What’s happening today is an “open data” movement, said O’Reilly. “That’s what’s going to build the next platform.” As he’s said before, he thinks we’re now in an interesting platform stage where “the Internet is the operating system.” As early adopters of the new Google Chrome netbooks, a material metaphor for that notion is now online.
You can listen to the audio of Tim O’Reilly (my publisher) or download the MP3. Video may be available. later. Editor’s Note: O’Reilly Media is a supporter of Code for America and its founder, Tim O’Reilly, sits on its board.
The notion of “government as a platform,” which Tim has been speaking about for years now, is founded in his understanding of how technology companies have historically grown and flourished. Many of the anecdotes and historical underpinning of Gov 2.0 are in the webcast, “What is Gov 2.0?” in the side bar of this blog.
Here are a couple of key points from today:
Lesson 1: Platforms spread when they are ubiquitous and barriers to entry are low Lesson 2: Create an architecture of participation, like Unix. Lesson 3: Small pieces, loosely joined, which drove the growth of the World Wide Web. Lesson 4: Don’t (just) build websites, build Web services.
There’s a lot more in there that builds upon Tim’s platform paradigm for government. Give it a listen and, if you find some other insights that particularly strike you or apply to how you think about how government can leverage the power of platforms, please share it in the comments.
Building on that, if you have a moment, head on over to the White House “ExpertNet” wiki and share your thoughts on how the federal government should be designing democracy, specifically with respect to creating an open governnemt platform for citizen consultation.
Could contests help us realize the vision of participatory democracy outlined by Thomas Jefferson, where citizens collaborate with government to solve the nation’s most difficult problems? The White House hopes so. As the Federal Times reported this morning, agencies are trying to crowdsource their way out of problems.
“Government does not have a monopoly on the best ideas,” as Vivek Kundra, the nation’s first federal chief information officer, has emphasized repeatedly. To deliver on the promise of innovation for “government as a platform,” as Tim O’Reilly has framed the concept of “government 2.0,” the White House will have to find ways to empower citizens to contribute to the formation and delivery of effective and efficient policy and services.
The idea of a contest to inspire technological innovation, however, is not a novel concept reliant on Web services, born from the fertile mind of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. One of the most famous scientific achievements in nautical history was spurred by a grand challenge issued in the 18th Century. The issue of safe, long distance sea travel in the Age of Sail was of such great importance that the British government offered a cash award of £20,000 pounds to anyone who could invent a way of precisely determining a ship’s longitude. The Longitude Prize, enacted by the British Parliament in 1714, would be worth some £30 million pounds today, but even by that measure the value of the marine chronometer invented by British clockmaker John Harrison might be a deal.
What has inspired the use of the contests? “There are a number of sources,” said Thomas Kalil, deputy director for policy at OSTP. “The organization that gets the most credit for the renaissance in the use of prizes is the X Prize Foundation. The Ansari X Prize and its success was one of the things that got me excited about the potential of these challenges.” Kalil joined Tim O’Reilly and Lesa Mitchell from the Kauffman Foundation next week at the Gov 2.0 Summit to talk about turbocharging American innovation. Their conversation is embedded below:
The Applications of App Contests
“We created Apps for Democracy with Vivek Kundra and Office of the Chief Technology Officer back in 2008,” said Peter Corbett, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based iStrategy Labs. “[Kundra] said ‘Peter, we have all this open data–it’s probably the most comprehensive municipal open data catalog in the world–but it’s not really useful to anybody because it’s just raw data.”
What Corbett suggested to Kundra was to encourage citizen technologists to build Web applications and mobile services on top of that data. “Build on top of that catalog for fame — and a little bit of fortune.” Within two months, they had 47 Web, mobile and iPhone applications developed. Since then, that method and concept has spread throughout the world, said Corbett. The Department of Defense recently announced the winners of the Apps for Army contest, which could shape the future of defense acquisition.
Apps contests are not just a phenomenon in the United States, either: in Canada, an Apps for Climate Change contest just wrapped up. And in Africa, Apps for Africa is focused on leveraging the talent of local developers in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.
“There are ‘Apps for Democracy’ contests in Finland, in Australia and ones on the city level like Portland, New York and London,” said Corbett, highlighting the spread of the paradigm globally. Later this year, an Apps for Development contest will leverage an even bigger open data store soon too, explained Corbett, based upon the World Bank’s open data catalog.
A recent McKinsey article on the promise of innovation held by prize contests offered further instruction, noting that “most successful prize competitions place an equal emphasis on other elements, such as the broader change strategy, the competition itself, and post-award activities designed to enhance the impact of the prize.”
Kalil agreed with that assessment, observing that a strategy that specifies victory conditions is useful. “That’s why a clear goal, like ‘build a spaceship that can go up 200km, and then repeat that within two weeks,’ is helpful,” he said.
Will hardwiring prizes that leverage public sector investments provide a good return on the commitment of time, prize money and other resources?
“We’re finding that to be the case with the NASA Centennial Challenges Program,” said Kalil. “If NASA had had to pay for all of the capabilities created by the Lunar Lander Challenge, they would have had to put in far more money.”
Corbett said that for D.C., the city estimated the value of the first Apps for Democracy program was in excess of $2.3 million dollars, when compared to the traditional costs associated with procurement and development.
Other early results are also promising. “The government is still in early days with respect to its use of prizes,” said Kalil. “The agencies most involved have been NASA and its prizes. DARPA, particularly the DARPA Grand Challenge, have played an important role in advanced unmanned ground vehicles and robotics. The DARPA Network Challenge showed the power of social networks to gather information in a distributed way.”
The success or failure of these challenges and contests may ultimately rest upon the ability of the White House to draw the attention of innovators to the questions posed. Should we expect a live American Idol panel to judge the potential of ideas?
Kalil laughed: “That will depend on the competition.”
There are already dozens of challenges online at the new Challenge.gov today. Below, Bev Godwin from the General Services Administration talks about the new site:
Crowdsourcing innovation through social media
Contests aren’t the only platform that government entities are looking to in order to spur collaborative innovation. Another platform for communication will come from Expert Labs, a non-profit independent lab that is affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The open source ThinkUp App being developed by award-winning author Gina Trapani will be used by the White House as a crowdsourcing platform for collecting feedback on grand challenges that are submitted on Twitter.
“This first attempt is about whether we can get people to push the button,” said Anil Dash, director of Expert Labs. “The next attempt will be about seeing if we can get them to contribute to something larger, like a collaborative document.”
Dash said that to be successful, people developing these tools need know what they want to achieve at the outset. “You have to have a purpose-built tool,” he said. “You have to tap into as large of a network as possible, and you need to clearly define the outcome you want.”
Will it be possible to draw attention to huge, difficult problems using social media and the Internet? “Look at the number of people that have watched Bill Gates’ TED talk on zero carbon,” said Dash. “You don’t need to get everyone in the world to agree. It’s a matter of activating the people who want to contribute. It’s about getting the doers to do.”
In the video below, you can learn more about Think Up App from Dash and Trapani’s talk at the recent Supernova Hub conference.