How can the power of the web solve the world’s most pressing problems?
What is Web 2.0? In 2005, it meant geeks embracing a set of principles and practices: using the web as a platform, harnessing collective intelligence, data is the new “Intel inside,” and others. By 2010, many of the dominant companies and services that embody or fuel Web 2.0 have become global brands: Google, Craigslist, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and a host of new mobile communities or platforms. These companies are often defined by what they allow users to do: upload pictures or video, stay connected to friends, track and discover news, save bookmarks, create communities, etc.
For non-geeks, Web 2.0 meant the online world became a place you could publish and participate. It became about everyone with an Internet connection exploring an interactive web. Instead of static brochureware, the web became a read/write medium, with a social layer that accelerated quickly. As with most technical innovations, the evolution of an Internet operating system has been incremental and cumulative.
The same is true of government 2.0, or “Gov 2.0,” which Tim O’Reilly defined as thinking like a platform provider that can bring services to citizens using government data and the creative power of the private sector.
Gov 2.0 has often been defined by its utility to help citizens or agencies solve problems, either for individuals or the commons. That’s what the giants of the Web 2.0 era have been able to do successfully outside of the government world, and that’s the paradigm that many Gov 2.0 events have been exploring.
In that vein, Gov 2.0 is not defined by social media any more than Web 2.0 is. Collaborative software — including blogs, wikis, RSS, interactive video and social networks — is an elemental feature of Gov 2.0, but it does not encompass all of it. For example, a congressional hearing this summer defined Government 2.0 in the context of Web 2.0 technologies, balancing potential security and privacy issues against innovation and cost savings.
So what does Web 2.0 mean to Gov 2.0? Many aspects cannot be discerned at this point, but one thing is certainly clear: It’s about all of us. Creating a smarter, more innovative government matters to every citizen.
In their analysis of “Web 2.0 five years on, John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly wrote that “if we are going to solve the world’s most pressing problems, we must put the power of the web to work — its technologies, its business models, and perhaps most importantly, its philosophies of openness, collective intelligence, and transparency. And to do that, we must take the web to another level. We can’t afford incremental evolution anymore.”
In his advice on the direction of the first Government 2.0 Summit, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra urged the technology community gathering for the Gov 2.0 Summit not to focus on the successes of Web 2.0 in government, but rather on the unsolved problems that confront the country.
That community that Chopra has looked to for ideas came together at the Web 2.0 Expo last week in New York City. In no particular order, following are 10 lessons from Web 2.0 that could be applied to government. If you also attended the conference or have been thinking about the topic, please share your thoughts in the comments.
Work on stuff that matters
Thinking about the future is an obvious place to start when looking at the lessons of Web 2.0 for Gov 2.0. Tim O’Reilly recently spoke about the big issues that we all confront and some of the long-term trends that confront the tech industry, citizens and government alike: financial crises, income inequality, soaring healthcare costs, to name a few. Humanity as a whole has even greater challenges.
What does this mean to government? Can citizens collaborate with officials, workers and one another to apply a civic surplus to open government? During the 2008 election, then Senator Barack Obama said that “the challenges we face today — from saving our planet to ending poverty — are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.” As President, finding solutions to grand challenges means that Obama is looking again to the technology community for answers. Whether he finds them will be a defining element in judging whether a young Senator from Illinois that leveraged Web 2.0 to become President can tap into that collective intelligence to govern in the Oval Office.
Explore the power of platforms
This year, the overarching theme for the Web 2.0 Expo was platforms. In an increasingly mobile, social, and real-time world, Facebook and Twitter have continued to grow in popularity as the globe’s No. 1 and No. 3 social networking websites.
This year Anil Dash, director of Expert Labs, talked with Ryan Sarver, Twitter’s director of platform, and Bret Taylor, the chief technology officer of Facebook. Both have been entrusted with maintaining and improving the application programming interfaces (API) that enable millions of developers to build apps upon their platforms. Twitter’s success has been driven by acting as a platform for thousands of such apps, allowing third parties to add functionality to Twitter that the relatively tiny company could not. While that strategy has evolved as Twitter itself has matured, Facebook has gone even further toward allowing value to be created on its platform, in particular social gaming. Zynga, the makers of the wildly popular Farmville game, has grown dramatically since 2007, with a potential valuation of some $5 billion. Facebook’s platform for adding a social layer is well-liked: Five months after launching social plugins, Taylor said that about 2 million websites have added them.
What could embracing platforms mean for government? Making community health data as useful as weather data has potential. Open source may improve healthcare through NHIN Direct. Standardizing APIs, empowering users, and working with developers can be a crucial complement to publishing open data online, as may be true in rebooting FCC.gov. As Nat Torkington has pointed out, however, “government-as-platform doesn’t absolve us from asking what services should be provided by a government.”
Make better data-driven decisions
How will the e-commerce platforms of tomorrow compare to the engines of today? Given Charlie Kim’s analysis on data-driven e-commerce, we can expect them to be smarter, leaner and more efficient. Next Jump, which Kim founded during the .com boom, uses data to turn browsing into buying. There’s no question that real-time monitoring is important to cybersecurity and fighting insider threats. Just as sentiment analysis at the point of sale and understanding of customer behavior improves Web 2.0 businesses, real-time monitoring of log management is crucial to improved cybersecurity.
What does data-driven e-commerce mean for government? If the government is to provide citizens with better e-services, save energy through data center consolidation or unlock innovation through healthcare information, the lessons of data-driven e-commerce are relevant.
Crowdsourcing can empower citizens
Yes, the term “crowdsourcing” has become a buzzword. That does’t mean the underlying phenomenon doesn’t have immense power. After Lukas Biewald of CrowdFlower and Leila Chirayath Janah of Samasource stepped off stage to talk about “the future of work,” they’d offered a reminder of how channeling crowdsourcing into distributed work effects government, research and the workforce.
