Traversing Digital Babel

New book by Alon Peled: “The computer systems of government agencies are notoriously complex. New technologies are piled on older technologies, creating layers that call to mind an archaeological dig. Obsolete programming languages and closed mainframe designs offer barriers to integration with other agency systems. Worldwide, these unwieldy systems waste billions of dollars, keep citizens from receiving services, and even—as seen in interoperability failures on 9/11 and during Hurricane Katrina—cost lives. In this book, Alon Peled offers a groundbreaking approach for enabling information sharing among public sector agencies: using selective incentives to “nudge” agencies to exchange information assets. Peled proposes the establishment of a Public Sector Information Exchange (PSIE), through which agencies would trade information.
After describing public sector information sharing failures and the advantages of incentivized sharing, Peled examines the U.S. Open Data program, and the gap between its rhetoric and results. He offers examples of creative public sector information sharing in the United States, Australia, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Iceland. Peled argues that information is a contested commodity, and draws lessons from the trade histories of other contested commodities—including cadavers for anatomical dissection in nineteenth-century Britain. He explains how agencies can exchange information as a contested commodity through a PSIE program tailored to an individual country’s needs, and he describes the legal, economic, and technical foundations of such a program. Touching on issues from data ownership to freedom of information, Peled offers pragmatic advice to politicians, bureaucrats, technologists, and citizens for revitalizing critical information flows.”

Let the games begin: how government is using ‘gamification’ to change public behaviour

Joshua Chambers at FutureGov: “Governments across the region are turning to “gamification” – otherwise known as “game science” – to help create new ways to persuade their populations.
FutureGov recently attended a session at GovCamp Australia where officials discussed the potential of this new approach. It has pulled together the best examples of successful government games, and sought advice from the private sector on building something that will achieve results.
How it works
How does gamification work? It creates an environment where people play games to win prizes or compete against one another, all while learning about about a new message or behaving in a certain, desirable manner. The approach can be used by every type of agency, and has been trialled on public sector campaigns including military recruitment, physical fitness, speeding prevention, consumer rights awareness and even making citizens engage with census data.
For example, it was used by the Department of Justice of Victoria, Australia when they wanted to make young people aware of consumer protection laws. Discussion of legal concepts did not seem particularly appealing, so they took a different tack by launching a game called Party for Your Rights. “It’s targeted at young people, teaching them their rights through the activity of going to a party. It’s very appealing, with retro 1980s graphics and music,” explained Paul Chandley, general manager of digital strategy and engagement in the Victorian Department of Justice.
Since its launch in June 2014, it has been played 23,000 times. A survey found that 96% of players surveyed said they felt either more informed of their rights or more confident about using their rights after interacting with the game.
The game proved popular in Australia and there are plenty of other examples of successful games built by government agencies – FutureGov has profiled the six best examples of gamification in government.…”
See also:

Selected Readings on Economic Impact of Open Data

The Living Library’s Selected Readings series seeks to build a knowledge base on innovative approaches for improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of governance. This curated and annotated collection of recommended works on the topic of open data was originally published in 2014.

Open data is publicly available data – often released by governments, scientists, and occasionally private companies – that is made available for anyone to use, in a machine-readable format, free of charge. Considerable attention has been devoted to the economic potential of open data for businesses and other organizations, and it is now widely accepted that open data plays an important role in spurring innovation, growth, and job creation. From new business models to innovation in local governance, open data is being quickly adopted as a valuable resource at many levels.

Measuring and analyzing the economic impact of open data in a systematic way is challenging, and governments as well as other providers of open data seek to provide access to the data in a standardized way. As governmental transparency increases and open data changes business models and activities in many economic sectors, it is important to understand best practices for releasing and using non-proprietary, public information. Costs, social challenges, and technical barriers also influence the economic impact of open data.

These selected readings are intended as a first step in the direction of answering the question of if we can and how we consider if opening data spurs economic impact.

Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Annotated Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Bonina, Carla. New Business Models and the Values of Open Data: Definitions, Challenges, and Opportunities. NEMODE 3K – Small Grants Call 2013.

  • In this paper, Dr. Carla Bonina provides an introduction to open data and open data business models, evaluating their potential economic value and identifying future challenges for the effectiveness of open data, such as personal data and privacy, the emerging data divide, and the costs of collecting, producing and releasing open (government) data.

