Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy


November 2011

Looking back at 4 years of government 2.0

While preparing my presentation for the “Collaborative e-gov services” workshop, I decided to look back at my first work on the topic, my presentation at the 2007 Ministerial eGovernment Conference.

In that September 2007 I presented 5 case studies, analyzing their deployment and impact. It is worth looking back at them today to check what happened to those 5 cases. We all know that emergent gov2.0 services easily appear and disappear, making them as innovative as they are unreliable. I expected most of them to have disappeared or quietly closed down. This would not be necessarily negative, as certainly they would have spurred learning and innovation with much lower investment than traditional large scale government IT projects.

Instead, I was surprised to consider that:

PatientOpinion continues its activity, has been copied by the NHS, expanded in new areas such as mental health and in other countries such as Italy

Intellipedia has just celebrated its 3rd anniversary, it has become a fundamental working tool with an average of 5000 edits per day

– A small, developer led website such as MyBikeLane, born out of the rage against badly parked cars has expanded worldwide (16 members for example in the city of Antwerp)

Peertopatent has expanded to Japan, Korea and Australia, and soon to the UK

ePetitions is still very much up and running

So ALL services are still running and have expanded internationally. Quite impressive. To put this in perspective, they are more reliable and long-lasting than Google Wave or Google Buzz.

I remember those days spent at evangelizing people about gov2.0. Then came Obama, and everybody followed.

Today gov2.0 is everyone’s priority, but it’s good to see that, beyond the hype, it has delivered solid and long-lasting services.

Do apps create jobs? Discussing the evidence

Just when world economies struggle to create jobs, it came as great news this paper (pdf) from the University of Maryland claiming that Facebook apps created 180K jobs in the US.

This is surprising to me. In a study we carried out for DG INFSO earlier this year, it came out clearly that developers dont make much money out of apps. They say that it’s good to be visible towards venture capital, but in terms of money they’re better off selling their services to companies who want their apps, rather than selling them directly (see for example this article and this).  A recent book by the most respected scholar on the economic impact of ICT (Brynjolfsson) paint a very careful and nuanced, if not negative, picture.

I am not an econometrician but the Maryland study looks weak to me. It is 7 pages long, so that it does not seem a study but some back of the envelop analysis.

The main doubt I have is that it seems to calculate as impact of Facebook app any job created by companies that at any point in time have created an app in Facebook. It states “We excluded 13 firms, such as Blizzard Entertainment, Electronic Arts, and Yahoo from our sample because we could not identify the proportion of Facebook induced full‐time employment.” How could they establish the Facebook-induced full time employment for any other company?

The second doubtful statement says: “The number of employees of each firm would be a function of the number of developers and the number of active users” . This appears to link employees to the number of user, as if developing an app for 15 users requires less manpower than an app for 1M users. Why? The very basic competitive advantage of the web is that is allows to scale at very low costs.

Based on this statement, it formulates that the facebook app economy has generated more than 50K direct jobs.

Another puzzling issue is that it mention passingly that only few apps are for pay, and that you pay with “credits”. But then, these credits data are not used in the estimation.

Another important statement is about the multiplier effect:” For the industry “Internet and other information services,” RIMS states that for the most populous state, California, the creation of one job leads to 3.41 additional jobs in California alone.” This is far more important evidence  that the overall app economy study. There is robust evidence that Internet multiplies jobs more than other industries such as communication.

In summary, my impression is that the paper:

  1. calculates the total number of developers in companies that have ever created a facebook app, and attribute this number exclusively to the app
  2. multiplies this number by some factor related to the number of users in order to deduce employees, to arrive at 50K.
  3. It then multiplies this total by the (somewhat robust) multiplier of 3.41 to obtain 180K.

Steps 1 and 2 are strongly flawed in my opinion.

But I am no econometrician, I don’t understand the formulas. So far I have only seen news article about this study, and no serious academic discussion. It seems to me one of the classical cases that with complex formulas and general equilibrium theory we can justify everything.

So here I call all economists:

– can you point me to serious discussion of this study?

– do the calculation make sense?

eGov collaboration is not only for developers

Building on my previous post on what citizens can contribute, one important additional point is that different skills are distributed differently.

In particular, IT skills belong to a small minority of the population, largely composed by cultivated young men.

