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The Technologies of G21: How Government Can Become a Platform for Innovation

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In last week's post, I explained why I prefer the term G21 to Gov2.0. In essence, I argue that the change in government that "Gov2.0" supposedly stands for is much more than a slick new web site or communications strategy. It means more than adding a blog and a Facebook page, though the term "Gov2.0" doesn't make that clear. By contrast, G21 is about reexamining and ultimately redefining the role of government. G21 takes new technology and fully integrates it into policy. With G21, technology isn't a new way to do the same thing, it's the new medium with which we in government are meeting the new demands of our constituents.

In an August 20 article on ReadWriteWeb, technologist Tim O'Reilly called for government to become a platform for innovation. He is quoted saying:

The old model said 'we'll build services ourselves or we'll make deals with a few prefered (sic) providers that we'll then offer to our customers.' This is very similar to what we saw recently in the cell phone market. Rather than providing all the apps themselves, Apple provided a platform and said to developers 'go build on it.' That's where I think the government is trying to go. Instead of offering a website, here's an API [application programming interface]. Can we spark innovation against what we're doing?

To understand why this is happening, we must understand the dramatic advancements that have recently occurred in four different, interrelated technologies.

Technology of G21

The four technologies that have reached a new threshold delineating G20 from G21 are advancements in data collection, storage, transmission, and presentation. I've posted a table that shows the progress from G19 - G21 in each of these technologies.

Data Collection

In G21, today's world, data collection is ubiquitous and the technologies that gather data are inexpensive and widely available. Cameras record video and still images from the ledges of building facades, atop stop lights, in the corners of government and corporate offices. Private citizens carry cameras in their pockets that can broadcast video instantly for free. (In a later post, I'll talk about privacy and control of one's own data and G21)

But it isn't just audio visual data that the government collects. Weather gauges--with data reported via SMS or email are placed throughout cities and towns and miles into our oceans. Many economic activities are recorded by government and corporate entities as is travel and traffic information. In short, the proliferation of collection technologies has resulted in an overabundance of data. Though any individual data set may not be of much use on its own, often multiple data sets can fulfill the maxim 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.'

Data Storage

At this, the beginning of the twenty-first century, you can buy a terabyte of storage space for the same price you would have paid for one hundredth the space only ten years ago. Likewise, cloud computing and inexpensive remote-backups have made data storage more stable (on that note, if you're not using a remote-backup service for your data, read this article, then come back!).

Fire, natural disasters, or physical attacks are no longer the principal threat to data. Physical space , once a delimiter of data, is barely relevant--the contents of the entire Library of Congress is estimated at around 300 TB.

Data Transmission Infrastructure

Data is meaningless if it lives ignored, inaccessible, and unanalyzed on hard drives and servers. Further, no mobile device, and really, few home PCs, have the processing power to parse the huge volume of information that those servers store. Thus, the infrastructure to send data and command the processors that can manipulate the data is an indispensable component of 21st-century society. That infrastructure consists of physical and regulatory structures.

Physical infrastructure is exactly what it sounds like: networks of fiber optic cables, wireless transmission stations, phone and power lines. The regulations undergirding those privately-owned structures include the rights to frequencies and broadcasting standards. Taken together, the composition of physical and regulatory infrastructure--at their best--ensure that devices can communicate seamlessly with one another without the threat of interference from competing platforms.

Data Presentation

Data presentation technology-- devices that transform data into useful, enabling tools for citizens and policy makers--is the fourth and final sustaining element of G21. Previously, viewing data was the province of the few who had access to powerful computers and proprietary software.

The launch of the iPhone App store--more than the launch of the iPhone itself--could be a demarking point between 20th and 21st century governance. The software is more important than the hardware because it opened the platform and truly moved data visualization into the hands of the people. For a low entry-fee and monthly service plan, citizens can now keep a computer in their pockets and pocketbooks and access and control servers from most parts of the country.

Next up: the changes in our polity wrought by the technological advancements and why the government-constituent relationship will never be the same again.

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