Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

The App Economy and Government as a Platform

Most people in the civic technology world have heard of the concept of “government as a platform” – the term famously coined by Tim O’Reilly several years ago to describe the application of Web 2.0 concepts to government.

I talk to people in municipal government about this concept on an almost daily basis, and I think for the most part people inside government understand the general idea. They understand the potential benefits of turning open data into new and creative applications built by smart people outside government. Most have smart phones of one kind or another and consume apps through the various app marketplaces.

At a very high level, they get it. But most still have some concerns.

Many people have heard the story of how Apple helped create the “app economy” by opening up the iPhone to outside developers – it’s a powerful analogy for the idea of turing government into a “platform” for new apps trough open data and APIs.

But the parts of the story about the release of the first iPhone, and the subsequent creation of the app economy, that are less often heard are ones that I think are more relevant to what governments face when trying to create platforms for civic app development.

There is an interesting article in the New York Times this morning highlighting one of the these important points that is worth a careful reading for anyone that is passionate about government as a platform.

Specifically, it’s worth noting that executives at Apple were initially skeptical of the proposal to open the iPhone to outside developers. The risk inherent in abdicating control to developers that could build things not envisioned by Apple engineers was palpable.

Apple’s brilliant but mercurial chief executive, Steven P. Jobs, agreed to unlock the gates of the fledgling iPhone only after much internal argument, and he made sure that Apple would retain strict oversight of every app. In retrospect, it might have been the smartest decision ever made by a company that prides itself on creating the future.

This is probably the one factor I run up against most often when talking with government officials about the concept of government as a platform – the fear of losing control over what apps that use open data look like. Publishing data empowers outside developers – this power is shifted from government to people that build apps, and for many inside government that’s still kind of a scary concept.

For almost all of the time that the Internet has been a component in how governments deliver services and information to citizens, the government has been the one controlling the end user experience. The idea of government as a platform assumes a very different role for government – that of data steward or API manager, not as an app builder.

To a certain extent, the concerns that governments have about moving towards government as a platform are legitimate. If governments are to become more mature stewards of data and APIs, we need to think carefully about when and how users are “managed” through (for example) the issuance of API keys, and the language we use in things like “terms of use” statements.

But if the experience of Apple in opening up the iPhone, and the creation of the app economy that followed are any indication, the payoff for this transfer of control can be enormous for government.

One response to “The App Economy and Government as a Platform”

  1. Of course, the flaw in purporting that “power is shifted from government to people” assumes that government is a monolith rather than a network with which citizens can co-create public value. There are very real limits to government as a silo. Good piece.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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