Carpenter, John and Phil Watts. Assessing the Value of OS OpenData™ to the Economy of Great Britain – Synopsis. June 2013. Accessed July 25, 2014.

  • John Carpenter and Phil Watts of Ordnance Survey undertook a study to examine the economic impact of open data to the economy of Great Britain. Using a variety of methods such as case studies, interviews, downlad analysis, adoption rates, impact calculation, and CGE modeling, the authors estimates that the OS OpenData initiative will deliver a net of increase in GDP of £13 – 28.5 million for Great Britain in 2013.

Capgemini Consulting. The Open Data Economy: Unlocking Economic Value by Opening Government and Public Data. Capgemini Consulting. Accessed July 24, 2014.

  • This report explores how governments are leveraging open data for economic benefits. Through using a compariative approach, the authors study important open data from organizational, technological, social and political perspectives. The study highlights the potential of open data to drive profit through increasing the effectiveness of benchmarking and other data-driven business strategies.

Deloitte. Open Growth: Stimulating Demand for Open Data in the UK. Deloitte Analytics. December 2012. Accessed July 24, 2014.

  • This early paper on open data by Deloitte uses case studies and statistical analysis on open government data to create models of businesses using open data. They also review the market supply and demand of open government data in emerging sectors of the economy.

Gruen, Nicholas, John Houghton and Richard Tooth. Open for Business: How Open Data Can Help Achieve the G20 Growth Target.  Accessed July 24, 2014,

  • This report highlights the potential economic value of the open data agenda in Australia and the G20. The report provides an initial literature review on the economic value of open data, as well as a asset of case studies on the economic value of open data, and a set of recommendations for how open data can help the G20 and Australia achieve target objectives in the areas of trade, finance, fiscal and monetary policy, anti-corruption, employment, energy, and infrastructure.

Heusser, Felipe I. Understanding Open Government Data and Addressing Its Impact (draft version). World Wide Web Foundation.

  • The World Wide Web Foundation, in collaboration with IDRC has begun a research network to explore the impacts of open data in developing countries. In addition to the Web Foundation and IDRC, the network includes the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, the Open Development Technology Alliance and Practical Participation.

Howard, Alex. San Francisco Looks to Tap Into the Open Data Economy. O’Reilly Radar: Insight, Analysis, and Reach about Emerging Technologies.  October 19, 2012.  Accessed July 24, 2014.

  • Alex Howard points to San Francisco as one of the first municipalities in the United States to embrace an open data platform.  He outlines how open data has driven innovation in local governance.  Moreover, he discusses the potential impact of open data on job creation and government technology infrastructure in the City and County of San Francisco.

Huijboom, Noor and Tijs Van den Broek. Open Data: An International Comparison of Strategies. European Journal of ePractice. March 2011. Accessed July 24, 2014.

  • This article examines five countries and their open data strategies, identifying key features, main barriers, and drivers of progress for of open data programs. The authors outline the key challenges facing European, and other national open data policies, highlighting the emerging role open data initiatives are playing in political and administrative agendas around the world.

Manyika, J., Michael Chui, Diana Farrell, Steve Van Kuiken, Peter Groves, and Elizabeth Almasi Doshi. Open Data: Unlocking Innovation and Performance with Liquid Innovation. McKinsey Global Institute. October 2013. Accessed July 24, 2014.

  • This research focuses on quantifying the potential value of open data in seven “domains” in the global economy: education, transportation, consumer products, electricity, oil and gas, health care, and consumer finance.

Moore, Alida. Congressional Transparency Caucus: How Open Data Creates Jobs. April 2, 2014. Accessed July 30, 2014. Socrata.

  • Socrata provides a summary of the March 24th briefing of the Congressional Transparency Caucus on the need to increase government transparency through adopting open data initiatives. They include key takeaways from the panel discussion, as well as their role in making open data available for businesses.

Stott, Andrew. Open Data for Economic Growth. The World Bank. June 25, 2014. Accessed July 24, 2014.

