03 March 2009

IGov - Do We Really Want To Upgrade?

I was talking to S. the other day, when the guys who argue on the Sunday morning political talk shows were going on about the budget President Obama has proposed, when I asked her a question.

"You know what API's are, right? We need to have the information released as raw data, so we can manipulate it on our own – I'm tired of listening to these guys build entire arguments on slivers of information they’ve found, instead of giving it the context it deserves."

S., who has done time as a lawyer at an internet security firm, looked at me as if I was crazy. "I don't know about that. It sounds like too much of a security risk."

I was shocked.

As much as S. and I have railed together about the television shows and newspaper articles that share such a limited amount of actual information about what's going on in the government, it never would have occurred to me that she could possibly want to limit electronic access to information that was already public anyway, albeit in a more unwieldy format.

The "API" I mentioned stands for "application programming interface", which essentially means that you not only get the raw data, but a blueprint that tells you the parameters around which you can write programs to access the data. Facebook, Youtube, Paypal - some of the most popular internet destinations - all make their API's available to allow the software development community to create new ways of using their products.

The skills it requires are beyond most of us, but there are plenty of software developers out there who will whip out a new program in a few days just to test themselves. And there are quite a few politically active ones, like my man Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight.com, who have already shown how well they can manipulate data with an off the shelf server and a little bit of know-how.

So what was S.'s real reluctance all about? I don't know - we got on another subject and never came back to the idea of the public having free and open access to the data files that produced the information that is already public. I thought about the old saying "give the people what they ask for and they might find out they don’t want it." Who knows - I'll bring it back up at some point in our rolling political discussion.

The irony of the whole scene, though, at least to me, was the fact that while we were talking, the Diva, our resident teenager, was sitting on the couch with her most favorite possession - her IPhone - in hand, thumbing through some game on the screen. I thought about how the success of Apple’s hottest product depended not only on its sleek design and 21st century touch screen mechanics, but the heavy interest from the programming community, which had taken the capabilities of this smart phone to new heights by coming up with programs the company’s designers had not even imagined that ran on the IPhone platform.

Do we really have the interest in our political process that we say we do? Could we get as interested in the details of government spending and government program efficiency as we are in the minutia of our cell phone plans, if the raw information was presented in a more visually appealing way that it is now?

This may not have as much emotional resonance as a good hot tempered rant about the evils being perpetrated on Wall Street, or the absolute inanity of the latest Rush Limbaugh imbroligo, but it is infinitely more important

Or are we just interested in hearing ourselves complain about government, because its what you’re supposed to do?

I don't know about you guys, but I'm ready for IGov.

1 comment:

  1. BMTH -

    API is new to my vocabulary, but data is not. My experience with data--any data--is that most people want someone else to cut it, slice it, and make it make sense.

    The small sliver of the population that likes playing with data (you mention Silver as one fine example) has the capacity to help set the terms of discourse, to change the rules governing how things are done, and consequently they have the capacity to help turn things upside down.

    Consider as another example what's been done with publicly available stats in baseball, football, and basketball over the past 20 years. (Silver is a fine example in this area too. It's not about the number crunching. It's the ability to craft a story.) A whole new generation of sports fans consume the game differently than a generation ago. (Though no one wants to admit it, the NFL's popularity is driven largely by data intensive consumption -- gambling and fantasy football. The data has become part of the product in a way it never was previously.)

    Opening up the data has changed the very way the product is consumed. Of course, everyone isn't happy about that. Changing the consumption experience has shifted relationships of power. The leagues are mostly making money hand over fist (even baseball). But, the traditional intermediaries (sports reporters, especially newspaper), who used to set the rules on how to enjoy the product, are slowly going the way of the travel agent.

    And that's always the real fear about opening up the data. The fear is about what happens when multiple authors begin telling competing stories about what (and how) the product means. When they opened up data about how much your new car ACTUALLY costs the dealer, lots of people stopped going to the dealers. The rules of consumption changed, and then so did relationships of power. People who never had to compete for influence all of a sudden must.


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