Australia is facing some big challenges. We have citizens here and around the world now more connected than ever. Using social networks and open govenment strategies to help government to access the ideas and inputs of citizens, the “wisdom of the crowd” will helo governments make better informed decisions and deliver better targetted programs.
We will only achieve true citizen-centric services if collaboration between agencies and departments is the reality. I am firmly of the view that open data strategies are a necessary pre-requisite to achieving a seamless and simple online interaction for citizens with government.
The post is rich with hyperlinks to examples of the points she’s making and is well worth reviewing. This isn’t the first time that Senator Lundy has described “citizen-centric services, democratising data and participatory government” as the three pillars of open government. She spoke about them at the Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington:
“I began the Gov 2.0 taskforce thinking that open government was a kind of civil rights agenda, even if it has economic costs,” said Nicholas Gruen last week in Santa Clara at the Strata Conference. Gruen headed Australia’s Gov 2.0 taskforce. “At the end of it, I realized that open government was actually a really powerful economic driver.”
Why? Gruen pointed to the efficiencies presented inside of government by improved communication and the opportunities to ask citizens for ideas and solutions to problems. “Even if our team said we couldn’t do it technically, I just said we’ll tell everyone that we need help and approach it that way.” Asking questions was, he said, an effective means of accomplishing many tasks much faster than they would have been otherwise.
In a video interview, embedded below, Gruen talked more about the state of Gov 2.0 in Australia and some of his thoughts of the economics involved His comments on cultural change will be of particular interest those focused on technology as a panacea to inefficiency or engagement.
The recent historic flooding in Australia created an urgent use case for improved communications between the public and government. “When you look at the Queensland floods, the Facebook of the police department use blew people away,” said Gruen. “Their links got many comments and compliments.”
Achieving better outcomes through technology isn’t just about setting up a Facebook page or Twitter account, emphasized Gruen. Public servants have to be willing to share information that matters to citizens and in turn listen to feedback from the public to create better feedback loops.
“This is a cultural transformation,” said Gruen. “You can’t impose that. You can’t dictate it.”
The combination of Ushahidi and ESRI in Australia shows that “formal and innovative approaches to information collection and analysis during disasters is possible,” said Patrick Meier, “and that there is an interface that can be crafted between official and non-official responses.” Meier is a research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi and was reached via email.
Russ Johnson, ESRI’s global director for emergency response, recently spoke with the correspondent at the ESRI federal user conference in Washington, D.C. Johnson spent 32 years as a federal employee in southern California, predominantly working in the U.S. Forest Service. He was one of the pioneers who built up the FEMA incident response system, and he commanded one of the 18 teams around the nation that deploy assets in the wake of floods, fires and other disasters. At ESRI, Johnson helps the company understand the workflow and relevance of GIS for first-response operations. Our full interview is embedded below in the following video.
The world of crisis response has changed dramatically in the past several years, said Johnson. The beauty of the present historic moment is that “everybody can be a sensor,” said Johnson. “Everybody is potentially part of the network. The struggle that operators have is taking all of that free form data and trying to put into some sort of framework that makes it accurate.”
Emergency and crisis responders are faced with significant cultural barriers that have nothing to do with logging on to a website or configuring a new account, explained Johnson. “Public safety organizations are really, really resistant to change,” he said. “Technology has frightened a lot of people before social media was a new data source. It’s a new challenge that’s threatening to a lot of people. The question I pose is simple. Let’s use the first responder scenario, where you have 4-6 minutes from the time you get the call. the expectation is you’ll be on scene. Think about the possibility that before you arrive, thousands of people will have video on YouTube. They may have more situation awareness. When you arrive, you’ll be videoed, watched, and critiqued. Shouldn’t you consider that data if it can help you deploy more safely or effectively?”
Johnson said that he really likes FEMA director Fugate’s philosophy and operational mentality in that context. Fugate has emphasized that he believes the public can be a resource in crises, instead of a hindrance. The current FEMA chief is tapping social media’s potential for aiding disaster response. “There are times when agencies can’t get good intelligence,” said Johnson. “I cannot tell you how many times where we had televisions and the best information we were getting was from CNN or helicopters. There are times when it may be wrong but I’d rather have it be part of our mashup of data to help validate and inform responders.”
The technology itself has also evolved recently, said Johnson. “We used to have to have a specific person to support mission, which meant we had to drag a person trained in GIS everywhere. As the technology has evolved, and data has evolved, the tools have reached the operator and first responder level. We can now match persona, mission and task to GIS tech so that it fits them. You can get complex answers that can be generated by an operator, not a GIS geek.”
How did Haiti change the conversation?
“Everyone thought Haiti would be completely dark,” said Johnson, with all information provided by boots on the ground. In fact, social media played an important role, he said, highlighted by the efforts of Crisis Congress and others who heard those digital cries for help. Social media “brought the light on,” said Johnson, providing not just something to act on but perhaps the only thing to act on, at least initially. In subsequent crises, responders have found that crisis data, particularly when added to maps for context, can provide valuable insight long before official reports emerge.
This trend is a key issue for communities as more citizen engagement platforms emerge. “When you have a large emergency, who are the first responders? Who can get to you the most quickly? Your neighbors,” says Johnson. “if you can have a universal way to communicate to the people who can help you, that may have the only help you have. Conventionally, you think of the guys in uniforms and helmets.”
In 2011, citizens have the opportunity to shoulder more of that shared responsibility than ever.
Disparities in access to the Internet have been persistent since the scratchy sounds of a modem were first heard in offices, basements and schools. In recent years, the digital divide has grown to encompass smartphones usage, differentiation of broadband Internet and open data’s role in empowering the empowered.
Dr. Nicholas Gruen, CEO of Lateral Economics and the former chair of the Government 2.0 Taskforce in Australia, warned the audience at the Smart Government 2010 conference in Melbourne of a new dimension to the digital divide: a “participation partition” that favors citizens who are more active engaging in online discourse.
“The world is leaning towards favouring those who participate,” said Gruen. “They have more fun and more influence. If you participate more in your local school and local democracy, you’re going to have more say and more power. I see these things as very healthy, but there isn’t an equality of outcomes for everyone.”
As Rob O’Brien reported in Government News, Australia’s Gov 2.0 Taskforce pushed government entities to participate more online themselves, including encouraging public sector officials and workers to use with social media tools.
“We’ve now got 20 government blogs, that’s a great start. What we don’t have is people participating on blogs,” Mr Gruen said. “I’m not suggesting they should be making controversial comments, but just be a member of a group of people talking about policy issues.”
Redefining Public/Private Partnerships
Dr. Gruen was a featured speaker at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, where he explored public goods in the context of open government and digital citizenship. His talk is embedded below:
Senator Kate Lundy has represented the Australian Capital Territory in the Senate in the Australian Federal Parliament as a member of the Australian Labor Party since 1996. I wrote more about the Australian approach to open government in “Government 2.0 Down Under” for O’Reilly Radar.