The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
The first News Challenge of 2013 will focus on Open Gov and is now open for its Inspiration Phase. To get folks thinking, we asked a handful of people to share their hopes for open government. Below Tim O'Reilly, the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc. offers his thoughts.
Edwin Schlossberg once said, "The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think." All great movements are wrapped up in big ideas framed in such a way that many people think them at once, and act in concert based on them.
But memes can also mislead. I sometimes wonder if "Open Government" is such a meme. It suggests that the beginning and end of what we need to do is simply to increase the transparency of government and its engagement with citizens, and all will be well. While these are laudable goals, they are far from sufficient to bring government into the 21st century. That's why I've always preferred to frame my government activism around the notion of "Government as a Platform."
Government as a platform provides a new way to think about the great debate of today's politics: is there a way to tackle clear and present problems of society without simply throwing money at them, or having government take them on directly?
Anyone who uses the Internet, or a smartphone, can immediately grasp the power of a platform. Apple didn't write 800,000 iPhone apps, but they did create the opportunity for others to create them. Tim Berners-Lee didn't create Google, Facebook, or Twitter, but the web platform he created made them possible.
So too with government. It creates and maintains roads, but not the destinations to which they go. It ensures that everyone has water, power, communications, education, and increasingly, healthcare, but not what each of us does with those things. It built a space program, launched weather and GPS satellites, but it doesn't do the nightly weather forecast, or give you maps and directions in your phone and in your car.
Open data, as distinct from open government, is a powerful kind of platform. When government opens up data, like weather or GPS data, or the output of the scientific research it funds, society can build on that platform. And it does.
There are also other aspects to the "government as platform" notion that are productive metaphors. The best platforms rely on others for much, but not all, of their innovation. They provide clear rules of the road and protection from bad actors. They provide key system services, so that everyone doesn't have to reduplicate effort to recreate common infrastructure.
But there are many unanswered questions about government as a platform:
While "Government as a Platform" might seem to be less focused on the goals of the Knight News Challenge than "Open Government," I believe it provides fertile ground for investigation, thought, and the development of new systems that harness the power of the public to make of our government "a more perfect union" and a more powerful platform for the flourishing of our society.
Related: "News Challenge launches with an OpenIDEO twist" by Chris Barr, "Back to the future of self-governance: the promise of the Open Gov movement" by Mark Meckler and "The end of the beginning, lessons from open government so far" by Anil Dash and “First steps to Open Gov – getting your ducts in a row” by Susan Crawford