OTTAWA – There are thousands of applications for the Apple iPhone, versus far fewer for other mobile platforms, and thousands of mashups that use Google Maps. That’s because Apple and Google encourage third parties to develop for their platforms. And that’s what government should do too, according to Tim O’Reilly, founder and chief executive of technology book publisher, online content provider and conference organizer O’Reilly Media.
“One of the key ideas I think of Government 2.0 – as in Web 2.0 – is to let your citizens help you do more with less,” Tim O’Reilly said in a keynote address at the government technology exhibition and conference GTEC 2009.
That means government shouldn’t try to do everything itself. Instead, it should make data available and provide platforms that allow private-sector developers and even individual citizens to build on what the public sector has provided.
“There is an alternative model,” O’Reilly said, “which I think is demonstrated recently by Apple with the iPhone, which is throw open the doors to partners.”
Some governments are already getting this, he said. For example the U.S. federal government’s data.gov site supports add-ons and mashups created by developers outside the government. “It’s designed to be a platform,” O’Reilly said. The city of Vancouver has created an open data catalogue online. One independent developer used it to create an online application that sends you an e-mail or text message to when it’s garbage day on your street.
And the U.S. capital’s dc.gov site has an app store that includes both government-created and privately-created applications.
Yet, O’Reilly said, many governments still try to keep tight control of data and applications, make deals with preferred providers and sign sole-source licensing deals for government data. “This is nuts,” he said.
The public sector should make its data searchable and machine-readable and make sure legal regimes allow independent developers to create “long tail” applications with it, he said – an allusion to the long tail concept originated by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, who argued that the web has changed markets so that instead of only big hits mattering, products that appeal to a limited audience are now more viable.
O’Reilly also questioned that idea that governments can use the web and social media mainly to get feedback from citizens.
“I think this is a little bit of a dead end,” he said. Instead of merely seeking people’s opinions before going ahead and doing things for them, he said, government should use those technologies to empower them to do things for themselves.
He gave the example of meetup.com, a private sector creation that helps people get together for many purposes, including a significant number of public-service projects like cleaning up beaches and parks – and a recent incident in Hawaii where the state government had no money to repair a washed-out park access road, so citizens and businesses banded together to do it themselves.
He quoted Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who said, “when the best leaders’ work is done, the people say ‘we did it ourselves.’”