13 ways to unlock the potential of open government

The Guardian: “Nine experts offer their thoughts on making open data initiatives work for all citizens…
Tiago Peixoto, open government specialist, The World Bank, Washington DC, US. @participatory
Open data is an enabler – not a guarantee – of good participation: Participation implies creating legitimate channels of communication between citizens and governments, and opening up data does not create that channel. We need to consider which structures enable us to know about citizens’ needs and preferences.
Both governments and civil society are responsible for connecting governments to the people: If we assume institutional or regulatory reforms are needed, then clearly governments (at both the legislative and executive level) should take a big part of the responsibility. After that, it is civil society’s role (and individual citizens) to further promote and strengthen those institutions….
Ben Taylor, open data consultant, Twaweza, UK and Tanzania. @mtega
We need to put people before data: The OGP Summit raised some interesting questions on open data and open government in developing countries. In a particular session discussing how to harness data to drive citizens engagement, the consensus was that this was the wrong way around. It should instead be reversed, putting the real, everyday needs of citizens first, and then asking how can we use data to help meet these.
Open government is not all about technology: Often people assume that open government means technology, but I think that’s wrong. For me, open government is a simple idea: it’s about making the nuts and bolts of how government works visible to citizens. Even open data isn’t always just about technology, for example postings on noticeboards and in newspapers are also valuable. Technology has a lot to offer, but it has limitations as well…
Juan M Casanueva, director, SocialTIC, Mexico City, Mexico. @jm_casanueva
Closed working cultures stifle open government initiatives: It is interesting to think about why governments struggle to open up. While closed systems tend to foster corruption and other perverse practices, most government officials also follow a pre-established closed culture that has become ingrained in their working practices. There are sometimes few incentives and high risks for government officials that want to make career in the public service and some also lack capacities to handle technology and citizen involvement. It is very interesting to see government officials that overcome these challenges actually benefiting politically for doing innovative citizen-centered actions. Unfortunately, that is too much of a risk at higher levels of government.
NGOs in Mexico are leading the way with access to information and citizen involvement: Sonora Ciudana recently opened the state’s health payroll and approached the public staff so that they could compare what they earn with the state expense reports. Pacto por Juarez has created grassroots transparency and accountability schools and even have a bus tour that goes around the city explaining the city’s budget and how it is being spent….”

Crowdsourcing: Patient-Focused Drug Development Initiative

Press release: “Genetic Alliance and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) announced an initiative to explore the use of a technology-enabled, crowd-sourcing approach to patient engagement as a complement to ongoing patient-focused drug development efforts under the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA V).
As part of the reauthorization of PDUFA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) committed to gain the patient perspective on 20 disease areas in public meetings to be held between 2012 and 2017.
After issuing a Request for Proposals, Genetic Alliance chose advocacy organizations representing three disease areas that will be the focus of FDA patient-focused drug development public meetings in 2014 and 2015. The patient communities in these three disease areas will pilot a crowd-sourcing, technology-enabled approach to gathering input from a diverse set of patients on key benefit-risk questions.
“Using the Platform for Engaging Everyone Responsibly (PEER), there is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of a secure, crowd-sourced approach to provide additional insight into patients’ experience with a disease or condition,” stated Sharon Terry, President and CEO of Genetic Alliance. “The organizations we selected are expert at broad and diverse engagement from the very people that have a vested interest in patient-focused drug development. We are excited to engage these communities.”
For more information about this initiative, visit http://www.geneticalliance.org/pfdd.

From Crowdsourcing to Crowdseeding: The Cutting Edge of Empowerment?

New chapter by Peter van der Windt in the book Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood: “In 2009 Columbia University launched a pilot project in the Kivus region of the Democratic Republic of Congo called Voix des Kivus. The point of the project was to examine the potential for using SMS technology to gather conflict event data in real-time. Given previous experiences in Eastern Congo, the research team expected that collecting high-quality event data in Eastern Congo in the traditional way (sending out enumerator teams) would be challenging, while using traditional approaches to collect event information in real-time would be impossible. As a result the team launched an SMS-based pilot project called Voix des Kivus. Parts of the Kivus have cellphone coverage, and cellphones are relatively inexpensive. Moreover, while enumerator teams have problems crossing bad roads or washed-away bridges, phone-signals do not. Finally, an SMS-message sent is received
The Voix des Kivus project used a “crowdseeding” approach which combines the innovations of crowdsourcing with standard principles of survey research and
statistical analysis. It used a sampling frame, selected sites through systematic random sampling, and identified specific reporters in each site. Researchers then
“seeded” mobile phones to select “phoneholders” and trained them on how to use the system and what to report. Only these pre-selected reporters could contribute
into the system, rather than anyone with a mobile phone or connection of some sort, as it the case with standard crowdsourcing platforms.
This chapter draws on this experience to discuss how such ICT projects might empower populations by enabling the collection and distribution of information as an alternative mechanism of governance…”

