Open City Workshop & Participation Inequality

The City of Edmonton is hosting a workshop tomorrow at the Art Gallery of Alberta called Building Community through Open Information (on ShareEdmonton). It’s a follow-up to the open data workshop that happened last year and the conversations that have taken place since, but is focused on connecting stakeholders, increasing a shared understanding of Government 2.0, and planning the way forward. Devin wrote some great thoughts on the workshop here.

I’m really looking forward to seeing a diverse local crowd, representing a variety of agencies and interests. I’m also looking forward to meeting special guests David Eaves, Mark Kuznicki, and Nicholas Charney in person. All three are key players in Canada’s open government space.

And while I’m hopeful that we’ll see some new data released tomorrow, I’m mindful that data is not the focus. The three objectives listed on the event details page are about establishing Edmonton as a leader, and then lots of talk. I think the way you establish yourself as a leader is by actually doing things, but I’ll keep an open mind tomorrow 🙂

One thing I do want to talk about at the workshop is the divide that a number of people have picked up on. It’s great that Edmonton and other places are making progress on opening up data, but how does that impact the average citizen? There’s definitely a perception that only techies understand and can use open data. I don’t think that gives the average citizen enough credit, but I’m willing to concede that open data is not as accessible today as it needs to be. There’s lots of room for improvement.

Having said that, I think it’s important to keep participation inequality in mind:

All large-scale, multi-user communities and online social networks that rely on users to contribute content or build services share one property: most users don’t participate very much. Often, they simply lurk in the background.

If we think of open data (and open government) as a large community, then we should absolutely expect that a small subset of that community will be responsible for most of the activity. In the context of the 90-9-1 rule, 90% of the community won’t participate (they just observe or read), 9% will occasionally participate, and 1% will participate a lot.

Here’s one way to visualize the open community:

I’m sure there are other ways to break it down, but this makes the most sense to me at the moment.

  1. Goverati: these are government employees, folks from related agencies, non-profits, etc.
  2. Creative Professionals: these are people such as myself, developers, designers, etc.
  3. Business: for-profit organizations.
  4. Citizens: ultimately, the beneficiaries of all this open government stuff!

Of course, this picture is somewhat misleading, because all goverati, creative professionals, and business folks are also citizens, but let’s set that aside for now. I think the goverati and some creative professionals fall into the 1% category, the rest of the creative professionals and business fall into the 9% category, and citizens account for the 90% category.

The 90-9-1 pattern can be seen in action all over the web, perhaps most notably on Wikipedia. A tiny percentage of Wikipedia’s user base is responsible for the vast majority of all content produced. I think we can do better with open data/open government, however. Through applications, interactive visualizations, and the other interesting things that the goverati, creative professionals, and businesses build, I think more and more citizens will move from the 90% category to the 9% category.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that considering how the average citizen benefits from open data is important, but we shouldn’t let that hold us back from making progress at this point. We need to empower businesses and creative professionals to build things that the average citizen will ultimately benefit from. As we do that, there’s an opportunity to educate citizens if they want to be educated!

There’s only a few hours left to register for the event. Hope to see you there!

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