  • In this report, The World Bank examines the evidence for the economic potential of open data, holding that the economic potential is quite large, despite a variation in the published estimates, and difficulties assessing its potential methodologically. They provide five archetypes of businesses using open data, and provides recommendations for governments trying to maximize economic growth from open data.

Chief Executive of Nesta on the Future of Government Innovation

Interview between Rahim Kanani and Geoff Mulgan, CEO of NESTA and member of the MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance: “Our aspiration is to become a global center of expertise on all kinds of innovation, from how to back creative business start-ups and how to shape innovations tools such as challenge prizes, to helping governments act as catalysts for new solutions,” explained Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. In an interview with Mulgan, we discussed their new report, published in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, which highlights 20 of the world’s top innovation teams in government. Mulgan and I also discussed the founding and evolution of Nesta over the past few years, and leadership lessons from his time inside and outside government.
Rahim Kanani: When we talk about ‘innovations in government’, isn’t that an oxymoron?
Geoff Mulgan: Governments have always innovated. The Internet and World Wide Web both originated in public organizations, and governments are constantly developing new ideas, from public health systems to carbon trading schemes, online tax filing to high speed rail networks.  But they’re much less systematic at innovation than the best in business and science.  There are very few job roles, especially at senior levels, few budgets, and few teams or units.  So although there are plenty of creative individuals in the public sector, they succeed despite, not because of the systems around them. Risk-taking is punished not rewarded.   Over the last century, by contrast, the best businesses have learned how to run R&D departments, product development teams, open innovation processes and reasonably sophisticated ways of tracking investments and returns.
Kanani: This new report, published in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, highlights 20 of the world’s most effective innovation teams in government working to address a range of issues, from reducing murder rates to promoting economic growth. Before I get to the results, how did this project come about, and why is it so important?
Mulgan: If you fail to generate new ideas, test them and scale the ones that work, it’s inevitable that productivity will stagnate and governments will fail to keep up with public expectations, particularly when waves of new technology—from smart phones and the cloud to big data—are opening up dramatic new possibilities.  Mayor Bloomberg has been a leading advocate for innovation in the public sector, and in New York he showed the virtues of energetic experiment, combined with rigorous measurement of results.  In the UK, organizations like Nesta have approached innovation in a very similar way, so it seemed timely to collaborate on a study of the state of the field, particularly since we were regularly being approached by governments wanting to set up new teams and asking for guidance.
Kanani: Where are some of the most effective innovation teams working on these issues, and how did you find them?
Mulgan: In our own work at Nesta, we’ve regularly sought out the best innovation teams that we could learn from and this study made it possible to do that more systematically, focusing in particular on the teams within national and city governments.  They vary greatly, but all the best ones are achieving impact with relatively slim resources.  Some are based in central governments, like Mindlab in Denmark, which has pioneered the use of design methods to reshape government services, from small business licensing to welfare.  SITRA in Finland has been going for decades as a public technology agency, and more recently has switched its attention to innovation in public services. For example, providing mobile tools to help patients manage their own healthcare.   In the city of Seoul, the Mayor set up an innovation team to accelerate the adoption of ‘sharing’ tools, so that people could share things like cars, freeing money for other things.  In south Australia the government set up an innovation agency that has been pioneering radical ways of helping troubled families, mobilizing families to help other families.
Kanani: What surprised you the most about the outcomes of this research?
Mulgan: Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the speed with which this idea is spreading.  Since we started the research, we’ve come across new teams being created in dozens of countries, from Canada and New Zealand to Cambodia and Chile.  China has set up a mobile technology lab for city governments.  Mexico City and many others have set up labs focused on creative uses of open data.  A batch of cities across the US supported by Bloomberg Philanthropy—from Memphis and New Orleans to Boston and Philadelphia—are now showing impressive results and persuading others to copy them.

GitHub: A Swiss Army knife for open government

FCW: “Today, more than 300 government agencies are using the platform for public and private development. Cities (Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco), states (New York, Washington, Utah) and countries (United Kingdom, Australia) are sharing code and paving a new road to civic collaboration….

In addition to a rapidly growing code collection, the General Services Administration’s new IT development shop has created a “/Developer program” to “provide comprehensive support for any federal agency engaged in the production or use of APIs.”
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has built a full-blown website on GitHub to showcase the software and design work its employees are doing.
Most of the White House’s repos relate to Drupal-driven websites, but the Obama administration has also shared its iOS and Android apps, which together have been forked nearly 400 times.