Why We Are Allowed to Hate Silicon Valley

Evgeny Morozov in Frankfurter Allgemeine: “In short, it’s okay to hate Silicon Valley – we just need to do it for the right reasons.  Below are three of them – but this is hardly an exhaustive list….
Reason number one:  Silicon Valley firms are building what I call “invisible barbed wire” around our lives. We are promised more freedom, more openness, more mobility; we are told we can roam wherever and whenever we want. But the kind of emancipation that we actually get is fake emancipation; it’s the emancipation of a just-released criminal wearing an ankle bracelet.
Yes, a self-driving car could make our commute less dreadful. But a self-driving car operated by Google would not just be a self-driving car: it would be a shrine to surveillance – on wheels! It would track everywhere we go. It might even prevent us from going to certain places if we our mood – measured through facial expression analysis – suggests that we are too angry or tired or emotional.  Yes, there are exceptions – at times, GPS does feel liberating – but the trend is clear: every new Google sensor in that car would introduce a new lever of control. That lever doesn’t even have to be exercised to produce changes in our behavior – our knowledge of its presence will suffice….
Reason number two: Silicon Valley has destroyed our ability to imagine other models for running and organizing our communication infrastructure. Forget about models that aren’t based on advertising and that do not contribute to the centralization of data on private servers located in America. To suggest that we need to look into other – perhaps, even publicly-provided alternatives –is to risk being accused of wanting to “break the Internet.” We have succumbed to what the Brazilian social theorist Roberto Unger calls “the dictatorship of no alternatives”: we are asked to accept that Gmail is the best and only possible way to do email, and that Facebook is the best and only possible way to do social networking.
But consider just how weird our current arrangement is. Imagine I told you that the post office could run on a different, innovation-friendly business model. Forget stamps. They cost money – and why pay money when there’s a way to send letters for free? Just think about the world-changing potential: the poor kids in Africa can finally reach you with their pleas for more laptops! So, instead of stamps, we would switch to an advertising-backed system: we’d open every letter that you send, scan its contents, insert a relevant ad, seal it, and then forward it to the recipient.
Sounds crazy? It does….
Reason number three:  the simplistic epistemology of Silicon Valley has become a model that other institutions are beginning to emulate. The trouble with Silicon Valley is not just that it enables the NSA –it also encourages, even emboldens them. It inspires the NSA to keep searching for connections in a world of meaningless links, to record every click, to ensure that no interaction goes unnoticed, undocumented and unanalyzed.  Like Silicon Valley, NSA assumes that everything is interconnected: if we can’t yet link two pieces of data, it’s because we haven’t looked deep enough – or we need a third piece of data, to be collected in the future, to make sense of it all.
There’s something delusional about this practice – and I don’t use “delusional” metaphorically. For the Italian philosopher Remo Bodei, delusion does not stem from too little psychic activity, as some psychoanalytic theories would have it, but, rather, from too much of it. Delirium, he notes, is “the incapacity to filter an enormous quantity of data.” While a sane, rational person “has learned that ignorance is vaster than knowledge and that one must resist the temptation to find more coherence than can currently be achieved,” the man suffering from delusion cannot stop finding coherence among inherently incoherent phenomena. He generalizes too much, which results in what Bodei calls “hyper-inclusion.”
“Hyper-inclusion” is exactly what plagues America’s military-industrial complex today….”

