What is the ROI of open government?

Putting a dollar value on clean water, stable markets, the quality of schooling or access to the judiciary is no easy task. Each of these elements of society, however, are to some extent related to and enabled by open government.

If we think about how the fundamental democratic principles established centuries ago extend today purely in terms of the abstraction of transparency, the “business value” of open government isn’t always immediately clear, at least with respect to investment or outcomes.

Transparency and accountability are core to how we think about government of, by and for the people, where a polity elects representative government. When budgets are constrained, however, city managers, mayors, controllers and chief information officers question the value of every single spending decision. (Or at least they should.)

It’s that context, of course, that’s driving good, hard questions about the business case for open government. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, said in 2011, at the launch of the Open Government Partnership in New York City, said that increased transparency into a state’s finances and services directly relates to the willingness of the businesses and other nations to invest in a country.

That’s the kind of thinking that has driven the World Bank to open up its data, to give people access to more information about where spending is happening and what those funds are spent upon. While transparency into government budgets varies immensely around the world, from frequently updated portals to paper records filed in local county offices, technology has given states new opportunities to be more accountable — or to be held accountable, by civic media and the emerging practice of data journalism.

The challenges with releasing spending data, however, are manifold, from quality assurance to the (limited) costs of publishing to access to making it comprehensible to taxpayers through visualizations and calculators.

People in and outside of government are working to mitigate these issues, from using better visualization tools to adopting Web-based online platforms for publishing. The process of cleaning and preparing data to be published itself has returns for people inside of government who need access to it. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, on average, government workers spend 19% of their days simply looking for information.

In other words, opening information government to citizens also can mean it’s more available to government itself.

Organizing and establishing governance practices for data, even if some of it will never be published online, also has significant returns. Chicago chief data officer Brett Goldstein established probability curves for violent crime, explained John Tolva, the chief technology officer of the city of Chicago, when we talked in 2011. Since then, “we’re trying to do that elsewhere, uncovering cost savings, intervention points, and efficiencies,” he said.

“We have multiple phases for how we roll out data internally, starting with working with the business owner,” said Goldstein, in an interview. “We figure out how we’ll get it out of the transactional database. After that, we determine if it’s clean, if it’s verified, and if we can sign off on it technically.”

Tolva makes the business case for open data by identifying four areas that support investment, including an economic rationale.

  1. Trust
  2. Accountability of the work force
  3. Business building
  4. Urban analytics

After New York City moved to consolidate and clean its regulatory data, city officials were able to apply predictive data analytics to save lives and money. According to Mike Flowers, the chief analytics officer of NYC, the city achieved:

  • A five-fold return on the time of building inspectors looking for illegal apartments
  • An increase in the rate of detection for dangerous buildings that are highly likely to result in firefighter injury or death
  • The discovery of more than twice as many stores selling bootlegged cigarettes
  • A five-fold increase in the detection of business licenses being flipped

California’s recent budget woes coincided with unprecedented demand for government to be more and efficient online. The state connected citizens to e-services with social media. Both California Unemployment Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles were able to deliver better services online without additional cost.

“You can tweet @CA_EDD and get answers like how long until you get a check, where to go on the website or job fairs,” said Carolyn Lawson, the former deputy director for the technology services governance division in the eServices Office of California, in an interview. “I don’t think the creators of Twitter thought it would be a helpdesk for EDD.”

These kinds of efforts are far from the only places where there are clear returns for investments. A world away from big cities and states in the United States and urban data analytics, the World Bank found the ROI in open government through civic participation and mobile phones. Mobile participatory budgeting helped raise tax revenues in Congo, combining technology, civic participation and systems thinking to give citizens a voice in government.

“Beyond creating a more inclusive environment, the beauty of the project in South Kivu is that citizen participation translates into demonstrated and measurable results on mobilizing more public funds for services for the poor,” said Boris Weber, team leader for ICT4Gov at the World Bank Institute for Open Government, in an interview in Washington. “This makes a strong case when we ask ourselves where the return of investment of open government approaches is.”

This post originally appeared on LaserFiche.

