Smart Government and Big, Open Data: The Trickle-Up Effect

Anthony Townsend at the Future Now Blog: “As we grow numb to the daily headlines decrying the unimaginable scope of data being collected from Internet companies by the National Security Agency’s Prism program, its worth remembering that governments themselves also produce mountains of data too. Tabulations of the most recent U.S. census, conducted in 2010, involved billions of data points and trillions of calculations. Not surprisingly, it is probably safe to assume that the federal government is also the world’s largest spender on database software—its tab with just one company, market-leader Oracle, passed $700 million in 2012 alone. Government data isn’t just big in scope. It is deep in history—governments have been accumulating data for centuries. In 2006, the genealogical research site imported 600 terabytes of data (about what Facebook collects in a single day!) from the first fifteen U.S. censuses (1790 to 1930).

But the vast majority of data collected by governments never sees the light of day. It sits squirreled away on servers, and is only rarely cross-referenced in ways that private sector companies do all the time to gain insights into what’s actually going on across the country, and emerging problems and opportunities. Yet as governments all around the world have realized, if shared safely with due precautions to protect individual privacy, in the hand of citizens all of this data could be a national civic monument of tremendous economic and social value.”

When Hacking Is Actually a Good Thing: The Civic Hacking Movement

, Founder and CEO, PublicStuff in Huffington Post: “Many people think of the word “hacking” in a pejorative sense, understanding it to mean malicious acts of breaking into secure systems and wreaking havoc with private information. Popular culture likes to propagate a particular image of the hacker: a fringe-type individual with highly specialized technical skills who does what he or she does out of malice and/or greed. And so to many of us the concept of “civic hacking” may seem like an oxymoron, for how can the word “civic,” defined by its associations with municipal government and citizen concerns, be linked to the activity of hacking? Here is where another definition of hacking comes in–one that is more commonly used by denizens of the information technology industries–basically, the process of fixing a problem. As Jake Levitas defined it on the Code for America blog, civic hacking is “people working together quickly and creatively to make their cities better for everyone.” Moreover, as Levitas points out, civic hacking does not necessarily involve computer expertise or specialized technical knowledge; rather, it is a collective effort made up of people who want to make things better for themselves and each other, whether it be an ordinary citizen or a programming prodigy. So how does it work?”

How citizens in Tanzania and DRC are getting better health care and education through open budgets

at ONE: “Earlier this year we asked what you thought were the continent’s most important development priorities, as part of our You Choose campaign.  Health care was very near the top of the list, so now we’re on the case.
We know that better health care will save lives. Preventable and treatable diseases such as AIDS, TB, and malaria continue to kill more than 2 million people in Africa every year.
Open Budgets Save Lives aims to do two things:

  • Encourage African leaders to prioritise health care spending
  • Open up national budgets so that African citizens can see where the money is going

Transparency in government spending is an incredible tool for all of us – allowing citizens and local NGOs to hold governments accountable for spending that lines up with citizens’ priorities.
Giving citizens current, accurate and understandable budget information increases the likelihood that resources will be managed well, and used efficiently. Countries with open budgets are also more likely to line up spending with stated priorities, and ensure policy commitments are funded. Open budgets also help reduce corruption, by making it easier to draw a line between what is supposed to be spent and the results that are achieved.”

Why the world’s governments are interested in creating hubs for open data

in Gigaom: “Amid the tech giants and eager startups that have camped out in East London’s trendy Shoreditch neighborhood, the Open Data Institute is the rare nonprofit on the block that talks about feel-good sorts of things like “triple-bottom line” and “social and environmental value.” …Governments everywhere are embracing the idea that open data is the right way to manage services for citizens. The U.K. has been a leader on this — just check out the simplicity of — which is one of the reasons why ODI is U.K. born….“Open data” is open access to the data that has exploded on the scene in recent years, some of it due to the rise of our connected, digital lifestyles from the internet, sensors, GPS, and cell phones, just to name a few resources. But ODI is particularly interested in working with data sets that can have big global and societal impacts, like health, financial, environmental and government data. For example, in conjunction with startup OpenCorporates, ODI recently helped launch a data visualization about Goldman Sachs’s insanely complex corporate structure.”

Taxes in the Sharing Economy “Get answers to your tax questions… Earning income using services like Etsy, eBay, Kickstarter, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit has never been easier. In fact, people are even quitting their ‘traditional’ jobs to work solely on these platforms. Unfortunately, understanding the tax implications from this income is difficult. 1099 is here to to try and help you to understand your taxes in the Sharing Economy.”