The trouble with democracy

author of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present in The Guardian: “Government shutdowns, petty policy squabbles, voter disaffection – democracy doesn’t seem to work very well. But what’s the alternative? And can we rely on muddling through?…Those of us who live in the western democracies might sometimes be tempted to agree. Dictator envy is a habitual feature of democratic politics. We don’t actually want to live under a dictatorship – we still have a horror of what that would entail – but we do envy dictators their ability to act decisively in a crisis….
The irony of dictator envy is that it goes against the historical evidence. Over the last 100 years, democracies have shown that they are better than dictatorships at dealing with the most serious crises that any political system has to face. Democracies win wars. They survive economic disasters. They adapt to meet environmental challenges. Precisely because they are able to act decisively without having to square public opinion first, dictators are the ones who end up making the catastrophic mistakes. When dictators get things wrong, they can take the whole state over the cliff with them. When democratic leaders get things wrong, we kick them out before they can do terminal damage.
Yet that is little consolation in the middle of a crisis. The reason we keep succumbing to dictator envy is that it requires steady nerves to take the long view when things are going wrong. The qualities that give democracies the advantage in the long run – their restlessness and impatience with failure – are the same qualities that make it hard for them to take the long view. They look with envy on political systems that can seize the moment. Democracies are very bad at seizing the moment. Their survival technique is muddling through. The curse of democracy is that we are condemned to want the thing we can’t have.
The person who first noticed this deeply conflicted character of democratic life was a French aristocrat. When he travelled to the US to study its prisons in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville shared the common 19th-century prejudice against democracy. He thought it was a chaotic and stupid system of government. By the time he finished his journey a year later, he had changed his mind. He decided that American democracy was a lot better than it looks. On the surface, everything appeared a mess: bickering politicians, vituperative and ill-informed newspapers (“The job of the journalist in America”, Tocqueville wrote, “is to attack coarsely, without preparation and without art, to set aside principles in order to grab men”), distracted citizens. No one was able to exert a grip. There was far too much noise, not enough signal. But over time this surfeit of noise produced an adaptable politics that never sat still for long enough to get stuck. The raucousness of American politics was a sign of its essential health. Americans kept stumbling into holes and then back out of them. More mistakes are made in a democracy, Tocqueville wrote, but more mistakes are corrected as well. More fires get started by Americans. More fires get put out by them too….
It has always been like this. The history of democracy throughout the 20th century is a story of repeated crises during which politicians and publics have been torn between the twin impulses to overreact and to underreact to the dangers, without ever finding the balance between them. Dictator envy is never far from the surface….The pattern of democratic life is to drift into impending disaster and then to stumble out of it. Undemocratic practices creep up on us unawares, until the routine practices of democracy – a free press, a few unbiddable politicians – expose them. When that happens, democracies do not get a grip; they simply make the minimum of necessary adjustments until they drift into the next disaster. What is hard for any democracy is to exert the constant, vigilant pressure needed to rein in the forces that produce the crises. It is so much easier to wait for the crisis to reveal itself before trying to do something about it. The new information technology, far from solving this problem, has made it worse. We are more distracted than ever. The surfeit of information flowing around the world makes it practically impossible for anyone to keep secrets for long. But it also makes it practically impossible to secure broad democratic agreement for wide-ranging reform of public life. There is far too much noise, not enough signal. So we keep our fingers crossed in the hope we will muddle through.”

Typhoon Yolanda: UN Needs Your Help Tagging Crisis Tweets for Disaster Response

Patrick Meyer: “The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) just activated the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) in response to Typhoon Yolanda, which has already been described as possibly one of the strongest Category 5 storms in history. The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) was thus activated by the DHN to carry out a rapid needs & damage assessment by tagging reports posted to social media. So Ji Lucas and I at QCRI (+ Hemant & Andrew) have launched MicroMappers in partnership with the SBTF to micro-task the tagging of tweets. We need all the help we can get given the volume we’ve collected (and are continuing to collect). This is where you come in!
You don’t need any prior experience or training, nor do you need to create an account or even login to use the MicroMappers TweetClicker. If you can read and use a computer mouse, then you’re all set to be a Digital Humanitarian! Just click here to get started. Every tweet will get tagged by 3 different volunteers (to ensure quality control) and those tweets that get identical tags will be shared with our UN colleagues in the Philippines. All this and more is explained in the link above, which will give you a quick intro so you can get started right away. Our UN colleagues need these tags to better understand who needs help and what areas have been affected.”

Behavioural Public Policy

New book by Adam Oliver (Cambridge University Press): “How can individuals best be encouraged to take more responsibility for their well-being and their environment or to behave more ethically in their business transactions? Across the world, governments are showing a growing interest in using behavioural economic research to inform the design of nudges which, some suggest, might encourage citizens to adopt beneficial patterns of behaviour. In this fascinating collection, leading academic economists, psychologists and philosophers reflect on how behavioural economic findings can be used to help inform the design of policy initiatives in the areas of health, education, the environment, personal finances and worker remuneration. Each chapter is accompanied by a shorter ‘response’ that provides critical commentary and an alternative perspective. This accessible book will interest academic researchers, graduate students and policy-makers across a range of disciplinary perspectives.”

