The public sector openness

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My first post here on the blog was titled “The disruptiveness of the open walled telecom garden” and now I venture into another topic concerning the benefits of being open. I suspect a pattern! I want to discuss openness in the public sector. The area is highly interesting due to two main points. The public […]

My first post here on the blog was titled “The disruptiveness of the open walled telecom garden” and now I venture into another topic concerning the benefits of being open. I suspect a pattern!
I want to discuss openness in the public sector. The area is highly interesting due to two main points.

  • The public sector is not a profit hunting organisation – hence they should, from a “business” perspective, be quite ready to share their internal data and services with the public.
  • The public sector is, by default, surrounded by many more restrictions than private companies which put an interesting twist on the openness, as in what can they share from an integrity point of view.

I will be rather blunt and ignore the second fact for this particular post. I am sure that there are tons of limitations from a legal and moral point of view on what you can share but I will choose to ignore that at this particular moment. Because the ideas of what you can do are still very interesting and valid.
What services should the public sector provide us with? Quite a large topic to cover in a blog post (and possibly quite controversial depending on your political alignment) so I will generalize quite broadly. They provide us with services that can be consumed, such as health care, cleaning the streets, schooling and some kind of social welfare system. However, the public sector also provides us with infrastructural services such as building roads, deploying sewer systems and even the platform for democratic elections. There is a fundamental difference between these services. The first category is, as stated previously, is consumption, while the other service is a kind of investment that does not fulfill its true value until someone creates a new service on top of it. A road becomes more valuable when a truck loaded with wine bottles goes from the winery to the store shelf. I want to focus on the latter category because this is where I think we really can take the public sector a giant leap forward. But the infrastructure I think of is not the roads and the bridges; it is the data that resides in our public sectors’ massive server parks. Let me formulate an example:
Every morning you wake up because the truck that collects the trash cans in your area stops right below you bed room window. The real estate broker never told you about this and you believe that the price for this apartment should be at least 20% less than what you paid. Could this situation have been avoided? I would say yes. Suppose that the city where you live exposed the mapping data of all trash can collection points and truck routes through a standardized web API. Someone, I don’t know who, would pick that data up and make a service from it. Possibly a real estate broker but anyone could do it and it would have a value for the citizens of that particular city. The reason that I compare such data to infrastructure is the fact that other parties than the public sector can build effective business upon it just as business since decades has flourished due to the fact that roads exists.
Let me give you another example. Most cities today provide a service where you can get directions in the public transport system. You tell the system where you are and where you want to go and it will come back to you with a suggestion for the best way of getting there. On public transport that is.
I say, maintain those services but also publish the data freely over an API. All routes, all stops, all interruptions, all such data. Think of the possibilities; someone could build a service which compares cab fare to public transport in terms of cost per saved minute if you take a cab instead. Different events could add a very simple transportation guide right in their own website or on their Facebook invitation. Another company could improve the public web service and add additional layers such as graphical representation of current state of public transport, i.e. delays or alternate routes. Someone could make a connection to Google Maps Street view and show the way to the closest bus stop going to the city centre. A fifth developer thinks of a great idea where they integrate GPS functionality in a modern cell phone to create a contest on how to go through the subway system as fast as possible. It gets tremendous traction amongst kids in high school creating the best marketing buzz for the subway in a long time. At the same time, all GPS data is collected to form the basis of improvement of bus and subway scheduling. And all this could be a reality because they decided to share data openly. This is not a fantasy; this is what occurs on a daily basis all over the world in different fashions.
Wesabe, an online money saving service, recommends cheaper stores in your particular area by combining millions of card and bank transactions with personalized comments on what has been bought. They are feeding of what banks and card companies usually just regard as a waste of server space and a source of compliance issues to create value. The same thing can be done with the vast amounts of data that you can find within the public sector.
What I have outlined here are just two examples of data that the public sector could share and where other people and companies could build additional services on top. The city or the government does not have to invent or fund all services by themselves. By sharing data they could invite the best entrepreneurs, the best innovators and the brightest minds to collaborate with them in creating the next wave of public services.

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