Last weekend saw a BarCamp in Amsterdam around government and the impact of web2.0. GovCamp NL was inspired by the GovCamp in London last year. Thanks to James Burke and Peter Robinett about 25 people, with about a third government workers, found themselves in the former offices of de Volkskrant.
I arrived a bit late, so I had to miss out on the first session where Arjen Kamphuis talked about his past work to get government committed to open standards, open source, and open data. Shame I missed that, but good to see him again. Sessions I did attend talked about current or past projects on how to use the internet as a new/additional public sphere (like denhaag.org), how to increase participation (like with buurtlink.nl, or having a more direct say in how your taxes are spend), and how to use internet as additional channel for public hearings on policies.
GovCamp vs PolitCamp
In comparison PolitCamp in Graz the week before was more about building awareness, amongst politicians and by extension government, that something had changed at all. GovCamp Amsterdam was more about doing tangible projects. Differences in penetration of ADSL between the highly urbanized Netherlands and relatively sparsely populated Austria probably help to explain this. A common thing however was the seemingly widespread notion that ‘those politicians’ and ‘the government’ were somehow doing it all ‘wrong’ and are ‘not getting it’, without acknowledging the fact that ‘the government’ does not exist, and all those structures are filled with people who are trying to make sense of the world just as much as I am and you are. First, if you know better, you are also the one to teach better. Second, no system or structure will make itself irrelevant over night. We will have to be there to help make the transition. Either by building alternate structures, or by helping the existing ones change. I think I’m doing the former in my personal life, and the latter with my clients. An activist stance is needed here more than a lamenting/knowing-it-better pose. That is why I was pleased to see politicians in Graz making an effort to attend, and was as pleased to see civil servants in Amsterdam actively experimenting and exploring how to change their work, while keeping focussed on the goals of their work.
For a lot of participants the BarCamp format was new. It was generally received as creative and informal, but also with some apprehension as to the lack of ‘steering’. If however at a BarCamp you think the discussion is not addressing the real issues, start your own discussion and session right then and there, instead of asking for more steering. The fact that this BarCamp took place, that it brought web-developers and civil servants together the way it did, is already proof that it is not the lack of steering that makes things impossible. No steering was involved after all to bring the event about. It is important to remember the basic ‘rules’ of open space engagement here: whoever is there are the right people, whatever is addressed is the right topic, it starts and ends when it does, and if you feel you can’t contribute to or learn from a conversation you’re in, start or join a different conversation immediately.
I think James and Peter made sure a pleasant event took place. The catering was fine, thanks to the funding by XS4All, and the sunny roof terrace was a pleasant element in the mix. The wifi was dependable too. So thanks!
Open Data Revisited
Opening up government data was a topic at GovCamp as it was in Graz last week. It came up in some of the sessions, it was a talking point during lunch. My major take-away for GovCamp therefore was that a small group found itself around the task of making inventory of what datasets are actually held within Dutch government agencies. With that inventory list in hand a concerted effort can be made to open them up one by one with technologies like RDF, SPRQL and OWL. I think this is an important thing to do, and am curious how it will develop and what I can contribute.