Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Will Gov 2.0 initiatives be created by individuals or organisations for profit or illegal goals?

As an advocate for Gov 2.0 and open data I frequently encourage government agencies to work more closely with communities, tapping their expertise and experience to improve the operations of government.

However I'm not blind to the risks of community involvement.

Welcoming the crowd risks welcoming individuals, groups and organisations with agendas which may include commercial, criminal or extreme goals, which may not reflect the community at large.

For example, right now there's a major push on to encourage the 10% of adult Australians who are not yet registered to vote to do so before the upcoming federal election. In particular roughly half a million young Australians are not yet registered to vote.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), the government body responsible for managing electoral processes, has a campaign targeting younger voters, sending ambassadors to major music festivals and advertising through appropriate channels to reach this group.

Likewise TripleJ, a publicly funded radio station, is working with the AEC with the RockEnrol campaign to encourage the same goal.

Alongside these government-supported approaches are two independent campaigns, one supporting enrolment directly (Enrol for Gold), the second supporting it indirectly by informing potential new voters (Virgin Voters).

The first is from GetUp, an Australian grass-roots advocacy group. GetUp has created a campaign 'Enrol for Gold' which is giving a total of $40,000 in prize money in a competition for people who enrol to vote after 21 July. It's an interesting approach to encourage enrolment - one that a government could not use, but could be very appealing to elements of the community and support the overall AEC goals to raise the level of enrolment.

This campaign, although independent from the AEC, has clear information in their Terms and Privacy Policy which restrict any reuse of the information collected in the competition for any other purpose.

The second independent enrolment campaign is called Virgin Voters. The campaign is designed around supporting first-time voters to make good decisions with their federal vote.

The Canberra Times has been told that Virgin Voters was created to find and follow eight first-time voters through the federal election campaign to create a program about their experiences.

The site includes information a first-time voter will need to know, such as how Australia's political system works, who gets to vote, how to vote and details on Australia's 35 federal political parties. Very supportively there's information for both eligible young voters and for high school students (and their teachers) who might be following the process, but still ineligible to vote.

The site invites people to participate in television, radio, social media and print as an 'official VirginVoters Voice' through it's voicebox approach, and also encourages first-time voters to sign up to the campaign's Facebook page and Twitter feed.

The site bills itself as the voice of first-time voters and claims to be 'the most innovative social media commentary on any Federal Election'.

Despite the grand promise, the Virgin Voters site (at the time of writing) has little information about who is operating the site, why they are running it, who is funding it or whether the site is for profit.

There's also no privacy policy (at the time of writing). That's right, the site doesn't explain what happens to information submitted by people to VoiceBox, or how it will be used. This is disturbing to any experienced internet user and I hope they fix it soon.

With a little digging, and some twitter enquiries (where I did not get a specific answer) I've discovered Virgin Voters is run by the organisation credited in the site with its design (although there's no link). This is Pineapple Media, a company that specialises in creating programming and promotions for television, radio and print.

The person credited as the contact for Virgin Voters is the principal of PineApple Media, Richard Attieh - although this is currently not explicitly mentioned in the Virgin Voters site.

So is Virgin Voters a genuine Gov 2.0 initiative from a concerned individual and his organisation to support Australian democracy by giving first-time voters a voice in media?

Or is it an attempt to use the federal election and the naiviety of first-time (often 18yr old) voters to make profits for a media company by providing talent for programming?

I think Richard and Virgin Voters mean well, but will leave it up to readers to form their own conclusion.

What I believe this example demonstrates is that while there are many civic minded people and organisations who are using Government 2.0 approaches to help support, influence or improve government transparency in a positive way, there is room for the same or similar approaches to be used for pure commercial goals.

It may even be possible to use the guise of Government 2.0 to seek to achieve extreme or criminal goals.

What will it mean for government in the future if third parties use government data or piggyback on government goals in inappropriate ways?

Will there need to be better citizen education to help the community to make informed choices on who they provide information to, or more policing of online initiatives purporting to support government goals and programs?

Will governments rely on existing laws and frameworks, or need to legislate how and when government programs may be mentioned, leveraged and engaged with?

I think these are questions that most governments have not yet even engaged with.

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