As most conversations about government 2.0 and open government revolve around how governments can be more transparent, offer new avenues for citizens to participate, push a goldmine of machine readable data for individuals and businesses to extract value from, there is another, subtler angle that is worth considering. This is part of what I often call the other side of the coin or the reverse flow of information, illustrated in the picture below that I have used a number of times.
We do produce and share information (community data (3) in the picture) in various forms: pictures on Flickr, videos on YouTube, opinions and stories on blogs, our connections on Facebook and LinkedIn, and so forth. As we all know, this information is regularly tracked by those agencies whose business is to “spy” on us to protect national security, to prevent and prosecute crime. A recent article on zdnet illustrates how not only agencies like the FBI, but also the IRS uses social media to investigate on tax compliance. This is not new: even in my country, there have been examples (Gartner login required) where information on non-government web sites has been used to trigger investigations.
Also in my country, on 30 April 2008, the Italian Revenue Agency published lists of the declared income and related taxes from all citizens’ tax returns for 2005 on its Web site. The Revenue Agency removed the lists from its site the next day, but they are still available as simple text files on various peer-to-peer (P2P) networks (more about this here, Gartner login required). Presumably this was the largest crowdsourcing exercise ever tried by a government organization. Many would criticize this as an invasion of privacy, although it is customary in certain countries (e.g. Sweden) to have access to anybody’s tax profile. However, in countries – like mine – where tax evasion is a structural and very serious problem, reverting to the “wisdom” of the crowd does make sense.
There are many areas where making more information available about people and businesses, as well as more cleverly analyzing and mashing up information that they provide themselves on countless social network, can deliver value to government and constituents alike. Besides preventing and investigating different types of crime, what about identifying patterns to decide where to improve services? A group of people may be discussing about issues with bus timetables in a school-related virtual community, while other people may be discussing problems with a green incentive scheme as they chat about the qualities of different plasma screens on Facebook. There are plenty of unexpected places where information that is relevant to a particular government initiative or policy or service may be found.
As we expect greater transparency from government, we should be prepared to provide greater transparency in return. As we demand the ability to mash up and analyze government data, we should accept that government looks at the data we openly publish and uses it in combination with personal data stored in its data bases.
And as our appetite for transparency, participation and collaboration increases, we need to accept that in certain areas and for certain problems, social control may have to complement or replace government control. Where striking fiscal inequality exists, there will be a mounting pressure on government to provide raw data revealing who is not complying, very much like there is already demand today to have quality rating published for teachers or doctors or government officials.
As we support the idea of transparency and demand to know more about organizations and people who serve us, we must prepare to take our own medicine going forward. How many open government supporters would like to experience this side of government 2.0?