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If Government is a Platform, What Are People Building?

The test will come down the line, when working with Government data is no longer incentivised by competition glory and prize

3645305910_9a8a9ca68b_mI’ve written and spoken before about a recent upsurge in enthusiasm for exposing data from Government in ways that facilitate use and re-use, and will doubtless be returning to this topic in the ‘Government Data’ panel session at the Linked Data Meetup in London on Wednesday.

Tim Berners-Lee has been amongst those rallying to the cause, and working with Governments here and overseas to realise the opportunities in — first — simply getting data out and — second — ensuring the structure and linkages required if Government data is to form a useful foundation upon which others really can build.

Tim O’Reilly, too, has been pushing his notion of ‘Government as a Platform’ for some time, driving toward next week’s gov2.0 summit in Washington, DC. His arguments reached a broader audience with yesterday’s guest spot on TechCrunch.

O’Reilly points to some of the uses of Government data in his TechCrunch post, and I’m continuing my own efforts to secure podcast interviews with some of the more interesting examples that I come across.

One of the things, I think, that is most interesting about this ‘platform’ that O’Reilly describes is the myriad ways in which it potentially benefits so many different constituencies.

Government itself should certainly become more efficient, making better use of its own information ’simply’ because it’s so much easier to see what’s there. John Sheridan of the UK Government’s Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) touched on some of these issues in our recent conversation, and the potential for discovering synergies across the Departmental and Agency divide is surely just beginning to be realised.

‘Activists’ of various kinds will have easier access to information in support of their various causes. Some of this information will, undoubtedly, be used to embarrass the authorities, and much of it will be skewed to present the truth in rather odd ways. Rather than simply leading to more informed activism by a vocal minority, however, David Eaves in Vancouver and Sunlight Labs’ David James both argue that better availability of data will make it easier for everybody to hold Government to account.

Researchers, such as Jim Hendler’s team at Rensselaer, are turning to resources like Data.gov in search of interesting technological problems and large pools of data upon which to test new techniques and ideas. The resulting data exhaust (in Hendler’s case, RDF versions of Data.gov resources) is then available for others to use in further innovation.

And (perhaps) most interestingly of all, the well understood trinity of open source software, commodity hardware and near-ubiquitous connectivity is coming together with increasingly available data to make the public sector information space — for far too long the expensive preserve of the big Consultancy firms and their ilk — interesting to start-ups and innovators.

Sunlight LabsApps for America2 contest is into its final stage (don’t forget to vote!), and the range of applications received is a clear indication that innovation in and around Government information is both possible and long overdue. Amongst the three finalists, This We Know appeals to my Semantic Web interests because of the particular technological approach they’ve adopted, but there’s plenty to admire in all three.

The test will come down the line, when working with Government data is no longer incentivised by competition glory and prize money, when it’s no longer the hot new source of Big Data for academic exploration, and when the activist arms race levels out at a new plateau of comparable informedness. When that day arrives, will enthusiastic entrepreneurs still be competing to extract additional capability from the Data.gov and Guardian apis, or will all of the hits to these sites emanate from the cubicles of Accenture, IBM and EDS?

Whilst I certainly hope that these mainstream exploiters of public sector information embrace the possibilities, it would be a sad day if independent grass-roots innovation atop the Platform of Government were so short-lived.

As such, I’ll be watching next week’s proceedings in Washington with interest.

Image of the Scottish Parliament by Stéphane Goldstein, shared under Creative Commons license on Flickr.

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Paul Miller works at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web, providing the insights that enable you to exploit the next wave as we approach the World Wide Database. He blogs at www.cloudofdata.com.

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