(Image source: Unhindered by Talent on Flickr)
My trusty Google Alerts on all things Govt 2.0 have been feeding me a steady trickle of reaction and reportage on a draft paper from scholars at Princeton which was released last month. In the paper the authors argue that the US federal government should pretty much get out of the business of maintaining websites and simply release the data.
In order for public data to beneﬁt from the same innovation and dynamism that characterize private parties’ use of the Internet, the federal government must reimagine its role as an information provider. Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that “exposes” the underlying data. Private actors, either nonproﬁt or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to ﬁnd and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.
Typical reaction from the Web 2.0 set is along the lines of:
That’s a compelling vision of the future of open government, and one that makes a lot of sense. The idea is something like CSS — which separates the display code of a web site from the content. A government data platform would separate the content from the task of displaying it, which the commercial and non-profit spaces are likely better suited for than the government itself.
OK, well sure, makes sense that someone who’s got buckets of data that was publicly paid for (like Stats Canada, to take a Canuck example) should be making it freely available for others to use, for mashups or something similar.
This is basically the same argument that Hans Rosling makes with his Gapminder project and in this mind-melting presentation at TED from a couple of years back (presenting macroeconomics data like a sportscaster — wow!). He’s been working specifically with UN data, but the idea is still basically the same.
But to suggest that Govt should get out of the Web business altogether is absurd.
First off, there’s the privacy issue – lots of Govt data is about individual citizens. I’m not sure how well people would take it if their information was being accessed by marketers or advertisers who were able to freely connect to the social insurance database or the passport database. Think of the Facebook vs privacy controversy – and then up the angst by orders of magnitude. So while making some govt data more freely available is a good thing, there’s lots of data that the bureaucracy holds that really no one else should be able to get at. (But this isn’t really a Web publishing issue is it – it’s more about NOT publishing at all.)
More importantly, there are other compelling reasons for the existence of Government Web sites than just to provide a shell for their databases – like, well, gee, how about informing citizens about what Govt is up to? Don’t you want to know how your taxes are being used? Don’t you want to know how the government of the day is responding to issues or dealing with crises?
As a citizen, I’d be pretty miffed if I could no longer go to directly to www.parl.gc.ca to see what’s going on in Parliament. Sure, most of the time it’s a bore, and the really big news gets reported by the media and blogosphere, but I still like the idea that I can go there and see for myself what is happening — without any filter. And plus the protocol stuff is pretty funny.
Or what about getting access to government services – I would rather go to www.canada.gc.ca directly to find out how to apply for government services than have to check with a third party. And if I wanted to check on the status of my tax refund? Again I’m not sure that I’d want to go to a third party to see whether my cheque is in the mail or not (here’s an example where privacy and Web publishing come together).
Basically, framing the issue as an either/or choice doesn’t make a lot of sense for me. There is lots of room for both opening up govt databases for third party use and also to maintain a solid govt web presence.