Open Data: From the Information Age to the Action Age (Keynote File)


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This is the presentation I made at the UK Department for International Aid/Omidyar Network OpenUp! conference in London on November 13, 2012. I talk about open government not as a platform for transparency or citizen engagement, but for a developer ecosystem building useful services. A video of this talk is available at

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  • When people talk about open government data, they often start by thinking about government transparency. Sites like mysociety’s TheyWorkForYou, or OpenCongress in the US, are indeed important.\n
  • In the US, this strain of the open government movement is perhaps best exemplified by the Sunlight Foundation.\n
  • Another mysociety project, fixmystreet, was among the first to highlight the possibility of opening up a two way channel, using open data to create a context for better citizen engagement. \n
  • Startups like SeeClickFix have sprung up to help citizens give feedback to civil servants about what needs doing.\n
  • What’s encouraging that there are now emerging standards like 311 that allow applications and the back-end systems that governments use to manage their workflow to speak the same language. This is the beginning of a new way of thinking about how government data and the private sector can interoperate, creating new interfaces for government services.\n
  • In the US, Code for America is a leader in providing new kinds of engagement, working with local governments to build simple, beautiful and easy-to-use interfaces to government services and challenging government to reinvent the way it engages with citizens. Jen Pahlka talked a bit about their work earlier this morning.\n
  • The UK government digital service has done a fantastic job of thinking about how to put citizens at the center of government rather than at the periphery. Their Design Principles are a manifesto for open government everywhere.\n
  • The Government Digital Service Design Principles are probably the most important design document since the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines of the 1980s. They, and the GDS Digital Strategy, should be the template for government services around the world. I particularly like that they’ve embraced the notion of APIs, which allow third parties to build new services. But I would go further, and argue that APIs should be open to third parties by default, and closed only when necessary.\n
  • But even the thinking behind GDS doesn’t give the full range of impact of open government data.\n\nI’ve always found myself wondering why people aren’t more aware of how government data powers non-governmental services that citizens take for granted, many of them never taking the time to think how much government investment went into building the infrastructure that makes it possible for the private sector to offer services like weather predictions\n
  • Now consider Global positioning satellites. Here government investment in a hard, long term project, is paying off in uncounted new private sector developments.\n\nA huge project with uncertain return, started in 1973 and now showing enormous fruit in the 21st century, with huge value add from the commercial sector. Everything from maps and directions on your phone to\nfuture self-driving cars spring from this platform investment, and the key policy decision to open the data and \nmake it available for commercial use. No one dreamed of the unexpected applications that became possible by opening up this data. That’s why we need open web services by default.\n
  • Mapping services have taken data developed at great expense by government and turned it into hugely powerful experiences for citizens. Here are my public transit directions from my hotel to this venue today, courtesy of Google, but also of centuries of government investment in mapping services. Not to mention that Google Transit directions got its start with the government of Portland, Oregon, who in classic internet style, proposed a data specification for transit timetables that could be consumed by third party applications.\n
  • This same kind of “developer outreach” has characterized Todd Park’s work on open data at HHS. Rather than just opening\nthe data, he proactively sought out partners who could consume government data. For example, HHS had a huge database of hospital and nursing home quality and user satisfaction metrics, which now helps to power Bing’s hospital search, and not just the HHS Hospital Compare application.\n\nThe HHS open data initiative now features a thriving developer conference, \nhundreds of apps, and numerous funded startups. \n
  • The Obama administration is now trying to replicate this playbook in other areas like energy\n
  • and Education.\n
  • Apple showed us the power of this kind of entrepreneurial explosion when they turned the smartphone into a platform with the introduction of the iPhone app store. We went from phones that had twenty or thirty apps cooked up in a back room deal to a platform that allows anyone to come up with new features.\n\nThis is the kind of platform I’d like to see for government.\n
  • That’s why...\n
  • At Code for America, we’ve capitalized on this idea by launching a startup accelerator, finding and nurturing creative startups who are re-using or opening up government data, creating new interfaces to government services, or building tools that will help governments to engage with their community.\n
