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The future of government is citizen-driven

Carmi Levy

Add government to the growing list of sectors being revolutionized — and democratized — by the Internet.

The British Columbia government's launch last month of DataBC, a website that makes 2,500 data sets freely searchable and available to anyone who wants to use them, accelerates a trend that's been gathering steam in recent years across North America and beyond — namely, using Web 2.0-based technologies such as social media platforms and open programming standards to give citizens greater access to and control of data that used to be the exclusive domain of governments and their constituent agencies.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark said the initiative, the first of its kind by any provincial government, will not only make government more accountable and transparent, but will also open up new ways to drive technology innovation that benefits the public.

"We are changing our approach to governing by putting citizens at the centre of our Web services and making government data and information more freely available," Clark said. "Open government is about sharing information and giving British Columbians more opportunities to participate in decisions that make a difference in their lives."

The site,, hosts a collection of almost 2,500 data sets in a broad range of areas, including educational statistics, fish stocks, carbon emissions, cancer rates and even old-growth management areas. Interested citizens can use the data as they wish, from simply looking up figures to doing deep research, analysis and application development. While it may be on the provincial leading edge, it echoes similar open data initiatives elsewhere:

- The State of Louisiana opened up its previously limited-access mapping and aerial photography databases to the online community. Citizen-developers subsequently leveraged Google Earth and similar open-source mapping technologies to help the government build a state-wide emergency response and disaster relief application.

- In New Zealand, the national police force set up a wiki site to collect input into a new piece of law enforcement legislation. Citizen feedback was subsequently used to help create the New Zealand Policing Act.

- Closer to home, the Toronto Transit Commission has taken a leading role in encouraging citizen involvement in Web-based application development. It hosted TransitCamp — a collaborative session with bloggers and developers designed to solicit ideas to improve transit service — and later released schedule and real-time GPS data to citizen-developers. The result: Web and mobile applications that help transit users get more out of the system.

In all of these cases, the government agencies themselves may very well have been able to develop the same applications. But given the well-worn constraints of public sector bureaucracies following traditional application development practices, the results would have been projects delivered years-late and over budget.

Instead, governments are increasingly giving citizens free rein to do as they wish with previously inaccessible data. Costs are significantly reduced as big, conventional IT projects are replaced by more on-the-fly approaches to resource management. Timelines are also cut down to size thanks to the use of agile development methods and more collaborative models. Crowdsourcing also maximizes the use of newer technologies, thanks to home-based developers looking to market their prowess to a broader audience. This all translates into more bang for the public buck.

Proponents of open data initiatives claim they increase government efficiency and effectiveness by encouraging greater levels of citizen participation in the creation and delivery of public services. But in light of the just-completed U.S. deal to restructure its debt ceiling and begin trimming the federal budget, it's difficult to ignore the cost side of the equation, as well.

As governments on both sides of the border find themselves increasingly pressured to deliver the same — or more — services for less, open data and so-called Government 2.0-based initiatives could hold the key to taxpayers having their cake and eating it, too. As government shrinks, citizens willingly take up the slack using rapidly evolving development and social media tools.

Open government isn't just a philosophical concept designed to drive democracy.

It's really about leveraging technology — and technologically enabled citizens — to do more with less. By throwing data out there and seeing what develops, governments can reduce spend and enable business in ways they simply wouldn't be able to do if they functioned conventionally. They can leverage the motivations and skills of interested members of the public to create value that conventionally hired departmental resources have never been able to achieve; at least not at this level of efficiency.

While Wall Street and Bay Street investors may not take much notice because such public sector initiatives don't have much affect on share values today, they may want to keep open government on their radar.

After all, markets that function within provinces and countries that are Government 2.0-savvy will ultimately be more agile than those that aren't. Which, I gather, is a big draw for future investment.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist.