How to Modernize Government Using Open Data Sources


In a previous blog post about modernizing government, I talked about why open data matters, and how it can be a tool of democracy. In today’s post I want to focus on open sources and some of the opposition posed towards open source development models. Open source as a development model, and having open data, is important for local government 3-1-1s because it helps provide more access to municipal information, demonstrates trends in the community, and supports accountability.

It’s not unusual for people to get these two confused, so lets start with some definitions courtesy of (fan favorite) Wikipedia:

Open Data: “Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.”

Open Source: “In production and development, open source as a development model promotes a universal access via a free license to a product’s design or blueprint, and universal redistribution of that design or blueprint, including subsequent improvements to it by anyone.”

Like providing open data, using an open source digital strategy supports a transparent culture–especially for 3-1-1 systems–but also allows agencies to receive the benefits of an open source process. Govloop, in a documentation that highlights government trends, outlines the importance of open source in government nicely, saying, “Open source development accelerates government’s digital transformation by allowing agencies to reap the benefits of others’ progress. Secondly, it creates a transparent process that can foster public faith in these new initiatives…an open source approach ensures that digital initiatives will be maximally effective because it provides channels for users to report bugs and provide suggestions for improvement.” In summary, open source models allow both internal and external customers the ability to provide real-time feedback, which is valuable to all parties. What this looks like within a 3-1-1 environment, for example, is having the ability to see when a service requested has been received by a department, or having real-time dashboards that show what type of requests are being taken.

Like any model, open source has its critics. However, the primary criticism of open source is more conceptual than anything else, and rests in both theoretical incongruence, when applied to government, and cultural opposition. Ephemeral Journal published a compelling article by Nathaniel Tkacz on this very subject: “From Open Source to Open Government: A critique of open politics.” Tkacz points out that the idea of openness within a political sphere is rarely examined semantically and, in practice, political openness establishes a sensibility amongst citizens without defining limitations.

You can see how this could potentially be problematic for local government, but let’s not disregard our own democratic structure. If we view government as an entity that drives social change through democracy, than we must view the “(re)emergence of ‘the open,’” as Tkacz calls it, as a reflection of the government’s soci-transformative nature. Modernizing government also requires adapting to modern ideas. Promoting universal access is necessary because democracy requires informed citizens. The goal of any 3-1-1 is to serve the customer, and to provide them with tools that empower them. Open data is a tool that empowers citizens. In this way, an open source approach is both necessary and important for 3-1-1, and should be a priority for all branches of government.

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