizes; to meet others and to have fun. (The members of the winning team at our GovHack weekend got on so well that each discovered, just before the presentations, that the other members of their team weren’t already good friends beforehand!). Mashup Australia teams built:
- My Representatives which lists all your local, state and federal government representatives when your enter your address;
- It’s buggered mate which enables citizens to notify maintenance problems with government infrastructure and track governments’ progress in fixing it (The UK has had functioning equivalents of both the above sites for several years); and
- LobbyLens which mashes up data from the lobbyist register with data on winning government tenders.
Oh - and 79 other mashups! (What data does your workplace hold? Is it useful to others? Release it and find out!)
Our draft report is a roadmap for getting to Government 2.0 - and in doing so making our government more open, participatory, informed and citizen centric. Government 2.0 will help improve the quality of all those things where governments are major players as service deliverers, information providers or regulators. It can improve our schools, our hospitals, our workplaces and indeed our lives.
For that reason it holds the key to several existing government agendas, from building an innovative public service that is the world’s best to making the most of our huge national investment in broadband.
Government 2.0 is about more than Web 2.0 technology or even policy. It’s about governments letting the community into its workings, letting them see and contribute to their own governance. And so it requires culture change. That won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight.
But it’s the kind of thing we do well once we get organised. We need only the courage, the perseverance and the imagination to grasp the opportunity.
Please visit us on gov2.net.au and tell us how we can improve our draft report.
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