Creating jobs “for the people” through Open Government

November 11, 2010, 5:31 PM UTC

Apps for Californians was a contest to build the best tools to leverage government data for the public good. Besides creating new ways for citizens to understand their world, it also created new job opportunities and blueprint for the nation.

By John F. Moore, contributor

Abraham Lincoln, president of the United State...
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Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was not talking about Open Government data or job creation when he spoke of, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in the Gettysburg Address.  However, within the address he provided us with words of wisdom that we must look to once again, words that provide us a formula we can follow for job creation through the changes created by the move to Open Government.

I blogged, not long ago, that the return on investment (ROI) of open government data was job creation.  This article came as a result of listening to Carolyn Lawson, Technology Services Governance Division, State of California, discuss the Apps for Californians contest that took place earlier in 2010.  From this contest 5 winners were selected and 5 companies were created or extended.  Jobs were created.

You may be asking yourself a few questions.

  • What is open government data? Government agencies have data on budgets, transit systems, housing, education, and much, much, more.  This data, minus anything that is privacy or legally restricted, is open government data.
  • What are application contests like Apps for Californians? Government entities are opening up data and are looking to the private sector to leverage this data to create value-added applications.  These contest reward offer incentives to the private sector to use this data in return for monetary rewards, marketing, and/or developer assistance.
  • Is this a good use of taxpayer money? We’ll explore that in this article and you can decide.

As 2010 began California was not seen as a leader in terms of open government data.  In January the project kicked off to change this, resulting in the Apps for Californians contest that was launched in June of 2010.  Unfortunately, as is often the case, Carolyn had responsibility for getting the job done but did not have the resources, the budget, or the authority required to mandate any other teams priorities.  How did she get the project done?

  • An internal group that owned a lot of data was brought into the project. The team had a great deal of experience providing data to other teams in California government and they were brought on board in January, months ahead of the June deadline.
  • They sought out partners in the private sector who had experience with managing data-focused communities. Unfortunately, with no money to offer there was little interest with the exception of ProgrammableWeb.  Programmableweb went above and beyond in terms of providing the necessary infrastructure that Carolyn was looking for, of course, but they also provided guidance about the world of data and mash-ups and became a valued partner in the process.
  • Outreach: A volunteer group of California webmasters was made aware of the project. This group, in existence since 2006, meets regularly to discuss software, train each other on new technologies, and to support each other through difficult projects. Members of this volunteer team worked overtime on multiple occasions to make the contest a reality.
  • The focus of the contest was not what people could do for government; instead, it was for the people. The name, Apps for Californians reflected this very simple, yet important, change in focus.   This focus was critical as California was unable to provide any monetary prizes.  Instead, the developers participating were involved because the contest could provide economic value to the developers themselves.

Programmableweb evaluated the applications that were submitted, doing the bulk of the heavy lifting once the contest began.  The evaluation process is time consuming, ensuring the applications are doing the job advertised and ensuring that nothing being done violated any copyrights.  5 winners were chosen; you can read more about them on the California web site.  However, the economic gains achieved are clear and were demonstrated in these ways:

  • Marketing of capabilities: A couple of companies took the opportunity to build useful applications to demonstrate their ability to work with real data and to win additional business.  Citizens and California Government won, the businesses invested little and clearly won as well.
  • New businesses created: Seeing opportunities to create powerful new mash-ups some new businesses were formed.  While the long-term value of these businesses is yet to be demonstrated jobs have been created already.

Jobs and new market opportunities were clearly created.  However, have any efficiency been created as a result?  Theoretically yes, but it is too early to provide any true assessment of publishing this information in an open format.

While the results from this one contest are promising, the full value is far from being achieved.  In order to fully realize benefits from open data government must finally go “all in” and stop putting out mandates that lack economic goal-oriented focus.  In California, as we discussed, these wins came as a result of a mandate to open up data, not to create jobs and not to reduce operating costs.  If a true Open Government Office were established at the state level we could go far further.  The office must:

  • Have clear goals in terms of jobs created and operating costs reductions.
  • Must be budgeted and staffed. Today’s e-services office, which ran this, is not a formal organization.  It is given mandates but not authority or budget.
  • Establish strategic partnerships INSIDE and OUTSIDE of government. Partnering with the private sector, with Higher Education, and with other agencies to meet its goals will increase cooperation, collaboration, and bring all of us to a focus on what matters now:  job creation.

Why should we add more structure to government?  Today no one is really responsible for maintaining sites like the California Open Government Data site.  That volunteer group of webmasters, often working overtime so as to not impact their “day jobs” gets it done because they care, not because it is their job.  We can only count on the passion and caring of government employees for so long.  Ultimately, politicians must put focus on ensuring these efforts continue and thrive, so we the public can reap the benefits. Otherwise, those working “for the people” may simply choose, or be forced, to go do something else.