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What Do Government 2.0 and Cloud Have in Common Beyond the Hype?

By Andrea Di Maio | September 09, 2010 | 3 Comments

social networks in governmentopen government datacloud

Last night I decided to spend a couple of hours replaying videos from the Gov 2.0 Summit held in DC on September 7 and 8.

Two things struck me.

First of all, the obsession of Tim O’Reilly and friends with the term “government as a platform”, which IMHO did not make much sense last year, does not make more sense this year and is also getting a bit stale. But I know I am one of the very few contrarians here, as the term has been used throughout the event and beyond.

The view it conveys is of a government that provides data to application developers who create new mobile or web application that will make our life so much easier.

This is just pursuing the asymmetry of government 2.0, whichI  have highlighted multiple times and gives government an illusion of control by almost ignoring that much relevant data will come from people themselves, and not necessarily (and sometimes not at all) as a response to a call for ideas of a challenge that government issues.

Secondly, and more importantly, whereas last year most conversations were about social networks and open data, this year cloud computing seems to have gained a more prominent place at the table. This was very clear in O’Reilly’s opening address, but also throughout the event, where Sanjeev Baghovalia interviewed by Clay Johnson, or Aneesh Chopra and Vivek Kundra interviewed by O’Reilly kept going back and forth from cloud to open data to social media.

Besides this summit, it is interesting to find evidence of this confusion in government  organization. The cloud computing and the open government activities at GSA are under the same Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, run by my good friend and former colleague Dave McClure. However, if you think carefully about this, why should Innovative Technologies and Citizen Services be part of the same portfolio? Cannot one serve citizens with mature technologies or innovate for other purposes than providing citizen services?

So, besides both being relatively (?) new and overhyped, why should government 2.0 (or open government) and cloud computing be part of the same conversation?

After all, cloud computing is a computing model (or, if you wish, a sourcing model) that can be used, among others, to support open government objectives. If runs in the cloud it is probably for scalability and cost-containment purposes, but it could well be hosted on a server farm in DC. The fact that Facebook or Twitter run in the cloud is totally irrelevant from the point of view of their transformational impact.

Ironically, the terms “cloud” and “open” do not even fit very well with each other. How really open or transparent is a cloud service? Don’t you get locked into a cloud service provider as much as you would get locked into a traditional product supplier? Can you always know where your data is?

In reality there is a much closer correlation than there appears to be at first sight, but not the one that O’Reilly and his friends are suggesting.

It is not about whether government CIOs decide to adopt cloud computing. It is about the adoption of cloud computing by the business users themselves, potentially or actually bypassing their own IT department.

In our definition, government 2.0 is the use of IT to socialize and commoditize government services, processes and data.

So what is really transformative is not the decision of migrating a web site from an internal data center into the cloud, or going for Gmail as a corporate email system, but the many, often unplanned events that lead the business to adopt commoditized technology, be it storage on Amazon or Facebook as a good enough alternative to a corporate collaboration platform, with IT either unaware or a simple follower.

This causes the same surprise or discomfort as discovering that citizen-created data is more important to government than open government data is important to citizen.

Understanding government 2.0 implies understanding how information and technology acquisition flows in both directions, from corporate (government) to consumer (citizen) and viceversa, but trying to predetermine the right balance is already a recipe for failure.

Unfortunately I did not find much of this in what I saw of the summit. Cynically I might say that this was on purpose. It is hard to accept that the center of gravity in government 2.0 might not be government and that publishing open data may be less important than understanding what data people are posting out there. Because this would be like telling your target market (government in this case) that there is no point in spending on gov 2.0. What would happen to government organizations whose primary mandate is to spend money for innovation if this innovation comes from elsewhere and is almost for fee? And how would their suppliers, consultants, event organizer see this?

That’s why many live the dream of a government as a platform, waiting for the dream to come true even if, as Tim O’Reilly admitted in his opening, reality is proving harder than expected.

Let’s just hope that all these technology investments that look so cool today, won’t turn out to be expensive legacy tomorrow, when consumer technology and citizen data will actually be the platform.

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  • Doug Hadden says:


    Again, very good food for thought.

    Both Cloud Computing and Government 2.0 support Economic Value Add (EVA). Cloud computing in the short term by reducing government IT expenditures so that more money can be provided to achieve results.

    Both you and Tim O’Reily seem to have a narrow technical definition of “government as platform.” So, it is no wonder than many people cannot conceive of it while others think that it is happening too slowly.

    Government is already a platform. Has been for centuries.

    For example, government provides a platform for health (food safety, food packaging, restaurant cleanliness, doctor/nurse certification, hospitals etc.) This platform provides EVA to socieity because healthier citizens improve productivity, learning (& innovation) while reducing costs. It also provides EVA to citizens who do not have to be capture their own food to insure safety or become fully educated on diseases.

    Government is also a platform for data. Health information is provided by government in pamphlets, web sites and TV campaigns.

    Government data has EVA – businesses use census, remote sensing, weather, crop reports etc.for decision-making. (i.e. where to prospect for gold, where to open a store, what futures to invest in etc.)

    Governments generate revenue from many data sources. To date, only large or specialized organizations can justify the cost to buy many types of government data. I think that the O’Reily concept of “government as platform” is based on the premise of the networking effect of increasing returns – setting government data free can result in far more economic use. (Where the loss of data sales revenue is made up by increases in tax revenue thanks to increased economic activity.)

    The other premise about open data and Government 2.0 is about the intent of government data. The traditional way of looking at an information system means thinking about the output. The purpose of the information system is implicit in the resulting document or report. Many observers cannot visualize the economic value of providing the data beyond the report or document. They question how this data be used because the report produced by the government information system represents the limit of its usage. But, there is significant economic value of that data beyond the purpose for which it was collected. And, there is even more value when combined with other data from multiple sources. Especially if the data is machine accessible rather than in the form a report.

    Your notion that citizen data could become more important for government than government data for citizens deserves further work. I think that you are on to something there.

    The problem with discussions about Government 2.0 hype is that our mental models can be narrow. The Gartner definition of Government 2.0 is broad. I think that the problem is more with the notion that Government 2.0 is expressed in purpose-built information systems built using Web 2.0 tools (i.e. Intellipedia). This can limit our realization of where the socializing and commoditizing of government services, processes and data is taking place. For example, extending back office financial and budget systems to provide budget plans, procurement results, and public accounts is often not seen as Government 2.0.

    (For dsclosure: this is what interests me and my company the most – this extension or overlap of core back-office publc financial management systems with Government 2.0, transparency and government performance.)

  • Nothing. Your answer is longer, and I thank you for it.
    While the Beltway and its vendor community were focused on the Summit last week, I suspect the real future was taking place in South Korea at WeGo10

  • Alex Howard posted a comment on his own blog on the O’Reilly Radar. See, followed by my response