  • Since I know this conference is focused on International Development, I want to mention one of these startups in particular. Captricity grew out of a project in Tanzania and Uganda to digitize medical records. It is a now a powerful tool combining machine learning and crowdsourcing to convert any kind of paper document into structured data.\n
  • While we’re on the subject of Africa, I want to remind all of you that technology for international development isn’t all digital. One of the most remarkable frontiers of technology today is in something we call the Maker Movement, which involves everything from sensors and robots to advanced 3D printing, digital design and manufacturing, but also includes old fashioned mechanical engineering and ingenuity. At O’Reilly, we run an event in California that draws over 120,000 people. But one of our most exciting Maker Faires happens in Nigeria.\n
  • You can get a great sense of how “makers” are solving everyday problems with local ingenuity on the Afrigadget blog. Many of the people featured there also appear at Maker Faire.\n\nSulaiman Famro is a cheerful, 65 year old engineer, and a master of branding. He built the prototype “Farmking” three years ago and claims he can save the country $1 billion a year, just in savings on starch importation.\nThe Farmking is a one-stop processing plant for cluster and farm-site processing of root crops and grains. It has a diesel powered engine that allows for remote processing, with power out connections for lighting so that it can work all night, if needed.\nOn one end you have 3 devices, for chipping, grating and milling. In the middle is the power plant, and in the rear is a large steel drum that can hold 50kgs of milled cassava, that uses a spin filter to process up to 2.5 tons of milled cassava into starch.\nIt’s used for processing of cassava, soya beans, maize, sweet potatoes, yam and many other roots and grains.\n\n
  • In an odd way, there’s also a connection between the maker movement and hot silicon valley startups like AirBnB. Both are deeply rooted in a trend towards decentralized activities and peer-to-peer markets. With maker marketplaces like Etsy, people around the world can sell their goods to each other. With sharing marketplaces like airBnb, people can share their homes. Government should support these peer economies, and not get in the way with too much regulation. At the Opening Government meeting the other day, we had a fascinating conversation about the interplay between regulation and reputation, and how reputation systems can replace some of what we now do with centralized regulation.\n
  • I also want to give a shout out to efforts like the UN Global Pulse, as well as Ushahidi, the Global Virus Forecasting Initiative, and other groups that are using new approaches to big data and predictive analytics to literally build a new early warning system for the planet.\n\nData is the currency of most modern apps, and particularly important is data that helps you to “close the loop.”\n
  • Efforts like this are completely aligned with the “big data” focus of Silicon Valley companies like Google.\n\nInvestor Chris Sacca, who used to run special projects for Google, once remarked “What I learned...”\n\n\n
  • I want to end with a few further thoughts about the role of government in sparking innovation in the private sector. Larry Wall, the creator of the Perl programming language, once said...\n\n
  • Since he’s an open source developer, I’m going to take his maxim, and as we say in the open source world, “fork it” so it now reads... I was with the UK Government Digital Service the other day, and we did a Q&A with reporters. Someone from the Wall Street Journal asked if the new approach was just about saving money. We answered that it wasn’t at all, that it was about creating new kinds of engagement between government and citizens. Saving money is a byproduct. But there’s another way in which the cost savings of open data and government doing less by enabling the rest of us to do more is really important.\n\n
  • \nI suspect that in the next few decades we’ll have many, many hard problems to solve - wicked problems even. One of the great urgencies of the open government movement is to make easy things easy so that we can make hard things possible.\n\nThe private sector can do a lot, but there are some problems of a scale that we need to tackle them all together.\n
  • Or as Abraham Lincoln put it...\n\n\n\n\n
  • Open Data: From the Information Age to the Action Age (Keynote File)

    1. Open Data: From the Information Age to the Action Age Tim O’Reilly O’Reilly Media OpenUp November 13, 2012
    2.  something about transparency and gov data
    3.  google home page / information age
    4. GPS: A 21st century platform launched in 1973
    5.  Health datapalooza
    6. What happens when you throw open the doors to partners More than 50,000 iPhone applications in less than a year! Now at 688,000
    7. Government as a platform means an end to thedesign of only complete, closed “applications.” Insteadthe government should provide fundamental serviceson which we, the people, (also known as “the market”)build applications.
    8. “What I learned from Google isto only invest in things thatclose the loop.” - Chris Sacca
    9. “Perl should make easy thingseasy, and hard things possible.” - Larry Wall
    10. “Government should make easythings easy, and hard thingspossible.” -Tim O’Reilly
    11. Critical Issues Facing the World• Natural Disasters• Jobs• Energy• Food• Water• Creating a vibrant, just, and bountiful economy for all the world’s citizens
    12. “The legitimate object of government is todo for the people what needs to be done,but which they cannot, by individualeffort, do at all, or do so well, forthemselves.” -Abraham Lincoln, July 1, 1854