Opening the doors of government to innovation

In this edition of CivSource’s The Gallery, Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc., discusses his vision of government that enables innovation through “platform thinking” and a government that is more responsive to its citizens in an age of electronic participation.

When I organize a conference, I don’t just reach out to interesting speakers. I try to find people who can help to tell a story about what’s important and where the future is going. We’ve been posting speakers for the second annual Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington DC Sept 7-8, but I realized that I haven’t told the story in one place. I thought I’d try to do that here.

First off, our goal at the Gov 2.0 Summit is to bring together innovators from government and the private sector to highlight technology and ideas that can be applied to the nation’s great challenges. In areas as diverse as education, health care, energy, jobs, and financial reform, there are unique opportunities to rethink how government agencies perform their mission and serve citizens. Social media, cloud computing, web, and mobile technologies — all provide unique new capabilities that government agencies are beginning to harness to achieve demonstrably better results at lower cost.

Our focus this year is on opening the doors to innovation – learning about the latest technology and its application, and breaking down the barriers to its adoption.

Here are some of the themes we’re exploring:

1. The Power of Platforms

If there’s one thing we learn from Apple’s iPhone, it’s the power of a platform to spark innovation. Apple revolutionized the smartphone market not just by producing an innovative phone, but by opening up that phone to independent developers. As if by magic, the 15 to 20 applications they designed and released themselves soon became hundreds of thousands, in a textbook demonstration of just what can happen when you harness the power of the marketplace.

So too, government programs can be designed as platforms rather than as fully-specified applications. In this section of the program, we look at some key areas where government is demonstrating strategic mastery of platform thinking, as well as at some innovative private sector programs that can be adapted for government use.

We’ll hear from speakers including:

  • Harlan Yu of Princeton, one of the authors of the paper Government Data and the Invisible Hand, which outlines the rationale for opening up government data in machine-readable form.
  • Jim Traficant, who is not only the vice president in charge of the Healthcare Solutions group at Harris Corp, but has intensely personal reasons to believe in the importance of electronic medical records: they saved his life. Twice. He’ll tell us why electronic medical records can and must transform our health care system.
  • XBRL US CEO Mark Bolgiano and the Department of Homeland Security’s Executive Director for Information Sharing (and NIEM Executive Director) Donna Roy, who will share early success stories in using XBRL (Extensible Business Reporting Language) and NIEM (National Information Exchange Model), and suggest how they can be to increase transparency and visibility into “big data” in the private and public sectors, and where they intersect. I’m particularly excited by Mark’s thoughts on how to track programs that are funded by the Federal government but actually administered by states or even local jurisdictions. As in healthcare, electronic reporting creates the possibility of feedback loops analogous to those that we’ve long enjoyed in creating web applications that get smarter the more people use them.
  • Todd Park, CTO of the Department of Health and Human Services, who has a vision of how health care data can be used to create a “holy cow machine” that will let us reduce health care costs and improve health outcomes in the same way that Walmart improves its inventory efficiency or Google improves ad targeting. He’ll talk about how aggregate data about health outcomes is unleashing a torrent of innovation, as we move from paying for volume of care to paying for the value of care in improving actual health outcomes.
  • Clay Johnson, former head of Sunlight Labs, and Indu Subaiya of the Health 2.0 Developer Challenge, who will address the question of how government open data initiatives can best reach out to developers. Developers are the heart and soul of every platform. You can’t just “build it and they will come.” You have to take practical steps towards developer evangelism.

I’ll talk about some of the speakers in the other parts of the program next week, but as a teaser, let me highlight some of the other themes we’re exploring.

2. Innovation

Real innovation doesn’t just mean tinkering around the edges. It means remembering your goals, and finding a new way to get there. In this series of sessions, we’ll explore some of the most exciting new sources of innovation, and how they can be harnessed by government. We’ll also take a close look at education, one of the foundations of our innovation economy, bringing some fresh voices to the innovation debate.

3. Improving Government Effectiveness

It isn’t enough to be innovative. Government agencies also need to be effective. In this series of sessions, we’ll explore topics such as cost savings, efficiency, and customer service.

4. Empowering Citizens

“We the people…”, the opening of the US Constitution, is a reminder that our government is nothing other than an expression of the collective will of the citizens. No divine right of kings, no entitled nobles, just we, the people. And government is a mechanism by which we express our will. A mechanism that is being turbocharged by the participatory technologies of the web, social media, and mobile phones. We’ll explore how to rethink the role of government in the age of electronic participation.

5. Identity, Privacy, and Informed Consent in the Age of the Internet

Many of today’s most powerful technologies depend on trust – trust that when a consumer or citizen provides information, either explicitly or implicitly, to a web or mobile application, that information won’t be misused. Trust is essential, because in order to receive the benefits of social, mobile, and real-time applications, consumers must provide information that has the potential to be misused – their location, their friends, what they are doing, what they are buying, what they are saying, what medications they are taking, how much energy their homes and businesses are using, and much more. The answer is not to treat this information as a kind of toxic asset, and build Maginot lines to protect it, but to build policy frameworks around acceptable use, and penalties for misuse. We’ll explore where the technology is leading us and what those policy frameworks might be.

I’m really excited to have such an amazing blend of industry AND Federal heavyweights on the program and in the audience because it gives us an opportunity to explore what the latest technology means for the crafting of future policy and strategy. We’ve got CTOs and other key executives from major technology companies, including Cisco, VMWare, PayPal, IBM, and Facebook, and their opposite numbers at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. We’ve also got innovative small companies, educators, and deep thinkers about the future, all with a shared goal of making things work better.

I’ll share more detail on some of the other program themes and speakers over the next few weeks.

Tim O’Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. O’Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O’Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo.

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