Thursday, April 22, 2010

Open government winners and losers

One of the trends with Government 2.0 is for jurisdictions to make more of their information available online in more readily accessible, machine readable and useful forms.

We've seen the rise of data.gov, data.gov.uk and a host of open data sites for nations and states around the world. The latest addition has been the World Bank, with data.worldbank.org. There's even organisations providing platforms for public data sites to make it simple for governments to implement these services, such as Socrata.

Creating a more open and transparent government in this way has some winners. The public and media gain greater access to useful information, allowing them to better study, critique, understand and compare government decisions and activities; companies are able to better access information about their markets and environments and improve their operations and services; and governments are themselves better able to collaborate internally and discover new insights and approaches from comparing disparate data sources.

However there are also some losers in the race to release government data publicly. These are often highly politically influential organisations and individuals that have significant resources to bring to bear to resist change.

Over the last few years we've seen a level of push-back around the world by groups seeking to slow or counter drives to make more government data public. The approach often plays to government concerns; the risk of being shown up when information is not completely accurate; the risk of people taking and reusing information out of context; the perceived loss of revenue through releasing information for free rather than for significant charges; economic damage to companies or industries that rely on exclusive access to government data; or concerns that the costs of releasing data will not be sustainable over time.

While these are often legitimate considerations, there's some less often discussed reasons that are also important to consider.

In some cases those who have most to lose from government openness are those who have previously had some form of commercial or political advantage due to strict government controls over data release.

This could include organisations that act as resale agents for government, buying data under license and reselling at a mark-up (the postcode boundaries list is an example). It could include groups and individuals who have developed 'special' access to senior government figures and wish to preserve their channels of influence. It could also include groups within government who are concerned about a potential public or media response if some complex and highly contextual data became public knowledge.

I often equate the groups with these concerns about government openness as being similar to traditional media organisations, those who could afford the high cost of entry into traditional media - establishing and maintaining large-scale distribution networks, whether television, radio or newsprint.

With the rise of the internet these traditional media organisations faced a highly competitive and many-headed rival - a cheap and ubiquitous distribution network where every consumer has also become a producer and distributor of content.

Suddenly the high cost distribution networks owned by traditional media players have become vulnerable. Their revenues are falling while competition is growing, putting pressure on their owners to simultaneously increase their differentiation from the market whilst also cutting costs to suit the new world paradigm.

Similarly for groups such as government data resellers and lobbyists, the rise of the internet and growth of the open government push has reduced their ability to charge a price premium for exclusive access to data or senior figures.

In particular, making government data available free online, together with the host of free or cheap data visualisation and manipulation tools - from Manyeyes to Yahoo Pipes - severely damages the near monopoly of data intermediaries.

Some of these potential open government 'losers' have already realised that they can turn openness into a win. People will still pay for services which filter and present the range of public data in useful and meaningful ways. They are in a prime position to take on this role based on their expertise working with government data over many years.

However there may be others who still look on Gov 2.0 with some concern. They risk having their businesses become irrelevant and potentially could attempt to put roadblocks in place of government openness.

I hope that any organisations or individuals in this position realise that while they may be able to slow the train they'd gain more by getting on board. While their old business models might be less viable in the future, other opportunities will open up.

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