Some people go to Washington to try to make the government more honest; others try to make it smaller. Technologist Tim O’Reilly is spending time in Washington, and bringing Washington officials to San Francisco, to do something different – perhaps something more realistic. O’Reilly is trying to help government become a platform for innovation. A “government as platform” would supply raw digital data and other forms of support for private sector innovators to build on top of.
Tim O’Reilly is a publisher of technical books, the organizer of a series of conferences on diverse topics, an investor in web startup companies and smart electrical grid technologies. He’s credited with shepharding the term Web 2.0 into public consciousness and he regularly uses his extensive influence to call on technologists to “do something worthy,” especially in the face of ecological and political crisis. Now he’s brokering meetings of Obama administration officials and bleeding-edge geeks.
“What I learned when I went to Washington,” O’Reilly told me by phone as he drove down a California highway earlier this month, “was how much the dialogue is determined by the companies that go there.” O’Reilly is a man in the habit of helping determine dialogue around important issues and the opportunity the Obama administration offers to change government is no different. “[Google CEO] Eric Schmidt told me – ‘tell a big story – talk to people and then share what you’ve learned.'”
O’Reilly is talking to people, but he’s helping people talk to eachother as well. He’s introducing officials like Vivek Kundra, the new CIO of the Federal government, and Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra to ground-breaking hackers like geek rennaisance man Chris Messina and YCombinator founder Paul Graham. He’s bringing together geospatial visionaries and the government officials that provide them the GPS data they work with.
“What I’ve learned from all these conversations,” O’Reilly says,”is about government as a platform. It’s not just social media use by government, or government using wikis. No, it’s something more profound. How do you think like a platform provider? We’ve moved our government from a lean vehicle for collective action, and over the last 200 years it has become so strong that it’s now 40% of GDP. I want to go back to the original vision of the role of government: a convener of things that we as individuals and companies can’t do alone. Standard setting, pilot programs; government providing enabling technologies for citizens to serve themselves.
“This morning we did a call with the White House and some geohackers, talking about what’s wrong with government geodata now and how could it be fixed. The government people said we need to translate this into real projects that will appeal to politicians. ‘If you fix this kind of geodata then we’ll be able to provide this service – street safety, education attainment, public policy objectives,’ was what they wanted to hear from the hackers. It’s really about social innovation, building better tools for us as a nation to use technology to focus on real problems.”
Healthcare, education and innovation policy are the three sectors O’Reilly says have the most momentum when it comes to government as platform.
“The old model,” O’Reilly argues, “said we’ll build services ourselves or we’ll make deals with a few prefered providers that we’ll then offer to our customers. This is very similar to what we saw recently in the cell phone market. Rather than providing all the apps themselves, Apple provided a platform and said to developers ‘go build on it.’ That’s where I think the government is trying to go. Instead of offering a website, here’s an API [application programming interface]. Can we spark innovation against what we’re doing? It’s not about picking a provider or partner and then your conduit to the private sector is them, instead its about evangelizing your platform so far more people develop on top of it.”
“There are absolutely other companies coming to Washington and saying otherwise, to stick with old model,” he says,”but there’s an opportunity for government to say if people want to build services on this then we need the data we make public to be granular and timely. We should not be publishing updates once a month. Real time, local, responsive to users – those are new thinking for government. It’s just like the 90’s when government was discovering websites, now they are discovering web services and we’re saying this is what they need to look like.”
That conversation will become very public when O’Reilly hosts the Gov 2.0 conference next month. The lineup of geeks and people from the government is already intruiging and O’Reilley has said that some of the holes in the schedule are placeholders for very high-profile speakers who haven’t yet sent final confirmation.
“Vivek [Kundra, US CIO] says he wants to make working for government sexy,” O’Reilly says. “It’s a huge part of our economy and there’s a lot of opportunity for entreprenuers. Why are we letting beltway bandits get away with overchanging government to do work? We’re missing opportunities to get our best thinking into government planning.”
Making work for the government sexy is going to be a very big challenge. If there’s a person and a paradigm that just might be able to do it, though, Tim O’Reilly and this vision of “government as platform” might be the right combination.
Photo: O’Reilly at Web 2.0 Expo Berlin, by Adam Tinworth