Blog post

Facing the Open Data Templars at GovCamp in Canberra

By Andrea Di Maio | June 05, 2012 | 13 Comments

web 2.0 in governmentopen government data

Yesterday I delivered the closing keynote at the GovCamp event in Canberra, where government innovators, academics and folks from private sector met to discuss open government and other innovations in the public sector. This followed a GovHack held the days before, where a number of winning applications leveraging open data had been selected.

I got to the conference site just half an hour before the event and discovered the whole day had been pretty much about reiterating the importance of open data and other related open government initiatives. I felt that my slides and messages would not be entirely welcome, but it was too late to back down.

As I went through my 30 minutes, I delivered a few key messages:

  • Open data is hardly sustainable by using solely “if we build they will come approach”
  • After several years of application contests and hacks, there has been very limited impact and transformational effect: of course there are exception but there are very few considered how many cities and states and countries have been running contests
  • Nonetheless going open is the right thing to do, but we have to build mechanisms that guarantee sustainability.
  • Therefore we need to connect open data initiatives to the use of open data inside government, e.g. using it to break silos and improve interoperability as well as by directly engaging employees into using that to solve their everyday’s problems (i.e. they should be involved in govhacks much more than external application developers are).
  • Also government must be both a producer of open data and a consumer of social data (i.e. data made available by citizens on their own social networks).
  • The place where all this comes together is the government employee’s workplace: open data and related apps as well as social media are all tools that they may wish to use to be more effective and productive at doing their job.

Also, all this won’t happen just because it is cool or because it is the right thing to do. It will happen and will stick if and when government agencies will be faced with challenges that cannot be solved with traditional processes and traditional means.

Surprisingly, I made it out of the event in one piece despite having probably disappointed quite a few“open data templars” there. I am convinced that these events remain very important to keep the lights on and pursue the development and impact of open data initiatives, but until when a clearer and more urgent connection with real and urgent government business problems will be created, they will remain nice-to-have rather than must.have.

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  • Andrew Ecclestone says:

    Religious imagery aside, I struggle to see what @digiphile disagrees with in the points listed above from your presentation. It’s quite clear from the experience of FOI legislation around the world that if the excitement of advocates for the legislation outside government does not infect those who work in, or lead, governments, the long term prospects for real improvement in openness, or sustainable changes to working practices to improve citizen participation and accountability will not be realised. Too often civil servants pick up on the dog-whistle of secrecy that is hidden behind public declarations of open government made by political and official leaders, so unless concrete steps are taken by agencies to ‘eat their own dog-food’ on openness, little will change in the long run. There’s simply too many other incentives in favour of taking the easy, convenient, path of secrecy, and apparently few benefits from taking the hard decision to collaborate with outsiders who won’t have to face the same kinds of accountability if things don’t work out as hoped.

    I think it’s useful to keep having the note of constructive criticism voiced, even if there are many vocal advocates who appear to think that non-governmental pressure for change is all that’s needed.

    Part of this is governments’ own fault though. When did they ever even attempt to measure the ROI for FOI and greater openness in general?

  • Doug Hadden says:

    Seems a reasonable analysis with a dose of caution.

    One nitpick though: contests represents but one manifestation of the templar open data canon. And, a relatively light one at that. It’s like evaluating the sustainability of a category of software based on prototypes. And, given the relatively low investment to develop based on open APIs, maybe these apps don’t need the economies of scale of enterprise back-office proprietary suites to be sustainable.

  • Hi Andrea,

    Sensationalisation aside, your message tied in perfectly with the theme of the day, which was focused on public sector innovation, not specifically open data.

    We’re starting to see a high degree of reuse of data across government in Australia, with initiatives like and GovForge assisting this to progress.

    There are still challenges in public servant use of social media channels, though the current State of the Service Survey by the Australian Public Service Commission has asked questions which will greatly inform the progress of this area.

    The integration of social data into government data is still in its infancy – however given privacy considerations it takes time to weave an effective pathway.

    Let’s see where the Australian Government is in a year 🙂

    PS: I’ve never met an Open Data Templar.

  • Doug,
    agreed that it is relatively low cost, but after so many of these wouldn’t it be time to direct them a bit more clearly to the solution of specific problems rather than keeping them totally unstructured? This would help with a more convincing path to sustainability

  • Craig,
    as I have been saying for quite some time now, unless this is looked at from an employee workplace perspective, it will remain in the hands of the “templars”. As far as Australia, little visible progress after the gov2.0 taskforce, if you measure progress by impact ways to achieve on business outcomes.
    And I have met quite a few templars, some of which you can find on twitter or commenting my blog. I am convinced there is a place for them, as we need to be pushing for open data and the likes: I’d just like their enthusiasm to be matched by a clearer focus on how to broaden the govt community that is supposed to benefit from this, rather than preaching to the converted.