Open Government Partnership hosts regional meeting in Chile

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) has released statistics on its first 16 months since its historic launch in New York City, collected together in the infographic embedded below. This week, Open government leaders are meeting in Chile to discuss the formal addition of Argentina to the partnership and the national plans that Latin American countries have pledged to implement. [LivestreamÁlvaro Ramirez Alujas, Founder of the Group of Investigation in Government, Administration and Public Policy (GIGAPP), assisted GOP with an analysis of these OPG action plans. Alujas found that:

  • 46% are linked to commitments on public integrity
  • 27% are related to the improvement of public services
  • 14% are linked to more effectively managing public resources and
  • 12% are related to increasing accountability and corporate responsibility.

Gobierno abierto

The infographic is also available en Español:

Accountability for accountability

As I noted in my assessment of 2012 trends for Radar, last year the Economist’s assessment was that open government grew globally in scope and clout.

As we head into 2013, it’s worth reiterating a point I made last summer in a post on oversight of the Open Government Partnership:

There will be inevitable diplomatic challenges for OGP, from South Africa’s proposed secrecy law to Russia’s membership. Given that context, all of the stakeholders in the Open Government Partnership — from the government co-chairs in Brazil and the United Kingdom to the leaders of participating countries to the members of civil society that have been given a seat at the table — will need to keep pressure on other stakeholders if significant progress is going to be made on all of these fronts.

If OGP is to be judged more than a PR opportunity for politicians and diplomats to make bold framing statements, government and civil society leaders will need to do more to hold countries accountable to the commitments required for participation: they must submit Action Plans after a bonafide public consultation. Moreover, they’ll need to define the metrics by which progress should be judged and be clear with citizens about the timelines for change.

African News Challenge funds data journalism and open government tech

The post-industrial future of journalism is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet. The same trends changing journalism and society have the potential to create significant social change throughout the African continent, as states moves from conditions of information scarcity to abundance.

That reality was clear on my recent trip to Africa, where I had the opportunity to interview Justin Arenstein at length during my visit to Zanzibar. Arenstein is building the capacity of African media to practice data-driven journalism, a task that has taken on new importance as the digital disruption that has permanently altered how we discover, read, share and participate in news.

One of the primary ways he’s been able to build that capacity is through African News Innovation Challenge (ANIC), a variety of the Knight News Challenge in the United States.

The 2011 Knight News Challenge winners illustrated data’s ascendance in media and government, with platforms for data journalism and civic connections dominating the field.

As I wrote last September, the projects that the Knight Foundation has chosen to fund over the last two years are notable examples of working on stuff that matters: they represent collective investments in digital civic infrastructure.

The first winners of the African News Innovation Challenge, which concluded this winter, look set to extend that investment throughout the continent of Africa.

“Africa’s media face some serious challenges, and each of our winners tries to solve a real-world problem that journalists are grappling with. This includes the public’s growing concern about the manipulation and accuracy of online content, plus concerns around the security of communications and of whistleblowers or journalistic sources,” wrote Arenstein on the News Challenge blog.

While the twenty 2012 winners include investigative journalism tools and whistleblower security, there’s also a focus on citizen engagement, digitization and making public data actionable. To put it another way, the “news innovation” that’s being funded on both continents isn’t just gathering and disseminating information: it’s now generating data and putting it to work in the service of the needs of residents or the benefit of society.

“The other major theme evident in many of the 500 entries to ANIC is the realisation that the media needs better ways to engage with audiences,” wrote Arenstein. “Many of our winners try tackle this, with projects ranging from mobile apps to mobilise citizens against corruption, to improved infographics to better explain complex issues, to completely new platforms for beaming content into buses and taxis, or even using drone aircraft to get cameras to isolated communities.”

In the first half of our interview, published last year at Radar, Arenstein talked about Hacks/Hackers, and expanding the capacity of data journalism. In the second half, below, we talk about his work at African Media Initiative (AMI), the role of open source in civic media, and how an unconference model for convening people is relevant to innovation.

What have you accomplished at the AMI to date?

