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Government information should be made much more freely available.

Question: How have advances in information technology rntransformed government?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: For a very long period of time,rn starting in the 1960s and then into the 1970s, computers were seen as arn way information technology in general was seen as a way of making rngovernment bureaucracy more efficient and effective.  So, the drive was rnalways productivity, efficiency, doing more with less.  Maybe in the rn1990s or so, we had another dimension come into this picture and that isrn to be more consumer friendly, or citizen friendly in the services that rnthe government provides.  But these are just two very specific ways of rnlooking at how government interacts with society because it looks at thern citizens as consumers as transactional partners with the government.  rnThey go for efficiency to lower the cost, or you go for consumer rnfriendliness or transactional partner friendliness in order to provide rnsome service quality. 

I believe that electronic government rninformation or technology in government must go much further than that. rn We as a society have a right to know better what the government is rndoing, to engage with the government and to have a government in place rnthat is willing and able to use the technological tools available to rnengage us citizens.  That’s currently not happening or not happening at arn sufficiently high level.  We are still in this old fashioned mode of rnthinking about transaction efficiency and user friendliness.

Is the U.S. government lagging in information technology?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: The U.S. government lags behindrn in electronic government quite a bit large because whenever you need torn create an electronic government transaction, software, you need to rninvolve a number of different government stakeholders.  And they just rndespise each other usually, and they hate when the other side has accessrn to their information and data.  Data silos and information silos in rngovernment are one way of defining power and influence.  And so rnobliterating those silos really reduces the power of individual rndepartments and agencies and that’s why they are not keen on doing rnthat. 

And let me give you what I thought a wonderful example rnis, if I may.  There was a Web site on moving called “Moving” and it rnhelped people who were moving house to do the change of address form, torn move the electricity and the gas and the utilities over the telephone, rnto also hire perhaps a moving van and so forth.  It was a one-stop shop rnfor all of this.  And it was a public-private partnership that made thisrn all possible.  And it was a huge success.  People really loved this rnwebsite. 

Government agencies realized that and they thought, rngosh, this means there’s real traffic to be generated, and immediately rnwhat they did was to leave that umbrella, that one stop shop and createdrn their own little shops in order to drive traffic to their own little rnshops.  Of course, the sun was really more – the sun was more than just rnthe parts put together and once you take these parts apart and everybodyrn has this little shop the consumers were really frustrated again and rndon’t want to go to 15 or 16 different websites in order to change theirrn addresses.  The problem therefore is that when you breakdown the silos,rn you create value, when you resurrect the silos, you destroy value.  rnThat’s something that government agencies theoretically understand, but rnhave practical difficulties realizing and putting in place. 

Butrn I am really more interested in another aspect.  I am really interested rnin the way by which government in the United States has now decided to rnmake public a lot of the information that it collects.  My colleague andrn friend, Beth Novak, and others have really pushed this very hard in thern Obama Administration and I think that’s exactly right.  What we need isrn more information that the government collects, not personal rninformation, but general information to be shared with the public at rnlarge, with NGO’s, with the society at large so that they can then look rnat that data and really see what is happening in our society.  We now rnhave the software tools to do that, we now have the interest in the rnpublic to do that, that’s why we need to move ahead and make more and rnmore of that government information freely available.

Does the Obama Administration approach information rntechnology differently than its predecessors?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Oh yes.  There’s a huge rndifference.  If you look at the website that the Obama Administration rnset up to be able to trace the money of the stimulus package going into rnthe economy and you can see to which communities, which counties, to rnwhat companies and institutions, organizations, the money goes.  How rnmuch as been dispensed, what was the impact on employment and so forth. rn This data is fabulously well designed and presented through a rngeographic interface and it is simply superb; very, very different from rnthe previous administration.  In fact, the outgoing Clinton-Gore rnAdministration put in place, for example, a website with the rnEnvironmental Protection Agency where the Environmental Protection rnAgency made accessible a self-reporting inventory of toxic waste and rnlinked it to a geographic information system so that people could rnactually look at their neighborhood and see whether there were any toxicrn waste repositories in their neighborhood. 

When that went rnonline, a lot of people started pressuring the companies in their rnneighborhood that had toxic waste to clean up and to get their act rntogether because land value would adjust.  And so there was almost a rnwonderful market for this as well as a democratic force behind it.  Of rncourse, the George W. Bush Administration, after 911, took the website rndown, ostensibly because of a security risk.  Terrorists could access rnthe toxic waste **** and find out where the toxic waste was I this rncountry.  I not so sure the security risk was really was that high.  I rnthink a lot of people in the – I suspect a lot of people in the Bush rnAdministration connected to some of the toxic wasters were quite happy rnto put that database offline.

Question: How might the rneGovernment revolution affect international intelligence?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Well, first of all, if we rnpermit people to have access to government information, we don’t rnnecessarily become more vulnerable.  The cyber security task is mostly rnone focused on keeping the infrastructure up and running.  And we are rnvery vulnerable there.  They’re very vulnerable not just on the internetrn information structure, but on the energy and electrical infrastructure rnas well.  And they’re vulnerable because for many years, even decades, rnwe have increased the efficiency of the infrastructure, but limited the rninvestment and the redundancy and robustness of the infrastructure.  Andrn that makes all these infrastructures prime targets for hackers and rnterrorists around the world, whether they are organized by nation/state rnor whether they are non-combatant terrorists, Al Qaeda's ilk or anythingrn else.  I think we need to spend more money on that.  I think we need torn spend more money on securing the infrastructure, on knowing what the rnother side is doing.  The federal government does not have yet its act rntogether on cyber-security.  That’s still a big problem, it will requirern all the major stakeholders to come together and it will require some rnlegislative change as well and it will require a different mindset of rnthe people. 

rnThe missiles of tomorrow are not going to going to come through the sky;rn they’re coming through the fiber optic networks.

Recorded April 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen