Last Monday, Gordon Brown delivered a speech in which he laid out a fascinating and bold vision for how Britain could lead the world in knowledge industries and create a quarter of a million skilled jobs within 10 years. What I found most interesting in his remarks was how he linked leadership in the digital economy to leadership in public service delivery and increasing “voice and choice for citizens”.
Underlying his message was his palpable excitement in the next generation of the web: the semantic web or the web of linked data. The semantic web is a relatively new term popularized by the British scientist and early founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee. Tim suggest that the web of linked data has the potential to transform the way we manage knowledge, make decisions, and understand relationships between previously unconnected phenomena. Nearly a year ago, speaking at a TED conference in California, Tim issued a call to action to public agencies and data aggregators – Free Data Now. He argued that only by freeing data into easily searchable and downloadable formats could we expose relationships between issues like housing and crime, access to water and race, or government spending and the quality of public services. From the perspective of international development institutions, imagine if we could see relationships between aid flows and poverty or even poverty at a sub-national level (say through maps) and where development projects are located in a particular country?
The possibilities are breathtaking. What is most powerful to me, however, is the link to citizen voice and citizen agency. As we contemplate the next generation of the web, simpler ways to visualize data, to turn data into information and information into policy insight, can we simultaneously improve governance at local levels and empower citizens to demand better public services? Brown’s speech lays out a compelling vision:
In both the content and delivery of public services the next stage of the web will transform the ability of citizens to tailor the services they need to their requirements, to feedback constantly on their success, to interact with the professionals who deliver them and to put the citizen not the public servant in control.
In short, citizen-centric governance facilitated by the web, linked data, and continual feedback loops between service providers and service recipients. For those of us skeptical about what this means in the developing world, there are some early wins in places like India and East Africa. The e-Governments Foundation has deployed a Public Grievance Redressal System (PGR) in which more than 250,000 complaints have been registered by citizens in Karnataka via mobile phones and the web and has resulted in local government responding to service breakdowns on the basis of citizen demand. In East Africa, Twaweza is putting citizens at the center of good governance and experimenting with SMS-based tools and leveraging media to inform and be informed by citizens.
As we embark on our own Access to Information Policy at the World Bank, we too have the opportunity to lay out a bold vision for how access to information can improve our performance to our clients and our accountability to end-users – citizens. How can we leverage new advances in information sciences, the semantic web, and the power of third party developers to mash-up data into information that mobilizes citizens towards action and makes it easier for policy makers to listen to and be guided by citizens? The learning organizations of the future will recognize that information and knowledge surround us and innovation happens in real time and often under the radar. Linking experts with expertise wherever it may be will be the comparative advantage of those who will lead us in the knowledge society yet to come.