The Root, Branches, and Fruit of Government as an Open Platform

Tim O’Reilly often describes the government as a platform, John Geraci provided us with the The Four Pillars of an Open Civic System, and Micah Sifry offered the Three Branches of We.gov. Here I present The Root, Branches, and Fruit of Government as an Open Platform.

The recent Gov 2.0 Summit was primarily focused around “Government as a Platform” and this theme was interpreted in a variety of ways. Many of the talks at both the Expo and the Summit used terms like “2.0,” “platform,” and “open” ambiguously. I personally use the label “open government” interchangeably with what I understand to be “government 2.0,” but what does “open” really mean within the context of government and technology platforms?

The web and democracy as open platforms.

The web and democracy as open platforms.

The Principles of an Open Platform

I use “open” to refer to principles of transparency, participation, and accessibility. These principles are already instilled in the fabric of democratic society and they are now becoming even more widely applied through the web. In a platform such as the web, transparency is served with “open data,” participation with “open interfaces”, and accessibility with “open standards”.

Open data” simply means information that is accessible to the entire public. The word “accessible” helps qualify the data as not simply human readable, but also machine-readable using a format that anyone can parse. The defacto instance of this on the web is the HTML file format. In government technology efforts such as data.gov, the Washington D.C. data catalog, and the BART developers center are examples of government providing open data for a range of data types.

Open interfaces” are what allow the public to participate with this information by not just reading, but also writing and editing. This provides a basic platform to allow new ways of using the information. The defacto instance of this on the web is HTTP and higher level RESTful APIs. In government technology, interfaces like Washington D.C.’s 311 API exemplify how open interfaces can enable greater participation.

Open standards” and neutral policies that govern the data, interfaces, and network protocols are what provide the accessibility that enable the platforms themselves to be distributed and evolve to serve new purposes. Such open standards might be format definitions or protocol specifications that are free for all to use. This is the case with HTML and HTTP. In government technology, GTFS is an example of an open standard for transit schedule data that allows interoperability between distributed transit agencies and different applications built around the standard.

Open information and open interfaces without an open standard still provide a basic platform, Twitter and the iPhone are great examples, but these are not as equally accessible or resilient as truly “open platforms” like StatusNet or Android for example.  Based on the principles of transparency, participation, and accessibility the world wide web and by analogy, democracy, are examples of open platforms.

American Democracy as an Open Platform

To compare the principles of the web with those of democracy may not be a perfect analogy, but it serves as a framework for understanding why open platforms are important within a democratic society. Tim O’Reilly’s opening keynote at the Gov 2.0 Expo drew the parallel between the internet and Thomas Jefferson’s model of government: “It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from one great national one down through all its subordinates, until it ends in the administration of each man’s farm by himself.” Likewise, Tom Steinberg hinted at this in his Gov 2.0 Summit talk when he questioned the discrepancy between public access to roads versus free speech on government websites.

The web is the most powerful communication platform in human history and it has only been able to achieve this through principles of openness every step of the way. Likewise, a healthy democracy can be seen as the most successful and resilient form of government in human history, but how exactly do the principles of an open platform like the web relate to democracy?

Free Citizens: By analogy, open data on the web is like a free citizen in a democracy. These are the fruits of an open platform. Again, by “open data” I mean data that is publicly accessible to see, use, and exchange. Free citizens are people who are free to meet and exchange ideas in public as is the case through the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly.

Democracy: The open interfaces and protocols that manage data are much like the government branches and processes that oversee citizens in a democracy. Again, by “open interface” I mean the public can do more than see and discuss the data, they can also participate in the functions that create and maintain the data itself. The analog is a participatory decision making processes with shared public responsibilities and services. This is called American democracy and it doesn’t just mean voting on election day but engaging in an ongoing process of participatory society.

