As more interactions between citizens and government move online, this activity should yield rich new flows of information about citizens’ views and preferences. The data trails left by our use of the social Web are creating unfathomably large sets of data that could provide new sources of economic and social innovation, together with new anxieties about privacy and ownership of information.
The increasing volume and detail of information captured by enterprises, the rise of multimedia, social media, the spread of the internet to mobile devices, and the potential embedding of networked sensors in everything from ovens to pacemakers will fuel an exponential growth in data. The emergence of these “big data” sources, drawing on a mass of miniscule transactions, comments and connections, creates a potentially rich mine of information for governments.
At the same time, social media is creating the conditions for the emergence of a “civic long tail” – a mass of loosely connected, small-scale conversations, campaigns and interest groups, which might occasionally coalesce to create a mass movement. From now on, governments everywhere will have to contend and work with this civic long tail.
The future of government will be shaped by the interaction between these two trends:
1. Big data and the ways that governments can mine and analyze the data on these trends to become more efficient, effective and perhaps, more connected.
2. The civic long tail and the trend toward a more active citizenry.
The hopeful Web
To their credit, political leaders in the developed world have not been slow to spot the potential of social media and the Web to revive political systems, which seem detached and exhausted, and service delivery systems, which seem cumbersome and clumsy.
The US federal government has launched a string of hopeful initiatives, including Data.gov, which opens up government data. The UK government has not been far behind. It has set up the Public Data Corporation to make government data public and available in reliable and easy-to-use ways. Likewise, flagship projects such as national crime mapping have been designed to help local communities hold the police to account.
Across the world, others have been plowing similar furrows. In Italy, for example, government is endorsing the open, participative, collaborative potential of the Web to make public services and administrations more effective and accountable.
Far from being threatened by the rise of social media, governments may find that through the masses of data it generates, social media offers a way to understand the shifting sentiments, interests and demands of citizens. If government can analyze and understand these data cleverly and quickly, it should be in a better position to respond to emerging needs and even to forestall them. Government could become more intelligent, use its resources more efficiently, and create personalized services and localized solutions more easily.
Sounds promising. Yet creating that kind of capacity, especially in entrenched and often inward-looking bureaucracies, will be far from easy. It will require new skills, outlooks, ways to commission innovation and relationships with outsiders – private companies, civic Web entrepreneurs – who can bridge the gap between the fleeting world of social media and the bureaucratic world of government.
If government can make good use of the tools and data that the social Web is making available, then it could become more accountable, collaborative, innovative and effective. Just as importantly, communities and citizens should become more capable, adaptive and resilient. Better government and stronger communities could grow together.
Working together with open data
Yet the promise of “big data” – large and growing data sets about what citizens do and want – will only be realized with more open data to allow more people to analyze and find value in it. Left to its own devices, government is unlikely to spot all the potential value in the data available. Opening it up to others to sift through should engage more eyes and ideas to spot potential value. Open government data are data sets released by government in the public interest, in which all data are anonymous. Citizens have the right to repurpose, reuse and share the data without asking anyone’s permission.
The promise of big data to make government more intelligent will only be realized if government learns how to open up data so citizens, entrepreneurs and campaigners can start using it for themselves. Again, big data and the civic long tail need to work together.
The challenge is to find a way to combine these two very different visions of the civic future: more effective and intelligent public systems, based in part on the analysis of big data combined with more adaptive and capable communities, able to use the data to solve problems they face. How might that be possible?
The key in the long run is that government needs to make stronger, more creative connections with communities of locality and interest to sustain and improve how it does its job.
Government 2.0 is about improving people’s relationships with government, either as citizens through the political process, as taxpayers or as service users. Community 2.0 is about enlarging and empowering citizens’ relationships within one another. The first is about delivering better services to people, mainly by solving problems in government supply chains and decision making. The second is about communities looking after themselves more effectively and providing a Web platform for unfolding communitarian creativity.
The social Web seems to offer a way to combine these two stories, perhaps for the first time. Smarter government could be combined with stronger communities: more intelligent, integrated, skilled public services, combined with the long tail of civic activism; systems that scale but are also intelligent enough to attend to the local, the human and the personal. These will be the systems of the future, capable of operating at scale but with a sophistication that allows them to be intimate and adaptable.
For more, visit UK think tank Demos online.