Instead, specific knowledge is much more distributed, but still belong to an elite: not a technological elite, but a knowledge elite which is far more equitably distributed between gender and age. For instance, people writing on Wikipedia include many more women and elderly (as stated by Wikipedia Italy manager Frieda Brioschi at the recent Wikitalia event in Rome).

Finally, the other points are far more equally distributed among the population. Almost anyone can contribute through their trusted networks, experience of using public services, geographical coverage, many eyes and hands.

6 things only citizens can offer to government

In the context of the study on collaborative e-government, we’ve explored why should government collaborate. We argue that citizens can offer a set of unique skills and competences that government cannot acquire or can do so at high cost:

  • IT skills: coders and hackers are, generally speaking, better and faster than government at creating applications. For instance, Openly Local is a far more usable and sophisticated service that government have implemented.
  • specific thematic knowledge: Wikipedia teaches us that everyone has something (s)he’s expert on. Peertopatent exploits the technological knowledge on things such as parallel simulation, Netsmum the maternal experience such as high-heeled shoes for babies
  • experience as users of public services: it is costly and difficult for government to understand the perspective of users. Open feedback channels such as PatientOpinion highlight problems that government would not think about , such as toilets being too low
  • pervasive geographic coverage: citizens obviously have a more pervasive coverage of the territory than government. It is far more effective to let citizens casually signal a problem in a street than to have civil servants travelling up and down the city. This is particularly relevant in disaster situation where only citizens have the information at the right time, such as in the case of monitoring radiation levels in Japan after Fukushima.
  • trust: citizens trust friends and experts more than government. Mums trust other mums better than government. If you want to pass messages and induce behavioural change, such as inducing people to live a healthier life as in ActiveMobs, it is well known that you have to take into account the power of imitation and influence of networks.
  • many eyes and many hands: citizens are more and it is therefore more effective to let them monitor the quality of the data (see the small pencil icon in the Italian gov website); or to help doing large collaborative works such as in the case of DigitalKoot where 80.000 Finnish citizens took part in an online game to digitize and catalogue old newspapers and journals.


Collaborative e-government: public services that get better the more people use them

Last week we presented the interim results of the study. Interesting workshop, with lots of debate for example on new funding instruments for the web. But for me, the key finding was another. I struggled a lot in the course of this project to find a good definition of collaborative e-government. In particular, how to convey that collaborative e-government is more than “cool apps built on open data”?

My first answer was to include emphasis on citizen-generated data. The study and the workshop provided me with a better answer, mutuated from Tim O’ Reilly: public services that get better the more people use them.

Traditionally, in public services, the quality of services is measured in such a way that increased usage corresponds to lower quality. In health or education, countries are compared in terms of hospital beds per inhabitant, or teacher per pupil. In this way, when expenditure remains constant, increase in usage lowers the quality of the services.

When we refer to e-government, this increase in uptake has not a negative impact on service levels: the service level of attending an online training, or filling a form, is not affected by additional users using the service. With constant cost, the quality of service remains constant even with increase in uptake.

With government 2.0 or collaborative e-government, additional usage actually increases the quality of service:

– the more citizens signal problems in their city in, the more value the application has, the faster the problems get solved

– the more citizens provide feedback on hospitals in patientopinion, the better service it can provide and the better services hospital will provide

– the more citizens contribute to peertopatent, the better patents are assessed

– the more citizens “adopt” information on public website, the more accurate the information gets (LineaAmica)

– the more citizens play with DigiKoot, the better catalogue the Library of Finland can provide

– the more mums discuss on Mumsnet, the better they can take care of their kids

– the more citizens search on the website, the better the portal gets in showing the most relevant information

and so on…

This definition provides a new way to think about public services which conveys the message that collaborative e-government is NOT about a few geeks developing apps with open data, but taking advantage of the skills and goodwill of large numbers of citizens, with different degree of e-skills.

Citizens are uniquely placed to co-produce services because they:

– have unique skills (e.g. in assessing patents, raising kids)

– have the users’ perspective on public services (e.g. in using hospitals)

– are many (e.g. in DigiKoot and SeeClickFix)!

In conclusion, the recommendations will focus on encouraging government to think about what unique contribution citizens can make to public services.

This is even more important in times of crisis: it offers a path to increase the quality of services without substantial additional investments. And to learning faster about successful and unsuccessful ways to spend public money, avoiding waste.

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