What does crowdsourcing mean to government? The power of empowered citizens to improve communities and collaborate with government showed how this Web 2.0 idea is an elemental component of the future of Gov 2.0 and participatory platforms.
Location, location, location
Location isn’t just significant in the real estate game. No one was surprised to see Dennis Crowley focusing on the power of location-based social networking, APIs and location data at the Web 2.0 Expo. After all, he founded Foursquare, which just passed 3 million users. The bigger question that the success of Foursquare inspires might be whether location-based services could increase civic engagement in millennials. In September, Foursquare announced a partnership with CNN that would give a “healthy eater” badge to anyone who checks in at one of 10,000 farmers’ markets.
What does this mean for government? Don’t expect Michelle Obama to check in after she “gets up and moves” to the White House farmers’ market quite yet. But citizens may be another matter. “We’ve seen time and time again how Foursquare can be used to drive people to action, and CNN’s campaign is a perfect example of how brands can use the platform to promote good behavior, such as healthy eating,” said Crowley. Foursquare has embraced a platform approach in allowing other services to build on top of its API. If it goes ahead and creates civic badges for volunteering or registering to vote, Foursquare could become a platform for civic involvement. The 1,600-pound gorilla, however, is Facebook. If the social networking giant puts more resources behind its Places product, government could have both new opportunities and privacy risks to consider.
Find better filters for information overload
When CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric said that we need better filters for a tsunami of news at Web 2.0 Expo, she was was expressing a frustration common to government officials, media and citizens alike. Will hanging out with the geeks improve the quality network news? Judging from Couric’s comments, she’s using online platforms to share what she’s reading and interact with the people formerly known as her audience. Now that she’s joined the online conversation, however, she’s beset with the same challenges of finding relevant news, sourcing information and attributing material. Given her old school journalism chops, much of that will come easily. But identifying and mastering digital tools that make the real-time web relevant while retaining a healthy flow of news won’t be a walk in the park.
Will hanging out with the geeks change government as well as broadcast media? Maybe. The consequences of successfully applying the lessons of Web 2.0 to Gov 2.0 have the potential be even more far reaching in government. It’s in the self interest of traditional media to support a more educated citizenry with greater digital literacy. Living in an information bubble with like-minded people is both “limiting and dangerous to a democracy,” said Couric during her talk. That’s one reason that the Knight Commission was created, and why the information needs of this democracy must be considered as technology continues to evolve.
Design for how people live and work
“Design is really part of life. In particular, it’s a fundamental ingredient for progress,” said Paola Antonelli. senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). “When technology people and when scientists create revolutions or create something new, designers are the ones who make these revolutions into objects that people can use.”
What’s the Web 2.0 lesson on design for Gov 2.0? It’s simple: Design matters. Well designed websites help citizens find key services. Better designed signs make for safer traffic patterns, evacuations, safety precautions or access to key utilities. Infographics can explain crucial public health messages.
Live in the future
What can pornography, neuroscience and maps teach people about the future of media and business? Plenty. Each has driven the web’s development. Today is no different. Congressional representatives may be unhappy with people accessing pornography from government computer equipment, but the technology that’s driven the industry deserves further study on its own merits. As New York Times technology writer Nick Bilton observed in his talk, we’re now living in the future that science fiction authors imagined in decades past.
What do changes in media consumption mean for government? Citizens are searching more for information online, and in more places, than ever before. They will interact with legislators and consume e-services outside of normal business hours. Government officials building the infrastructure for a more participatory digital republic should consider how to reach those digital natives while retaining real world facilities for those left behind by the digital divide.
Look to HTML5 and mobile access
It’s not hard to see that the future is mobile, as cellphone ownership skyrockets around the world and wireless broadband data usage soars. These days, it seems like there’s an app for nearly anything and everything. When Daring Fireball’s John Gruber talked about Apple and the Open web, the importance of learning HTML5 as a means of offering the best experience to all mobile platforms shone through. “Web 1.0 is http in your browser. Web 2.0 is http everywhere,” said Gruber. If Web 2.0 means people will be accessing the web everywhere, delivering rich media experiences that are platform-neutral is crucial.
What does HTML5 mean for government? As government entities create new .gov sites and invest in new apps, it’s important to think of how the open web has evolved. Sure, Flash and HTML may be converging, but some actions speak volumes: “One of the major technology decisions we’re dealing with is mobile platforms,” said Brett Taylor, the CTO of Facebook. “We’re doubling down on HTML 5.” Why? It’s about giving the most people the best mobile experience possible, without requiring people to buy an expensive smartphone to use an app.
Learn how to Mayor
Web 2.0 has also been driven by laughter, from the LOLcats to Rickrolling to the steady march of shared funny news. That’s why it makes sense to end with Baratunde Thurston’s talk on “how to Mayor,” where he takes “Foursquare politics to the next level.” The Onion’s web editor understands the confluence of technology and humor better than most, and at Web 2.0 Expo he demonstrated that mastery to a live audience.
What does humor mean to government? Business, politics and government, after all, are often deadly serious. If Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates manages to “leave them laughing,” however, you can see how humor can be a useful tool. When Thurston added humor to a healthy Foursquare competition between friends, the result was a valuable lesson in how new media can be put to good use for campaigns. In the heated election season to come, a little laughter to the partisan wrangling will be a welcome respite. While the political videos that go viral are often the misfires, using technology to discover and speak to the needs, desires and sentiments of constituents where they live and work will still matter. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “all politics is local.” In a world where Web 2.0 includes location data, mapping mashups and social media, we can expect that aphorism to continue to ring true.
Credit: Katie Couric photo by James Duncan Davidson.