Justin Arenstein: The AMI has been going on for just over three years. It’s a fairly young organization, and I’ve been embedded now for about 18 months. The major deliverables and the major successes so far have been:

  1. A $1 million African News Innovation Challenge, which was modeled fairly closely on the Knight Challenge, but a different state of intended outputs.
  2. A network of Hacks/Hackers chapters across the continent.
  3. A number of technology support or technology development initiatives. Little pilot projects, invariably newsroom-based.

The idea is that we test ideas that are allowed to fail. We fund them in newsrooms and they’re driven by newsrooms. We match them up with technologists. We try and lower the barrier for companies to start experimenting and try and minimize risk as much as possible for them. We’ve launched a couple of slightly larger funds for helping to scale some of these ideas. We’ve just started work on a social venture or a VC fund as well.

You mentioned different outputs in the News Challenge. What does that mean?

Justin Arenstein: Africa hasn’t had the five-year kind of evolutionary growth that the Knight News Challenge has had in the U.S. What the News Challenge has done in the U.S. is effectively grown an ecosystem where newsrooms started to grapple with and accepted the reality that they have to innovate. They have to experiment. Digital is core to the way that they’re not only pushing news out but to the way that they produce it and the way that they process it.

We haven’t had any of that evolution yet in Africa. When you think about digital news in African media, they think you’re speaking about social media or a website. We’re almost right back at where the News Challenge started originally. At the moment, what we’re trying to do is raise sensitivity to the fact that there are far more efficient ways of gathering, ingesting, processing and then publishing digital content — and building tools that are specifically suited for the African environment.

There are bandwidth issues. There are issues around literacy, language use and also, in some cases, very different traditions of producing news. The output of what would be considered news in Africa might not be considered news product in some Western markets. We’re trying to develop products to deal with those gaps in the ecosystem.

What were the most promising News Challenge entrants that actually relate to those outputs?

Justin Arenstein: Some of the projects that we thought were particularly strong or apt amongst the African News Challenge finalists included more efficient or more integrated ways to manage workflow. If you look at many of the workflow software suites in the north, they’re, by African standards, completely unaffordable. As a result, there hasn’t been any systemic way that media down here produced news, which means that there’s virtually no way that they are storing and managing content for repackaging and for multi-platform publishing.

We’re looking at ways of not reinventing a CMS [content management system], but actually managing and streamlining workflow from ingesting reporting all the way to publishing.

Some of the biggest blogs in the world are running on WordPress for a CMS. Why not use that where needed?

Justin Arenstein: I think I may have I misspoken by saying “content management systems.” I’m referring to managing, gathering and storing old news, the production and the writing of new content, a three or four phase editing process, and then publishing across multiple platforms. Ingesting creative design, layout, and making packages into podcasting or radio formats, and then publishing into things like Drupal or WordPress.

There have been attempts to take existing CMS systems like Drupal and turn it into a broader, more ambitious workflow management tool. We haven’t seen very many successful ones. A lot of the kinds of media that we work with are effectively offline media, so these have been very lightweight applications.

The one thing that we have focused on is trying to “future-proof” it, to some extent, by building a lot of meta tagging and data management tools into these new products. That’s because we’re also trying to position a lot of the media partners we’re working with to be able to think about their businesses as data or content-driven businesses, as opposed to producing newspapers or manufacturing businesses. This seems to be working well in some early pilots we’ve been doing in Kenya.

What were your takeaways from the Tech Camp? Was a hybrid unconference a good model for the News Challenge?

Justin Arenstein: A big goal that we think we’ve achieved was to try and build a community of use. We put people together. We deliberately took them to an exotic location, far away from a town or location, where they’re effectively held hostage in a hotel. We built in as much free time as possible, with many opportunities to socialize, so that they start creating bonds. Right from the beginning, we did a “speed dating” kind of thing. There’s been very few presentations — in fact, there was only one PowerPoint in five days. The rest of the time, it’s actually the participants teaching each other.

We brought in some additional technology experts or facilitators, but they were handpicked largely from previous challenges to share the experience of going through a similar process and to point people to existing resources that they might not be aware of. That seems to have worked very well.

On the sidelines of the Tech Camp, we’ve seen additional collaborations happen for which people are not asking for funding. It just makes logical sense. We’ve already seen some of the initial fruits of that: three of the applicants actually partnered and merged their applications. We’ve seen a workflow editorial CMS project partner up with an ad booking and production management system, to create a more holistic suite. They’re still building as two separate teams, but they’re now sharing standards and they’re building them as modular products that could be sold as a broader product suite.

