Hey Uncle Sam, Eat Your Own Dogfood

It’s been five years since Tim O’Reilly published his screed on Government as Platform. In that time, we’ve seen “civic tech” and “open data” gain in popularity and acceptance. The Federal Government has an open data platform, data.gov. And so too do states and municipalities across America. Code for America is the hottest thing around, and the healthcare.gov fiasco landed fixing public technology as a top concern in government. We’ve successfully laid the groundwork for a new kind of government technology. We’re moving towards a day when, rather than building user facing technology, the government opens up interfaces to data that allows the private sector to create applications and websites that consume public data and surface it to users.

However, we appear to have stalled out a bit in our progress towards government as platform. It’s incredibly difficult to ingest the data for successful commercial products. The kaleidoscope of data formats in open data portals like data.gov might politely be called ‘obscure’, and perhaps more accurately, ‘perversely unusable’. Some of the data hasn’t been updated since first publication, and is quite positively too stale to use. If documentation exists, most of the time it’s incomprehensible….

What we actually need, is for Uncle Sam to start dogfooding his own open data.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, dogfooding is a slang term used by engineers who are using their own product. So, for example, Google employees use Gmail and Google Drive to organize their own work. This term also applies to engineering teams that consume their public APIs to access internal data. Dogfooding helps teams deeply understand their own work from the same perspective as external users. It also provides a keen incentive to make products work well.

Dogfooding is the golden rule of platforms. And currently, open government portals are flagrantly violating this golden rule. I’ve asked around, and I can’t find a single example of a government entity consuming the data they publish…”