The British Government recently made an unprecedented move by releasing a number of previously unavailable data sets together with APIs for use in composite applications or mashups. The ‘Show us a Better Way’ initiative by the UK’s Cabinet Office is to get input from the Web 2.0-savvy public on how government services can be improved using mashups.
This welcome but unusual public consultation includes a competition with a prize money of 20 000 pounds ($40 000) for seed funding the best mashup entry.
Many view the mashup as the ‘next-big-thing’ for Web 2.0. It is basically a website, or more usually a web-based application, comprised of two or more different resources assembled from different sources on the web, but presented to the user as a single, seamless ‘experience’ or application.
Today, most developers experimenting with mashups are using consumer-centric content from the likes of eBay, Amazon, Google, and others, but in the future corporate developers will combine web service elements from a variety of sources, ranging from commercial offerings to bespoke, in-house, line-of-business services enabled by service oriented architecture.
Web services proliferate
As one might expect, the software for building consumer-oriented mashups is typically offered by the provider of the web service being consumed as part of the mashup, so developers will work with the documented web service calls from say Amazon Web Services, eBay Developers Program, Windows Live Dev, etc.
According to ProgrammableWeb.com, over 50% of mashups consume the Google Maps API, with Flickr (a popular site for photographs) coming in second at 10%, and Amazon third at 8%.
Citizen-centric mashups require government data and APIs. The sets released by the UK government are non-personal data that include information from healthcare providers, notices from the London Gazette, the government’s official journal and newspaper of record, a list of schools from the Edubase database, maps from Ordnance Survey, and carbon footprint information from Defra.
The move by the government is another step along the way to compliance with the EU Directive on the re-use of public sector information, PSI. The aim of the directive is to encourage the re-use of PSI by removing obstacles that stand in its way.
The main themes of the directive are improving transparency, fairness, and consistency. It was introduced two years ago to stimulate the development of innovative new information products and services across Europe, so boosting the information industry.
The penny has dropped
The government’s move certainly fits into this strategy. It shows that the penny has dropped with regard to the use of Web 2.0 technologies in delivering public services and there are already several benefits as a direct result of this.
First, we have a number of data sets that were not available to the public before. These should be of use to people and businesses and of interest to those who scrutinise government services.
Second, we have the first technology-led public consultation of its kind. This is a good move in the age of crowdsourcing which taps into the ‘crowd’ or individuals connected by the Internet to help solve problems, suggest innovations, and provide or improve services. Crowdsourcing is an efficient way to multiply the power of thought that supports a project and is likely to result in more innovative solutions than with a traditional project team that is limited to a handful of people.
Third, the move is good for the image of the public sector that is often seen as lagging behind the private sector in adopting new technology. Furthermore, the government should gain good insight into what people want when it comes to public services and deliver more user-friendly on-line services.
If the initiative is successful and third parties start to provide access to the data through mashups, we will be able to view the information in different combinations that were not previously possible, eg, schools data linked to maps or carbon footprint information linked to introduction of legislation, thereby providing researchers with richer information for analysis.
The ‘Show us a Better Way’ initiative should ease the burden on the government that comes with being the sole holder or disseminator of public sector data, releasing some of the demand pressures on the sector for electronic access to information. Now, if only the penny would drop with the South African authorities.