Gov 2.0 Summit: Tom Steinberg

September 9, 2009 – 3:44 am

Tom Steinberg is my pioneer hero of open government. His group, MySociety, is a British non-profit building things on the web. His things work: fix rate for FixMyStreet is about 50%. That means 10s of thousands of real problems that will get fixed next year. He gave us some lessons that MySociety learned along the way. They’re things to watch for in other people’s projects.

Lesson 1: Great gov2 project combine services that normal people care about (people who don’t care about transparency) with transparency. People care about their roads. But you need transparency to get them the site they actually want.

Lesson 2: First rule of Government Data Mashers Club is that you do not talk about Government Data Mashers Club in front of your users. Tom said he’s a big fan of structured data, but we should be cautious about presenting a site that’s About Data. The public needs and wants “is my politician any good?”, “are my streets okay?”, etc. This takes lots of data but you don’t have to lecture about how lucky they are.

Lesson 3: Successful sites have simple description of what they do. Fix My Street “fixes your streets”.

Lesson 4: Can help Government reform by bolting interfaces onto the platform of Government before the platform has been fully built. Councils want a standard API to feed data into Fix My Street, but if MySociety had begun by convening a meeting we’d still be waiting.

Quote from Clay Johnson: “Coding is quicker than consensus.”

Two appeals. First, as technologist and second as pretend US citizen.

Build FixMyStreet in USA. Citizens deserve services that hide the splinter of federalism. Hard because of federalism, but that’s why you should do it. And when you succeed, you have a simple example that gives legitimacy to other things.

Want Government in US to be braver in UK. Act as though it is genuinely more important to bring citizens together in stronger civil society than it is to manage a bad press day. Write Your MP creates opportunity to write back to users, let users collaborate and talk, but politicians won’t do it because they’re afraid of what the citizens might say! Because it might be a bad news day. “You can’t use our roads to go to political meetings because it might be a bad news day” would lead to revolution.

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