The Constitution: With the web there is no single service provider, web server, or web browser that has central control over our access and use of the system, we are protected by the neutrality of network policies and the openness of web standards. Likewise in democracy there is no individual or organization that has central authority over the system. Free speech and democracy cannot be taken from us by anyone in government, they are guaranteed by the constitution. The constitution is the codified foundational root of American governance.

This blurred platform analogy often reveals itself in recent uses of government technology. If we’re talking about government as a democracy, then new developments like the shared software development of Apps for Democracy or the participatory policy making of The Open Government Directive are not as much government 2.0 as they are finally beginning to realize the potential of government 1.0. With open platforms like the web we are now able to bring the best examples of closely involved democracy to government structures that have become too large and bureaucratic. To better achieve such potential we should apply the core principles of openness in government technology just as we do in democracy itself.

The Crux of Open Platforms

The crux of both American democracy and the web is their foundational roots of accessibility. They are codified to guarantee unbiased and uncompromised access. This principle isn’t simply a guarantee to those using the platform, it’s also a quality that allows the system to be viral and resilient by scaling out in a distributed model.

Accessibility as a Guaranteed Standard

As we’ve seen with the debate over net neutrality and the recent launch of www.OpenInternet.gov, the connection between open platforms like the web and democracy are not simply the basis of an analogy, they’re part of a tightly intertwined relationship.

The arguments for net neutrality echo the arguments for open platforms in general. Even without network neutrality the internet would still be an impressive platform, but by not offering equal access to all content, that internet wouldn’t be the type of egalitarian platform that would support the ideals of a democratic society or “Government as a Platform.” The fight to maintain network neutrality and open web standards is the digital analog to the fight for civil rights, to live out the true meaning of its creed: all are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights.

Accessibility as a Distributed Model

The codified accessibility of open platforms is not simply important in principle, this openness can also provide stability and scalability. A natural consequence of building around an open standard or codifying the principles of democracy is a more widely distributed model. An interesting example of a platform that is not open is Twitter. The lack of an open standard within Twitter is often inconsequential because it has such an open API and the data model is simple enough to allow high degrees of interoperability. However, Twitter’s reliance on a central service can cause the platform to crash. In fact, Twitter crashed in the middle of the Gov 2.0 Summit during a session about cloud computing with the ominous title “Clouds Over Washington: The Cloud and How It Can Serve Government.” While Twitter was down I enjoyed the seamless process of creating an Identi.ca account using OpenID with identity exchange and also realized that one can distribute the Twitter platform through API clones. The emphasis on checks and balances within American democracy not only helps to provide stability through the separation of powers, but it also allows democracy to scale out in multiple directions.

Carl Malamud referred to government as an operating system, but I think the analogy is only useful when talking about a single autonomous level of government. Open platforms in government could be distributed or clustered systems, with entities like city governments or specific agencies being individual instances running various operating systems or different configurations. Like the web, this kind of distributed architecture allows for shared resources both in terms of data and functionality, while still allowing individualized nuance. Since these platforms are paid for by the public to serve the public, every opportunity should be taken for cost-savings and efficiency. In many cases publicly funded efforts exist precisely to better serve the public through coordination as standards: 911 services and fire codes are examples. Ideally technology that is publicly funded should be released into the public domain or under a liberal license to help maintain the benefits of accessibility. Good examples of projects that followed this model are the development of the computer, the internet, and the web.

Accessibility Begets Accessibility

As with laws, the challenge with good standards is achieving consensus. Fortunately with code one can more easily experiment with reference implementations and rapid iteration before establishing a standard. As Clay Johnson says, “Coding is quicker than consensus.” I would articulate this to say that if made open, code can organically lead to consensus more quickly than with standards bodies. That is to say standards can be established simply by making code openly accessible and showing how useful it is. This is what do-ocracies are good for.

Smart Growth and Sustainability

By recognizing and nourishing the foundational roots of accessibility we share with our participation in open platforms like the web and democracy, the hope is that we can grow and sustain a more engaged and fruitful society for all.

Thanks to Ian Bicking, Nick Grossman, and Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock for their input and feedback in writing this post.

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