Open data as a platform

The following post is an excerpt from my thesis entitled Linked open data for public sector information.
Open data infrastructure is the gist of the concept of “government as a platform” formulated by Tim O’Reilly [1, p. 11]. O’Reilly expands on the notion of open data by demanding governments to expose not only raw open data, but also open web services. Government as a platform is a provider of services built on open data. The services, accessible to anyone, offer ways of interfacing with data on which they are based, allowing to perform basic operations on that data. In this way, these open services form an API for the public sector.
This line of thinking sees the public sector as an enabler rather than an implementer, focusing more on creating an open environment rather than delivering end-user services. In contrast to government that works as a platform, current governments may be described rather as “vending machine governments” [Ibid., p. 13]. In such governments citizens pay taxes and expect services in return. If no services are provided or the obtained services are not satisfactory, citizens protest, which is like shaking the vending machine.
If we get on a more metaphorical level of the “government as a platform” concept, as Carl Malamud does, we can see law as the operating system of society [Ibid., p. 45]. Law provides rules that govern society, similar to operating systems governing the allocation of system resources. For an open and democratic society not only an unfettered access to its underlying infrastructure is necessary, it is crucial to guarantee equal access to law as well. As Malamud puts it, “if a document is to have the force of law, it must be available for all to read” [Ibid., p. 46]. Law, the operating system of society, has to be made open source.
What is important on the government as a platform is that this idea needs generative data. Jonathan Zittrain defines generativity as the “system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences” [2, p. 70]. It is a property that describes the ability of users of the system to produce new content unique to that system without any input from the system’s creators. The generativity of a system is based on its affordances, “the possible actions that exist in a given environment” [Ibid., p. 78].
Platforms balance control with generativity. Open infrastructures favour generativity and loose control mechanisms. Open data model incentivizes peer production of applications based on the data [3, p. 331]. Jonathan Zittrain claims that “generatively-enabled activity by amateurs can lead to results that would not have been produced in a firm-mediated market model” [2, p. 84]. This is the essence of the Many minds principle that asserts that “the coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else.”
Bill Schrier writes that “governments should provide services which are difficult or impossible for the public to provide for themselves, or which are hard to purchase from private businesses” [1, p. 305]. The rest of the services should be catered for by the public, by businesses or civic associations. What contributes to this approach is the recognition that “the needs of today’s society are too complex to be met by government alone” [4]. Ultimately, “if the private sector can make downstream products more cheaply or meet consumer demands in other ways, then the public sector body should consider pulling out of the market” [5, p. 38]. The solution is to open up the data infrastructure that the public sector works on and invite third parties to build on it. In this way, exposing public sector data within an open infrastructure enables to complement government-provided services with citizen self-service. Although the government as a platform principle is still in an early stage of realization, there are several places in which the public sector opened up its infrastructure to others. To give an example of this principle in action, the Global Positioning System (GPS), that the US government made publicly available for full commercial use a decade ago, may be considered [1, p. 44]. Built on geospatial data, this system provides geolocation services that are open to anyone to access, free of charge.
Highly successful, yet short-lived, were the occasions in which the public sector opened its data for application challenges. In these competitions public bodies released some of their data and offered prizes for the best applications developed with that data. The challenges proved to have a high return on investment. Not only they created a value in applications that significantly exceeded the original investment in prizes, but the application contests also delivered tangible examples of what data can do. Application challenges, such as the founding Apps for Democracy, that took place in Washingtion D.C. in 2009, were a source of inspiration for others to follow their lead. Finally, there already is software being built for creating open data infrastructures. An example of such software is the aptly-named Open Government Platform dataset management system that is jointly developed by the US and India.


  1. LATHROP, Daniel; RUMA, Laurel (eds.). Open government: collaboration, transparency, and participation in practice. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2010. ISBN 978-0-596-80435-0.
  2. ZITTRAIN, Jonathan. The future of the Internet: and how to stop it. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Also available from WWW: http://futureoftheinternet.org/static/ZittrainTheFutureoftheInternet.pdf. ISBN 978-0-300-15124-4.
  3. HÖCHTL, Johann; REICHSTÄDTER, Peter. Linked open data: a means for public sector information management. In ANDERSEN, Kim Normann; FRANCESCONI, Enrico; GRÖNLUND, Åke; VAN ENGERS, Tom M. (eds.). Electronic Government and the Information Systems Perspective: proceedings of the second international conference, Toulouse, France, August 29 — September 2, 2011. Heidelberg: Springer, 2011, p. 330 — 343. Lecture notes in computer science, vol. 6866. DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-22961-9_26.
  4. Open declaration on European public services [online]. 2009 [cit. 2012-04-07]. Available from WWW: http://eups20.wordpress.com/the-open-declaration/
  5. GRAVES, Antoinette. The price of everything the value of nothing. In UHLIR, Paul F. (rpt.). The socioeconomic effects of public sector information on digital networks: toward a better understanding of different access and reuse policies: workshop summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press, 2009. Also available from WWW: http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12687&page=37. ISBN 0-309-13968-6.

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