Can the Power of Web 2.0 Solve the World's Most Pressing Problems?

10/07/2010 02:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What is Web 2.0? In 2005, it meant geeks embracing a set of principles and practices: using the web as a platform, harnessing collective intelligence, data becoming the new "Intel inside" and so on. By 2010, many of the dominant companies and services that embody or fuel Web 2.0 have become global brands: Google, Craigslist, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and a host of new mobile communities and platforms. These companies are often defined by what they allow users to do: upload pictures or video, stay connected to friends, track and discover news, save bookmarks, create communities, etc.

For non-geeks, Web 2.0 means the online world has become a place you could publish and participate. It became about everyone with an Internet connection exploring an interactive web. Instead of static browsers, the web became a read/write medium, with a social layer that accelerated quickly. As with most technical innovations, the evolution of an Internet operating system has been incremental and cumulative.

The same is true of government 2.0, or "Gov 2.0," which Tim O'Reilly defined as thinking like a platform provider that can bring services to citizens using government data and the creative power of the private sector.

Gov 2.0 has often been defined by its utility to help citizens or agencies solve problems, either for individuals or the commons. That's what the giants of the Web 2.0 era have been able to do successfully outside of the government world, and that's the paradigm that many Gov 2.0 events have been exploring.

In that vein, Gov 2.0 is not defined by social media any more than Web 2.0 is. Collaborative software -- including blogs, wikis, RSS, interactive video and social networks -- is an elemental feature of Gov 2.0, but it does not encompass all of it. For example, a congressional hearing this summer defined Government 2.0 in the context of Web 2.0 technologies, balancing potential security and privacy issues against innovation and cost savings.

So what does Web 2.0 mean to Gov 2.0? Many aspects cannot be discerned at this point, but one thing is certainly clear: It's about all of us. Creating a smarter, more innovative government matters to every citizen.

In their analysis of "Web 2.0 five years on, John Battelle and Tim O'Reilly wrote:

If we are going to solve the world's most pressing problems, we must put the power of the web to work -- its technologies, its business models, and perhaps most importantly, its philosophies of openness, collective intelligence, and transparency. And to do that, we must take the web to another level. We can't afford incremental evolution anymore


In his advice on the direction of the first Government 2.0 Summit, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra urged the technology community gathering for the Gov 2.0 Summit not to focus on the successes of Web 2.0 in government, but rather on the unsolved problems that confront the country.

That community that Chopra has looked to for ideas came together at the Web 2.0 Expo last week in New York City. In no particular order, following are 10 lessons from Web 2.0 that could be applied to government. If you also attended the conference or have been thinking about the topic, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Work on stuff that matters

Thinking about the future is an obvious place to start when looking at the lessons of Web 2.0 for Gov 2.0. Tim O'Reilly recently spoke about the big issues that we all confront and some of the long-term trends that confront the tech industry, citizens and government alike: financial crises, income inequality, soaring healthcare costs, to name a few. Humanity as a whole has even greater challenges.

What does this mean to government? Can citizens collaborate with officials, workers and one another to apply a civic surplus to open government? During the 2008 election, then-Senator Barack Obama said, "the challenges we face today -- from saving our planet to ending poverty -- are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck." As President, finding solutions to grand challenges means that Obama is looking again to the technology community for answers. Whether he finds them will be a defining element in judging whether a young Senator from Illinois that leveraged Web 2.0 to become President can tap into that collective intelligence to govern in the Oval Office.

For other nine lessons for Gov 2.0 from Web 2.0, check out O'Reilly Radar.