Open services put citizens’ needs first, saves governments money and provides fast communication, so why are we all so focused on open data, asks David Moody of KANA Software.
It is encouraging to see the European Commission’s proposals to embrace open standards; at KANA we have been vocal in our criticism of the lock-in approach to public sector IT development for many years. It has led to significant waste of public funds and it has stifled innovation.
Greater use of standards makes it easier to exchange data between public systems, so citizens can supply their data only once to any public administration and it will facilitate cross-border eGovernment services and importantly, for Government, it will reduce costs.
Open services in a world of myriad devices and platform neutrality is essential, especially as the attributes of true public sector service extend into social networks and across multiple platforms. Yet in the UK all we seem to hear about is open data; officials say it is this that will contribute to growth and innovation, and improve services. They call this the revolution.
While providing free access to government information is a crucial first step toward greater transparency and better information sharing, it’s important to remember that it’s just a first step. What taxpayers really need are open services.
Open data is essentially a way for governments to provide free access to piles of raw data (often in very large spreadsheets). This data might include employment figures or anti-social behaviour report numbers or new business registrations. With this raw data, entrepreneurs can create new products and services. These may or may not prove useful to the rest of us. And so what about us? What do we get?
Here’s where open services come in. Open services make open data accessible to us, the taxpayer. How? Open services allow citizens to easily access information on government-related issues they care about (as opposed to millions of data points on spreadsheets) and get it right from their Facebook or Google home pages. They might use open services to see a list of recent payments they’ve made to government agencies for their taxes or check which rubbish bin to leave out on collection day. This isn’t all. With open services people could both view and pay their outstanding tax balance directly from their online bank account. Put simply: open services make things simple and convenient for all.
What’s more, open services have been successful elsewhere. Open311, which I’ve blogged about many times, is a standardised, open-access system created by local US governments. This service puts citizens’ needs first. In San Francisco, for example, citizens can go onto their Facebook page and report a pothole seen on the street. Again, what’s the difference between open data and open services? Open data offers a list of potholes in a city, while open services allow citizens and government officials to work together to get the potholes fixed.
And here’s another benefit. Open services save governments money. At a time when austerity is forcing government to do more with less, open services encourage and make it easy for ordinary citizens to help solve problems, like by pointing out those potholes in the streets.
Events such as the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon and natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy illustrate how the public naturally comes together in times of crisis. After the marathon, authorities requested images and videos from the race to help solve the case. People responded, and the footage they sent helped identify people behaving differently in the crowd, eventually leading authorities to the Tsanraev brothers. Open services would have helped the public provide that information much faster, as well as send information for other uses such as communicating no-go areas directly to smartphones, or pictures that emergency room medics might use to be better prepared.
With all of these obvious benefits, why is the UK government more focused on open data than on open services? Partly it’s because it’s easier to release floods of data than it is to create integrated open systems that connect government agencies and private institutions.
Open services also create privacy concerns. Clearly this is an issue for the UK government if the recent row over privatised postcodes is any indication. Just last week it emerged that the UK government would not make publicly available the Postcode Address File (the UK’s address database) but will keep it in the hands of the Royal Mail, saying, “The government’s primary objective in relation to Royal Mail is to secure a sustainable universal postal service.”
The UK isn’t the only country dragging its feet on open services. As it turns out, few other countries have adopted Open311 as an official standard. Of course, Open311 isn’t perfect. It’s focused only on issues related to public spaces (e.g. pothole reports), but it is a move in the right direction.
While the UK government has made great strides by making data more transparent, it needs to take the next step by creating services that engage its citizens, starting with Open311.
David Moody is the head of worldwide product strategy for KANA Software. KANA first developed an implementation of the Open311 standard in 2011 and, from May 2013 launched its own open services standard called OpenCEM that goes beyond Open311 by providing access to all government services.
This blog was also published on ‘the INFORMATION DAILY.COM’ website.