Author: Bobby Caudill

Open vs. Open

As someone who’s been around the block more than once in the technology industry, I’ve had the opportunity to witness a plethora of developments, ideas and concepts, some good, some not so good. One particular debate, or perhaps, a point is confusion, is around the word ‘open’.

In the early days of computing, groups of like-minded individuals came together for the purpose of defining standard ways to ‘do things.’ For the most part, these folks realized that it was generally better for the industry, as well as the users of technology, to establish standards so that systems AND people could work together. There is no doubt that many of these groups have changed the nature of computing and technology for the better. Email flows, the internet works, people can view documents, pictures, listen to music, etc.

Standards tend to come in two varieties, open and de facto. Open standards are designed and controlled usually by some form of governing body and made available to all interested parties. De facto standards are typically owned and governed by a commercial organization and not necessarily released. Regardless of open or de facto, standards are useful to creating meaningful experiences and solutions. What’s interesting about open standards is they allow for organizations, commercial or otherwise, to develop applications and solutions that can work in a greater eco-system while allowing for innovations and creativity in the implementation of the standard. If your organization writes better code, faster code, has more bells and whistles, it has the opportunity to gain better adoption than competitors. Open standards are usually good.

Fast forward a few years to discuss the next wave of ‘open’ from a technology perspective: open source. Undoubtedly, open source software has had yet another dramatic impact on technology. I would venture to say that you would be hard pressed to find anyone who uses the Internet in any fashion who does not get benefit from the many efforts of the open source community. Web servers, email servers, browsers, and so many more applications and solutions are made freely available to the world to leverage and use. The nature of open source software is to be developed in the open, meaning, the actual source code is accessible to all who wish to see it or work on it.

I’ve introduced open standards and open source. They do share a couple common traits. They are freely available to all interested parties, they are generally developed and governed by committee and, as pointed out, they are both usually thought of as good. However, and this is a BIG however that many people seem to ignore, nowhere is there a rule that specifies open source and open standards are mutually exclusive. I will admit that where you find open source, you generally find open standards, but, think about how many commercially available products there are that are fully dependent on open standards that are not in anyway open source! I would also venture a guess that you may find open source software out there that is not dependent on open standards as well. Regardless, my point stands, while there may be some really good reasons to use open source and open standards in conjunction with each other, nothing says it HAS to be this way.

So, why do so many technologists lump open source and open standards together as if they are the same thing?

I think it is also a good idea to point out the that the goals of these two efforts, while sometimes complementary, are not the same. Open standards are driving for interoperability between systems or applications, while, the goal of open source is to make high-quality software available to the market free of charge.

One more fast forward, let’s add the third wave of open, that of open government. Open government carries with it the promise of dramatically altering the way citizens view and engage with government. There is the promise of unprecedented levels of transparency, participation and collaboration, driving accountability and effectiveness like never before. Like open source and open standards, there’s no doubt open government has the potential to be a good thing, right?

Now back to word ‘open.’ Just like there are people who make the mistake of lumping together open source and open standards as if they are the same, I’m now witnessing people adding open government to the ‘bundle,’ making the assumption that for government to be open, it must rely solely on open source and open standards. Now really folks, I will not argue that the end goal of open government will not in many ways benefit from open standards and to some extent open source, but, are they really mutually exclusive? Are there no opportunities for innovative commercial products and services, de facto standards, and custom solutions in open government?

Unlike open source and open standards, open government is about far more than technology or access to ‘raw’ data. In fact, to illustrate my point, doesn’t open government also need to take into consideration a few little non-technical details, such as new policies and behavioral changes??

I do understand the tendency to view the world through personal filters, where we assume everyone else has the same perspectives and needs, but, we need to question the idea that adding the word ‘open’ to something automatically associates it to all others things dubbed ‘open.’ That approach can be quite limiting and short-sighted. Rather, especially with regards to open government, let’s help our government leaders by keeping them focus on the desired outcomes, their intended audience and only then, allow the discussion of which technologies to bring to the party.

Remember, open government should be about people, not technology.

A different look at open government participation

It’s been over a year, and, the evolution of Open Government is in full swing, including the definition of what Open Government is. We all pretty much agree that that OG is about transparency, participation and collaboration, but, what seems to be missing is context. Transparent to who? Participate in what? Collaborate to solve? So far, most of the efforts of the OG community have been focused on raw data sets and dashboards to answer for transparency, feedback collection sites to cover participation and various forms of social media to foster collaboration. Not a bad start, so long as we don’t allow the OG community to claim victory and quit looking for more creative innovations (or definitions of what OG could/should be).

To this point, I’d like to present a very different perspective on participation. As mentioned, generally, when participation is discussed with regards to OG, people are thinking about ways to gather feedback from or start a dialog with the public (or some subset of), typically focused on some government initiative or policy decision. Of course, this is generally a good thing, but, isn’t this an obvious use case for open government? So, let’s think outside the box for a minute and consider a whole different perspective, namely, finding ways to engage people directly with the mission of a particular agency. Still participation, right? Would this still be Open Government at work as well? I believe the answer is yes.

So what would this look like? Let’s use the U.S. Army as an example. For the Army to effectively deliver on it’s mission to defend the nation, no resource is more precious than the soldiers themselves. To ensure the Army stays fully staffed, the U.S. Army Recruiting Command has a critical role to play. While the re-enlistment rate is higher than it has been in years, there is still a need to bring in new recruits all the time. Enter goarmy.com.

In years past, think about how Army recruiters were depicted. I’m sure many of you recall the timeless Bill Murray classic, “Stripes” or even Pauly Shore’s “In the Army Now” (OK, maybe you don’t remember that Hollywood Blockbuster!) where there was an Army recruiting office in a less than desirable location, manned by a recruiter with a cheesy smile and a bunch of false promises. Obviously, these are spoofs of reality, but, a few things were true. The experience was in person, it was focused solely on the recruit and the ‘engagement’ was somewhat limited to ‘read this and sign here’.

Contrast that to the experience of goarmy.com. In this immersive online experience, potential recruits are offered various interactions that help answer questions, set expectations and illustrate what Army life is all about. Through the judicious use of video, animations, avatars (you really need to check out SGT Star!), and various communications technologies such as Facebook, RSS feeds and discussion boards, the recruit can, among many things, discover career options, learn about weapons systems, engage with interactive games, and even schedule an audition with the Army Band! And let’s not neglect to mention the other audience of goarmy.com, the parents and family of any potential recruits. The family is presented with a wealth of information to help guide everyone to making the right decision for their son or daughter. Again, just like the recruit’s experience, the family is offered interactive and engaging information that gives them a very detailed look into the kind of future that is waiting.

So, let’s break it down. The Army, through the development of this site, is capitalizing on the concept that ‘design matters.’ By creating goarmy.com, they have delivered an experience that people can use, leading to widespread adoption within the community of potential recruits and families. With this adoption has come participation, the ability to actually engage in the process of becoming a soldier in the United States Army. Also, there is an element of transparency as well. Consider how much better informed a new recruit is today verses a new recruit in say the 1980’s. Isn’t this what Open Government should be about? Better informed people who are taking an active role in the mission of a government agency? And how much more participatory can one get than enlisting in a military service?

Of course making data sets available and gathering feedback from constituents is important, I would never argue otherwise, however, let’s be sure to keep our eyes open for even greater opportunities for transparency, participation and collaboration.