Page last updated at 09:28 GMT, Monday, 7 September 2009 10:28 UK

Call to use more government data

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

National Archives
Can Government 2.0 become the platform developers want to work with?

A leading light of Web 2.0 has challenged the technology industry to innovate using a treasure trove of data the US government is making public.

Internet guru Tim O'Reilly said Government 2.0 as a platform would only truly work if businesses and developers created killer apps using the data.

One of President Obama's campaign promises was to make the US government more open and transparent.

"It's a great opportunity to redefine how government works," said Mr O'Reilly

"It is a different way of understanding the issue. We have a unique opening here to show that this stuff matters and that we can make real progress on this thinking on the big problems that face this country.

"It's up to the tech community to respond with our ideas, our voices, our creativity and our code," Mr O'Reilly told BBC News.

'Best ideas'

The Obama administration has set up a number of websites to give citizens access to information such as crime figures, how tax dollars are being spent, energy consumption, train timetables and even what the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are up to.

Excerpt from old robots.txt file
President Obama wanted to reverse previous attitudes to information

But the administration's move to lift the lid on all this raw data is about more than just providing information; it is about enabling innovation, according to the government's chief information officer Vivek Kundra.

"We've got to recognise that we can't treat the American people as subjects but as co-creators of ideas. We need to tap into the vast amounts of knowledge... in communities across the country.

"The federal government doesn't have a monopoly on the best ideas," Mr Kundra said at a recent conference.

It is a view wholly backed by Mr O'Reilly, who will this week lead a two-day conference in Washington DC on the subject. It will be attended by Mr Kundra and other government heads as well as those from business and technology.

"We have gotten into this model of thinking the government is like a vending machine. We pay taxes and get roads and schools, police and armies and whatever else. When it doesn't work, we think participation means complaining and shaking the vending machine to get more out of it.

"The new model is about participation. It's about the government saying we will provide you with these services that you can build upon. When the government built the interstate, they enabled Walmart and a multi-billion dollar industry," said Mr O'Reilly.

Trusted partners

The best way for businesses and developers to think about Government 2.0 as a platform is to look at Apple and the iPhone, according to Mr O'Reilly.

"With government procurement it's about working with the same group of people and saying we are going to work with trusted partners and them saying here is our handful of offerings.

The iPhone has spawned thousand of apps

"The iPhone comes out and Apple turns it into a platform and two years later there is something like 70,000 applications and 3,000 written every week. They have created a framework and infrastructure and that is the right way we should be thinking about government," said Mr O'Reilly.

He said past examples of how the government had excelled as a platform were the internet and GPS, the global positioning system, which were both government-funded projects.

"At some point the government and the air force made a policy decision from providing an application to a platform that resulted in multi-billion dollar industries," said Mr O'Reilly.

'Citizen technologists'

One of the most cited examples of how government-as-a-platform works best can be seen at a site called Apps for Democracy.

It was set up nearly a year ago after the District of Columbia asked iStrategyLabs to show how all the information it unleashed could work for the citizens, visitors, businesses and government agencies of Washington DC.

The data catalogue contains everything from real-time crime feeds to school test scores and from poverty indicators to recycling locations.

As a result the company started a contest called Apps for Democracy which aimed to "engage citizen technologists to build the perfect technology solution to meet their needs".

To date Apps for Democracy boasts 47 iPhone, Facebook and web applications with an estimated value to the city of more than $2.6m.

Last weekend a $10,000 prize was awarded for an iPhone and Facebook app combination that allows users to submit and view service requests to the city via its 311 service, for everything from cleaning to rubbish and repairs to tree services.

"With the help of these home-grown innovators, we're engaging the community in government and building a digital democracy model for governments everywhere," said the district's interim chief technology officer Chris Willey.

Mr O'Reilly warned that "going back to politics as usual" was not an option and that in the midst of the government's willingness to open up its data, there were some pitfalls to look out for.

"In terms of unlocking information, it's not a question of fast enough, it's a matter of strategically enough.

"The government is so large and there is so much data there that the real question is how much of it is really useful. This is why it is important for the government to think strategically about what does 'government as a platform' mean?" said Mr O'Reilly.

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