How to Promote Civic Engagement in Public Issues

Utne:  “With collaborative consumption, access is valued above ownership and “mine” becomes “ours,” allowing everyone’s needs to be met with minimal waste. Sharing is Good (New Society Publishers, 2013) by Beth Buczynski is your roadmap to this new and exciting economic paradigm. In this excerpt from chapter six, “What to Share,” learn how to create civic engagement in your community and find solutions to public issues.
“Participatory government is the idea that all members of a population should be able to make meaningful contributions to decision-making. For too long, we’ve been content to vote, or not, hoping that elected officials will actually keep their promise to act in the best interest of the people. The power of the Internet now makes it much easier for all levels of government to become transparent, sharing data and engaging the public in a dialogue that leads to more creative and efficient solutions. Here are a few resources that promote civic engagement in one’s own governance.
Neighborland—People who live and work in a neighborhood know what services, infrastructure, and businesses their community needs, whether it’s a local grocery store, cafe with WiFi, bike lanes, or a recreational center. Neighborland offers residents a friendly and engaging tool to voice their needs and connect with like-minded people to make change happen.
ParticipatoryBudgeting—The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) is a non-profit organization that helps communities decide how to spend public money, primarily in the United States and Canada. This organization works directly with governments and non-profits to develop participatory budgeting processes in which local people directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It’s their goal to include those who are normally left out of these types of discussions and decisions, namely the public! PBP offers many different opportunities for participation, from joining or starting a participatory budget movement in your own town, to volunteering, jobs, and internships. This isn’t a typical collaborative consumption service, but rather an invaluable resource for people who would like to see more transparency and community involvement when local government spends public monies.
OpenGovernment—A free, open-source public resource website for government transparency and civic engagement at the state and local levels. The site is a non-partisan joint project of two 501(c)3 non-profit organizations: the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation; OpenGovernment is independent from any government entity, candidate, or political party. The ultimate mission of OpenGovernment is to ensure that all three branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) at every level of US government (federal, state, city, local) comply with the principles of open government data.
YourView—YourView aspires to give Australians a stronger democratic voice. It has the unique ambition to present what people really think about major public issues—and giving that collective wisdom a role in the national political discourse.”

Mexico City Open Database Improves Transit Efficiency, Helps Commuters

The World Bank: “Mexico City residents make 32 million vehicle trips a day, of which over 20 million are via public transport. These use 12 subway lines, four rapid transit lines, eight trolleybus and light rail lines, a suburban rail line, a hundred formal bus routes and over 1,400 “colectivo” minibus routes, along 260 public bike stations. Since the 1970s, five separate agencies have supervised this network, grouped under SETRAVI, Mexico City’s public transit authority. And although each agency has made attempts to collect and store data on passenger counts, route licenses, travel times, and stop locations, these data have never been assembled in one place….

In November 2012, the Bank’s Latin America and Caribbean Transport Unit—with support from the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP)—began providing SETRAVI with technical assistance to develop a new digital platform to collect and manage urban transport data.  This new system is built to the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), the de facto standard for cities in recording transit data.
GTFS, created in 2005 by Google and the US city of Portland, Oregon., is an open standard that can be shared and used by anyone. It enables the collection, storage, publication and updating of information on transit routes, times, stops and other important public transport data.
Representatives from each transit agency were enrolled by SETRAVI to crisscross the capital, using TransitWand, an open-source app on their mobile phones, to collect real-time data such as routes, speed, location of bus stops and frequency of train departures.  The data collected were then fed into a data management portal and converted into GTFS.
Despite its simplicity and ease of use, there was one major hurdle to adapting GTFS for Mexico City. The standard was too rigid to incorporate data related to non-scheduled services such as the thousands of colectivo minibuses traversing the city.  As such, another objective of the World Bank scheme was to pilot a “GTFS-Lite” specification that could measure forms of transport that operated with flexible routes and stopping points.
With “GTFS-lite”, Mexico City’s urban planners have access to comparable data on minibuses. This helps them visualize route configurations to determine where best to add or eliminate services, how to plan for integration with more structured transit services, regulate and improve service, and plan for the longer-term future.
Mexico City’s GTFS data have been made public, so that third party software developers can use them to innovate and create applications—such as trip planners and timetable publishers—that can be used on smartphones and other devices.
The GTFS feed for Mexico City will also help the city’s transit agencies develop practical open tools. For example, a real-time tracking tool that informs users of disruptions in the system and provides route change options has already been developed with World Bank assistance…”

Scientific Expertise and Open Government in the Digital Era

New paper by Alessandro Spina: “This paper presents some reflections on how the collaborative and crowdsourcing practices of Open Government could be integrated in the activities of EFSA and other EU agencies. First, it highlights the informational capabilities of EU Agencies, and it examines the institutional models adopted to obtain technical and scientific expertise in their decision-making processes. The paper moves on to describe the main features of Open Government, in particular the transparent and collective peer-production mechanism used in new digital products such as the open-source software or Wikipedia. Finally, the paper presents a series of arguments highlighting the benefits of the Open Government paradigm for expert regulatory bodies in the EU. It argues that Open Government could provide a concrete application to the principle set in Article 298 TFEU of “open, efficient and independent” EU public administrations.”