Government 2.0: Empowerment with Information, BI Style

Government 2.0 is like business intelligence made to reveal government.

With any luck, an experiment in better government through better public information may soon be under way in Washington, D.C. -- not in the nearby White House or Capitol, but in the District of Columbia city administrator's office.

Phil Heinrich, Capstat program manager, has been using Tableau Software's visualization tools and hopes to make it available for public information and analysis -- following a trend known loosely as Government 2.0.

Like business intelligence, Government 2.0 will most likely entail harvesting, cleaning and analyzing large amounts of unstructured data. Its purpose is to empower users with information and even inspire some to act.

"If we can let people see what we're doing [translates] into benefits for them in their neighborhoods," says Phillip Heinrich, the Capstat program manager in the District of Columbia city administrator office, "they'll have a better sense of what we're doing to benefit them."

He also hopes for the public's help. Citizens may do analysis on their own -- of homicides, ambulance deployment, or street paving, for example -- and perhaps spot patterns that city staff missed. "That's one of the benefits of transparency, especially where we are, where there are lots of academics and think tanks around," he says. "They have a stake in using their powers of insight to see what they can do to help us."

If you think that citizen groups have already found all willing recruits, Heinrich may have a new lure: exploring visualized data can be fun. "When you're in Tableau, your ability to wander through a dataset is increased dramatically. You can do analysis you wouldn't even think of doing otherwise," he says. He once hesitated in introducing Tableau at meetings to avoid exploration of data driven by simple curiosity, which he feared would pull discussions off track.

The public may also help clean dirty data. Earlier this year at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, staff gasped at the idea of posting the agency's data online. The data was dirty, they protested. What would the public think?

Leslie Goldsmith, supervisor of the agency's data analysis unit, replied that letting the public examine it might be a great way to clean it. "It can be scary," she said. "The best thing you can do is expose the data, Then you share the burden of checking the data out. You try to be transparent."

More examples have been listed in the Economist magazine's February report on "e-government," the UK term: TheyWorkForYou aggregates data from various sources to provide "a digital dossier" of each member of Parliament. PledgeBank, with the tagline "I'll do it, but only if you'll help" has citizens promise to do something -- usually like contributing money, helping at an animal shelter, etc. -- if a few others will, too. One pledge was a reminder that nothing goes completely as expected: a man promised to carry a gun openly in Manchester if 20 others would (and 20 did agree).

Not all examples are for the public. Intellipedia is a wiki -- that is, a collaboratively written and edited Web site -- for the U.S. intelligence community to "connect the dots" against terrorism.

Is government able to do this? It can't even give the air traffic control system modern technology. The solution is simple, suggests one group: free the data. An article due in this fall's Yale Journal of Law & Technology titled "Government Data and the Invisible Hand" argues that government should give up its "struggle" to make full use of its own data. That is, make government provide an interface through which private users can pull raw data.

"Ultimately, Government 2.0 is about a shift in culture," says Dan Herman, the Government 2.0 program director at nGenera, an important proponent. He envisions a "governance Web" stepping into traditional government roles. This Web would be "a network of public and private-sector agencies that along with civil society and individual citizens will collaborate to provide services and shape 21st century society."

He's right: it's not really about technology, it's ultimately about culture. Government 2.0 and BI have that in common as well.

Like BI, Government 2.0 is inevitable. Someday it will spread across town to the White House and the Capitol and to all 50 states. On the way, though, it will face problems -- all familiar to the BI community. I'll discuss this next week.

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