Civic-focused organizations — such as the OpenGov Foundation, the Sunlight Foundation and the Open Knowledge Foundation — are also actively involved with original projects on GitHub. Those projects include the OpenGov Foundation’s Madison document-editing tool touted by the likes of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and the Open Knowledge Foundation’s CKAN, which powers hundreds of government data platforms around the world.
According to GovCode, an aggregator of public government open-source projects hosted on GitHub, there have been hundreds of individual contributors and nearly 90,000 code commits, which involve making a set of tentative changes permanent.
The nitty-gritty
Getting started on GitHub is similar to the process for other social networking platforms. Users create individual accounts and can set up “organizations” for agencies or cities. They can then create repositories (or repos) to collaborate on projects through an individual or organizational account. Other developers or organizations can download repo code for reuse or repurpose it in their own repositories (called forking), and make it available to others to do the same.
Collaborative aspects of GitHub include pull requests that allow developers to submit and accept updates to repos that build on and grow an open-source project. There are wikis, gists (code snippet sharing) and issue tracking for bugs, feature requests, or general questions and answers.
GitHub provides free code hosting for all public repos. Upgrade offerings include personal and organizational plans based on the number of private repos. For organizations that want a self-hosted GitHub development environment, GitHub Enterprise, used by the likes of CFPB, allows for self-hosted, private repos behind a firewall.
GitHub’s core user interface can be unwelcoming or even intimidating to the nondeveloper, but GitHub’s Pages package offers Web-hosting features that include domain mapping and lightweight content management tools such as static site generator Jekyll and text editor Atom.
Notable government projects that use Pages are the White House’s Project Open Data, 18F’s /Developer Program, CFPB’s Open Tech website and New York’s Open Data Handbook. Indeed, Wired recently commented that the White House’s open-data GitHub efforts “could help fix government.”…
See also: GitHub for Government (GovLab)

Digital Government: Turning the Rhetoric into Reality

Miguel Carrasco and Peter Goss at BCG Perspectives: “Getting better—but still plenty of room for improvement: that’s the current assessment by everyday users of their governments’ efforts to deliver online services. The public sector has made good progress, but most countries are not moving nearly as quickly as users would like. Many governments have made bold commitments, and a few countries have determined to go “digital by default.” Most are moving more modestly, often overwhelmed by complexity and slowed by bureaucratic skepticism over online delivery as well as by a lack of digital skills. Developing countries lead in the rate of online usage, but they mostly trail developed nations in user satisfaction.
Many citizens—accustomed to innovation in such sectors as retailing, media, and financial services—wish their governments would get on with it. Of the services that can be accessed online, many only provide information and forms, while users are looking to get help and transact business. People want to do more. Digital interaction is often faster, easier, and more efficient than going to a service center or talking on the phone, but users become frustrated when the services do not perform as expected. They know what good online service providers offer. They have seen a lot of improvement in recent years, and they want their governments to make even better use of digital’s capabilities.
Many governments are already well on the way to improving digital service delivery, but there is often a gap between rhetoric and reality. There is no shortage of government policies and strategies relating to “digital first,” “e-government,” and “gov2.0,” in addition to digital by default. But governments need more than a strategy. “Going digital” requires leadership at the highest levels, investments in skills and human capital, and cultural and behavioral change. Based on BCG’s work with numerous governments and new research into the usage of, and satisfaction with, government digital services in 12 countries, we see five steps that most governments will want to take:

1. Focus on value. Put the priority on services with the biggest gaps between their importance to constituents and constituents’ satisfaction with digital delivery. In most countries, this will mean services related to health, education, social welfare, and immigration.

2. Adopt service design thinking. Governments should walk in users’ shoes. What does someone encounter when he or she goes to a government service website—plain language or bureaucratic legalese? How easy is it for the individual to navigate to the desired information? How many steps does it take to do what he or she came to do? Governments can make services easy to access and use by, for example, requiring users to register once and establish a digital credential, which can be used in the future to access online services across government.

