Interoperability Case Study: From Crowdsourcing Potholes to Community Policing

Applying Interoperability Theory to Analyze the Expansion of “Open311”

August 15, 2013

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This case study is part of an ongoing series developed in support of a larger text on interoperability by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems (Basic Books, June 2012).

The book is an extension of their 2007 study and paper, “Breaking Down Digital Barriers: When and How ICT Interoperability Drives Innovation” (Berkman Center Research Publication, 2007). Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems focuses on the relationship between interoperability and innovation in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) environment and beyond. Palfrey and Gasser seek to sharpen the definition of interoperability and identify its relevance for consumers, companies, governments, and the public by examining its driving forces and inhibitors, while considering how it can best be achieved, and why.

You can download this case study at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2313208

Abstract

The tragic Boston Marathon bombing and hair-raising manhunt that ensued was a sobering event. It also served as a reminder that emerging “civic technologies” – platforms and applications that enable citizens to connect and collaborate with each other and with government – are more important today than ever before.  As commentators have noted, local police and federal agents utilized a range of technological platforms to tap the “wisdom of the crowd,” relying on thousands of private citizens to develop a “hive mind” that identified two suspects within a record period of time.

In the immediate wake of the devastating attack on April 15th, investigators had few leads. But within twenty-four hours, senior FBI officials, determined to seek “assistance from the public,” called on everyone with information to submit all media, tips, and leads related to the Boston Marathon attack. This unusual request for help yielded thousands of images and videos from local Bostonians, tourists, and private companies through technological channels ranging from telephone calls and emails to Flickr posts and Twitter messages.  In mere hours, investigators were able to “crowdsource” a tremendous amount of data – including thousands of images from personal cameras, amateur videos from smart phones, and cell-tower information from private carriers. Combing through data from this massive network of “eyes and ears,” law enforcement officials were quickly able to generate images of two lead suspects – enabling a “modern manhunt” to commence immediately.

Technological innovations have transformed our commercial, political, and social realities. These advances include new approaches to how we generate knowledge, access information, and interact with one another, as well as new pathways for building social movements and catalyzing political change.  While a significant body of academic research has focused on the role of technology in transforming electoral politics and social movements, less attention has been paid to how technological innovation can improve the process of governance itself.

A growing number of platforms and applications lie at this intersection of technology and governance, in what might be termed the “civic technology” sector. Broadly speaking, this sector involves the application of new information and communication technologies – ranging from robust social media platforms to state-of-the-art big data analysis systems – to address public policy problems. Civic technologies encompass enterprises that “bring web technologies directly to government, build services on top of government data for citizens, and change the way citizens ask, get, or need services from government.”  These technologies have the potential to transform governance by promoting greater transparency in policymaking, increasing government efficiency, and enhancing citizens’ participation in public sector decision-making.

Following the four primary applications of interoperability theory laid out by Palfrey and Gasser, this paper is organized into five Parts: (1) Part One introduces the topic; (2) Part Two establishes interop as “high level theory,” considering its utility both as a frame and an organizing principle; (3) Part Three utilizes interop as a descriptive lens to examine the emergence of 311 (a precursor platform) and Open311 in recent years; (4) Part Four applies interop as a predictive tool to consider emerging issues as Open311 expands; and (5) Part Five draws on interop as a normative device to conclude that while Open311 is moving toward optimal levels of data and technological interoperability, efforts must now be made to increase human and institutional interop; policymakers should employ both regulatory and non-regulatory mechanisms to do so.

Last updated

April 16, 2015