Open data or social networking?

Steven Green, director of marketing and communications at the Government of Ontario Cabinet Office, hosted a table at a recent GovCamp event in Toronto. His “government can’t do it all” theme tried to pinpoint what government should tackle first.

Green launched the discussion by posing the question to everyone at the table: “If you had to pick one – social media or open data – what would it be?”

Brad Johnston, community and social services at the Government of Ontario, said he would go with open data. “The key piece is the quality of data,” he said. Imran Yousuf, principal consultant at Global Agility Inc., agreed. David Tallan, senior manager of enterprise Web development at the Government of Ontario, also said he would choose open data first. If government puts data out first, they won’t need to make the apps, so they end up getting more resources back, he said.
Open data is also easier than social media, which requires talent, said Tallan. “Once the data is out there, it doesn’t require ongoing development,” he said.
Justin Tung, Ontario Ministry of Government Services, said he would opt for social media. Government can release data, but that doesn’t make it easier to communicate, he said. “Social media will help answer the question, ‘What do you want to open?’” he said.
Michelle Lewis from the Ministry of Revenue didn’t answer the question, but said that social media is easier than open data. People are afraid to give out data, she said. “Social media is having a conversation,” she said.
Mary Margaret Powrie, senior project advisor at the Ministry of the Environment, disagreed with Lewis. “Social media is a bigger minefield than open data,” she said. Social media is all about nuance – data is just data, she said.
“Social media today is like the first version of Windows 3,” said Kevin Walsh, Web developer at Unlocked Media. He questioned whether governments are really “at a crises” with these issues and what would happen if they didn’t participate in either for now. “What if we didn’t? Would everything crash?” he said.
Fad or Trend?

“One of the most challenging things to figure out in the government space is which technology trends are fads versus real long-term trends,” said Green in an interview with ComputerWorld Canada.
Although social media and open data are different activities, many of the same people would be working on both projects, which raises a resource concern, said Green. “I think that’s the challenge for large organizations – it’s figuring out who’s going to do the work,” he said.
“I think between the two, it’s easier to get going with open data right now … but I do think as the dust settles, we’ll start to see social media evolve in a more planned out way that will make it easier for governments,” he said.
Social media sites are constantly changing, which is a challenge for governments that typically don’t work at the speed of the private sector, he said. And government obligations like record retention, French language services and privacy protection further complicate the matter, he said.
Although conversations about what data should be opened and what policies and processes about maintaining that information are required, open data is in some ways easier to produce, he said. “Once it’s up, you don’t have the same sorts of risk because you aren’t changing your own sites as fast as these other partners might,” he said.
“Open data is all about taking your own stuff and making it available on your own Web site in a way that other people can use. But social media is about going to other people’s Web sites. It’s about using other destinations online and using other people’s social networks,” said Green.
Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur.
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