How can government adapt to exponential technological change?

Can the agile development cycle be applied to government? Cory Ondrejka, co-founder of Second Life, offered up a provocative paean earlier this year at the Gov 2.0 LA Camp for more flexible adaption to new online platforms for citizen engagement and empowerment.

“Who will know first if the rules have changed: customers, partners, clients?”

In his talk, Ondrejka drew a fascinating parallel between today’s open government movement and an open data case study from another age: the Era of Sail.

In the The Physical Geography of the Sea,” published in the mid-1800s, a disabled sailor who could no longer serve as crew found something to do from ashore: aggregate the logs of weather, winds and current.

As Matthew Fontaine Maury started aggregating that data, he found patterns. There are better ways to travel.

After he published the data, Maury then shipped to anyone who asked for it and asked for contributions.

That became a worldwide project that created value from information. Maury saw great value in publishing the data “in such a manner that each may have before him, at a glance, the experience of all.”

Notably, President John Quincy Adams agreed. Not long afterwards, the United States created standards for reporting meteorological data and endowed the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Ondrejka suggested that government agencies and those creating applications that use open data a“when possible, write less code, get more data.” When it comes to resources, he asked “who’s cheaper: a silicon or carbon employee?”

His observation that social computing platforms will “require different level of trust, support and information” is apt; citizens now have different expectations from a government that’s gone online than existed in an analog world. As Ondrejka put it, online users represent the “largest focus group in the world.” And in that content, he says, there is a role for government innovation, and it should be occupied by both leaders and citizens.

Ondrejka provided one more “analog” example of how government data was used in the 1800s. By studying harpoon designs,  Maury found that many whales in the Pacific has previously been harpooned in the Atlantic and vice versa. He used that as evidence of a Northwest Passage. While that didn’t go well for subsequent explorers who went north and ran up against a frozen ocean, the ’49ers were able to use the data to reduce the length of time it took to get around Cape Horn. In those days, it took more than 200 days to travel from New York City to San Francisco.

As the Gold Rush was on, time was at a premium, and for “extreme clipper ships” like Flying Cloud, any advantage that could be derived from patterns in the data had economic value. A similar parallel to innovation using government data can be seen today in the use of the global positioning system (GPS) that the U.S. funded.

With any of these technologies, however, there’s a long-standing pattern in technology adoption, the data around which follows a “fairly predictable” curve, said Ondrejka.  That “linear to exponential” is something that’s been true in multiple technologies, from email to the VCR to the DVD to social media platforms like Facebook.

In government, however, applying such technology has multiple considers, including regulations, transparency and cybersecurity.“When you’re driving institutional change, you’re requiring people to be fearless,” said Ondrejka. “Experimental culture doesn’t mean just go try stuff.” Measurement is key. “Stay out of the Church of Assumption.The plural of anecdote is not evidence.”

Concerns about data ownership are also central, as are questions about vendor lock-in or the use proprietary formats. “We need to be careful about not releasing the data that taxpayers pay for,” said Ondrejka.

Ondrejka’s presentation is embedded below. You can read more of his thoughts on government 2.0 at Ondrejka.net.

Cory Ondrejka Government 2.0 LA Opening Keynote

The full hour of his talk is embedded below:

Cory Ondrejka Delivers Keynote Address to Gov20LA 2010 from Gov20LA on Vimeo.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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