Digital Government – New Social Network

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    New York and Chicago, each a leader in two important municipal reforms — the open data movement and centralized (311) call centers — released requests asking the private sector to help them build a platform more akin to Facebook than 311 as we know it.

    For a century, city hall reformers used tight hierarchical systems where a government official with access to information not available to others crafted rules and procedures that public servants followed. Even the much-celebrated 311 systems were based on the idea that an aggrieved citizen would place a request for service to an all-knowing and powerful city hall.

    These frustrating bilateral exchanges reinforce the view that residents are passive recipients of services from a government that monopolizes responses with authority, information and skill, as opposed to meaningful participants in their community.

    A more modern system, reflected in the approaches of New York and Chicago, assumes that the public value of an open network of residents, officials and their information is proportional to the number of connected individuals and the quality and usability of the data available to them. I have borrowed this concept from Metcalfe’s Law, which hypothesizes that the value of a technology network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system.

    Indeed, open data openly socialized does more than just keep government officials accountable. It also allows for the co-production of solutions where an ever-dynamic and often messy group of people/organizations/agencies involve each other in a problem-solving process (external). As part of this, the transparency movement has grown up from a check-the-box attitude, where officials placed difficult-to-read-and-use information on the Internet, to one that provides real-time and often machine-readable data online.

    This open data, including observations or requests for service to a call center, allows for discoveries — some more painful to a city than others. For example, New York probably did not appreciate it when “Iquant” blogger Ben Wellington found that one of the top places for writing tickets in that city was located where a traffic officer took advantage day after day of a missing sign.

     Open data in this mode also results in the de-verticalization — getting a host of government departments involved in the problem-solving process (internal). Recently, for example, the talented epidemiologists in Chicago’s health department explained the insights they gathered as a result of open data from other agencies that was now available to them. The hoarding of information under some special legal pretense, even from one’s fellow government officials, becomes an antiquated talent in a truly open data government.