Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Open Data and “Exoproduction”

I’ve been thinking about a way to describe what I have seen happening in the world of open data over the past few years, where outside developers create new applications and solutions built with government data to provide a service or transaction that might otherwise be provided by a government agency (or not provided at all). I’ve taken to describing this phenomenon as “exoproduction.”

Exoproduction of public services can be said to occur when all or part of a service typically provided by a government or a public sector entity occurs outside of, or exogenous to, the agency of government explicitly (or implicitly) charged with providing that service, or a component of it.

While governments do not directly provide services or information in scenarios where exoproduction occurs, they do make available the raw materials or components necessary for the service to be provided by a third party.

The clearest example of this phenomenon can be observed when looking at information on transit services. Transit authorities are charged with operating and maintaining public transit systems, and as part of their responsibilities they are charged with communicating to current and prospective transit riders the schedules for transit services, the fares for such services and even the current status of various transit assets (e.g., is the R3 train running on time?).

However, through deliberate programs designed to share the raw data on transit schedules and real time location information many transit agencies are encouraging the development of third-party applications and solutions that fill this role. A non-trivial and growing number of transit riders obtain information on transit services from a source that is outside the official purview or control of transit authorities.

There is an abundance of other examples where outside parties develop solutions on top of government provided or maintained data – to fill a role or address an issue that would logically fall under the official responsibilities of a government agency. In Philadelphia, there are a number of efforts underway to encourage the repurposing of vacant properties, even though official responsibility for this falls under the duties assigned to specific government agencies. These outside efforts are enabled by the deliberate release of property information by the City of Philadelphia.

In the past I’ve used the term “coproduction” to refer to this phenomenon, but that term has several decades worth of history behind it and more correctly refers to another scenario where outside actors impact how a government service is provided. Coproduction assumes that the direct recipients (or consumers) of a government service are involved in making a service more effective or delivered more efficiently.

For example, community policing services may be improved by interacting with residents in a neighborhood. Through these interactions, police may gain insights and information that help them develop better strategies for crime prevention and ultimately provide better service to the community.

Exoproduction differs from this because it frequently involves the development of solutions by those that are not the direct recipient of services. For example, the development of an application to find homeless shelters built by a group of young professional at a hackathon.

Government agencies have a variety of strategies for leveraging outside parties to provide direct services to citizens and to fulfill their missions. Most people are familiar with the example of governments using the standard procurement process to buy services from outside parties. Many of the technology solutions that are used by governments to provide services and information directly to citizens are built by (or with the help of) outside businesses.

Social service and mental health services may also be provided by outside parties like neighborhood-based agencies or church groups. Some cities have “business improvement districts” with special authorities established with quasi taxing authority to support things like trash pickup, graffiti removal and security. The list goes on.

However, each of these examples involves the direct oversight or control of government through a formal contract, or through enabling legislation. We need a new definition for what we see happening in the world of open data and civic technology, where the oversight or approval role of government is less direct.

In the more traditional examples above, governments typically provide money – through a formal contracting process – to outside parties to act as a proxy on behalf of government for the delivery of a service. With exoproduction, the currency used to drive service delivery is (typically) data.

Having said that, It should be noted that exoproduction may not only occur when software and technology solutions get built on top of government open data – there are some analog examples where exoproduction can take place. For example, food that is provided to support needy children may be provided through various government programs but is actually dispensed by private individuals outside of public facilities. There is a notable example of this from the Philadelphia area that also demonstrates some of the potential challenges with the shift to exoproduction.

A Delaware County woman who voluntarily distributes free food to children from her driveway has run afoul of officials in Chester Township who say her efforts violate zoning ordinances.

In this instance, a woman distributing food to needy children through a state-sponsored program administered by a local archdiocese ran afoul of local zoning ordinances. In a way, the issues encountered in this example might be viewed as analogous to those encountered by a software developer that scrapes data from public website in order to support a civic application. Actions supported (either directly or tacitly) by one arm of government might encounter resistance from another.

Questions remain about how exoproduction will ultimately impact the way that governments deliver services.

  • Will solutions developed via exoproduction augment or replace the service provided by government, or relieve governments of the responsibility of providing a service themselves?
  • How do we measure the impact or effectiveness of exoproduced solutions, and how does (or how should) this impact how government agencies with official responsibility for providing a service be evaluated?
  • How does (or how should) exoproduction impact the way we budget for or procure solutions through outside parties?

Ultimately, I believe that open data and the phenomenon of exoproduction (or whatever we decide to call it) have the potential to fundamentally change the way that public services are delivered. As governments continue to implement open data programs, it would be worth considering these questions and others that will impact how externally developed solutions are used to improve our communities.

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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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