What government can learn from open source


I wanted to share my notes with you all from this TED talk with Clay Shirky. You can watch the video – and I recommend that you do – but since I took notes I figured I’d share my textual summary as well!

Clay talked about NeverSeconds a blog where a student reviewed her lunches. She was then told she couldn’t take pictures in the lunchroom anymore. That of course didn’t fly. And the school took back what they said the same exact day.

What made them think they could get away with something like that, Clay says: “all of human history prior to now”

The more ideas there are in circulation the more ideas there are for any individual to disagree with – more media always means more argument.

Clay points out that he studies social media, which is to say he watches people argue, and if he had to pick a group that he thinks is our generation’s collection of people using these tools (social media) to have not more arguments but better arguments he’d pick the open source programmers. Programming is a three way relationship between the programmer, the language and the computer it’s supposed to run on. This process is extremely difficult – especially if one person is working alone – add in a group of programmers and it becomes even harder. You have people overwriting each others work and breaking things. Open source developers use version control systems to proven this kind of error. Version control systems, in the beginning, limited who has access to what and who could make final changes. This works fine in the proprietary world, but in open source everyone should have access to all the code all the time, but this creates the threat of chaos mentioned above (things being overwritten and broken).

After years of letting people email him changes to Linux, Linus Torvalds figured out a version control system that would work the way open source development communities should work … he called it ‘git.’ Git is distributed version control, it lives up to the promise of open source, everyone has access to all of the source code all of the time. Git also tracks every time a programmer makes an change at all.

Once git allowed for cooperation without coordination. Because of the signature (unique key) that git puts on every change (commit) a developer in one country can take code from one in another and merge them together without even knowing about each other.

Clay tells us this because of what it means for the way that communities come together. Once git allowed for cooperation without coordination you started to see communities form that were large and complex.

Clay went through a lot of government/legal projects on Github including Open legislation and others. Another thing he pointed out was the ‘diff.’ The diff is a document that shows the changes made to the files/documents. No democracy anywhere in the world offers this type of thing to its citizens for either budget or legislation.

The people with legislative power are not experimenting with participation. THey are experimenting with openness through transparency, but transparency is openness in only one direction.

Going back to NeverSeconds. The thing that got the ideas out to the public was technology, but the thing that kept her site up and running (uncensored) was political will. The expectations of the citizens that she would not be censored. We have the technology now, can we use them, can we apply them to government/legislation. We need to acquire a new style of arguing. The question now is are we going to let the programmers keep it to themselves or are we going bring it in to the democratic process?

An Open Source Government

There was an interesting article on internetnews.com about open sourcing government. At first I read the title as getting government to use open source software – but what it really talks about is opening up government so that they can harness the power of crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds!! How awesome is that?

As an example in place well before Obama came to office, [Beth Noveck] cited the Patent and Trademark Office’s Peer-to-Patent project, where members of the scientific community are invited to assist in a patent examiner’s review of an application.

Patent examiners are famously overworked. The backlog of applications is believed to be around 1 million, and examiners have less than 24 hours to determine if an innovation is, in fact, new. Tapping into the community of scientists, engineers and inventors who are experts in the field has proven a practical way of crowd-sourcing patent reviews, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of patents and speeding up the process, Noveck said.

“Within one institution within one firm we don’t always have all the skills necessary to actually do the tasks at hand,” she said. “This is the phenomenon that I like to think of as collaborative governance.”

If the wisdom of the crowds can improve the Patent Office, why not other areas of government?

This will an interesting process to keep an eye on. For now, you can read up on the project at the patent office by reading my summary of a talk at NFAIS earlier this year.