3. Lead users online, keep users online. Invest in seamless end-to-end capabilities. Most government-service sites need to advance from providing information to enabling users to transact their business in its entirety, without having to resort to printing out forms or visiting service centers.

4. Demonstrate visible senior-leadership commitment. Governments can signal—to both their own officials and the public—the importance and the urgency that they place on their digital initiatives by where they assign responsibility for the effort.

5. Build the capabilities and skills to execute. Governments need to develop or acquire the skills and capabilities that will enable them to develop and deliver digital services.

This report examines the state of government digital services through the lens of Internet users surveyed in Australia, Denmark, France, Indonesia, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the UK, and the U.S. We investigated 37 different government services. (See Exhibit 1.)…”

Open for Business: How Open Data Can Help Achieve the G20 Growth Target

New Report commissioned by Omydiar Network on the Business Case for Open Data: “Economic analysis has confirmed the significant contribution to economic growth and productivity achievable through an open data agenda. Governments, the private sector, individuals and communities all stand to benefit from the innovation and information that will inform investment, drive the creation of new industries, and inform decision making and research. To mark a step change in the way valuable information is created and reused, the G20 should release information as open data.
In May 2014, Omidyar Network commissioned Lateral Economics to undertake economic analysis on the potential of open data to support the G20’s 2% growth target and illustrate how an open data agenda can make a significant contribution to economic growth and productivity. Combining all G20 economies, output could increase by USD 13 trillion cumulatively over the next five years. Implementation of open data policies would thus boost cumulative G20 GDP by around 1.1 percentage points (almost 55%) of the G20’s 2% growth target over five years.
Importantly, open data cuts across a number of this year’s G20 priorities: attracting private infrastructure investment, creating jobs and lifting participation, strengthening tax systems and fighting corruption. This memo suggests an open data thread that runs across all G20 priorities. The more data is opened, the more it can be used, reused, repurposed and built on—in combination with other data—for everyone’s benefit.
We call on G20 economies to sign up to the Open Data Charter.
The G20 should ensure that data released by G20 working groups and themes is in line with agreed open data standards. This will lead to more accountable, efficient, effective governments who are going further to expose inadequacy, fight corruption and spur innovation.
Data is a national resource and open data is a ‘win-win’ policy. It is about making more of existing resources. We know that the cost of opening data is smaller than the economic returns, which could be significant. Methods to respect privacy concerns must be taken into account. If this is done, as the public and private sector share of information grows, there will be increasing positive returns.
The G20 opportunity
This November, leaders of the G20 Member States will meet in Australia to drive forward commitments made in the St Petersburg G20 Leaders Declaration last September and to make firm progress on stimulating growth. Actions across the G20 will include increasing investment, lifting employment and participation, enhancing trade and promoting competition.
The resulting ‘Brisbane Action Plan’ will encapsulate all of these commitments with the aim of raising the level of G20 output by at least 2% above the currently projected level over the next five years. There are major opportunities for cooperative and collective action by G20 governments.
Governments should intensify the release of existing public sector data – both government and publicly funded research data. But much more can be done to promote open data than simply releasing more government data. In appropriate circumstances, governments can mandate public disclosure of private sector data (e.g. in corporate financial reporting).
Recommendations for action

  • G20 governments should adopt the principles of the Open Data Charter to encourage the building of stronger, more interconnected societies that better meet the needs of our citizens and allow innovation and prosperity to flourish.
  • G20 governments should adopt specific open data targets under each G20 theme, as illustrated below, such as releasing open data related to beneficial owners of companies, as well revenues from extractive industries
  • G20 governments should consider harmonizing licensing regimes across the G20
  • G20 governments should adopt metrics for measuring the quantity and quality of open data publication, e.g. using the Open Data Institute’s Open Data Certificates as a bottom-up mechanism for driving the adoption of common standards.

Illustrative G20 examples
Fiscal and monetary policy
Governments possess rich real time data that is not open or accessed by government macro-economic managers. G20 governments should:

  • Open up models that lie behind economic forecasts and help assess alternative policy settings;
  • Publish spending and contractual data to enable comparative shopping by government between government suppliers.

