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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Open Data vs. OpenGov: This is Not a Pen

Cannot state how much I love this.
The angle here, or course, is that you are targeting what you've got to what a potential customer needs - you don't sell a pen to someone with no inclination to write.  Or who doesn't know how to write.  Or can't read.
I had a chat last night with Richard Pietro and Bianca Wylie about Open Government as a concept and Open Data as a focus.  We all agreed, as have many in the Open Community, that Open Data is a terrible selling point.  Nobody gets it.  It doesn't feel relevant.  If anything, it feels like an imposition.
Which is completely fair to say.  People aren't instinctively trying to make their lives more complex; they want to be secure, healthy, happy, have nice things and have some social relevance.  What, on the surface, does data contribute to any of these things?
Exactly.  Data is a tool.  Technology is a tool.  Tools are meant to help people solve problems - they aren't problem-solvers in and of themselves. 
Yet that's how we frame tech, or new processes, or new jargon, don't we?  This new exercise will give you flat abs (in a week - so commitment isn't that long)!  This new framework will increase employee productivity!  Cut your house-work hours in half with product X!
Poverty, social imbalance, crime?  There's surely an App for that.
That's where much of the focus of Open Gov/Open Data has gone to date - new systems for accessing data, new processes for using data, etc.  Open practitioners will get all excited about what Open Data can do and yet get frustrated when the people and media outlets don't seem to jump on the emerging opportunity.
How can people not want to wade in pools of open data? 
Well - why should they?
The concept isn't being communicated to the masses in a way that speaks of relevancy.  Accessing open data won't bring more cash into the house, won't speed up the commute, won't help the kids find work or solve the bedbug problem.  Those are the things that matter.  Open data can't solve any of that.
Data is not even a tool - it's a natural resource, like wood or oil.  It does nothing without extraction, manipulation and some packaging and transportation.  You can't drink data, nor fill your tank with it, nor bump up your kids' grades with it.
Open Data is a resource that, on its own, has no value for the average person.  It's the ink, without the pen.  If you can't make the pen relevant, how are you going to sell the ink?
Open Government isn't a pen.  It's something completely different.
We already have a government - it's something we all agree is necessary, whether it's for defending our shores from foreign threats or for coordinating and funding healthcare and infrastructure, we all know that a centralized system for coordination and representation is needed.
The problem we've all recognized, whether we've clearly articulated it or not, is that we don't believe government is working any more.  It doesn't represent us.  It isn't addressing the issues it's supposed to.  The tool is either being misused, or is completely broken.
We need government, but it isn't working.  That's a problem.  But what can be done about it?  Who's responsible for fixing it?
This is where Open Government comes in.  Open Government is about realigning the process of government so that its core purpose (strong individuals, strong society) is achieved.  That's it.
What does this mean, though, in practice? 
Open Government means representatives that listen to empowered people and co-designed policy that leaves nobody behind and moves all of us forward.
Open Government isn't a tool - it's a mission statement.  It's something we can aspire to - but can only be achieved when people work together. 
Politicians aren't Open Government.  The public service isn't Open Government.  Taxpayers aren't Open Government.
The people are Open Government.  You cannot have a government that is open without a society willing to use the tools of governance effectively.
Strong individuals = Responsible Society.  Strong Society allows for Open Government, which we need.
People don't buy a product, Simon Sinek tells us, nor do they buy what we're selling - a service, a tool, whatever.  They will buy a service, a product, but they won't invest in it simply for what it is.  This may have something to do with why voter turnout is going down - our democracy is not a product or service people feel offers proper return on investment.
This is why Open Government has quickly become a worldwide phenomenon.  It's more than a process change - it's a social movement, a revolution of global proportions.
People who have no reason to connect with each other because they're in different sectors, or on different continents are reaching out, engaging, participating, sharing and building this emerging Open Community. 

The internet is one tool for doing so - data is another.  #OGT14 was one guy, one bike and a bunch of people chatting and tweeting from venues.
What these are isn't particularly exciting - they aren't the substance of what people care about.  Why these things are is powerful beyond the ability of datasets to describe.

Why matters; it speaks to us all.
Open Data is a tool - like a pen.  We're not interested in selling you a pen.
Open Government is the story of tomorrow, being written right now.  We want you to be part of writing this story - in fact, we need you to be part of writing this story, because it cannot be complete without you.
We aren't selling you a pen.  Hopefully, we're inspiring and empowering you to write.  That's why we're doing this.
So - how might we help you join us?

UPDATED: Open isn't a process, it's not a data set - it's a movement, and an increasingly powerful one. 

Towards what, though?

I think we know the answer to that already...


  1. I like this!

    Ink is to the pen as open data is to open government. I like the natural resource analogy as well. water is to quenched thirst as open data is to ????

    People may want tools so the "it" can be easy. People want things done their way without a lot of intrusion.

    However, there are different ways to deliver virtually anything and how do we align individual expectations with critical mass or even values of society?

    Debates on all kinds of things from transit to health care demonstrate there is little consensus or even a willingness to compromise.

    I think that's where data can be a great neutralizer and we have to get people excited about that!

    There are precedents. Sports enthusiasts will eagerly check stats and spend time arguing what they show. Can we get people to see and use data about city and government in the same way? If the data were available and presented like hockey stats would we have more uptake by the average citizen?

    The challenges aren't unique to anyone trying to market a concept. The resources to break through the noise are hard to come by. It would be so much easier if Ellen or Oprah or John Stewart would talk about this - get the buzz into pop culture. But, clearly, we might have to think about selling open data the way you sell soap.

  2. People totally can get excited about data, if it's framed the right way - comes to mind. We don't do static, or numbers, well; what works with sports is the association with an individual or a tribe (er, team). Some combination of that framing (which might mean turning curators into celebrities, which is fine by me) and making data more dynamic is critical.

    Above that, though, you're right - we have a laissez-faire culture that would rather see nothing done than something that doesn't benefit us (or is seen as disproportionately favouring the other guy, whether it's rich/poor/minority/majority/gender etc.)

    People need a central concept (or figure) to believe in, something that unites them in it's potential and empowers them to be a bit more altruistic with their resources/expectations.

    Which will be...

  3. Taking the sports thing a bit further. I was reading about Derek Jeter's last game as a Yankee (last night or Sept 25th). And, sure enough, he went out as having brought in the winning run for his team. Way to leave the game!

    I also thought how great it is he was allowed to do his thing up to the end. Not discounting the fact he was still capable of doing his thing right up to the end.

    What I mean is team management and team mates worked well enough together to achieve results on the field and that would appear to be something we need to see happen in the Open Data arena.

    Time for government to acknowledge and do what they do and acknowledge and let the community do what they do. Together the efforts should lead to a great result.

    Not everyone likes sports analogies so maybe I'll leave it at that.

  4. Keith, didn't see this last quote 'til now but I agree. At TGIFTuesday two nights ago, the weather impacted turnout which required a change in event dynamics. The team had ideas, made amazing things happen; essentially I just had to give them room and maybe provide a post to grow around. The rest they did themselves and it worked.

    We need more of that kind of approach, but it requires trust, empowerment, engagement. It's doable though.