The Impact and Effectiveness of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives: Freedom of Information

New paper in Development Policy Review: “Analysis of the impact and effectiveness of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation has been hampered by lack of systematic evidence and conceptual confusion about what kind of right it represents. This article discusses some of the main conceptual parameters of FOI theory, before reviewing the available evidence from a range of studies. It presents case studies of civil-society activism on FOI in India and South Africa to illustrate the extent to which access to information is having an impact, in particular on socio-economic conditions. After reviewing the range of approaches used, it concludes that the academic community and the FOI community of practice need to come together to devise robust and rigorous methodologies.”

The Power of Us: The Art and Science of Enlightened Citizen Engagement and Collective Action

New e-book: “Anita Estell has done it! She has published an easy-to-read handbook that promises to transform our individual and collective understanding of the federal government, how it really works, and most important, our own relevance in its operation. The Power of US is a must-have guide. It provides instruction for those possessing the audacity to seize the opportunities unfolding during one of the most transformational periods in American history. Estell shares insights, experiences, wisdom, and expertise, gained in more than twenty years of working at the federal level, in a way that not only invites and supports constructive engagement but also sheds light on the way forward. Estell provides an extraordinary panorama of information and instruction, melding a multidisciplinary suite of principles that underscore and bring texture to what Estell calls citizen-centricity, or citizen-centric engagement. The Power of US provides a profoundly creative approach relevant to policymakers and advocates. Estell’s treatment is a breath of fresh air in civic discourse—which can be stifled by stale approaches and potentially toxic hyperpartisan dynamics. In The Power of US, Estell establishes herself as a revolutionary thinker exhibiting the vision, knowledge, and personal power to move the compass of individual hope in the direction of collective freedom.”

An Inquiry into the Dynamics of Government Secrecy

New paper by Steven Aftergood in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review (Vol. 48, No. 2, Summer 2013): “This Article reviews selected aspects of secrecy policy in the Obama Administration to better comprehend the dynamics of official secrecy, particularly in the national security realm. An understanding emerges: secrecy policy is founded on a set of principles so broadly conceived that they do not provide unequivocal guidance to government officials who are responsible for deciding whether or not to classify particular topics. In the absence of such guidance, individual classification decisions are apt to be shaped by extraneous factors, including bureaucratic self-interest and public controversy. The lack of clear guidance has unwholesome implications for the scope and operation of the classification system, leading it to stray from its legitimate national security foundations. But an insight into the various drivers of classification policy also suggests new remedial approaches to curtail inappropriate secrecy.”

The World is a Natural Laboratory, and Social Media is the New Petri Dish

Perspective by Jean-Loup Rault et al in Ethology: “Many high-priority and high-interest species are challenging to study due to the difficulty in accessing animals and/or obtaining sufficient sample sizes. The recent explosion in technology, particularly social media and live webcams available on the Internet, provides new opportunities for behavioral scientists to collect data not just on our own species, as well as new resources for teaching and outreach. We discuss here the possibility of exploiting online media as a new source of behavioral data, which we termed ‘video mining’. This article proposes epidemiological and ethological field techniques to gather and screen online media as a data source on diverse taxa. This novel method provides access to a rich source of untapped knowledge, particularly to study the behavior of understudied species or sporadic behaviors, but also for teaching or monitoring animals in challenging settings.”

A much-maligned engine of innovation

Review by Martin Wolf of The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths, by Mariana Mazzucato, Anthem Press: “…what determines innovation? Conventional economics offers abstract models; conventional wisdom insists the answer lies with private entrepreneurship. In this brilliant book, Mariana Mazzucato, a Sussex university professor of economics who specialises in science and technology, argues that the former is useless and the latter incomplete. Yes, innovation depends on bold entrepreneurship. But the entity that takes the boldest risks and achieves the biggest breakthroughs is not the private sector; it is the much-maligned state…
Why is the state’s role so important? The answer lies in the huge uncertainties, time spans and costs associated with fundamental, science-based innovation. Private companies cannot and will not bear these costs, partly because they cannot be sure to reap the fruits and partly because these fruits lie so far in the future.
Indeed, the more competitive and finance-driven the economy, the less the private sector will be willing to bear such risks. Buying back shares is apparently a far more attractive way of using surplus cash than spending on fundamental innovation. The days of AT&T’s path-breaking Bell Labs are long gone. In any case, the private sector could not have created the internet or GPS. Only the US military had the resources to do so.
Arguably, the most important engines of innovation in the past five decades have been the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the NIH. Today, if the world is to make fundamental breakthroughs in energy technologies, states will play a big role. Indeed, the US government even helped drive the development of the hydraulic fracturing of shale rock.”