Friday, August 01, 2008

Collaborating with citizens to add value to government data

Over the last six months a collection of libraries and museums from around the world, including the Library of Congress in the US, the Toulouse Library in France and Australia's PowerHouse Museum, have been placing copyright free images from their photo collections online in Flickr, allowing the online community to add information and commentary.

As discussed in the article Flickr, Library of Congress find something in 'Common', in USA Today, the approach has seen over 500 photos have new information added to them, from identifying individuals, locations and providing context for the images.

This approach of tapping into an existing online community of enthusiasts (Flickr is the world's largest community of photographers), providing them with public data and seeing what value the community can add (free of charge) is applicable across many different areas of government.

This isn't a unique instance of this approach. Other, and quite different examples of government-community online collaboration include;
  • the SETI@Home program, which uses unused processing power on millions of home users' PCs to analyse astronomical data in the search for intelligent life,
  • the Police Wiki Act, which was passed as an Act of Parliament last year as the first piece of New Zealand legislation to be written, analysed, discussed and finalised online involving hundreds (if not thousands) of community contributors, and
  • the UK government's mash-up competition, where the UK is looking for community innovation in creating useful online applications involving government data released especially for this purpose.
The final example is particularly interesting as the UK government has phrased the competition as 'show us a better way', acknowledging that citizens are able to come up with better ideas than the government.

There's many other forms this type of collaboration could take. All it requires is some goverment data and the will to work with communities.


  1. With regards to the "show us a better way" comment, I like to think of it as not so much citizens coming up with better ideas than the government but rather additional ideas.
    As you, I and anyone else that is remotely good at design knows, a design is much better for having more heads working on it. This is because the best solution requires creativity. More generally it's the old Wisdom of Crowds phenomenon.
    Of course none of this negates the value of collaboration. I just like to think of it in expansive terms. :-)

  2. That's a fair point Jessica.

    However I think the UK has chosen this approach for practical reasons.

    People could interpret a government site named 'show us an additional way' as not being focused on encouraging and listening to citizen views.

    By naming it 'show us a better way' the UK is challenging citizens who do indeed feel they have better ideas than the government to put them forward.

    It also acknowledges that the UK government is open to new and different ideas that may be better than anything the administration has thought of.

    What the site does not intend to do is be a collaborative medium where government practitioners toss around ideas with the public.

    I'm sure we'll see that approach soon in the UK - and, hopefully (based on the response to the AGIMO Consultation Blog consultation process) soon in Australia as well.