Thursday, September 25, 2014

Civic hackers, government's hidden allies - an interview with Mark Headd of Accelera

This is the fifth in a series of interviews I'm doing as part of Delib Australia's media partnership with CeBIT in support of GovInnovate. I'll also be livetweeting and blogging the conference on 25-27 November.

For some people helping government use technology to better serve the public is their job, for others it’s their passion.

Mark Headd is firmly in the latter category.

Mark began his career as a government professional with a Masters in Public Administration working in New York’s state government in the late 1990s.

He fell into the technology sphere by accident, becoming interested in the burgeoning internet and how it was impacting society and government.

After stints as a policy advisor to the Delaware State Governor and then the state’s CIO Mark left government to start a new career as a programmer.

He taught himself how to code and worked as a software engineer for ten years.

Then, in around 2008, Mark came across Apps for Democracy, entered and won a prize and was hooked.

The competition reinvigorated his interest in government and how to leverage the skills and passion of people outside it to help.

He went to work for Code for America as Director of Government Relations, assisting governments to craft open data and civic participation policies and advocating for civic innovation.

Then Mark went back inside, working as the Chief Data Officer of the City of Philadelphia, developing and implementing an open data and government transparency plan for the city.

His latest move was earlier this year, to Accela, where he currently works as a Technical Evangelist, working with civic hackers to help governments improve how they operate and govern.

Mark told me that his biggest learning from the civic hacking movement in the United States was that there are lots of people out there who are interested, talented and want to help.

“They want to help because they care about their communities, not necessarily because they love particular governments. The sheer number of people willing and able to help is often surprising to public servants.”

Mark said that technology development and adoption are often difficult in government, “we are increasingly reaching a point where governments will implement technology in different ways.”

He cited the example of Healthcare.com in the US, where after a disastrous launch the President reached out to the private sector to help.

Mark says that governments often find that in the civic hacking community they have a hidden partner they’re not be aware of outside of government.

“However to take advantage of this governments must handle data a little differently, engage a little differently”.

Mark says that “it’s never been easier to make software or work with data, so more people are looking to government for access to these to help.”

In Mark’s experience, accessing this outside help shouldn’t be left to the technology or ICT teams, “these types of units tend to be internally facing, focused on serving the needs of other parts of government. There’s often not a lot of experience in these groups for engaging with external individuals and groups.”

He says that the first thing a government needs to do to get out of its own way was to involve people experiencedin external engagement.

“Engaging with civic hackers is simply engaging with a different cohort of citizens.”

Mark does believe there are some risks that governments need to mitigate when engaging these groups, but they aren’t insurmountable.

“There’s always the risk that a partnership won’t go well. However governments already have lots of risks that they have sound frameworks for managing.”

He said that the risk he most often heard was “how to we ensure we don’t release data that we shouldn’t release”.

To do this, Mark says, ask other governments what they’ve released and their experience of what is most used.”

There’s already agencies releasing data around the world, so the best way to mitigate a data risk is to find out what others have done and use their lessons learnt.”

He said that governments need to think about what data they want to make available and have used.

“Start with data that is already public but is malformed –such as in a PDF report or other format difficult to reuse. Once an agency has experience in these areas and infrastructure built to support it, move on to other data.”

In Mark’s view releasing data isn’t the end goal, “I believe that governments need to start thinking about their role in the civic technology chain.”

“If you ask a government IT employee they often self-identify as a builder, they build things that people use.”

“Governments need to realise that their role is changing. They will build less and become a platform, a steward, of the data that other people use to build things for the public.”

This sounds like a big shift, but as Mark pointed out, it’s no bigger than what we’ve already seen in the last ten years.

“If you had described to a government official ten years ago that it would be impossible to deliver services to the public or do their job as a public servant without the internet, they would have laughed at you and not believed it.”

“We’re in the same boat today – when you tell a public official that they won’t be building services for the public, instead releasing the data that allows others to build those services, many simply don’t believe it.”

Mark believes political leadership is important to foster open data and what lies beyond it.

“Politicians need to realise that people are going to get the data someway, somehow, so it is better to use it as an engagement tool and to build trust than to try and lock it down.”

He believes media criticism of government activities is going to happen anyway and that the potential for innovation and economic development far outweigh the short-term risk of people criticizing government.

“All around the world we see governments making announcements that they are committing to the open data movement. We also need clear measures to evaluate whether they are meeting their own commitments, something we can count.”

Alongside open data Mark believes that there’s room for discussing government procurement processes, particularly for buying and developing software.

“The Healthcare.gov issue occurred at a time when websites were easier to build than ever before. It was a real eye opener for people that the most powerful government in the world couldn’t do what a group of kids in tight jeans could do.”

“So we’re now having a really interesting discussion about how government could procure and develop software better.”

Mark says that we’re still in the early days for civic hacking and governments need to be prepared for a far more engaged future.

“Look at an event like GovHack, which has grown enormously over the last few years. We know events like this are going to continue to grow and they are going to want more data.”

What governments can do to prepared for that is to think about what data they can release and what can they do to leverage the interest to their own benefit.”

“That’s a huge opportunity for government. Let’s use the months before the next GovHack to figure out what data people want and use it to get some benefit for agencies and the public. How can government participate as a full partner?”

He identified there was a trend towards more specific hack events, on topics such as health and transport.

“This is a really good way for governments to get more focused participation on topics of concern to them.”

“The products and end results coming out of these events are very tangible to public officials, such as a transport app. I’m literally been at events where teams will present a finished product and government officials will say I get it now, I understand.”

He believes that as more of these targeted events are held, we’ll reach a tipping point where people running operational units in agencies understand how products and services can be derived from the data their agencies hold.

Mark said he was looking forward to presenting atGovInnovate to share some of the US’s experience with open data and civic hacking.

“I don’t know if people in Australia are aware of what is happening at state and local levels in the US. That’s where a lot of the really innovative work is happening.”

You’ll be able to hear more from Mark at GovInnovate on 25-27 November in Canberra.

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