It’s Not About Cheaper, It’s About Better

The Wall Street Journal recently featured an awesome story about civic hacking, focusing on the amazing work being done in the city of Chicago.

It’s great to see the efforts of civic hackers and open data advocates covered in the mainstream press, and the team in Chicago – those both inside and outside of city government – deserve every bit of praise they get for their tremendous efforts. But I did take issue with one point made in the article – interestingly, one made in the very first sentence:

Cash-strapped cities are turning to an unusual source to improve their online services on the cheap: helpful hackers, who use city data to create tools tracking everything from real-time subway delays to where to get a free flu shot near your home and information about a contentious school-closing plan.

I don’t think anyone would argue the the fiscal pressure faced by governments – particularly cities – hasn’t helped encourage officials to experiment with new ways to provide services and information, and helped highlight the need for technology innovation. However, I don’t think its accurate to say that what is happening is an effort by governments to get IT work done by outsiders “on the cheap.”

It’s not about building things cheaper, its about building them better.

Implicit in the idea of “government as a platform” and the factors that help to drive municipal open data programs is that the role of governments in the delivery of public services is changing – toward the role of data steward or API manager, and away from the more traditional role of “app builder.”

There are a number of reasons why the role of data steward is a better one for governments – most importantly, governments don’t typically make good bets on technology. They’re not set up to do it properly, and as a result its not uncommon to see governments invest in technology that quickly becomes out of date and difficult to manage. This problem is particularly acute in relation to web-based services and applications – which outside civic technologists are very good at building – the landscape for developing these kinds of applications changes far too rapidly for governments to realistically stay current.

Governments that focus on becoming data stewards are better able to break out of the cycle of investing in technology that quickly becomes out of date. It is these governments that are moving to release open data and deploy APIs to enable outside developers to build applications that can help deliver services and information to citizens.

However, this shift to the role of data steward doesn’t deobligate governments from investing in technology or skilled staff. It simply means that this investment can be focused within a role that governments are better structured to perform well. Developing the infrastructure and policies to support an open data program and API platform are not necessarily “cheaper” but they are a much better technology investment for governments to make.

In another sense, the move to the co-production of technology solutions with outside developers is also about building better applications as opposed to building cheaper ones.

It’s common for those behind civic technology projects to have personal investment in the issues being addressed by their solutions. These developers bring a different perspective to the problems that, in the past, may only have been addressed by governments – they are stakeholders in the success of our cities.

Engaging outside developers and marshaling the efforts of civic hackers to build new tools and new services to improve our communities is about enhancing the quality of solutions, and not lowering their cost.

It’s great to see the awareness of civic hacking and the open data efforts that fuel it getting coverage in the mainstream press. But we still have a ways to go on communicating the more fundamental changes to government this movement entails, and the real benefits we all stand to gain.

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