Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Mark Drapeau: Gov 2.0 Apps Need Staying Power

by Matt Rosenberg March 17th, 2010

Writing at Cheeky Geeky, the fairly remarkable Mark Drapeau – who took a new job in January as Microsoft’s Director Of Innovative Social Engagement, says that “Government 2.0″ software applications utilizing public data need to be more geared to regular folks, not the kind of uber-geeks who live and breathe “ubiquitous computing” via mobile Web technology. Drapeau (below, left) writes:

In the Government 2.0 world, it’s popular to develop apps that do something with government data. There have been contests called Apps for Democracy and Apps for America. They get a lot of hype before and during, but what about after? The apps developed for America are rarely heard from again, seemingly disappearing into the gigantic app glut, swallowed whole. There are interesting apps, to be sure. But how many people who aren’t tech elites use any of these apps? (What is the percentage of people who are residents of Washington, DC who even have an iPhone?) If there’s a study out there on this, I’d like to see it. Rarely has an app from a Government 2.0 apps content gone on to fame and fortune. Rarely has someone turned, say, a maps and crime app into something put in hotel kiosks for tourists, or adapted it so that it could be used via the simple texting that average people have.

Software developers are important and so, I suppose, are the digital elite – both continue to push the envelope of the possible. But with more and more city, county, and state governments – as well as the feds – wading into Web-based information services, remember that the intended beneficiaries include several groups who are at risk of being overlooked.

Let’s focus on:

1) people who are Web-literate, engaged voters and citizens – but whose primary computer is a desktop or laptop. They want better information about government spending, programs, planning and public engagement opportunities, but simply aren’t interested in the “always wired” life.

2) Folks from low-income or immigrant backgrounds who are eager to learn how to use the Internet but may have limited access and experience. What will draw them in to the world of Government 2.0 as they use a desktop at the community center or public library?

Several more questions through which government data sets and so-called “civic applications” (a.k.a. “civic apps” or “Government 2.0 apps”) should be filtered: Do I have to download new software just to use it? If it’s a data set, is it easy to use and draw meaning from? How can the tool facilitate improvements in constituent service?

After thinking hard about what’s possible and beneficial, let’s make our online information needs known more clearly to officialdom. Clarity, efficient aggregation, and robust feedback opportunities will help enable better public data and better public engagement. That can yield better government performance, and better-informed decisions by individuals in their daily lives.

4 Responses to “Mark Drapeau: Gov 2.0 Apps Need Staying Power”

  1. [Disclosure: I co-created Apps for Democracy and Apps for the Army]

    I don’t disagree with Mark’s assessment one bit. There’s a lot to criticize about the quality/staying power of of “gov 2.0 apps”. The only point I want to make here is this:

    We’re VERY early into this – apps that are being generated are serving primarily as prototype examples of why OPEN DATA is important for government to release. More and more government is making data open by default – and over time its benefits will spread throughout all of society as voters, activists, non-profits and businesses have better information.

    This is not about the apps really.

  2. Mark Drapeau says:

    Peter Corbett makes a fair point. A lot of apps and similar are proof of principle. Nevertheless, I feel we are moving from “Act One” to “Act Two” of Government 2.0, in which people will evolve from primarily conducting experiments to primarily solving problems. Thus, my article was not so much criticizing the past as looking into the near future.

  3. I think it really is early still. A lot of talented designers and developers are still outside looking in and have yet to really participate. More SMS interfaces to gov’t services would be very nice to see, but I’m not sure how that gets funded at scale. And I think that’s true for a lot of ideas as you try to get past a proof of concept.

    One thing that would really help is more interesting and complete data. People have made many great apps using National Weather Service data even without contests, and even before the Gov2.0 movement, because that data is of good quality and it’s useful to a broad segment of the population (i.e. everyone!)

  4. Peter, Mark, Firoze – thanks for your comments. Good to hear from you all. I agree community collaboration around the possibilities of government online disclosure and tools is key. I advanced a few examples of how that might work, here: http://crosscut.com/2010/03/04/seattle-city-hall/19641/