OpenGov cc

Reflecting on this year’s 2013 Forum on Communications and Society hosted by the Aspen Institute, Panthea Lee of Reboot pens a must-read think piece on the future of the open government movement. Among her main arguments:

  • Citizens don’t want open data; they want useful services.
  • Open gov has yet to demonstrate the same utility to citizens as, say, Trip Advisor has demonstrated to travelers. The movement must demonstrate utility to ordinary, busy individuals.
  • There is no such thing as a “generic citizen.” Designers must take into account citizens’ individual needs and their trusted intermediaries (social workers, teachers, journalists, etc.)
  • There is no culture of risk taking within government. Open government initiatives ask civil servants to be bold and take risks when the institutional incentives tell them to do just the opposite.
  • “Don’t try to find technology solutions for people problems; instead, start by building products people love.” ~ Harper Reed.

I really recommend reading the whole piece which includes four interesting prototypes that are built on the above observations.

Another point made by Panthea is that “scale is an overused metric” for impact. Jeff Warren of the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science agrees. Writing at TechPresident, he praises “the promise of small data.” While big data is often controlled by massive corporations and public agencies — the Facebooks, NSAs, and Googles of the world — “small data” involves a local community in the collection, interpretation and implementation of data that is directly relevant to their lives. Warren’s Public Lab is at the forefront of this small data movement. With affordable tools like infrared cameras, desktop spectrometry kits, and balloon mapping, Public Lab enables local groups to better understand the environmental state of their communities. In 2011 they were able to identify illegal industrial dumping in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal and integrate their data into advocacy campaigns by groups like Riverkeeper and Don’t Flush Me.

Code for America announces its 2013 accelerator class for civic startups. The five new civic startups will receive a $25,000 grant, work space at Code for America in San Francisco, mentoring, and a lot of networking. You can read more about last year’s class, which included the companies Captricity and MindMixer, here.

Accelerators are all the rage these days. Across the Atlantic, the Open Data Institute is also incubating five open data startups. They are: Honest Buildings, Locatable, Mastodon C, Open Corporates, and Placr. In San Francisco, Tumml is an incubator for startups that take on urban issues and Matter incubates early-stage media startups. Matter’s first graduating class of six new media startups was featured this week in the Columbia Journalism Review.

In Latin America, the Civic Innovation Accelerator Fund, a partnership between Omidyar Network and Avina Foundation, also incubates early stage organizations (though non-profit) that develop civic technology. They recently announced their first class of grantees, which include Datea in Peru, a city indicator monitoring platform developed by Nossa São Paulo, Codeando Mexico, and Ciudad Integrada, a platform of Wingu and ACIJ in Buenos Aires.

Add to all these organizations the latest grantees of Knight Foundation’s News Challenge on Open Government, and keep your eyes on Making All Voices Count, a $45 million fund that will fund civic innovation, with a strong focus on Africa. In other words, there is no shortage of money or experimentation happening right now.

With so many incubators and acceleration funds, it’s no surprise that a rising number of critics are coming out against the incubator model. 90% of incubators will fail, writes Peter Relan in TechCrunch. Ben Bator argues that “barriers in tech are getting low enough to the point where [incubators are] not so necessary.” In the space of civic innovation, it’s still to early too know, but their comments highlight the increased importance of learning and impact evaluation to ensure that the wheel isn’t continuously re-invented … whether it works or not.

Upcoming Events

A much more thorough calendar of international open government events is maintained by Sunlight Foundation.