Tara Hunt on government in the Web 2.0 era

Tara Hunt, the powerhouse behind Citizen Agency, gave a talk at Web Directions North today on how the very different worlds of Web 2.0 and government can collaborate and co-exist.

Hunt highlighted openness, collaboration and community as the core tenets of Web 2.0, as well as the concept of trust. None of these concepts have traditionally been at the forefront of government. Neither has the very public way in which today’s digital generation lives unabashedly online, or the “work in progress/public beta” approach to blogs and web development that encourages collaboration and innovation in real time.

Hunt said Government 2.0 is about actually working with the public, and not being afraid of open betas. But most importantly, she said government 2.0 is about trusting your citizens as partners.

Hunt highlighted the work of two designers who tackled the hideous Caltrain site and remixed it into iamcaltrain, a web 2.0 site that is much easier to use and isn’t eye-scarringly ugly. The only response from Caltrain was to tell the developers to not use their logo. By contrast, the Toronto Transit Commission collaborated with organizers to create TransitCamp, a Barcamp-like unconference designed to brainstorm making public transit better both on and offline. Transitcamps are now happening in cities across the world, and at least in the case of the TTC, with interest from a government agency.

Hunt also pointed to bloggers coordinating help during crises like the recent San Diego fires, as well as the phenomenon of photos flooding Flickr during natural disasters. While the media made it look like San Diego was doomed, ordinary citizens were coordinating rescue efforts and getting both good and bad news out to the public. Hunt highlighted other efforts at public citzenship such as Fixmystreet and Chicagocrime.org. In effect, average citizens are working around the limitations and slowness of current government and lobbying, advocating and in some ways replacing government services using Web 2.0 technologies.

There have been some inklings of progress. The US Library of Congress has placed their collection of photographs on Flickr, allowing everyone to tag, identify and use these photos for their own creative ends. But it remains to be seen if government will embrace the open nature of the web or stay mired in bureaucracy and secrecy.