Anti corruption
Open data may directly contribute to reduced corruption by increasing the likelihood corruption will be detected. G20 governments should:

  • Release open data related to beneficial owners of companies as well as revenues from extractive industries,
  • Collaborate on harmonised technical standards that permit the tracing of international money flows – including the tracing of beneficial owners of commercial entities, and the comparison and reconciliation of transactions across borders.

Obtaining and using trade data from multiple jurisdictions is difficult. Access fees, specific licenses, and non-machine readable formats all involve large transaction costs. G20 governments should:

  • Harmonise open data policies related to trade data.
  • Use standard trade schema and formats.

Higher quality information on employment conditions would facilitate better matching of employees to organizations, producing greater job-satisfaction and improved productivity. G20 governments should:

  • Open up centralised job vacancy registers to provide new mechanisms for people to find jobs.
  • Provide open statistical information about the demand for skills in particular areas to help those supporting training and education to hone their offerings.

Open data will help reduce the cost of energy supply and improve energy efficiency. G20 governments should:

  • Provide incentives for energy companies to publish open data from consumers and suppliers to enable cost savings through optimizing energy plans.
  • Release energy performance certifications for buildings
  • Publish real-time energy consumption for government buildings.

Current infrastructure asset information is fragmented and inefficient. Exposing current asset data would be a significant first step in understanding gaps and providing new insights. G20 governments should:

  • Publish open data on governments’ infrastructure assets and plans to better understand infrastructure gaps, enable greater efficiency and insights in infrastructure development and use and analyse cost/benefits.
  • Publish open infrastructure data, including contracts via Open Contracting Partnership, in a consistent and harmonised way across G20 countries…”

New Book on 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting

Tiago Peixoto at Democracy Spot: “A little while ago I mentioned the launch of the Portuguese version of the book organized by Nelson Dias, “Hope for Democracy: 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide”.

The good news is that the English version is finally out. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

This book represents the effort  of more than forty authors and many other direct and indirect contributions that spread across different continents seek to provide an overview on the Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the World. They do so from different backgrounds. Some are researchers, others are consultants, and others are activists connected to several groups and social movements. The texts reflect this diversity of approaches and perspectives well, and we do not try to influence that.
The pages that follow are an invitation to a fascinating journey on the path of democratic innovation in very diverse cultural, political, social and administrative settings. From North America to Asia, Oceania to Europe, from Latin America to Africa, the reader will find many reasons to closely follow the proposals of the different authors.

The book can be downloaded here [PDF]. I had the pleasure of being one of the book’s contributors, co-authoring an article with Rafael Sampaio on the use of ICT in PB processes: “Electronic Participatory Budgeting: False Dilemmas and True Complexities” [PDF]...”

Democracy and open data: are the two linked?

Molly Shwartz at R-Street: “Are democracies better at practicing open government than less free societies? To find out, I analyzed the 70 countries profiled in the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Data Index and compared the rankings against the 2013 Global Democracy Rankings. As a tenet of open government in the digital age, open data practices serve as one indicator of an open government. Overall, there is a strong relationship between democracy and transparency.
Using data collected in October 2013, the top ten countries for openness include the usual bastion-of-democracy suspects: the United Kingdom, the United States, mainland Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
There are, however, some noteworthy exceptions. Germany ranks lower than Russia and China. All three rank well above Lithuania. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Nepal all beat out Belgium. The chart (below) shows the democracy ranking of these same countries from 2008-2013 and highlights the obvious inconsistencies in the correlation between democracy and open data for many countries.
There are many reasons for such inconsistencies. The implementation of open-government efforts – for instance, opening government data sets – often can be imperfect or even misguided. Drilling down to some of the data behind the Open Data Index scores reveals that even countries that score very well, such as the United States, have room for improvement. For example, the judicial branch generally does not publish data and houses most information behind a pay-wall. The status of legislation and amendments introduced by Congress also often are not available in machine-readable form.
As internationally recognized markers of political freedom and technological innovation, open government initiatives are appealing political tools for politicians looking to gain prominence in the global arena, regardless of whether or not they possess a real commitment to democratic principles. In 2012, Russia made a public push to cultivate open government and open data projects that was enthusiastically endorsed by American institutions. In a June 2012 blog post summarizing a Russian “Open Government Ecosystem” workshop at the World Bank, one World Bank consultant professed the opinion that open government innovations “are happening all over Russia, and are starting to have genuine support from the country’s top leaders.”
Given the Russian government’s penchant for corruption, cronyism, violations of press freedom and increasing restrictions on public access to information, the idea that it was ever committed to government accountability and transparency is dubious at best. This was confirmed by Russia’s May 2013 withdrawal of its letter of intent to join the Open Government Partnership. As explained by John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation:

While Russia’s initial commitment to OGP was likely a surprising boon for internal champions of reform, its withdrawal will also serve as a demonstration of the difficulty of making a political commitment to openness there.

Which just goes to show that, while a democratic government does not guarantee open government practices, a government that regularly violates democratic principles may be an impossible environment for implementing open government.
A cursory analysis of the ever-evolving international open data landscape reveals three major takeaways:

  1. Good intentions for government transparency in democratic countries are not always effectively realized.
  2. Politicians will gladly pay lip-service to the idea of open government without backing up words with actions.
  3. The transparency we’ve established can go away quickly without vigilant oversight and enforcement.”

The Universe Is Programmable. We Need an API for Everything

Keith Axline in Wired: “Think about it like this: In the Book of Genesis, God is the ultimate programmer, creating all of existence in a monster six-day hackathon.
Or, if you don’t like Biblical metaphors, you can think about it in simpler terms. Robert Moses was a programmer, shaping and re-shaping the layout of New York City for more than 50 years. Drug developers are programmers, twiddling enzymes to cure what ails us. Even pickup artists and conmen are programmers, running social scripts on people to elicit certain emotional results.

Keith Axline in Wired: “Everyone is becoming a programmer. The next step is to realize that everything is a program.

The point is that, much like the computer on your desk or the iPhone in your hand, the entire Universe is programmable. Just as you can build apps for your smartphones and new services for the internet, so can you shape and re-shape almost anything in this world, from landscapes and buildings to medicines and surgeries to, well, ideas — as long as you know the code.
That may sound like little more than an exercise in semantics. But it’s actually a meaningful shift in thinking. If we look at the Universe as programmable, we can start treating it like software. In short, we can improve almost everything we do with the same simple techniques that have remade the creation of software in recent years, things like APIs, open source code, and the massively popular code-sharing service GitHub.
The great thing about the modern software world is that you don’t have to build everything from scratch. Apple provides APIs, or application programming interfaces, that can help you build apps on their devices. And though Tim Cook and company only give you part of what you need, you can find all sorts of other helpful tools elsewhere, thanks to the open source software community.
The same is true if you’re building, say, an online social network. There are countless open source software tools you can use as the basic building blocks — many of them open sourced by Facebook. If you’re creating almost any piece of software, you can find tools and documentation that will help you fashion at least a small part of it. Chances are, someone has been there before, and they’ve left some instructions for you.
Now we need to discover and document the APIs for the Universe. We need a standard way of organizing our knowledge and sharing it with the world at large, a problem for which programmers already have good solutions. We need to give everyone a way of handling tasks the way we build software. Such a system, if it can ever exist, is still years away — decades at the very least — and the average Joe is hardly ready for it. But this is changing. Nowadays, programming skills and the DIY ethos are slowly spreading throughout the population. Everyone is becoming a programmer. The next step is to realize that everything is a program.

What Is an API?

The API may sound like just another arcane computer acronym. But it’s really one of the most profound metaphors of our time, an idea hiding beneath the surface of each piece of tech we use everyday, from iPhone apps to Facebook. To understand what APIs are and why they’re useful, let’s look at how programmers operate.
If I’m building a smartphone app, I’m gonna need — among so many other things — a way of validating a signup form on a webpage to make sure a user doesn’t, say, mistype their email address. That validation has nothing to do with the guts of my app, and it’s surprisingly complicated, so I don’t really want to build it from scratch. Apple doesn’t help me with that, so I start looking on the web for software frameworks, plugins, Software Developer Kits (SDKs) — anything that will help me build my signup tool.
Hopefully, I’ll find one. And if I do, chances are it will include some sort of documentation or “Readme file” explaining how this piece of code is supposed to be used so that I can tailor it to my app. This Readme file should contain installation instructions as well as the API for the code. Basically, an API lays out the code’s inputs and outputs. It shows what me what I have to send the code and what it will spit back out. It shows how I bolt it onto my signup form. So the name is actually quite explanatory: Application Programming Interface. An API is essentially an instruction manual for a piece of software.
Now, let’s combine this with the idea that everything is an application: molecules, galaxies, dogs, people, emotional states, abstract concepts like chaos. If you do something to any these things, they’ll respond in some way. Like software, they have inputs and outputs. What we need to do is discover and document their APIs.
We aren’t dealing with software code here. Inputs and outputs can themselves be anything. But we can closely document these inputs and their outputs — take what we know about how we interface with something and record it in a standard way that it can be used over and over again. We can create a Readme file for everything.
We can start by doing this in small, relatively easy ways. How about APIs for our cities? New Zealand just open sourced aerial images of about 95 percent of its land. We could write APIs for what we know about building in those areas, from properties of the soil to seasonal weather patterns to zoning laws. All this knowledge exists but it hasn’t been organized and packaged for use by anyone who is interested. And we could go still further — much further.
For example, between the science community, the medical industry and the billions of human experiences, we could probably have a pretty extensive API mapped out of the human stomach — one that I’d love to access when I’m up at 3am with abdominal pains. Maybe my microbiome is out of whack and there’s something I have on-hand that I could ingest to make it better. Or what if we cracked the API for the signals between our eyes and our brain? We wouldn’t need to worry about looking like Glassholes to get access to always-on augmented reality. We could just get an implant. Yes, these APIs will be slightly different for everyone, but that brings me to the next thing we need.

A GitHub for Everything

We don’t just need a Readme for the Universe. We need a way of sharing this Readme and changing it as need be. In short, we need a system like GitHub, the popular online service that lets people share and collaborate on software code.
Let’s go back to the form validator I found earlier. Say I made some modifications to it that I think other programmers would find useful. If the validator is on GitHub, I can create a separate but related version — a fork — that people can find and contribute to, in the same way I first did with the original software.

This creates a tree of knowledge, with giant groups of people creating and merging branches, working on their small section and then giving it back to the whole.

GitHub not only enables this collaboration, but every change is logged into separate versions. If someone were so inclined, they could go back and replay the building of the validator, from the very first save all the way up to my changes and whoever changes it after me. This creates a tree of knowledge, with giant groups of people creating and merging branches, working on their small section and then giving it back to the whole.
We should be able to funnel all existing knowledge of how things work — not just software code — into a similar system. That way, if my brain-eye interface needs to be different, I (or my personal eye technician) can “fork” the API. In a way, this sort of thing is already starting to happen. People are using GitHub to share government laws, policy documents, Gregorian chants, and the list goes on. The ultimate goal should be to share everything.
Yes, this idea is similar to what you see on sites like Wikipedia, but the stuff that’s shared on Wikipedia doesn’t let you build much more than another piece of text. We don’t just need to know what things are. We need to know how they work in ways that let us operate on them.

The Open Source Epiphany

If you’ve never programmed, all this can sound a bit, well, abstract. But once you enter the coding world, getting a loose grasp on the fundamentals of programming, you instantly see the utility of open source software. “Oooohhh, I don’t have to build this all myself,” you say. “Thank God for the open source community.” Because so many smart people contribute to open source, it helps get the less knowledgeable up to speed quickly. Those acolytes then pay it forward with their own contributions once they’ve learned enough.
Today, more and more people are jumping on this train. More and more people are becoming programmers of some shape or form. It wasn’t so long ago that basic knowledge of HTML was considered specialized geek speak. But now, it’s a common requirement for almost any desk job. Gone are the days when kids made fun of their parents for not being able to set the clock on the VCR. Now they get mocked for mis-cropping their Facebook profile photos.
These changes are all part of the tech takeover of our lives that is trickling down to the masses. It’s like how the widespread use of cars brought a general mechanical understanding of engines to dads everywhere. And this general increase in aptitude is accelerating along with the technology itself.
Steps are being taken to make programming a skill that most kids get early in school along with general reading, writing, and math. In the not too distant future, people will need to program in some form for their daily lives. Imagine the world before the average person knew how to write a letter, or divide two numbers, compared to now. A similar leap is around the corner…”