Tag Archives: Infrastructure

What is the role of government in a Web 2.0 world?

What will be the role of government in a post Web 2.0 world? I doubt it’s what a lot of us predict, given society’s poor track record in predicting it’s own future.

One thing I am reasonably sure of though, is that this future won’t represent the open source nirvana that some pundits hope for. When I’ve ruminated in the past about the changing role of government, I’ve pointed out that attempting to create the future by dictate is definitely not the right approach. As I said then:

You don’t create peace by starting a war, and nor do you create open and collaborative government through top down directives. We can do better.

There was an excellent article by Nat Torkington, Rethinking open data, posted over at O’Reilly radar which shows this in action. As it points out, the U.S. Open Government Directive has prompted datasets of questionable value to be added to data.gov; while many of the applications are developed as they are easy to build, rather than providing any tangible benefit. Many of the large infrastructure projects commissioned in the name of open data suffered the same fate as large, unjustified infrastructure projects in private enterprise (i.e. they’re hard for the layman to understand, they have scant impact on solving the problems society seems plagued with, and they’re overly complex to deliver and use due to technological and political puritism).

A more productive approach is focus on solving problems that we, the populace, actually care about. In Australia this might involve responding to the bush fire season. California has a similar problem. The recent disaster in Haiti was another significant call to action. It was great to see the success that was Web 2.0 in Haiti (New Scientist had an excellent article).

As Nat Torkington says:

the best way to convince them to open data is to show an open data project that’s useful to real people.

Which makes me think: government is a tool for us to work together, not the enemy to subdue. Why don’t we move government on from service provider of last resort, which is the role it seems to play today.

Haiti showed us that some degree of centralisation is required to make these efforts work efficiently. A logical role for government going forward would be something like a market maker: connecting people who need services with the organisations providing them, and working to ensure that the market remains liquid. Government becomes the trusted party that ensures that there are enough service providers to meet demand, possibly even bundling service to provide solutions to life’s more complex problems.

We’ve had the public debate on whether or not government should own assets (bridges, power utilities etc.), and the answer was generally not. Government provision of services is well down a similar road. This frees up dedicated and hard working public servants (case workers, forestry staff, policy wonks …) to focus on the harder problem of determining what services should be provided.

Which brings me back to my original point. Why are we trying to drive government, and society in general, toward a particular imagined future of our choosing (one involving Open Government Directives, and complicated and expensive RDF infrastructure projects). We can use events like the bush fires and Haiti to form a new working relationship. Let’s pick hard but tractable problems and work together to find solutions. As Nat (again) points out, there’s a lot of data in government that public servants are eager to share, if we just give them a reason. And if our efforts deliver tangible benefits, then everyone will want to come along for the ride.

Updated: The reports are in: data.gov has quality issues. I’ve updated the text updated with the following references.

Updated: More news on data.gov’s limitations highlighting the problems with a “push” model to open government.

The NBN wants to be free

There’s been a lot of discussion on what Austalia’s national broadband network (NBN) will cost when it’s finally delivered to consumers. How much will we need to stump up to take part in today’s knowledge economy? Most cost recovery models have ISPs charging monthly fees of over $200, which is a lot more than the $50 per month most of us are used to paying. Who’s gonna pay that? A lot of folk have been pointing out the folly of forcing through a broadband network that few of us can afford, let alone be bothered to pay for.

Is this missing the point though? What if the government’s intention is to make the NBN free (or close enough to as to make no difference)? Much like most other public infrastructure such as roads. There’s precedents for this, from the New Deal though the recent government report on supporting innovation and the fact that the government is sitting on a large pile of money that they intend to spend.

The global financial crunch has had a dramatic impact on everyone’s lives, though Australia has been in the lucky position of avoiding the worst of the down turn. Australia is even the first large, rich country to raise interest rates on the back of the world recovery. Discussion has now turned to the nature of this recovery: will it be V or W shaped? Most of the smart money (including the RBA’s) seems to be settling on W shaped, with the potential for unemployment to rise in the short to mid term. The war chest the government accumulated to fight recession is still quite full, and the government has stated that it plans to stick to the large stimulus plan announced earlier in the year.

Recessions often to bring governments to think about major infrastructure projects. The U.S. went down this route mid century, with Congress having a few attempts at chartering a “National System of Interstate Highways” before Eisenhower made it a reality. I haven’t seen a figure for the investment required, but I expect it to be scary. The impact, though, was profound on the U.S. in general, and the economy in particular. Through the years, various estimates have been made of the contribution of the interstate highway system to the economy, generally finding that the interstate highway system has more than paid for itself in improved commercial productivity, with each dollar of investment in highways producing an annual reduction in product costs of 23.4 cents. It is estimated that the interstate highway system is now producing approximately $14 billion. All this from something you can use for free.

Fast forward to the future, and we can find an interesting report, Powering Ideas, recently published by the Australian government, outlining how what Australia might do to support innovation domestically. The report is quite long but at its nub, it points to a strategy of funding the infrastructure required by innovators it make it easy (and cheap) for them to innovate. This doesn’t mean that the government is getting out of the grant business, but it is an admission that the government doesn’t have a great track record of picking winners in this space. Cheap (if not free) infrastructure helps those grant dollars go further, while at the same time helping every innovator in Australia who wasn’t lucky enough to receive a grant.

Put the two of these together and it makes you wonder: what if they Australian government makes the the NBN free? Back in the 30’s the U.S. economy was driven by interstate commerce. Reducing the cost of trucking goods across the country (reducing the transaction costs) helped drive the economy forward. Today, in Australia, knowledge and collaboration are the back bone of the commerce. Reducing the cost of sharing information and collaborating has the potential to have a similar impact .

Like free and efficient roads, very cheap broadband access would help the entrepreneurs and innovators thrive. This would provide Australian’s with powerful platform to build businesses in a today’s knowledge economy. We could capitalise on the current trend for software-as-a-service (SaaS) startups replacing business process outsources (BPO), replacing a human labour driven solution is a software driven solution, servicing the world’s needs from our home base Research driven startups would have cheap and efficient access to the massive data sets which drive modern research, having the world at their fingertips.

You would probably still need to pay for the last mile, connecting your abode to the NBN backbone, but this is similar to the current energy delivery commitment from the government: they get the power lines to the property boundary, and then you pay someone to connect it into the house. Local ISPs could provide (or organises) the connection service, along with sorting out the home network and providing support. The NBN would also probably need to expand to include the link overseas, complimenting (or replacing) the network of links funded and managed by the existing telcos and ISPs.

And finally: where do the major Australian telcos fit in this? Interesting question. One probably better left to them to answer.