The Knight News Challenge has stimulated the creation of many open source tools. Is any of that code being re-used?

Justin Arenstein: We’ve tried to tap into quite a few of them. Some of the more recent tools are transferable. I think there was grand realization that people weren’t able to deliver on their promises — and where they did deliver on tools, there wasn’t documentation. The code was quite messy. They weren’t really robust. Often, applications were written for specific local markets or data requirements that didn’t transfer. You actually effectively had to rebuild them. We have been able to re-purpose DocumentCloud and some other tools.

I think we’ve learned from that process. What we’re trying to do with our News Challenge is to workshop finalists quite aggressively before they put in their final proposals.

Firstly, make sure that they’re being realistic, that they’re not unnecessarily building components, or wasting money and energy on building components for their project that are not unique, not revolutionary or innovative. They should try and almost “plug and play” with what already exists in the ecosystem, and then concentrate on building the new extensions, the real kind of innovations. We’re trying to improve on the Knight model.

Secondly, once the grantees actually get money, it comes in a tranche format so they agree to an implementation plan. They get cash, in fairly small grants by Knight standards. The maximum is $100,000. In addition, they get engineering or programming support from external developers that are on our payroll, working out of our labs. We’ve got a civic lab running out of Kenya and partners, such as Google.

Thirdly, they get business mentorship support from some leading commercial business consultants. These aren’t nonprofit types. These are people who are already advising some of the largest media companies in the world.

The idea is that, through that process, we’re hopefully going to arrive at a more realistic set of projects that have either sustainable revenue models and scaling plans, from the beginning, or built-in mechanisms for assessments, reporting back and learning, if they’re designed purely as experiments.

We’re not certain if it’s going to work. It’s an experiment. On the basis of the Tech Camp that we’ve gone through, it seems to have worked very well. We’ve seen people abandon what were, we thought, overly ambitious technology plans and rather matched up or partnered with existing technologists. They will still achieve their goals but do so in a more streamlined, agile manner by re-purposing existing tech.

Editors’s Note: This interview is part of an ongoing series at the O’Reilly Radar on the people, tools and techniques driving data journalism.

A Twitter chat with @VotingInfo on voting, elections and tech

Today, I hosted a Twitter chat with the Voting Information Project. They partner with states to provide official election data that developers can use to create free, open source tools for voters.

I’ve embedded a storify of our conversation below, along with a video explaining more about what they do. Of special note: VIP is partnering with Mobile Commons to let registered voters know where to vote. Just txt “where” or “donde” to 877-877.

San Francisco experiments with citizensourcing better ideas

As significant as the revisions to San Francisco’s open data policy may prove to be, city officials and civic startups alike emphasize that it’s people are fundamental to sustained improvements in governance and city life.

“Open data would not exist without our community,” said Jay Nath, the city’s first chief innovation officer, this Monday at the Hatchery.

San Francisco’s approach to open innovation in the public sector — what businesses might describe as crowdsourcing, you might think of as citizensourcing for cities — involves a digital mix of hackathons, public engagement and a renewed focus on the city’s dynamic tech community, including the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, or SF.citi.

Cities have been asking their residents how government could work better for some time, of course — and residents have been telling city governments how they could work better for much longer than that. New technologies, however, have created new horizons for participatory platforms to engage citizens, including mobile apps and social media.

Open data and civic coders also represent a “new class of civic engagement focused on solving issues, not just sharing problems,” argues Nath. “We have dozens and dozens of apps in San Francisco. I think it’s such a rich community. We haven’t awarded prizes. It’s really about sustainability and creating community. We’ve six or seven events and more than 10,000 hours of civic engagement.”

San Francisco’s dedicated citizensourcing platform is called “ImproveSF.” The initiative had its genesis as an internal effort to allow employees to make government better, said Walton. The ideas that come out of both, he said, are typically about budget savings.

The explosion of social media in the past few years has created new challenges for San Francisco to take public comments digitally on Facebook or Twitter that officials haven’t fully surmounted yet.

“We don’t try to answer and have end-to-end dialog,” said Jon Walton, San Francisco’s CIO, in an interview earlier this year. Part of that choice is driven by the city’s staffing constraints.

“What’s important is that we store, archive and make comments available to policy makers so that they can see what the public input is,” he said.

Many priorities are generated by citizen ideas submitted digitally, emphasized Walton, which then can be put on a ballot that residents then vote on and become policy by public mandate.

“How do you get a more robust conversation going on with the public?” asked Walton. “In local government, what we’re trying to do is form better decisions on where we spend time and money. That means learning about other ideas and facilitating conversations.”

He pointed to the deployment of free public Wi-Fi this year as an example of how online public comments can help shape city decisions. “We had limited funds for the project,” he said. “Just $80,000. What can you do with that?”

Walton said that one of the first things they thought about doing was putting up a website to ask the public to suggest where the hotspots should be.

The city is taking that feedback into account as it plans future wifi deployments:


View Larger Map

green dot Completed sites

blue dot Sites in progress

Walton said they’re working with the mayor’s office to make the next generation of ImproveSF more public-facing.

“How do we take the same idea and expose it to the public?” he asked. “Any new ‘town hall’ should really involve the public in asking what the business of government should be? Where should sacrifices and investments be made? There’s so much energy around the annual ballot process. People haven’t really talked about expanding that. The thing that we’re focusing on is to make decision-making more interactive.”

At least some of San Francisco’s focus has gone into mobile development.

“If you look at the new social media app, we’re answering the question of ‘how do we make public meetings available to people on handhelds and tablets’?” said Walton.

“The next generation will focus on how do they not just watch a meeting but see it live, text in questions and have a dialog with policy makers about priorities, live, instead of coming in in person.”

Rakesh Rajani: An Open Government Takes Humility

On the first anniversary of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), Rakesh Rajani, the head of Twaweza in Tanzania offered an eloquent perspective (PDF) regarding its progress and potential.

He was straightforward in his assessment: he said that there’s “at best a one in five chance” that the partnership will achieve its full potential. Rajani also offered a fundamental metric for assessing the success of OGP: “not how many countries sign on to the open government declaration, but how many commitments are delivered in countries, and how many citizens experience concrete improvements in their lives.”

In that vein, he highlighted two projects in Africa that haven’t delivered upon their promise:

Even where governments and civil society are willing, realizing the full promise of OGP commitments is not easy; executing meaningful programs is very difficult. In Kenya the Open Data portal makes an impressive level of data public for the first time, but few use it. In Tanzania, the project to enable citizens to report broken water points through their mobile phones, a project that was featured in the OGP launch film and that my organization supported, has largely failed, because people simply did not believe reporting data would make a difference. Overall, if we are honest, of the 300 or so commitments made in the OGP plans so far, the glass is more empty than full. These are still early days, but the window to learn lessons and get our act together is closing fast.

That said, Rajani remains fundamentally optimistic about the world’s movement towards open government:

“I believe that the idea of open government is as fundamental as some of our greatest achievements of the last century, such as that of the equality of men and women and equality of the races; indeed underlying them all is the deep human impulse for freedom and dignity. That is why, despite my concern about the prospects of the OGP, I am optimistic. Open government is so fundamental to being human that the arc of human history, driven by the everyday actions millions of people across the world, will inevitably bend towards openness. The challenge before us, and awesome privilege, is whether we muster the humility and good sense to be part of that movement.”

I interviewed Rajani earlier this year. If you’re interested in how civil society plays a central role in holding governments accountable, do watch:

Watch live streaming video from ogp2012 at livestream.com

Beth Noveck: think about how to open up the API of government

Former White House deputy CTO for open government Beth Noveck recently gave a TED Talk on a “more open source government. For more perspective in the vein of “open,” read CNN’s TED summary, “What if you could make anything you wanted?” Noveck’s talk is embedded below:

“…start by teaching young people that we live, not in a passive society, a read-only society, but in a writable society, where we have the power to change our communities, to change our institutions, that’s when we begin to really put ourselves on the pathway towards this open government innovation”