Digital Government Is the New Social Network

July 23, 2015 7:00 am PDT | Open Data
Social network

This post was written by Stephen Goldsmith, a member of the Socrata Advisory Board, and originally appeared on TechCrunch. Goldsmith is a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and formerly served as mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor of New York City for Operations.

Recently, New York and Chicago, each a leader in two important municipal reforms — the open data movement and centralized (311) call centers — released requests asking the private sector to help them build a platform more akin to Facebook than 311 as we know it.

For a century, city hall reformers used tight hierarchical systems where a government official with access to information not available to others crafted rules and procedures that public servants followed. Even the much-celebrated 311 systems were based on the idea that an aggrieved citizen would place a request for service to an all-knowing and powerful city hall.

These frustrating bilateral exchanges reinforce the view that residents are passive recipients of services from a government that monopolizes responses with authority, information, and skill, as opposed to meaningful participants in their community.

Having Many Open Data Users Is Beneficial

A more modern system, reflected in the approaches of New York and Chicago, assumes that the public value of an open network of residents, officials, and their information is proportional to the number of connected individuals and the quality and usability of the data available to them. I have borrowed this concept from Metcalfe’s Law, which hypothesizes that the value of a technology network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system.

Indeed, open data openly socialized does more than just keep government officials accountable. It also allows for the co-production of solutions where an ever-dynamic and often messy group of people/organizations/agencies involve each other in a problem-solving process (external). As part of this, the transparency movement has grown up from a check-the-box attitude, where officials placed difficult-to-read-and-use information on the Internet, to one that provides real-time and often machine-readable data online.

This open data, including observations or requests for service to a call center, allows for discoveries — some more painful to a city than others. For example, New York probably did not appreciate it when I Quant NY blogger Ben Wellington found that one of the top places for writing tickets in that city was located where a traffic officer took advantage day after day of a missing sign.

Open Data Drives Problem Solving

Open data in this mode also results in the de-verticalization — getting a host of government departments involved in the problem-solving process (internal). Recently, for example, the talented epidemiologists in Chicago’s health department explained the insights they gathered as a result of open data from other agencies that was now available to them. The hoarding of information under some special legal pretense, even from one’s fellow government officials, becomes an antiquated talent in a truly open data government.

These new social platforms driven by open data often produce positive social results in unanticipated ways. One community leader in New York told me a few years ago that well-visualized open 311 data helped her identify the cause of a large number of pedestrian incidents at an intersection where a retirement home was on one side of the street and a pharmacy on the other — a fact that had eluded transportation engineers who were just looking at traffic flows.

Government as a Social Network

The result of these changes — in both technology and the transparency movement (internal and external) — means that multiple parties are now involved in socializing the governmental problem-solving process. That’s why it’s interesting to look at government as a new digital platform, much like a social network.

And, when you think about government as a new social network, you begin to see the accompanying progressive possibilities, which give the under-served and under-represented a real chance to express their views and needs while evaluating the quality and quantity of their services.

The next horizon for these new systems is one that encourages a new sense of community participation, asking those who are under-served and without sufficient voice to grade their services and suggest better solutions to the obstacles placed in their way. The New York City Council participatory budgeting process is a step in this direction: council members allow residents to decide how to spend $32 million in their neighborhoods.

This data evolution represents the convergence of several trends — trends that include a robust open data movement that increasingly results in useable, well-visualized information, not just for “gotcha exposés,” but for joint problem solving and a 311 reform effort that repositions cities from rule-bound organizations to responsive ones that function as platforms for horizontal engagement.


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