Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Designing Government 2.0

Tim Turner from the University of NSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy talked on "Web 2.0 and Government-Citizen Interaction", last night at the Australian Computer Society Canberra Branch Meeting. Tim gave a refreshingly cynical overview of Government 2.0. He cautioned about the rhetoric getting ahead of the reality.

As a good academic Tim went back to the origins of the idea of Web 2.0 with Tim Berners-Lee's semantic web. This was an interesting approach, as I thought of "Web 2.0" as a marketing term popularised by O'Reilly Media. Time argued that the glitzy user interface interactive front end had overtaken ideas of a deep web. The emphasis is on communication between people with the computers acting as little more than a telecommunications medium. Tim was sceptical of the value of Facebook and Twitter but positive about Wikis, Blogs and tag clouds. He suggested that within two to three years just about every older teenager to adult in Australia will have a smart phone. He claimed this will allow ubiquitous delivery of information via the web.

Unfortunately I see a lot of government web pages which seem to have been designed to make it hard to use on a phone (I teach mobile web design to public servants at ANU). Tim pointed out the smart phone can be used at the bus stop or in the lift on the way to a meeting (I have actually had an online meeting with someone using an iPhone on an aircraft waiting to disembark).

Tim warned that web 2.0 brings out the extraordinary narcissism of people. Blogs by everyone on everything can diminish the credibility of information. However, the research I have seen shows that this does not happen in reality. The Wikipedia is as high in quality as conventional encyclopaedias if not better.

Tim argues that there is a need for conventional media, such as News Corporation, to assess what is genuine news and what are just media releases. However, I don't believe that the evidence supports this view. An examination of Google News shows that conventional news items tends to be sourced from the same media releases. Bloggers tend to cite the media release as a source, whereas the conventional media pretend they wrote the content.

Tim saw the technology being used by government for publishing, collaborating, and networking. Mash-ups can combine collaboration and networking. He gave the Obama08 campaign as an example of good use of the web for publishing and the former Australian prime minister's use of YouTube as example of doing this badly. He had some concerns about using wikis for the general public to dirctly author government policy (as do I).

Tim saw web 2.0 as a way for government to increase the data sources for insights. He suggested folksonomies for the government getting the public views on issues. He gave th example of buses versus trains for Sydney transport. I am not sure this was a good example, as a citizen I want transport and expect the government experts to work out if buses or trains are better.

Tim suggested the system could be used as a sensor network in a crisis. He used the example of the SMS emergency warnings. A more sophisticated example was to have the citizens to record their view of the bush fire risk at their location and then map the results.

Tim argued that the "perpetual beta" of Web 2.0 is not sustainable. At some point the technology will have to be stabalised and made reliable for government use, as the citizens expect the government to deliver reliably.

Tim claimed that Web 2.0 was politically volatile as it blurs the distinction between the "party line" and individual statements. Also everything said online is permanently recorded. However, I don't see these as different in kind, just degree from previous technologies and not a bad thing.

At question time I asked if there were examples of web 2.0 being used at a smaller scale than federal government. One in the audience gave the examples of "" (the Australian version is "itsbuggered") and use of Twitter by the Californian government.

Another comment was the Web 2.0 was disintermediating democracy. Also the issue of data-mining government information and the risk to privacy. Tim pointed out that experts at ABS spend a lot of time worrying about how to provide data while protecting personal privacy.

The issue of the MySchools web site was raised as an example of data of questionable quality being published online. It will be interesting to see the quality of the "MyUniversity" system to be annoucned today.

This was an entertaining and enlightening presentation.

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