BitDepth#882 - April 23

At CDX2, issues related to government and big data formed a major part of the discussions. Some of the key topics are reported here.
Bureaucracy and big data
Carole Post, foreground, answers questions from the audience At CDX2 along with Scott Kobler, listening on screen via videoconferencing software. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

According to Carole Post, former chief information officer of New York, the bureaucracy there is still far from where it needs to be. There are still documents trapped in paper and resistance to the new accessibility enabled by digital technologies.

“Don’t try to boil the ocean,” Post told her audience on the first workshop day at the second edition of Caribbean Digital Expo. The digitizing of New York’s data began with a directive to departments to begin with five datasets of their choice.

Even the forward looking administration couldn’t stoke official interest in making better use of social media networks. There was a presence in online media, but it was, in the former CIO’s estimation, perfunctory.
So what urged a skittish government bureaucracy to change its mind?

“Crisis,” explained Post.

Soon after announcing an elegant natural disaster reporting system to citizens concerned about a hurricane bearing down on the city, the Internet based project collapsed under the surge in connections.
Officials then turned to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr to connect with the city and have continued to do so ever since.

Public service projects and government awareness projects have benefited from this expanded use of the peering power of social media platforms ever since.
The loosening of bureaucratic strings doesn’t only apply to the information that governments want to share, the tugging at information strings comes from developers and programmers eager to make use of data gathered in the course of day to day governance.

Public data is supposed to be held in trust for the citizens it is gathered from, but that responsibility tends to get boiled down to the word held, and loosening the grip on the vast datasets that governments generate tends to be a dental endeavour.

Kyle De Frietas, an instructor at UWI’s Department of Computing and Information Technology called for wider access to public data. He called for data unencumbered by the frills of software to keep the enthusiasm raised by a recent Hackathon, designed to put programmers to work on building software that would make use of public datasets.

For that project, the Hackathon got access to some of the datasets they requested, including a subset of the 2011 census data, but De Frietas acknowledged the challenges of scrubbing such datasets of personal identifying information.

Analysing datasets, whether they be analytics information or public census data is critical to understanding what William Beckler of described as “the truth of what’s actually happening.”
This enthusiasm to not just explore but to exploit datasets for the public good is a growing phenomenon.
“Pride,” explained Scott Kobler of, “is a much greater incentive than greed.”

Kobler’s company was a winner of NYC’s Big Apps competition with projects that took city information out of databases and put them to work for commuters,
“2007 changed everything,” he told the audience at CDX2 on a videoconferencing connection.

“The day the iPhone came out; it became possible to put information in the hands of citizens. There apps on iOS and Android that simply didn’t exist before. What government can do is to enable access to the information that can make these things happen.”

Kobler warned, though, that many apps simply don’t have a viable business model and exist more out of altruism than profitability.
Asked about the viability of crowdsourcing as a way of acquiring data and making money out of open data repurposing, Kobler simply said “Scale.”
“You have to be everywhere to be anywhere.”

With a ratio of 98 per cent consumers to two percent contributors consistent across crowdsourced projects, an entrepreneur needs vast numbers to make projects work on that basis.
Deosaran Bisnath, speaking from the floor, felt that government should be doing more. He bemoaned the lack of innovation in the private sector, the challenges of layers of bureaucracy, but still called on the public sector to lead in innovation.

According to Peter Mitchell who represented the Ministry of Planning, data at the Trinidad and Tobago government is paper based, but the Exchequer and Audit Act will enable the use of more technology in its bureaucracy.

Even with such formal limitations on technology use in government, Mitchell noted improvements in IT in Inland Revenue and the implementation of the TT BizLink Portal and the Single Electronic Window.
“We see the big picture,” Mitchell said, “and that picture is speed.”
blog comments powered by Disqus