How Web-based technologies are reinventing government services

International cast at Gov 2.0 conference describe how new platforms, apps connect with people

The convergence of government and technology innovations taking root across the United States and the world was on parade today at the Washington Convention Center, in a series of rapid-fire presentations by government and industry officials on how governments are connecting with citizens.

The roster of speakers spanned the globe and brought competitors such as Google and Microsoft together. And as a keynote speaker, Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee highlighted what’s working and what remains to be done in enabling citizens to harness government information over the Internet for mutual benefit.

Los Angeles Chief Technology Officer Randi Levin spoke about the $5 million the City of Los Angeles expects to save over the next few years by moving to Web-based office applications from Google. The city's move was driven by the need to overcome dissatisfaction with an aging Novell e-mail and calendar system. But like most governments, Los Angeles is facing dramatic budget cuts, just as it was coming to grips with the need for a system that could communicate with newer mobile platforms, including those for iPhones and Android mobile devices.

The choice to go with Google applications wasn’t without controversy. “If you took the politics out, we probably could have been done by now,” she said.

But the decision also helps support a future for multilingual communications that would have been impossible before, observed host Tim O’Reilly, of O’Reilly Media, who organized the three-day Gov 2.0 conference with UBM TechWeb.

Google Enterprise President Dave Girouard, who joined Levin on stage, noted that Google's Gmail is the first e-mail platform that can read and translate 40 languages. Speaking about the broader move toward cloud computing, he said large organizations, public or private, need to think about cloud computing as more than a way to reduce costs, but also as an opportunity to transform the way services can be delivered.

Brad Smith, Microsoft senior vice president and general counsel, highlighted how government agencies and universities are accomplishing work not only cheaper, but better, pointing to success Miami has had with its 311 service. But he said that the opportunities of cloud computing also require greater effort to tackle questions about privacy, security, and the need for the U.S. government to work with other nations to reconcile different standards.

Josh Robins, speaking for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, asserted that the clearest model for Gov 2.0 efforts is how easy it is to find real-time weather reports on all kinds of media and devices, thanks to the decision to make government weather data freely available.

That premise led to the decision to make bus route planning information available to the public. Within weeks, the public contributed a variety of applications that work on desktops, phones, and can even deliver text messages containing schedules.

Kate Lundy, a senator in the Australian parliament, highlighted her country’s efforts in democratizing data, building citizen centric services, and fostering a participatory government. Australia’s commitment to universal broadband has helped propel efforts, but so has work in developing tools such as software that helps small businesses file tax data more easily online, she said.

Berners-Lee provided a glimpse of what’s ahead for Internet-enabled organizations, pointing to the potential of linked data.

Pointing to a package of potato chips, and the information printed on the bag, he emphasized that we already live in a world filled with different vocabularies that aren’t universally understood. The bag, he said, has information about nutrition, information for retailers and information that is only relevant to the manufacturer.

But through new approaches in linking data over the Internet, it’s possible to make the meaning of data clearer and more useful to more people, “without starting a great big committee.”

“It’s not a top down system,” he said, contrasting linked data with efforts to build a semantic Web, with more developed rules and conventions. “Linked data doesn’t need everyone to agree to the terms,” he said. “It’s like [the data] on bag of chips."



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