Tag Archives: National Broadband Network

Open Data might have failed, but Open Government is still going strong.

It would seem that the shine is starting to wear off the Open Government movement, with a recent report to the US congress challenging some of the assumptions which drove the dictate out of the U.S. Open Government Office1)The Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative: Issues for Congress [PDF], forcing U.S. departments to publish their data sets. The report found that simply pushing out data has negative outcomes as well as positive ones (which should be no surprise), and that often the cost of pushing out (and maintaining) a data set didn’t outweigh the benefits. Most importantly, it raised the question of whether or not publishing these data sets was a good use of the public’s money.

So, has the business case behind Open Government been found lacking in the harsh light of day? Or is this one of those cases where some faith is – similar as with the investment in the U.S. highway network – because the benefits of stepping into the unknown are not calculable with the crude mechanism of ROI. The truth seems to lie somewhere between the two.

I wouldn’t confuse the investment in the US road network post WWII (or AU’s current investment in a NBN) with Open Government. The former was an investment in an asset which the U.S. government of the time made largely on faith, an investment which is currently seen to be returning $14 billion to the U.S. economy annually. (Australia’s NBN might be heading on a similar journey2)The NBN wants to be free @ PEG.) The latter is actually a philosophical point of view about an approach to government.

The problem is that we confuse “Open Data” with “Open Government”. They’re related, but not the same. Open Government is a move to streamline service acquisition and delivery by exposing the bureaucracy of government and integrating it more tightly with other service providers, and has been progressing nicely for a decade or more now. Open Data is a desire to change the relationship between government and the population, reducing the government to a simple data conduit between the public (or corporations) providing services and the public consuming them.

Open Government has made government easier to deal with by making it easier to find and consume the services you need, and by fostering community. Everything from applying for the dole, getting a grant through to organising a council supported street party is orders of magnitude easier than it was a few decades ago, mainly due to increased transparency. This has been delivered via a range of means, from publishing information on line, through providing better explanations for the services offered and promoting multi-channel access and self service delivery. The latest wave of Open Government is seeing departments integrating external services with their own, putting even more data out in public in the process, as they move from a service-provider to a service-enabler. Ultimately though, if government (as separate from politics) is focused on keeping folk feed and feeling safe then it’s doing it’s job. It’s basic Maslow3)Maslow’s hierarchy of needs @ Changing Minds.

Open Data, though, is based on the view that government should do as little as possible, hand over the data, and let individuals in the public get on with doing what they want. It’s claimed that this will provide transparency (the public has all the data, after all) as well as fostering entrepreneurs to provide innovative solutions to the many problems that confront us today.

It’s quite possible to have transparency and Open Government without the need to publish all your data, and maintain these published versions, as claimed by the Open Data proponents. People need to understand how the wheels of government turn if they want to trust it, and the best way of doing this is usually through key figures and analysis which builds a story and names the important players. Drowning people in data has the opposite effect, hiding government operation behind a wall of impenetrable details. Wikileaks was a great study in this effect, as it was only when the traditional journalists became involved, with their traditional analysis and publication weaving together a narrative the broader public could consume, that the leaks started to have a real impact. (It’s also interesting that the combination of the anonymous drop boxes being created by conventional media, and Open Leaks‘ anonymous mass distribution to conventional media, looks to be a more potent tool than the ideologically pure Wikileaks.)

Nor is treating government as an integration medium the only way to solve the world’s problems. While entrepreneurs and VCs might be the darlings of the moment, there’s many other organisations and governments which are also successfully chipping away at these problems. For every VC backed Bloom Box{{5}} who has mastered marketing hype, there’s a more boring organisation that might have already overtaken them4)New Solid Oxide Fuel Cell System Provides Cheap Grid Energy From CNG and Biogas @ IB Time UK. The entrepreneur model will be part of the solution, but it’s not the silver bullet many claim it to be.

The problem is that Open Data is the result of a libertarian political mindset rather, rather than being a solution to a pressing need. Forcing government to publish all its data sets does not provide or guarantee transparency, nor does it have a direct impact on the services offered by the government. It can also consume significant government resources that might be better spent providing services that the community needs. Publish a data set of no obvious value, or build a homeless shelter? Invest in Semantic Web enabling another data set few use, or pay for disaster relief? These are the tradeoffs that people responsible for the day-to-day operation of government are forced to make. Claims by folk like Tim Berners-Lee that magic will happen once data is out there and ontology enabled have proven to be largely wrong.

However, Open Data does align with a particular political point view. Open Data assumes that we, as a population, want such a small government model, an assumption which is completely unjustified. Some people trust, and want, the government to take responsibility for a lot of these services. Some want to meet the government somewhere in the middle. Open Data tries to force a world that works in shades of grey into a black-or-white choice that driven by a particular world view.

Deciding what and how much the government should be responsible for is a political decision, and it’s one that we revisit every time we visit the ballot box. Each time we vote we evolve, by a small amount, the role government plays in our lives5)What is the role of Government in a Web 2.0 world? @ PEG. (Occasionally we avoid the ballot box and revolt instead.) Should government own the roads? The answer appears to still be yes. Should government own power stations? Generally, no. Should they own the dams? We’re still deciding that one.

It’s in the context of the incremental and ongoing evolution of government’s role in our lives that we can best understand Open Data. Forcing Open Data onto government through mandate (as Obama did) was a political act driven by a desire to force one group’s preferred mode of operation on everyone else. You might want Open Data, but other people have differing priorities. Just because they disagree doesn’t make them wrong. The U.S. congressional report is the mechanism of government responding by documenting the benefits Open Data brought, the problems it caused, and the cost. The benefits (or not) will now be debated, and its future decided at the ballot box.

Open Government is alive and well, and is driving the evolution of government as we know it. Services are being improved, governments are increasingly their integrating services with those of the private sector, and more data will be released to support this. The assumption that all government data should remain secret unless proven otherwise has been flipped, and many public servants now assume that data should be made public unless there’s a good reason not to publish. Government is investing in moving specific information assets online, were it makes sense, and departments are opening up to social media and much closer involvement (and scrutiny) with the public sector. The mechanism of government is evolving, and this is a good thing.

Open Data, though, as an expression of a political point of view, looks like it’s in trouble.

References   [ + ]

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.