  • I enjoyed your closing comments at Govcamp, Andrea – the argument that we need to be using social media as tools to help our clients solve their problems especially resonated with me, as did the comments about the challenges we public servants face as we seek a comfortable balance between our personal, professional and organisational lives/roles in the online world … challenges certainly, but not insurmountable.

  • Silvana Fumega says:

    Hi Andrea,
    I was at the GovCamp the whole day and I have to agree with Craig regarding the focus of the meeting. The main focus was innovation and not necessarily Open Data (in fact, the attention to Open Data was limited). Moreover, many of the comments that I heard (regarding Open Data in Australia) were in sync with what you said in terms of lack of progress after the gov2.0 taskforce.
    I think your remarks were useful and provided some new light to the topic.
    Hope to have the opportunity to meet you some other time!

  • Kim Amos says:

    Hi Andrea.

    I saw the start of your presentation at Gov Camp but sadly had to run to catch a plane. I would love to see a copy of your slides. Are they posted anywhere? Shame I couldn’t stick around and get to meet you.

  • Diego May says:

    I am thrilled to see this post and appreciate the perspective that Open Data cannot be driven by “if you build it, they will come.” In fact no technology falls into that category and Open Data is not an exception.

    We see governments of all shapes and sizes talking about and opening data for two primary reasons. The first is that they are now being expected to, but that’s the “nice to have” driver. The “must have” is that by opening data, they can deliver better services for all of us. They do this by freeing data and collaborating with local developers.

    We recently spoke with the CIO of a city who partnered with local developers to create a mobile app to help community emergency responders support local officials in case of a natural disaster. It would have taken years for the city to develop the app, but by opening data and working with local developers, it was completed in months. We also have seen apps for reporting dangerous street conditions, and many others including education, security and health.

    New uses for previously locked up data will power us and our economy moving forward and we are excited about what’s ahead.

    Diego May
    CEO, Junar

  • Pia Waugh says:

    Hi Andrea,

    Thanks again for the speech it was very interesting. I do however, disagree with your assessment that very little came out of the Gov 2.0 Taskforce. We have had substantial policy, legislation and cultural shift in the last 3 years, the recommendations of the taskforce are implemented, and there have been many many projects all around Australia that are putting the spirit of the report to work. The other related policy, Ahead of the Game, is also being implemented and will have a significant impact. I think to say very little has changed is to not correct. Happy to discuss anytime 🙂


  • @Pia – I do always appreciate your drive and optimism, but there is little evidence that gov2.0 is getting out of the specialist’s booth. in particular, despite the quite progressive approach that the report took about empowering employees, I’d like to see examples where they have been driving the adoption of social media in their agencies.

  • @Diego – Thanks for your comment. I like the distinction, but IMHO both categories are in the “nice-to-have” camp. It becomes “must-have” when government agencies take a much more active role in directive how application developers are working to solve which specific problems. But this is where the transparency and the service improvement ethos clash: many people may not likle the fact that governments get involved in how their data is being used, as this may corrupt the “purity” of the crowdsourcing approach. My contention is that when times will be really tough, that distinction will be overcome by necessity.

  • simonfj says:

    Funny, the two take aways/messages I got from your streamed talk were. 1. US innovation (in the gov sector) come about through the mantra of \transparency\. 2. In Portugal (?) it comes about through \necessity\ (which IMHO is the only driver of innovation in gov). Marvellous how attitudes change when someone’s job is on the line. I suppose that should mean that the EU and US are about to teach us many lessons in adaptation:)

    I do find it fascinating how only an Australian mentality could reduce a social phenomenon like Innovation to \the public sector\, as in PSI. It implies that there are other, distinctly different social changes, happening elswhere. Quite a peculiar little world of \us\ and \them\; like \doctor\ and \client\. You can read it in the language – \The integration of social data into government data is still in its infancy\ (never vice versa) & \we need to be using social media as tools to help our clients solve their problems\ (if government employees could only solve their own problems first.)

    As for attempting to \measure the ROI for FOI and greater openness in general\, I’m afraid that’s just just another social belief we’re about to see undone.

    So, as public and private employees come to terms with the new processes of gov, and more importantly, edu, I hope we might notice those links down the bottom of this page. ; one of which actually works. It’s a common factor in both of these publically funded sectors, that while one only looks as far its National borders, the other extends to discovering the best of ideas/research from around the world, or at least across geographic and professional borders. E.g.

    As for \implementing policy\ (\Ahead of the Game, is also being implemented\), it’s such as sad (mis)conception = governance reduced to managerialism. As you say Andrea, \gov 2.0 (designed) in a specialist’s booth\. For any Innovation to take hold, we’d have to believe that (changing a) Policy follows (a changed) Practice, and we’re all to busy preaching to our peers to allow that to happen:)

    PS. I notice Gartner has a policy of not allowing its reps to archive their presentations in an open space. Hmm. Bit of an old fashioned practice, eh?