The Key to Open Government is Through Processes, not Products

by on February 10, 2009 · 8 comments

“Open government” can mean various things to different people, but a couple of  articles I’ve recentlyvault-door-1 read suggest that solutions for opening the government vault of information should focus on the “way” and not the “what.”

Why is this distinction important? Well, it takes the initial focus away from vendors lobbying that their products are more “open” and forces governments to reexamine how they collect, store and disseminate data. It is this hard look that will really make the difference, I think. And there are two interesting articles that highlight processes toward openness.

The first is an article by Daniel Ballon at PRI, where he writes about the perils of being too vendor focused when making government more open. He developed an illustrative table where he breaks down three purposes for technology in promoting transparency (transparency, government communication with citizens, and government collaboration with third-party sites). There will be different government processes needed for each purpose — for instance, creating ways for private systems to more easily data mine public databases.

The second is an article by Douglas McGray of New America Foundation in the Jan/Feb edition of the Atlantic Monthly. McGray hypes up the importance of API documentation. Governments should publish API information and allow the development of third-party applications to more easily synchronize with government databases. While McGray confuses open formats (such as releasing data in text, comma delimited format) with APIs (documentation that tells programmers how to interact with a specific application), the article is still instructional.

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