Last weekend the Cognitive Cities conference took place in Berlin. It was very well organized and a inspiring event. Over 300 participants looked at how our digital networked era and cities can co-evolve. One of the organizers, Igor Schwarzmann, approached me to speak there and we settled on Open Government as a theme: how open government might be of help for cities.
This posting is a write-up of my talk “Spice Up Your City: Just Add OpenGov“.
Spice Up Your City: Just Add OpenGov, by Ton Zijlstra
Cities are complex adaptive systems. That means there is no predictability as to how they evolve and take shape, but you can see how things, once they are there, came to be. We, as human beings, immediately recognize the patterns and structures that emerge in cities. So much so that if someone mimicks those structures and patterns, for instance with pots, pans and other kitchen utensils, we instantly associate it with city scapes.
We also intuitively know on a deep level what cities do for us, that they are serendipity hubs: a heady mix of ideas, people and resources that bounce into and off each other, making all kinds of new combinations possible. That intuition is what is worded in the REM quote. Cities, in short, are very exciting things.
Government on the other hand is mostly seen as much less exciting. And open government can be just as stale. Particularly so if you see open government as something you do for the sake of transparency. Either because you are a civil servant who thinks you need to do it for citizens. Or because you are an activist who thinks the concrete silos of government need to be cracked open so others can see what is going on inside. In both cases it is not for the sake of government or the people creating transparency itself, but for the imagined and assumed sake of unnamed ‘others’.
I however hold a different view of open government, one that comes with a lot more excitement.
First, for government itself, open government is a ‘change or die’ issue. This is, as Chris Taggart says, the wave of digital disruption hitting government that previously hit the music and publishing industries. Governments institutions and work flows are ‘business models’ from an era when the logistic costs of organizing and scaling were quite different. In the digital era trust in government, as well as its ability to act, will only survive if government opens up and enters into a much more networked way of interacting with the public. If they don’t we all will see there is no wizard behind the curtain and simply route our actions around it, like is the norm in a network where some nodes fail.
I see open government as consisting of two components: participation + open government data. Now participation in the ‘classic’ way of being consulted at the start of some policy initiative is not what will make open government exciting for citizens. However, participation is actually synonymous with life itself, being an active person in your own social environment. Urban farming is a great example of this. Inner city Detroit has no shops that sell fresh vegetables anymore, and those without cars cannot drive out to shops that do outside the city. So urban farming emerged. Now that is participation!
Open data at the same time is a rich untapped resource. Government holds enormous amounts of data about all aspects of society, to be able to execute its tasks. An EU legal framework is in place that, except when privacy and things like state security are concerned, allows citizens to get and re-use that data. Practice is not quite there yet, but ideally open data is data shared in open standards, machine readable, and comes with no legal strings attached.
Participation and open data need each other. Participation needs to be informed by data, and likewise the re-use of data lies in participation.
Together, forming open government, they make government as a platform possible, where government asks itself what type of data and information needs to be released so citizens and organizations can come up with the answers to the questions that politicians and policy makers ask. This in contrast to traditional government, where citizens and organizations ask, and politicians and civil servants are expected to come with solutions.
The place where this can be expressed best and most tangible is right in our own living environments, our cities and neighborhoods.
That is where all the things happen that matter to us directly. So you get services where you can check if a restaurant is safe and clean enough to go eat, and platforms where citizens can report issues, or discuss what is going on in there neighborhood. This way you can inform yourself and your decisions.
Using singular data sources can however lead to a pitfall, of making visualizations that are really meaningless, that do not inform at all.
Much more interesting is when multiple data sources are combined and lead to new insights. That is like us all becoming Dr Snow, who figured out the connection between cholera and water quality in London in the 19th century.
But why stop at simply informing ourselves, why not also use data to activate ourselves? Why not use data so we can undertake things again? Like the Danish findtoilet.dk which allows people with bladder problems to go out into the city again without having to fear they will not know where the nearest toilet is in case of need. Or alerts send to you when air quality predictions cross a threshold you have set yourself.
And why not go even one step further? You can start augmenting government data with your own data. Having your own sensors collect data and publish them, like the Dutch sound sensor net created by citizens, or people feeding data into Pachube.com. When government publishes data it turns out that people and organizations are willing to also release data. This is happening in international aid, as well as visible in for instance the food industry.
But you can go one more step further still. That is building your own sensors, as well as actuators. Create data, and feed data from other sources into smart devices you build. So that these devices can take actions, based on the received data. The means for building those devices are available to you in FabLabs.
In this stage, we are truly acting like we should in complex environments: data form probes, and measurement has become intervention. That way we can build much more resilient communities. Cities are the perfect platform for data in the context of action and participation. Open government is a key ingredient to spice up our cities.
It does assume one thing though: your knowledge of a problem is leading, and coding and data skills are the literacy you need and use. Not the other way around. You need intimate knowledge of the issue you are addressing.
So here’s my challenge and invitation to you, to bring open government into play in your city:
Find an issue that matters to you, that you own emotionally. Think about what data you need to address the issue. Then go to government and get that data. But realize that ‘the government’ does not exist. It consists of a multitude of organizations and bodies, and all of those are filled with people. So you just need to find one single civil servant that is willing to help you. I found my single civil servant in my city government, the guy in the blue shirt in the picture, who has been working with me and others to release data. You need to go out and find your guy in the blue shirt.
Make it real, make it matter to you, make it count. All it takes is just a little shove, to open things up.
(the conference organizers plan to make videos of the talks available soon)