Gov 2.0: It's All About The Platform

Editor’s note: The following guest post is by Tim O’Reilly, the founder and CEO of computer book publisher O’Reilly Media and a conference organizer. O’Reilly coined the term Web 2.0 five years ago. Now he is arguing it is time for Gov 2.0, and has helped organize a summit next week to talk about what that might mean.

Today, many people equate Web 2.0 with social media; three or four years ago, they equated it with AJAX applications and APIs. Many are now starting to think it’s all about cloud computing. In fact, it’s all of these and more. The way I have always defined Web 2.0, it’s been about what it means for the internet, rather than the personal computer, to be the dominant computing platform. What are the rules of business and competitive advantage when the network is the platform?

So too with Government 2.0. A lot of people equate the term with government use of social media, either to solicit public participation or to get out its message in new ways. Some people think it means making government more transparent. Some people think it means adding AJAX to government websites, or replacing those websites with government APIs, or building new cloud platforms for shared government services. And yes, it means all those things.

But as with Web 2.0, the real secret of success in Government 2.0 is thinking about government as a platform. If there’s one thing we learn from the technology industry, it’s that every big winner has been a platform company: someone whose success has enabled others, who’ve built on their work and multiplied its impact. Microsoft put “a PC on every desk and in every home,” the internet connected those PCs, Google enabled a generation of ad-supported startups, Apple turned the phone market upside down by letting developers loose to invent applications no phone company would ever have thought of. In each case, the platform provider raised the bar, and created opportunities for others to exploit.

There are signs that government is starting to adopt this kind of platform thinking.

Behind Federal CIO Vivek Kundra’s site is the idea that government agencies shouldn’t just provide web sites, they should provide web services. These services, in effect, become the government’s SDK (software development kit). The government may build some applications using these APIs, but there’s an opportunity for private citizens and innovative companies to build new, unexpected applications. This is the phenomenon that Jonathan Zittrain refers to as “generativity“, the ability of open-ended platforms to create new possibilities not envisioned by their creators.

And of course, much as happened with the rise of commercial web services, “hackers” have been battering at the gates for some time. Adrian Holovaty’s (now part of was the second-ever Google Maps mashup, back in 2005. It showed the world just how much value could be created by putting government data on a map. Most of the winners of Washington D.C.’s Apps for Democracy contest are direct descendants of chicagocrime. Similarly, Openstreetmap started out using crowdsourcing to create free maps in the UK, where map data is expensive; their move to build better maps for Palestine led to contributions from the UN and European community.

We’re starting to see formal efforts to develop an application ecosystem at the local, state, and federal level, via contests like Apps for Democracy, Apps for America, and other similar programs. Startups like SeeClickFix are pushing for standardized APIs to government services (like Open311). But there’s still a long way to go.

My goal at the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase and Gov 2.0 Summit next week in Washington DC is to encourage more of this kind of platform thinking. We’ve brought in leaders from some of the most important platform providers in the tech world—Vint Cerf, the creator of TCP/IP, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, and Craig Mundie of Microsoft, among others—to talk about what makes tech platforms tick. We’re bringing together people like GSA CIO Casey Coleman and Amazon CTO Werner Vogels to talk about what the government can learn from the private sector about building cloud computing infrastructure, and especially how to make interoperable clouds. We’re looking beyond the obvious, as in our on-stage conversation with Google chief economist Hal Varian, talking about the role that measurement and “real time economics” plays in the success of Web 2.0 platforms. We’ll try to apply these insights to some of the big initiatives facing the Federal government, including health care and education. And of course, we’ll be engaging with the architects of the government’s internet strategy, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, White House new media head Macon Phillips, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, as well as leaders from the military and intelligence sector.

In one of my prep calls with Craig Mundie, he pushed forcefully for the idea that killer apps drive platform adoption. It strikes me that the killer app may already be here; we just don’t give the government enough credit for it. I’m talking about the wonderful world of geolocation, with GPS devices in cars providing turn-by-turn directions, phone applications telling you when the next bus is about to arrive, and soon, augmented reality applications telling you what’s nearby. It’s easy to forget that GPS, like the original internet, is a service kickstarted by the government. Here’s the key point: the Air Force originally launched GPS satellites for its own purposes, but in a crucial policy decision, agreed to release a less accurate signal for commercial use. The Air Force moved from providing an application to providing a platform, with the result being a wave of innovation in the private sector.

Location is the key to the relevance of government to its citizenry, as well as to a host of non-governmental services. But there are already disputes about who owns the data. For example, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority issued a takedown order against the StationStops iPhone application. This is exactly the kind of bad policy that we hope to remedy by shedding light on best practices in government platform building.
It’s easy to forget just how generative government interventions can be. The internet itself was originally a government-funded project. So was the interstate highway system. Would WalMart exist without that government intervention? Would our cities thrive without transportation, water, power, garbage collection and all the other services we take for granted? Like an operating system providing services for applications, government provides functions that enable private sector activity.

It’s important for the idea of “government as platform” to reach well beyond the world of IT. It was Scott Heiferman, the founder of who hammered this point home to me. Meetup is a platform for people to do whatever they want with. A lot of them are using it for citizen engagement: cleaning up parks, beaches, and roads; identifying and fixing local problems.

In some of my recent talks, I’ve used an image originally proposed by Donald Kettl in The Next Government of the United States. Too often, we think of government as a kind of vending machine. We put in our taxes, and get out services: roads, bridges, hospitals, fire brigades, police protection… And when the vending machine doesn’t give us what we want, we protest. Our idea of citizen engagement has somehow been reduced to shaking the vending machine. But what meetup teaches us is that engagement may mean lending our hands, not just our voices.

In this regard, there’s a CNN story from last April that I like to tell: a road into a state park in Kauai was washed out, and the state government said it didn’t have the money to fix it. The park would be closed. Understanding the impact on the local economy, a group of businesses chipped in, organized a group of volunteers, and fixed the road themselves. I called this DIY on a civic scale. Scott Heiferman corrected me: “It’s DIO: Not ‘Do it Yourself’ but ‘Do it Ourselves.'” Imagine if the state government were to reimagine itself not as a vending machine but an organizing engine for civic action. Might DIO help us tackle other problems that bedevil us? Can we imagine a new compact between government and the public, in which government puts in place mechanisms for services that are delivered not by government, but by private citizens? In other words, can government become a platform?

We have an enormous opportunity right now to make a difference. There’s a receptivity to new ideas that we haven’t seen in a generation. Government at all levels has put out the call for help. It’s up to the tech community to respond, with our ideas, with our voices, with our creativity, and with our code.

(Photo credit: Flickr/Center for American Progress)